In the line of fire – Social work students stand tall

Hanlie Smuts -- Thu, 03/17/2016 - 14:57

In the line of fire – Social work students stand tall

“You are the last line of defence in a warzone! There is a war going on – a war against innocent and vulnerable children!” These words, uttered by Ms Melanie van Aswegen – a practising attorney at law who is known for being a formidable opponent in court – were meant as a wake-up call for the second year social work students of the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University (NWU Vaal). 

Ms Van Aswegen practised as a defence attorney but changed her focus to that of mediator in children’s cases: she is passionate about children and the protection of their rights.

The second year social work class with their lecturer, Dr Elmien Truter (back left) and Ms Melanie van Aswegen (back right).

Ms Van Aswegen recently cross examined the students as part of a practical opportunity organized for the students by their lecturer - and fellow children’s’ rights activist, Dr Elmien Truter, from the School of Behavioural Sciences. The idea of the exercise was to better equip the students for a real life court room proceeding, where the legal representative of the alleged child abuser in many cases badger the social worker when he/she takes to the witness stand in the interest of the child.


Court is in session

The tension was tangible in the empty courtroom as the students awaited their adversaries for the day - Ms Van Aswegen was to play the role of the defence attorney - there to argue the case on behalf of the alleged perpetrator. Dr Truter played the part of the presiding officer or magistrate.

Ms Van Aswegen assisted Dr Truter in assessing the documentation that the students had to complete according to the case provided, just as would be required for the removal of a child from the custody of his/her caregiver(s). After completing this report, each student got a chance, in actual court with an actual attorney, to stand up for his/her case. The defence attorney (Van Aswegen) read a piece to the students about the responsibilities of a Defence Attorney, which includes discrediting a witness. She urged the students to stand up for the children in each of their cases and to not be intimidated by the defence attorney, who will be working hard to discredit the social worker as witness and, in so doing, get the case thrown out on a technicality or winning it on behalf of his or her client, and therefore – in many cases – returning the child to an unsafe environment. 


Practice makes perfect

Dr Truter and Ms Van Aswegen echoed each other’s comments urging the students to start by writing complete and meticulous reports. “There are three aspects that will determine your reputation in this industry,” said Ms Van Aswegen, “a well written report, a professional appearance and how you conduct yourself.” 

“Each piece of evidence referred to in the report must be attached as an appendix,” says Dr Truter. “Language and spelling is of the utmost importance. Every spelling error gives the defence attorney grounds to discredit you.” Her advice was demonstrated in practice when Ms Van Aswegen took to the bench to cross examine the students. She highlighted technical errors in the report exactly like a defence attorney would and continuously interrupted her cross examination to restate something that can be learnt from the situation, making it an invaluable learning opportunity for the students.

Every student spent 30 minutes in the witness box gaining precious experience with an actual attorney in an actual courtroom. It took two days for the entire class to get a chance, but it was well worth it! The students emerged enlightened with a better understanding of the process, and with the knowledge that the next time they will be facing a defence attorney, it would be in an actual court room proceeding and they would be the last line of defence for a real child in dire need of someone to fight for him or her.