The Children’s Amendment Bill: Needs and rights of the vulnerable trumped by political expediency

The Children’s Amendment Bill: Needs and rights of the vulnerable trumped by political expediency

After four years of debate and consultation around the Children’s Amendment Bill, it took only half an hour for the Social Development Portfolio Committee to decide on amendments. It was done without a clause-by-clause analysis, without reference to public contributions and with no input from opposition MPs who had walked out in protest.

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The Social Development Portfolio Committee’s agreement to the Children’s Amendment Bill clauses should have been a cause for celebration for those advocating for vulnerable children. 

A response to the North Gauteng High Court judgment ordering the Department of Social Development (DSD) to find a comprehensive legal solution to the country’s years-long foster care crisis, the amendments have been pending since 2011.

Eleven years and four court order extensions later, the DSD is only five months away from its latest deadline of November 2022.

But much of the process and content related to this bill has been flawed and dogged by controversy, and proceedings on 25 May 2022 reached a new low. 

On the cusp of Child Protection Week, observers watched in mute horror as the committee chose to reject 136 clauses in the admittedly bloated bill, and then unilaterally agreed to the wording of the remaining 12 clauses in the time it took for the parliamentary legal adviser to read them out.

Despite four years of public consultation, national and provincial hearings, and over 1,000 submissions from civil society, there was no reference to public comment, or the needs of the orphaned, abandoned and abused children who the comprehensive legal solution was designed to protect. 

There was no discussion about individual clauses, no proposed amendments or additions to wording, no questions about the new clause inserted by the parliamentary legal adviser and DSD on the morning of the meeting, and no debate, largely because the opposition had walked out in protest. 

How did it go so wrong?

So, how did the process go so wrong, and what are the implications for vulnerable children whose best interests seem to have been lost in the decision-making?

Although it’s been a decade in the making, civil society argues that the comprehensive legal solution to foster care is relatively simple to achieve. 

Orphaned and abandoned children in the care of family members need financial assistance without the largely unnecessary and unmanageable administrative burden of first placing them in foster care. The solution involves two key components:

  1. Amending the Social Assistance Act to include provisions for the minister to action a new grant tailored for orphans in the care of relatives, the Child Support Grant (CSG) Top-Up; and
  2. Amending key sections of the Children’s Act to specify which orphaned and abandoned children need care and protection, ensuring that the majority in the safe care of family members don’t need to be placed in the foster care system, and making it easier for relatives and unmarried fathers to legally care for them.

Although endorsed by Cabinet and experts in the department and civil society, the planned solution was initially implemented at glacial pace, necessitating multiple court extensions and forcing then-minister Bathabile Dlamini to admit, as part of the 2017 settlement order, that her failure to meet the court-imposed requirements was “unconstitutional, unlawful and invalid”.

The order of unconstitutionality was suspended along with the court order, on condition she prioritised achieving a comprehensive legal solution by the court-imposed deadline.

When Lindiwe Zulu took over as minister in 2019, she inherited the pending order of unconstitutionality against her as minister, a Social Assistance Amendment Bill that was gathering dust after being stalled by her predecessor, a Children’s Amendment Bill which had swollen to 148 clauses, and an ongoing crisis for hundreds of thousands of children made more vulnerable by the foster care system’s collapse.

But fortunately for the minister, the post-election Portfolio Committee for Social Development, under the guidance of then-chair Mondli Gungubele, took the problem seriously. 

It passed the Social Assistance Amendment Bill in 2020 enabling the CSG Top-Up. This allowed Zulu to announce in her 2022/2023 budget speech that Treasury had allocated “R687-million in 2023/24 and R871-million in 2024/25” to implement the new grant.

With a quantum of R720 per month, roll-out for the CSG Top-Up began on 1 June 2022.

The only remaining task to achieve the comprehensive legal solution is therefore amending the Children’s Act to define which orphaned and abandoned children need care and protection, and to make it easier for relatives to care for them.

Biggest obstacle

Ironically though, the minister’s own department has created the biggest obstacle to completing it. The DSD inexplicably used the bill to amend the whole Children’s Act, rather than only focusing on changes needed for the solution.

When questioned about the size of the bill and why DSD had ignored the advice of civil society and the state law adviser to concentrate exclusively on the comprehensive legal solution, the bill’s drafter argued that for the solution to be “comprehensive”, it needed to focus on ways to prevent children from ending up in the foster care system.

It’s a valid point. But the version of the bill gazetted for comment in October 2018 contained clauses related to everything from genital mutilation to privacy to early childhood development (ECD), which no amount of argument could link to the crisis in foster care.

Nor did the department seem sure about what the comprehensive legal solution comprised.

The result was an enormous and controversial bill that necessitated four years of post-gazetting public consultation. And even after the ECD clauses were jettisoned because the department had failed to consult with the SA Local Government Association, and, more importantly, because ECD was becoming part of the basic education department (which the DSD must have known was imminent), there was such extensive feedback from national and provincial hearings that the resulting matrix — containing public input and the DSD’s responses — was so large that the current committee chairperson, Nonkosi Mvana, was reluctant to travel with it.

The upshot is that on 1 April 2022, the committee found itself in a virtual meeting, being guided through the 148-clause bill by parliamentary law adviser Nathi Mjenxane, who confessed to being so busy with other committees that he was seemingly unfamiliar with the bill and the matrix.

While on Zoom, MPs were required to flip between the principal act, the bill and the matrix, which was neither indexed nor organised by clause. 

Significant errors

The complexity of the process resulted in significant errors, including Mjenxane missing 24 pages of public comment about the bill’s infamous privacy clause (clause 3, section 6(a) of the act) because, although the clause was at the beginning of the bill, public feedback was hidden on page 102 of the matrix.

As frustration built, the chairperson could have stopped the process and questioned if the committee would be able to get the bill approved, through the National Council of Provinces, passed, and regulations developed, by the November 2022 deadline. 

If she had, MPs would probably have agreed that it was impossible, and made a joint decision to focus only on the clauses related to the comprehensive legal solution.

But instead, the ANC contingent of the committee acted unilaterally.

After Mjenxane had read the first clause, ANC chief whip, Dikgang Stock, formally moved that the committee should only focus on the foster care clauses.

Stock then gave blanket endorsement for all the amendments proposed by the DSD. If accepted, it would have resulted in all clauses in the bill being approved with the DSD’s preferred wording — without any discussion by the committee.

His motion was supported by ANC colleague Anastasia Motaung, but it wasn’t put to the committee for approval or voting. Instead, the proposal, which effectively rejected 136 clauses in the bill, occurred without comment.

Bizarrely, the meeting then continued as if nothing had happened.

Mjenxane ploughed on through the bill, either oblivious to the motion or in the mistaken belief that all 148 clauses related to the crisis in foster care.

Proceedings were only suspended when the MPs gave up trying to navigate through the cumbersome matrix and called for it to be grouped per clause and for future meetings to be in-person.

MPs went into the Easter recess unaware that a decision had been “taken” to summarily dismiss 90% of the bill. The first that many of the MPs knew about it was when they received the new matrix and discovered that it had been pared down to 12 clauses.

Choosing to focus only on the clauses related to the comprehensive legal solution was wise and what government had been advised to do in 2011. But the way it was done was problematic.

Unilaterally curtailed

The decision to drastically curtail the bill was taken abnormally and unilaterally by two MPs, and only endorsed by the whole committee weeks later after a new matrix and bill had already been developed by the DSD drafter. 

Further, it appeared that there was political pressure on the committee to get the bill completed ahead of the DSD’s court deadline. 

In her 4 May address to the committee, the minister validated the decision before the committee had even approved it.

In addition, the ANC MPs apparently gave no thought to what would happen to the other 136 clauses excluded from the revised bill, or to the four years of public consultation around those clauses. It fell to the opposition to ensure that they weren’t lost.

Ultimately, the committee approved the “foster care bill” approach, with the proviso that the remaining clauses become a committee bill. But if it hadn’t, it risked the clauses needing to be reapproved by Cabinet and put before a new committee who hadn’t been present during the extensive public input, and who would be lacking institutional knowledge of the bill.

Moreover, it resulted in what the state law adviser Lisa Naidoo, who from the outset had cautioned about extending the bill from its intended focus, somewhat euphemistically referred to as an “irregular process”.

The irregularity was immediately evident. 

While all MPs eventually agreed that it was the right decision to only focus on the clauses related to the comprehensive legal solution, which of the 148 clauses comprised the solution remained unclear and contested. The DSD proposed 12 clauses, while the law advisers argued that only one clause was worth retaining.

Then, during lengthy debates on 18 May, opposition MPs requested the inclusion of the amended definition of an orphan, which had inexplicably been omitted despite orphans being the group most affected; exclusion of the revised definition of a caregiver which hadn’t been debated publicly but had significant consequences for orphans in the care of relatives; and the insertion of two clauses from the original bill that weren’t in the DSD’s version.

Missing clauses

The first missing clause was an amendment to section 21 aimed at strengthening unmarried fathers’ capacity to parent their children and thereby lessening the number of maternal orphans in need of alternative care. 

The second was a consequential amendment to section 24 which the drafters had missed, needed to give the Children’s Court jurisdiction over guardianship, making it easier for guardianship orders to be issued to relatives caring for orphans.

Both are essential for the legal solution because they make it easier for orphaned and abandoned children to be cared for by extended family and unmarried fathers.

It was section 21 — the rights of unmarried fathers — that proved strangely controversial with the parliamentary and DSD law advisers and the ANC MPs, who insisted that further consultation was necessary.

It fell to IFP member Liezl van der Merwe to point out that extensive consultation had already occurred, and that apart from some small amendments to wording which the DSD had approved, there hadn’t been any public objections to the clause in the tabled bill other than from one father’s rights group that wanted section 21 removed entirely from the Children’s Act, along with the distinction between married and unmarried fathers.

The DA’s Alexandra Abrahams asked the chairperson to put the inclusion of section 21 to the vote, but the proposal was categorically refused.

Sections 21 and 24

However, the committee finally agreed to include the amendments to sections 21 and 24 along with the revised definitions in the new bill, prompting Stock to remark that he was glad the committee had come to the decision “by consensus” and not a vote.

When the clause-by-clause process was again suspended, MPs expected to reconvene the following week to approve the wording of the 12 clauses included by the legal advisers, the new definition, and the amendments to sections 21 and 24 as agreed by the committee.

Instead, at the meeting on 25 May, MPs were confronted by a new version of the bill which hadn’t been distributed to them prior to the meeting, as procedurally required.

The definition of an orphan was included and that of a caregiver excluded, per their decision the week before. But amendments to sections 21 and 24 were inexplicably missing.

When opposition MPs protested, Stock and Mvana inexplicably denied that the committee had decided to include the amendments to sections 21 and 24. The DSD legal adviser stated that the process had broken down the previous week, so the legal team had reverted to the original clauses.

Cherry picking

Moreover, the legal team disclosed that they had already met and unilaterally updated the 12 remaining clauses “to reflect public comment”, unashamedly cherry picking which input they agreed with, and then including it into the wording of the bill. 

In so doing, they pre-empted the committee’s task of determining which amendments from the public and the DSD should be incorporated, excluding much of the public comment, and prioritising the version of the legal solution favoured by the DSD.

They had even inserted a previously unseen amendment to section 160 of the act under the guise of “public comment”, although there’s nothing in the matrix to justify it being a response to public input.

When Van der Merwe pointed out that the change to the definitions showed that the legal team had understood the committee’s decision to amend the bill, and questioned why the team had only implemented some of the agreed changes, opposition MPs called for a halt to proceedings while they consulted last week’s minutes for clarity (most had already seen the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) minutes which stated that there had been consensus to include amendments to sections 21 and 24).

The chairperson demurred that the committee secretary was off studying for exams and that the acting secretary wouldn’t be able to locate them. However, the chair instructed the acting secretary to find them after the meeting, because the committee would be “rescinding whatever we agreed in the first meeting”.

EFF MP Letitia Arries, who was attending virtually, then asked for a caucus, but was muted while proceedings continued.

Eventually, all opposition MPs walked out in protest.

Cameras were turned off in the meeting room, so virtual observers, including the PMG monitor, were unaware of their departure. 

They only knew that Abrahams had left because she responded to the chair’s question about why members weren’t excusing themselves, saying she couldn’t continue until the verbatim minutes of the last meeting were presented before the committee.

If the ANC committee members had orchestrated things, they could not have done it better. 

Someone contacted Motaung, the missing 11th committee member. She suddenly appeared on Zoom and, with the quorum secured, those remaining listened to Mjenxane read the legal team’s version of the bill.

Once he had finished, all ANC members agreed that they had debated the clauses enough, with the chair stating that they had begun debating the clauses when she was “two years old, and now she was six years old”.

No one remembered that only clause one, the definition section, had ever been debated in committee meetings. No one considered it noteworthy that the legal team had unilaterally changed the wording of the bill without a committee instruction. No one referred to the matrix to check if the public comments had been interrogated.

No one objected to the previously unseen amendment to section 160 or suggested that the committee reject the insertion because it hadn’t been for public consultation. Ironically, Stock even affirmed that “the proposed amendments… were not new amendments”.

Anxious about the quorum, Mjenxane contacted the committee secretary, Lindiwe Ntshabo (deemed uncontactable by the chair), to check on the number of committee members. He could be clearly heard by observers directing her that the minutes from the previous meeting must reflect that the process had broken down and no decisions had been taken.

In the absence of the opposition, the committee then rejected section 21 and the legal team’s version of the bill was approved.

Blanket approval

The committee’s blanket approval of the version of the bill presented by the legal team means that the minister will meet her court deadline. But what are the implications for vulnerable children, who weren’t mentioned once during the meeting?

According to Paula Proudlock from the Children’s Institute, the biggest problems with the revised bill are the last-minute amendment to section 160; the omission of changes to sections 21 and 24, and amendments to sections 150(1)(a) and 159.

Proudlock explains that if passed, the amendment to section 160 could force relatives caring for approximately 700,000 orphans to be assessed by a social worker before they can apply for the CSG Top-Up. 

Not only would this hinder the comprehensive legal solution to the foster care crisis, but because of the lack of social workers, it could also make the CSG Top-Up impossible to implement.

The omission of amendments to section 21 is also problematic and, oddly, those who chose to exclude it seemed to know little about it. 

They incorrectly argued that section 21 is about adoption (it’s about unmarried fathers), that the amendment is controversial (it was approved by Cabinet and widely accepted by children’s rights organisations), that it was proposed by Fathers for Justice (this group actually wanted it removed from the Act), and that it needed further consultation especially with the House of Traditional Leaders (there had been broad consultation and the DSD had agreed to the House of Traditional Leaders’ amendments).

Focusing on damages (which are already in section 21 of the Act), members missed the importance of providing legal recognition and certification for unmarried fathers living with maternal orphans, enabling them to protect and care for their children, and act as their legal guardian.

Guardianship cases

Equally concerning was the omission of the amendment to section 24. 

Like the amendment to section 45, it enables jurisdiction for the Children’s Court to hear guardianship cases. This crucial part of the comprehensive legal solution allows relatives caring for orphaned and abandoned children to obtain guardianship without having to incur high court fees.

Oddly, the new bill includes the change to section 45, but not to section 24. Without this important consequential amendment, the bill contradicts itself.

Despite opposition MPs raising this concern, section 24 wasn’t discussed because the chairperson confused it with clause 24, which is part of the bill.

At the heart of the legal solution is section 150(1)(a). According to Proudlock, civil society has long advocated for a change to s150(1)(a) to ensure that orphans in the care of relatives aren’t automatically considered in need of state care and protection and are rather assisted with an accessible grant and supportive services.

But, despite numerous submissions from child rights organisations, the wording of 150(1)(a) contradicts the department’s own Child Care and Protection Policy, and CSG Top-Up policy. However, neither policy was discussed by the committee.

‘Band-Aid’ approach

Proudlock also cautions against the “Band-Aid” approach to the comprehensive legal solution evident in changes to section 159. 

“This amendment will enable social workers to ask magistrates to extend foster care court orders that have already expired. This protects the social workers who cannot keep up with the extension backlog, but isn’t in children’s best interests. 

“It removes the accountability that ensures children’s alternative care placements are regularly reviewed by social workers and the courts.”

She’s particularly concerned that this amendment will result in children in child and youth care centres languishing in residential care for many years without their placement orders being regularly appraised or family reunification services provided.

Furthermore, the amendment doesn’t protect children in foster care from losing their Foster Care Grants for the time that their court order is expired. 

“While the grant can be paid retrospectively once the expired order is extended, many orphans will be without their grants for months or years while they await a social worker to process their extension,” she explains.

Events of 25 May show that the DSD, parliamentary law adviser and ANC MPs have lost sight of the goal of the bill. 

It isn’t to technically comply with a court order or prevent further embarrassment for the minister — it’s to provide secure and sustainable financial support for orphans, and legal status for their related caregivers, without having to use the over-burdened foster care system.

The needs and rights of vulnerable children were subsumed by political expediency in the committee’s rush to approve the CAB clauses.

And in contrast to the indecent haste of 25th May, formal approval of the A-list of the bill has taken a month, once again delaying the process.

If the decisions made without due consideration are not revisited when the A-list is evaluated on the 22nd June, it will be hard for the committee to argue that it has acted in children’s best interests.DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 21.06.2022

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