The Alphonso Children’s Home and Place of Safety is run by the Sisters of St John the Baptist. These nuns are in daily touch with children who have experienced abuse. They try to provide the necessary healing conditions for them. The stories of child abuse and abandonment stunned me as I listened to the sisters relating various case histories.
Lerato was thirteen when she was repeatedly sexually abused by her father. She was the last born in her family. When her mother passed away, the family agreed that her grandmother would take care of her instead of her father. However, it was arranged that her father would pick her up on Fridays so that they could spend the weekends together. This arrangement worked until one Sunday when the unexpected surfaced. Lerato’s grandmother noticed that her granddaughter had difficulties walking after returning from her father.
When the grandmother tried to find out what was wrong, she discovered that her granddaughter had been sexually assaulted. Her discovery was later confirmed by the health personnel at the local clinic. When questioned, Lerato revealed that her father would rape her at the weekends.
Charles is thirteen years old and HIV positive. He contracted the HIV virus through breast feeding. He was later rejected and abandoned. As a result of the trauma Charles experienced, he sometimes reacts angrily and refuses to take his antiretroviral drugs. He wants to return to his family because he knows they are there. What he does not know is that they do not want him. Where will he go when he reaches eighteen? The nuns are allowed by law to keep children only until they are seventeen.
The children in these stories have experienced excruciating pain. Many more are traumatised by similar experiences. But thanks to a culture of silence and secrecy nobody will ever know their anguish. What we do know, however, is that child abuse and the trauma it causes has far-reaching consequences. Some abused children have to cope with the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Mr Sello Ntsimane, the deputy principal and maths teacher at the nuns’ school, said that the majority of children who have been abused or are from abusive families perform poorly at school. He added that it was difficult to deal with abused children. He has noticed that they often lack concentration in class and generally fail to integrate with children who have not experienced abuse.
Seeking solutions to eradicate child abuse should be an on-going process, since abuse in different forms keeps surfacing. Meanwhile, society has to face the problem of children who have already been abused or neglected. Mr Ntsimane urges local government to help abandoned children find foster parents. This, he says, may entail training some people in the communities to become foster parents. He believes that children already in safe homes, such as the one run by the Sisters of St John the Baptist, be allowed to grow until they can decide for themselves to leave.
The Alphonso Children’s Home and Place of Safety was opened in August 1996. Pretoria Archbishop Emeritus George Daniel invited the Sisters of St John the Baptist to open the Home so as to take care of orphans in the archdiocese. Since then the Sisters have continued their selfless service with love and dedication. Currently, there are four sisters working at the Home in collaboration with seven lay people as staff members.
The children’s home was the first to be built. A school, open to outsiders, was later added. Through these structures, counselling and psychosocial support is given to children who are sexually abused and affected by HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, they prevent social exclusion and further exposure to sexual exploitation and criminal activities that may arise through revenge. The school guarantees that children receive basic education.
The Home can accommodate 40 children in residence. However, it offers shelter to more than 100. Some come for few weeks or months until their court cases have been finalised. The home receives children from different provinces of South Africa.
When I asked about the challenges the nuns faced they said that they had a myriad problems. The emotional energy they put in is incredible. It is not always easy to face the pain of the children. Then funding is a major challenge. They depend mostly on the goodwill of people and the little grant that they receive from the government through court orders.
Among the people of goodwill are the Knights of da Gama of the Pretoria archdiocese. Every year they donate assorted items to the home for the children. I was fortunate during my visit to witness the Knights of da Gama making their donation.
Finally, the nuns said that of late, local support has increased. People and organisations are showing greater appreciation of and support for their work. One hopes that many more will come forward and make a difference in the lives of the vulnerable children who come and live at the Alphonso Children’s Home and Place of Safety.