(By James Stent, Groundup.org.za)

The Department of Social Development is seeking an extension of 18 months on an order of the North Gauteng High Court that compels it to resolve the crisis in foster care grants. Photo: James Stent

  • The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Social Development has heard that the crisis of expiring foster care grants has yet again this year not been resolved.
  • Tens of thousands of foster care grants are set to expire in November.
  • The department is going to court to get an 18-month extension.
  • There is also a crippling shortage of social workers in government.

The twin crises of tens of thousands of expiring foster care grants and the shortage of social workers across the country was aired in Parliament at the Portfolio Committee on Social Development on Wednesday.

Children who are orphaned and live with relatives must go through an onerous process, both for the would-be grantees, as well as for social workers, including a court order to qualify for state financial support.

The Department of Social Development wants an 18-month extension on an order of the North Gauteng High Court that compels it to resolve the crisis in foster care grants and find a comprehensive legal solution to the crisis.

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This involves amendments to the Social Assistance Amendment Act and to the Children’s Act. While the Social Assistance Amendment Bill is close to becoming law, the amendments to the Children’s Act were only introduced to Parliament on 31 August.

Tens of thousands of children in foster care are currently at risk of losing their support on 26 November when their orders expire. The department missed deadlines to clear the backlog of foster grant orders in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The battle to resolve the backlog dates back to 2011.

According to the department there were 33,748 outstanding foster care orders that were in need of resolution before the end of November, and 30,161 orders had been extended since November 2019.

But these figures were disputed by members of the parliamentary committee. At the 21 May meeting, the committee was told by department officials that there were 129,136 foster care orders that required extension by November 2020.

Not enough social workers employed

Meanwhile a shortage of social workers is a long-standing Social Development issue, even as there are over 9,000 social work graduates sitting unemployed. This number includes 5,142 social work graduates that received government scholarships, and excludes some 400 students now in their final years of study.

Social Development MECs and provincial department heads described common challenges in all provinces: insufficient budget to hire new social workers; no funding for the supervisors required to coordinate social workers; a lack of office space for social workers to conduct their affairs; and a shortage of working tools such as vehicles.

The provinces all highlighted that the regulated process for hiring social workers, which includes police clearance, often takes months, and leads to slow hiring. Provinces also required social workers with specific skills in order to deal with gender-based violence, but their current training does not provide this.

Members of the committee expressed some confusion at the provinces spending on social workers, with some provinces reporting under spending on social workers relative to their budget allocation, and on the lack of progress of other departments, such as police and education, in hiring social workers. In 2018, Cabinet had resolved that social workers should be employed by departments other than social development.

Liezl Van Der Merwe (IFP) called for the intervention of Deputy President David Mabuza and she called for the ministers of police and education, among others, to account for the reasons why they had failed to employ social workers, per the 2018 cabinet resolution.

Bridget Masondo (DA) echoed Van Der Merwe’s call and said that “social workers are to social development as doctors are to health”. She said following President Ramaphosa’s declaration that gender-based violence is South Africa’s second pandemic, decisions needed to be made to bring more social workers into employment.

Dikgang Stock (ANC) said National Treasury needed to provide a commitment in order to bring more social workers in, but also questioned the ability of provinces to successfully implement the changes needed to turn around the sector.

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