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Family reunification: children and youth living on the streets

Robyn Hemmens

Youth for Christ (YFC)/KZN has been actively involved in serving homeless children (boys and girls) over the past 16 years in both Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. We have been privileged to walk closely with children on their journey back home to their families and through this have gained a growing understanding of a model that serves both the children and the family.

When seeking to assist children who have run from their homes to be reunited with their families it is imperative to understand that all interventions need to take into account the family’s perspective as well as the child's.

Why children run away from home
In all situations, when a child runs from home there are key factors that contribute to this decision. On the 21st of September 2004 a national census was carried out around the country to gain a better idea as to exactly how many children were on the streets in our country and what brought them there. In almost all situations that children spoke about there was a combination of poverty and family breakdown – very seldom did poverty stand alone. What seems to be true is that children in poverty will run away if their family relationships are not secure, where there is no sense of belonging or strong emotional attachment and the family environment no longer feels safe. With no one to go to and no support offered, the child decides to run to escape the pain, fear and loneliness of this situation.

For the family, the running away of their child results in a range of different responses, such as anger, sadness, guilt, denial, searching, silence and waiting. Initially they may try to locate their child, but with numerous other challenges being faced within the home and not knowing what to do, the family remains immobilised and finally accept that their child is gone.

For the child, running from home thrusts them into an environment of immediate survival. Understanding how street life works, learning new ways of interacting, a new set or rules, and the traumatic socialisation into the culture of the streets (violence, stealing, rape, crime and prostitution) makes it necessary for them to learn adaptive coping behaviours. The child replaces one unsafe environment and relationship for another. The difference for the child though is that on the streets they feel more “in control” of their situation, and the independence that they gain by being on the streets is more attractive than a life back home that is unsafe and unpredictable.

Relationship between the youth worker and the child
It is in this crisis that the YFC youth worker encounters the child. The success of this intervention will be directly linked to the kind of relationship that is established with the child on the streets. This relationship has to be respectful with no hasty moves on the part of the worker. Care and support need to be offered, and conversations and activities which help the child consider alternatives to living on the streets. The youth worker acknowledges the resilience within the child and trusts the child to disclose more of their story as they are ready to. Ultimately, the goal is to have the child make the decision to return home or to leave the streets for a shelter. It is essential that the child makes the decision to go home for themselves or there will be little to hold them when they do get home. The youth worker makes a commitment to the child to accompany them on their journey home.

Re-integration process
The decision to leave the streets is the first step towards reintegration, but the next challenge for the child is to “leave the streets behind them”. This stage is about letting go of what has defined them and given them a sense of identity and belonging. Giving up this way of life can be a battle for a child, risking giving something up that has met their needs to trust in a place that has not yet proven itself to be worth the effort. This transient stage can result in anger, conflict, rebellion and running again to the streets from the safety of the shelter. The child's feelings need to be understood so that the resulting behaviour can be held, tolerated and given space.

Once the child makes the decision to go home, the next step in the process is to locate the family and make the first contact with them. The social worker/youth worker now steps into a role of mediating on behalf of the child with the family. This is the opportunity for both family and child the to listen to each other’s stories and come to an understanding of what went wrong, and to slowly begin to see what potential exists to rebuild the relationship. All contact and interaction is around leading the family to re-acceptance of their child back home. As this process is being facilitated, so the child is being prepared to go home. They need to be given the chance to ask questions and voice their concerns.

Once the child and the family both agree to reunification, the next step is to negotiate the type of support that will be required to help hold the family together. Commitment to this process requires the family to welcome the child home and rebuild family relationships; for the child the commitment is to staying home and building a future. There are support systems in place within the family or community to keep the child from returning to the streets.

Follow-up and after-care support is a careful interchange of ideas and support, not wanting to remove the responsibility from the family, but wishing to be near enough so that the family can learn from what is modelled, how to establish emotional attachment with their child.

I once read a stanza from a poem written from the context of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany that said “No event will come in time to alter this man's life, except the one surprise of being loved”. This statement stays with me as I reflect on our years of working with children who have chosen the harshness of the streets over home. Children on the street expect to be disapproved of and rejected, and so what greater tool for transformation than through the unexpected surprise of a trusting, honest, accepting relationship with an adult that re-introduces them and their family to how to love?

This feature: Hemmens, R. (2006). Family reunification: children and youth living on the streets of Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Children First, Vol. 10, No. 64, pp. 17-19

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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