MEC for Social Development Sharna Fernandez says her department has uncovered strong evidence that children were sexually abused at the Al Noor Orphanage. The Woodstock childcare facility is under immense scrutiny, after it was shut down by the Department of Social Development last week over accusations of sexual and physical abuse. Founder Amina Madien also faces charges of fraud and corruption and could be linked to the sexual abuse charges.
Speaking to VOC on Thursday, Fernandez said her department was alerted to the allegations of sexual abuse about three weeks ago by a community member. The DSD sent in a team to engage the manager and do preliminary investigations and found “sufficient evidence” that the children had to be removed.
“There was substantial evidence of physical and sexual abuse, as well as sexual grooming,” she emphasised.
She reiterated that 16 children were evacuated from the premises, despite an order for 17. Officials were told that the 17th child was playing soccer and never returned. It was discovered he has absconded.
The Al Noor orphanage is not funded by the department and the children living there were not placed through the DSD’s social services. It was found that many of the children had court orders that had lapsed and the orphanage had its own social worker, paid by the facility, to ensure that all those mechanisms are in place.
Staff at the orphanage have criticised the department for the manner of the removal, saying it has traumatised the children. However, Fernandez said the department followed all protocols and adhered to the Children’s Act that allows officials to remove children without notice.
“However, the manager knew we were there on the Wednesday prior, so we did not just remove the children, they were taken to two places of safety. They were debriefed and provided the necessary counselling,” she explained.
“Had we gone the route of alerting the facility, we would be compromising the safety of the children and the subsequent arrests.”
Family members can be given access to the children via the DSD. The first effort would be to return the children with their biological families.
But Fernandez expressed concern that there had been an effort by the orphanage to make contact with the children.
“The idea was to move the children from a place that they should have been protected. I cannot divulge details on where they are but there is an effort to intimidate them.”
“We removed the children last Monday and when we went to hand over the deregistration letter on Friday morning, we found 32 children from in and around Cape Town who were not in the foster care system who had come to Al Noor for the holidays. That is in breach of the Children’s Act. We employed additional social workers to assist us to get those children back to their families before the end of the day.”
The orphanage has been shrouded in allegations for the past decade and despite red-flags, has been allowed to operate. Asked why the department had not shut down the orphanage, Fernandez said they cannot act on allegations.
“Even though we were tipped off, we needed substantive proof and we now have affidavits. Three cases have been lodged which can be taken up through the justice system. My main priority is the children. There was a matter two years ago where a child who left the facility shared details on what transpired there. At that point, we did not have a case,” she explained.
“As a department, we do our regular monitoring and evaluation check. We go in to see that they are following the norms and standards, but we cannot do this every day. Unfortunately, we have many facilities across the province and we have a limited number of social workers to do this.” VOC