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Street children start out as school truants, says South African study

Children play outside a home for street children in Cape Town, South Africa / Chris Sattlberger - Panos pictures

School truancy could act as an early warning sign helping authorities to identify children at risk of becoming homeless, according to a report on street children in South Africa. Researchers, who interviewed more than 300 street children, found that children sometimes try out living on the streets during school hours because, ‘the step of taking to the streets is not taken lightly’.

“Children who are thinking of going onto the streets often ‘practice’ by spending a day or so at a time on the streets, and then going home at night,” explains one of the authors, Dr Catherine Ward, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Cape Town. “If they’re on the streets, they’re not in school, so it’s an easy way to pick up on this ‘practicing’.”

The paper, published in this month’s Development Southern Africa Journal, is part of a series on homeless people in South Africa and was based on interviews with 305 street children and five former street children. Focus group discussions and interviews were also held with people who work with the children.

The report reviews the origins of homelessness among children and the dynamics of life on the streets, while pointing out the need for preventative services.

Truancy linked to poverty

When interviewing the children, the researchers found that some children initially play truant because they feel they don’t fit in at school. This can be due to “the parents’ inability to afford fees or uniforms or other things that help children feel included in school”, says the report. The report suggests truancy can therefore be a symptom of poverty.

In addition, children with learning disabilities are “more likely to find the school environment punishing rather than pleasant”, according to the report, which can result in them skipping school. The study suggests this might explain the high numbers of children with learning difficulties within the homeless population.

According to the paper just over 12 per cent of the children interviewed said poverty was their main reason for living on the streets. Children also gave reasons that are indirectly attributed to poverty, such as not being able to pay rent or being unemployed.

However, the study suggests that broader social problems are also to blame for child homelessness. The study finds that “widespread poverty, rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and westernisation may have weakened extended family systems and so the ability of families to provide for children”.

Loss of caregivers

Around a quarter of the children interviewed told researchers that losing their caregivers was the reason why they took to the streets. The study suggests the fact that 10 per cent of children in South Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS alone could exacerbate the number of street children in South Africa in the future.

One child told researchers, “I am an orphan, all my siblings are married and no one looks after me”. This statement indicates a failure in the extended family system to act as a safety net, the study suggests.

Schools need to get involved

Researchers asked the children what they wanted the government to do to help. Eighty children asked for employment opportunities, while 79 asked for housing. Other forms of assistance such as skills training were asked for by the children. Children said they would prefer to refer themselves [for care] rather than being forcibly placed in care.

The researchers said interventions should be incorporated in the school system because of the link between truancy and homelessness. Recommendations include expanding funding to help poorer children meet the financial obligations of school and providing support for those who have learning difficulties and special needs.

In addition, the researchers stressed the importance of early interventions as they said the longer the child is living on the streets the harder it is for them to assimilate back into school and home.

“At present, most services are in the city centres where children typically end up,” the report states, “but this means that they usually deal with children who have been on the streets a while and who have lost some of the habits of living housed [like going to school every day, bathing every day, etc.]”.

“Most children take to the streets near their homes, or show signs of problems while still at home,” says Dr Ward. “Prevention programmes situated in areas where children are likely to leave their homes could do much to reunite children with a family [that does] not necessarily [have to be] their nuclear family of origin”.

Further reading

Title: South African street children: A survey and recommendations for services

Authors: Catherine L Ward and John R Seager


Link to abstract:

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