Social worker shortage puts children at risk

By Sipokazi Maposa, August 21 2006 – critical shortage of social workers in the country is crippling the process of placing vulnerable children into foster care and children’s homes. There are only about 10 000 registered social workers in the country. Fewer than 1 000 of these are serving in the Western Cape. At least 900 children in the province are still waiting to be placed into foster care or children’s homes. About 2 000 lapsed foster care applications are waiting to be renewed in the province. The chief executive of Cape Town Child Welfare, Niresh Ramklass, said the shortage was worrying, and the country could run out of social workers in the next few years if something was not done to increase their number. Ramklass said more children were in need of services as they were migrating from poorer provinces to Cape Town.

“In about five to six years we are going to run out of social workers if something is not done. “For every 430 South Africans there’s only one social worker. This is completely inadequate. Children are living in poverty … they are abused, neglected and murdered on a daily basis in this country, and yet we have very few social workers.” Ramklass said the situation was exacerbated by the low salaries in the sector, which forced social workers to move to better-paying jobs or to work overseas. The provincial authorities in the Western Cape, however, do not believe the situation is critical, nor as bad as other provinces – like KwaZulu Natal, which faces huge backlogs.

The chief director of implementation, planning and support in the Department of Social Development, Dr Waldermer Terblanche, said the department had reduced the backlog of unplaced children considerably over the past 10 months. He said this was because more social workers had been employed with this express objective. There were 977 social workers in the province, of which 393 were working within government structures and 584 in the non-government sector. Terblanche said lapsed applications had been reduced from more than 11 000 to about 2 000 since October. New applications have been been reduced by 55 percent – from 2 000 in October to 900 cases by July.

Ramklass called on the government to implement strategies, like increasing salaries, to retain social workers: “This shortage has badly affected our organisation because it means children are being abandoned by social workers. “The process of placing children in foster care and children’s homes is delayed. In certain situations we are forced to start all over again by recruiting new people and training them. That takes a lot of time.” Ramklass said the government needed to implement its “retention strategy”, proposed by the national Minister of Social Services, Zola Skweyiya, to keep social workers by paying them more. Terblanche said the children, mostly from the greater Cape metropole, were being cared for by communities and family members while waiting for placements.

“In order to deal immediately with this situation the Department of Social Development initiated a programme of employing 40 contract social workers and 10 administrative clerks for a period of eighteen months, from October 2005 to March 2007,” he said. “The aim of this project was to increase the service-rendering capacities of the department’s 16 district offices, as well as non-government service partners, in the rendering of services to ensure the reported cases of children in need of care are addressed.” Terblanche said monitoring systems, where monthly reports were required from districts, had been put in place. This would ensure the backlog did not grow again. The department was also evaluating about 100 permanent posts to be filled by end of this year. E-mail.

This article was originally published on page 3 of Cape Argus on August 21, 2006

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