Speaking for those who can't
It is still early, but already the sun is pelting down on Rustenburg this February morning of 2008. The taxi rank is swathed in sweltering heat, minibuses are honking, and passengers wipe sweat from their foreheads as they cram into the confines of stationary Toyota Hi-Ace’s.
A woman, standing alone, is approached by another carrying a child only a few days old. They greet cordially and exchange pleasantries.
“Will you be so kind as to hold my child while I quickly make a call at the phone booth nearby,” she is asked.
Replying in the affirmative, she takes the child from his mother. She is never to see the woman again.
The boy’s name is Ben. His lot will take him to a shelter where the children sleep on floor and in the yard. Nourishment for the older children will consist of bread smeared with tomato sauce. The babies will be neglected and blowflies will lay eggs in their ears where their larva will hatch.
Ben’s fate, unfortunate, horrifying and unimaginable, was to serve a purpose the now toddler might never understand.
“I’m a coffee addict,” confesses Endriette Barnard behind her desk at the North-West University’s Law Clinic, “I drink way too many cups a day.”
Dressed in a black blouse and pants, her demeanour is unimposing and she exudes an affability rarely associated with lawyers.
It was Ben’s plight five years ago that proved to be the catalyst in the formation of the Child Justice Unit within the Law Clinic. The Clinic forms part of the Faculty of Law at the North-West University’s Potchefstroom Campus.
“It was then that we realised the need for law practitioners to assist at grassroots level in helping those without the means to do so themselves,” she explains.
The shelter where Ben was placed was closed down and he was placed in foster care. His foster parents decided to adopt him and brought an application for his adoption, although, having abandoned her child, his mother wanted custody after she was tracked down.
Needless to say, her claims were denied , Ben was adopted and is as happy as any toddler can be.
Since the promulgation of the of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 on 1 April 2010 there has been an increasing emphasis placed on the protection and promotion of children’s rights. In the North-West, the Child Justice Unit is at the forefront of educating and training the community, children and social workers on these rights.
“We are a close-knit team here at the Child Justice Unit,” says Hilary Clayton. “We share the same goals and will stop at nothing to protect the rights of children.”
One of the Child Justice Unit’s main focus areas is to provide children with legal representation and advice to prevent any further violation of their rights children are also provided with the basic means of life, including clothing and food, to ease the emotional and physical pain once they are removed from their families.
The Children’s Act appoints Legal Aid South Africa as the legal representative of children when the court needs to appoint a legal representative for a child.
Through their affiliation with Legal Aid, the Law Clinic aids just more than a hundred children a month.
“When children are involved, cases are very emotional and often result in a high level of conflict between parties. The Child Justice Unit plays an important part in keeping communication channels open and arranging discussions to avoid further conflict for the child, often having case discussions, family group conferences and mediations,” Barnard elucidates.
Hilary Clayton recalls a bittersweet encounter with a 13-year old girl who walked into the offices of the Law Clinic some time back. The girl was not from the province, but had heard about the Law Clinic and came begging assistance.
Her quandary was a peculiar one: she wanted to go to school as she felt the home-schooling program her parents had her on was insufficient.
Turned out she was right. It was not accredited nor nearly up to standard. Her insubordination with regards to her prescribed means of education caused a lot of conflict in her household, and she was moved to a place of safety.
Through the help of the Child Justice Unit she enrolled at a public school, was later reunited with her parents and is thriving.
“What is so unique about this case is that the girl really wanted a proper education and did everything she could to procure one.”
Then there are the wounds that are too deep to callus over.
Barnard shows a picture of a boy, his face beaten to a pulp. His parents are drug addicts who assaulted him on a daily basis. He would be kept in the house for weeks at a time feeding only on dog pellets. After being rescued from his dire circumstances he was taken to hospital where a neurologist discovered that he had bleeding on his brain.
He spent a week in ICU and after his hospital stint he was placed with his grandmother.
Alas, lasting damage to the poor boy had been done. He runs away from home, returning only to run away later again. His behaviour is uncontrollable and he is exceedingly aggressive.
“His grandmother is struggling to cope, but at least he’s not living in those wretched circumstances anymore,” she says crestfallen.
“You cannot help but get emotionally involved when defenceless children are mistreated. Once you start with a case you always deal with a very sad story, but you know that once you start working on the case things will rapidly get better for the child or children involved. Knowing that keeps you motivated when dealing with so much sorrow. When people ask me how many children I have, I always joke and say that I have about a hundred at the moment of which one is my own.”
It is a time-consuming, emotional endeavour that requires the utmost patience and understanding.
“An example of the skill and time needed by the Child Justice Unit to represent children can be seen from when children are consulted with. Children that are party to children’s court proceedings do not naturally trust a person and this relationship of trust has to first be built between attorney and child. Trust and respect must be built and the child’s concept of his or her family has to be determined. This is done through drawing of pictures, games and other skills used by the personnel of the Child Justice Unit. These skills are developed through play therapy training,” Clayton explains.
Children are also given a “Love Box” when needed to appear in court. The Lions Club of Potchefstroom provides these Love Boxes to the CJU. The “Love Box” consists of ready-made porridge, pencils and a booklet to draw on, a juice box and toys to keep them occupied during the proceedings.
Barnard tells of a case where a young boy was called to testify. He was raped, and used a teddy-bear in the “Love Box” to illustrate to the intermediary and the court where and how he was violated.
She confides that the job can be a taxing one, but also that necessity dictates that she and her colleagues always place the need of a child first.
It’s their personal commitment, their self-imposed obligation.
For Barnard, this realisation came when she was involved with a very sensitive case that aimed to reunite a mother and young daughter.
She found herself in an open-air space looking at the daughter who was clad in bright pink, a stark juxtaposition with her drab surroundings. A pink, fluffy pompon sat perched on blonde locks that were tied in a ponytail.
Pretty and petite, she would have been the picture of any celluloid fairy tale were it not for the tears swelling in her eyes and her quivering lips.
In her hand she held the South African flag.
“I know this might sound a bit melodramatic, but that image stays with me. I remember thinking: These are the children of South Africa, and they are sad. We need to do everything and anything we can to help them.”