Article 40 © copyright to the Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape

Changing the mind-set

Lize Fivaz, prosecutor at the Mangaung One-stop Child Justice Centre, shares her views on the causes of children's offending and her perception of her prosecutorial role:

The role of the prosecutor

I have been a prosecutor for almost ten years, but have been engaged with children exclusively for a relatively short period of time. Only now do I really experience a feeling of job satisfaction. For the first time I now believe that I am involved in a process where I am actually making a positive difference in the lives of others. Children and their parents leave our court with a sense of hope.

I have learned that young people today face many challenges in their personal lives, at school and at home. These are challenges that most of us know little about because we had the benefit of a secure and protected childhood. On the other hand I have seen the frustration and hurt on the faces of many disappointed parents who walk into my office. I realise only too well that parenthood is a challenge in itself. How often have I heard the line: "I don't know what to do with this child any more." Therefore I find myself, on a daily basis, in a position where I am not only a prosecutor, but also a counsellor and friend.

Economic poverty has been accepted as a major causal factor for criminality - especially in poor and developing countries. However, research has shown that emotional poverty is also a potential factor that needs consideration. Emotional poverty can be defined as the deprivation of emotional resources that normally come from healthy, nurturing and supportive human interaction.1 The unfortunate truth, however, is that many families in our communities are dysfunctional. Broken homes, the so-called "absent parent syndrome", the total lack of family structure and lack of education are the order of the day.

Psychiatrists are of the opinion that a young person deprived of emotional needs is likely to experience feelings of shame, rejection, anger and fear, which in turn constitute causal factors for negative behavioural patterns. Once such negative behaviour is unattended, it can lead to crime.

Young people in conflict with the law are often only troubled children and not criminals in the true sense of the word. The Child Justice Bill is designed to promote interventions proven to support children's capacity to redirect negative behaviour and achieve their potential. Diversion is a form of such intervention.

Through diversion programmes young people will acquire knowledge and skills needed to become responsible citizens. Diversion is meant to empower them to cope with life's challenges. In the diversion programmes children are taught skills such as identifying their feelings, how to handle those feelings and how to cope with stress, rejection, failure, conflict and sexuality.

Traditional justice - retributive justice - engages in a shame-based approach stigmatising young people. It focuses on retribution: believing that delivering pain to the offender will somehow create restoration to the victim and the community. On the other hand, restorative justice seeks to actually restore the relationship between the victim and the offender and enable the offender to be reintegrated into his or her family and community, now a changed young person.

Diversion at Mangaung

Since the Centre started operating in June 2002 an average of 47% to 50% of cases have been withdrawn after diversion interventions.

With the Child Justice Bill, which will hopefully come into operation soon, there will be scope for diverting even more cases. The preliminary inquiry could be one factor that will lead to many more cases being diverted. Another factor could be the different levels of diversion that the Bill provides for. If I interpret this correctly, one will be able to divert the case of a child who has re-offended by placing him on the next level of diversion programmes. I believe that second- and third-level programmes will be more intensive and can be used for children involved in more serious offences.

I foresee that service providers such as Nicro and the Department of Social Development will have no option but to re-evaluate their programmes. New programmes will be needed and this in turn will require the facilitators of these programmes to receive additional training.

I believe there is also the need to put some form of formal programme in place for the parents of these children. At present Nicro involves parents in some of the diversion sessions. I am also aware that the Department of Social Development involves parents through individual meetings between the parents and the social worker. If one hopes to successfully reintegrate the child into his or her family and really focus on preventing negative behaviour in future, the interaction at home and the possible factors that might lead to the child's behaviour patterns need to be identified and addressed. This will also give the parents an opportunity to learn some skills regarding communication and coping with conflict. In a nutshell this type of intervention could restore the relationship between parent and child.

One could argue that educating children and teaching them socially acceptable values is not the task of the justice system and the courts, but in light of the government's policy of ubuntu, the whole community needs to embrace its role in the development of children.

1 Adopted from J'Liese's research dissertation, 2002