Welfare's empty coffers a sign of big collapse: Kids in 'grave danger'

27 February 2017 - 08:20 By ARON HYMAN and NASHIRA DAVIDS

Child Welfare SA, which helps to protect an estimated 2 million children, has run out of money and is on the brink of collapse.

About 70 employees, most of them social workers, have not been paid for two months and the national director of the organisation, Peter Cloete, says he does not know when they will be.

"Most of these people are working still [but] some of them can't get to work."

Cloete says the organisation is trying to set up a transport system for the employees at its nine offices.

A national board meeting due to be held last month was cancelled because of a lack of money.

Child Welfare is the oldest and biggest organisation of its kind and renders statutory services, such as child protection and counselling, to the Department of Social Development. It also trains social workers and is involved in programmes to help orphans and children with HIV/Aids.

Joan van Niekerk, of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, said the closure of Child Welfare SA would leave children in "grave danger".

"We certainly can't afford to do away with Child Welfare. They are a vital cog in child protection services," she said.

The organisation has been on a financial precipice since 2012 when its funders - the US Agency for International Development, the Murray Trust and the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund - ended their support "due to a lack of financial transparency, reporting and accountability".

Two years later, an audit by PWC found discrepancies in the management of funds, which Cloete said resulted in the loss of funding from North West province.

"The loss of these sources of revenue placed us in an untenable position with regard to our cashflow, which became precarious," Cloete said in a letter to staff.

Child Welfare SA president Ajit Ramasar said the auditing issues were a result of using funds from one province to pay staff in others.

"And funds that might have been allocated for a certain thing were used for certain conferences. That shouldn't have happened."

Ramasar has been president since 2012 but said he took office after the donors withdrew. He could not recall why there had been "problems" since he took office with "not absolutely clean audits".

The Western Cape government is now demanding that Child Welfare SA use the R9.4-million it gives the organisation every year to pay employees who work in the province.

Spokesman Sihle Ngobese said: "Our monitoring and oversight mechanisms picked up issues at the organisation, and after the most recent quality assurance visit, our programme office requested that the organisation adhere to its contractual agreement with the department to pay all outstanding salaries to its affected staff by March 1."

Cloete said provincial cross-subsidisation would end on March 31.

Cloete said the organisation had not run a proper fund-raising project since it last held a Red Nose Day in 2002. It hoped to prevail in a court case in which it was opposing another organisation's application to register the Red Nose Day trademark, in order to resurrect the campaign.

For 2015-2016 it received a clean audit, which would help it to attract new funding, he said.

"I know what each of us is going through as I am walking this path with you," he said in his letter to staff. "I cannot tell you when we will have funds to pay the January or February salary and will not again be caught making a promise I cannot keep."

An anonymous letter to the Western Cape social development department on behalf of the affected social workers said their rights were being "scandalously violated".

The letter complained of "illegal financial actions and possible reckless mismanagement of government funding".

It added: "[Cloete] is impoverishing the professional staff and the disadvantaged children you wish to uplift with the subsidies."

The national spokesman for the Department of Social Development, Lumka Oliphant, did not respond to questions.

SORRY HISTORY OF ABUSE

Almost a third of sexual offences target children, crime statistics show. And one in three children has experienced sexual abuse. Yet social work is in crisis.

"The lack of resources, the lack of adequate or enough spaces of safety.we have children who have specialised needs, there are no facilities for them in terms of children's homes," said a manager at Child Welfare SA in Durban.

A Gauteng social worker said there was a lack of office space and no access to child-friendly spaces.

"You end up interviewing a child in a car or at the back of a school," the social worker said.

The Children's Institute estimated that about 16504 social workers are needed to implement the Children's Act.

Between 2000 and 2014, the number of registered social workers grew from 9072 to 18213. But only 9289 are employed by the government or non-profit organisations, and "only a proportion work with children and families".

The researchers said: "Child protection services have to act speedily in the investigation of reported cases to protect children from continued abuse and neglect, and to prevent fatalities." - Nashira Davids

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