Social work students have their day in court

Belinda Bantham -- Fri, 09/14/2018 - 11:40

Social work students have their day in court

“I’m nervous, but I am prepared.” These are the words of a second-year social work student, ready to face a real attorney in the children’s court.

As part of a simulation, the second-year social work students on the North-West University’s (NWU’s) campus in Vanderbijlpark visits the children’s court every year to gain practical experience. During this visit they get a taste of the harsh reality that social workers face when they have to testify in court.


The second-year social work group, together with Dr Elmien Truter and Mr Johan van den Berg (front centre).

Dr Elmien Truter makes a point of exposing her second-year social work students to this unique experience every year. Since she is also a practising social worker who had to stand up for abused, neglected children many times in her life, she feels it is important for students to experience this part of the job before they are required to do it in practice.

Mr Johan van den Berg, family law expert and attorney at law with Willem Pretorius Attorneys in Vanderbijlpark, assisted her with the simulation.

During the simulation each student was afforded the chance to defend a case study against an attorney, and Mr Van den Berg played the role of the defence. His role was to defend his client (the care giver, parent or guardian) in a legal dispute with social services where it was deemed necessary to remove a child from his client’s care due to abuse or severe neglect. 

“If social workers do not follow the correct procedure and do not portrayed their roles adequately, it may result in children being returned to the care of the persons who put them in danger in the first place,” says Dr Truter. “In order to defend their client as best they can, the defence will attempt to discredit the testimony of the social worker and try to find technical discrepancies in the procedure that was followed.” 

“This is why these sessions are so important,” said Dr Truter. “Students have to experience this stressful situation first hand. This prepares them for the many court cases in which they will play a very important role and where they will often be the only voice to speak out in the best interest of a child.”  

Mr Van den Berg said that an attorney seldom experiences court proceedings as personal. “An attorney’s main purpose is to represent the client as well as possible. To the social worker however, having seen the circumstances of a child, it becomes very personal,” he said.

The students were well-prepared for the case, but were still quite nervous while awaiting their turn to speak. The group expressed their appreciation and agreed that this unique experience in a safe environment will prove to be priceless in the hard reality that they can expect in practice.

Dr Truter is involved in a research team exploring the occupational risks that social workers face. The team’s research identified the questioning that social workers have to undergo in the courtroom as one of the most stressful aspects of the job.