“Our children become victims of the heritage left to them by their families and we will continue to see history repeating itself unless they are able to realise that they can make better choices and that they, to a certain extent, have power over their futures. Education and support are key to changing the destructive cycles that, for many, have become the norm.”
So says Lelani Glover, Residential Social Worker at Heatherdale Children’s Home, a child- and youth-care centre based in Athlone, Cape Town, and a fieldwork placement centre for the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP).
31 May to 7 June marks Child Protection Week in South Africa, and a chance to contemplate the plight of our country’s smallest and most vulnerable citizens. According to Glover, the psychological wounds suffered by victims of childhood neglect or abandonment range from feelings of worthlessness, rejection and loss, to low self-esteem. “They have no sense of belonging,” she says. “They fear the future and feel powerless, yet they are unable to trust adults.”
The behavioural traits of this wounding manifest themselves in a variety of ways, Glover adds: “Children who feel powerless sometimes become overly compliant and resign themselves to whatever happens. Others become defiant – and act out even at having to perform normal, everyday tasks, such as going to school, doing homework, or taking a shower. Or they are constantly pushing boundaries, resisting and challenging authority. We see a lot of aggression, particularly amongst the boys. They struggle to regulate their emotions and are easily triggered.
“There are even children who abscond when they are not coping, whether it be from school because they are struggling with schoolwork, or from Heatherdale when they are upset or angry,” Glover continues. “Some children engage in testing behaviour towards the staff, pushing buttons in an attempt to gauge whether these adults are different to those who have let them down. Some will deliberately try to sabotage relationships (even with potential host parents) as this is easier than having to deal with more rejection. And sometimes we see children self-harming, having suicidal thoughts or attempting to commit suicide. We’ve had to deal with children experimenting with drugs, and we’ve seen children who have not developed a sense of empathy towards others because no empathy has ever been shown to them.”
The treatment options available to the children at Heatherdale include therapeutic intervention (both counselling and play therapy), as well as life skills and virtues programmes, a victim-empowerment programme, a childhood rights and responsibilities programme, and programmes for sports and recreation, homework and daily living (where children are taught various household tasks).
Whether or not abandoned children or those estranged from parents are scarred for life depends significantly on the child’s own resiliency, the support they are given and whether they have other meaningful attachments, says Glover. “Even just having one adult who believes in them and loves them unconditionally, can make a huge difference.”
Glover adds, however, that they frequently see their children struggling to form meaningful attachments, even later in life. “Also, if they have not dealt with the emotional issues that they have due to their childhood experiences and trauma, they will continue to struggle in certain areas of their lives,” she explains.
Heatherdale engages various processes to help its young charges reintegrate with foster families and the community. “We have a programme whereby we identify potential host parents for children who do not have extended family,” says Glover, adding, “We believe it is important for children to be exposed to a family environment. Some children visit family members – mostly extended family. The long-term goal is to reintegrate our children into their families or host families.”
Glover adds that this is a slow, often frustrating, process: “The circumstances of families is often such that that they cannot accommodate a child on a permanent basis. We struggle to get the families to work with us and for them to take some responsibility for the children.”
It is for this reason, says Glover, that it is important that when the children leave Heatherdale, they are as independent as possible and that they have a network of support. “To this end, we use partner organisations to assist us with mentoring and goal setting in terms of their education, personal development and community reintegration,” she explains.
“Our children are confronted with so many social issues, from poverty and substance abuse, to violence and HIV/Aids. This has a huge impact on them and, due to, amongst other things, limited community resources, lack of education and a sense of hopelessness, cycles of poverty, violence and abuse repeat themselves through generations,” concludes Glover. “Too many of our children are left without support and forced to make adult decisions, which leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation. There is often such a sense of hopelessness and fear regarding the future that many feel their lives have no purpose.”
If you’d like to enter the child-care services why not consider taking a counselling course? SACAP offers a Bachelor of Psychology professional degree, approved by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) for the education and training of Registered Counsellors.