A Child Welfare Story Of COVID-19, Murder And Hope

Authors: 

Dr. Riaan van Zyl was a social worker in 1973 at the agency where “John” was in residential care and is currently the Director of the School of Social Work at the University of South Florida.

Dr. Johan Mostert was associated with the agency as a counselor, psychologist and Director from 1977 to 2000. He is currently Director of COMPACT Family Services, in Springfield, MO.

On April 15, 2020 we were informed of the tragic news that one of the children who grew up in the Children’s Village we had served in Johannesburg, South Africa had been killed. Intruders who had become desperate from the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions against the sale of alcohol in South Africa, had broken into his home and in the struggle, fatally wounded him. “John” was 46 years old. We were shocked by this tragic event and our hearts go out to his family. We were also touched by the love and support his family received from childhood friends who grew up in the residential setting with him in the early 1980’s. Fb pages lit up with pictures of him as a child in House “X”, of his friendship with a multitude of other children who had shared those years with him in the Village, and of their social interactions with him over the decades that followed.

The Children’s Village was a cottage-style children’s home that had been created as a replacement for the traditional dormitory style institution that was typical for children homes in the previous century. Based on the model of the Austrian Gmeiner Kinderdorfen, 10 children were housed in one of 20 cottages where brothers and sisters lived in the same home with house-parents. The model tended to look more like a structured foster care placement than an institution where the house mother was on duty 24 hours a day and the father maintained his employment in the community. Today, the Fb page of the former residents of the Village has 680 members. The residents keep in contact with their extended “family”, from time to time they post pictures of them visiting with house parents and messages of appreciation are posted for their former social workers and professional personnel. The Fb page is active and reflect relationships that span a period of almost 50 years, one can read about previous residents’ current status, reunions, and family events.

Residential care of children has fallen in disrepute and is often not considered as a viable option for children and adolescents, even in extreme circumstances when foster homes are not available or recommendable for children in out-of-home care. The emotional support after a tragic event of the children and house parents evident 40 some years after being in a residential setting is remarkable. The close emotional ties and frequent social interactions sustained over a long period of time is exactly what makes family special. By this yardstick residential care created, at least in this instance, strong family bonds between children cared for by devoted house parents. The sustainability of emotional ties and support demonstrated in this case reminds one of the concept “antifragile” used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. In spite of the disorder and stress associated with being removed from his parents at age 6, "John" was resilient and found a residential setting that was the opposite of fragile, his new family environment was beyond resilience or robustness, it resists shocks and got better.

We have come to realize that not all foster placements are always available or the best option for children in crisis. It may be time to also consider that not all residential placements are necessarily detrimental to children. In the words of one of “John’s” friends: “…..looking back, the Village was the place all of us remember as the place where we had no worries. It was our pure happy place”.