The Warehouse recently hosted an event about how the church can respond to children at risk. This was facilitated by Alexa Russell Matthews (MSW (Play Therapy) & BsocSc (Social work)) who is a trustee of The Warehouse and has vast experience working with children and families across a number of organisations in South Africa and in Mozambique.
Alexa shared some thought provoking insights into our understanding of children at risk or in difficult circumstances. This article will touch on a few of these insights as we consider our role in this area as church leaders, guardians or parents.
When we refer to children being at risk, we infer that their rights (as constituted in the UN Declaration of Children’s Rights as well as our understanding of God-given rights) are in some way denied. Many of these children are of indigent backgrounds, living in poverty and socio-economic exploitation and neglect. Many have been abused or sexually exploited, and some are without family. Some of the risk factors that make children prone to such precarity include: poverty, lack of documentation, lack of life skills, negative parenting, poor education, crime, poor nutrition, abuse and exploitation, drugs, delinquency, civil unrest, man-made disasters and natural disasters.
Thinking about children’s emotional and development needs and our role in this
When we are faced with the reality of children in such trying circumstances, many of us wish to remove them from their contexts. However, this is a band aid solution to a bigger problem. If we want to advocate effectively for children, we need to be willing to work compassionately and skillfully with adults. Parents will know that parenthood is one of the most difficult and judged spaces on earth. Parents are expected to create platforms for children to thrive, grow and develop skills to manage life, even when they may not have received these platforms themselves. Often, we ask parents who grew up in the same circumstances as their children, to behave differently, without providing an alternative skill set. Darren Jones, US social worker says, “We can’t take away children’s coping and survival strategies without offering them another”.
Clearly however, some survival strategies are harmful. We’re unable to access our emotions which then drives our behaviour and results in us acting out without insight and awareness. It is important to understand though, that these coping mechanisms are birthed out of real trauma. We consistently see horrific headlines specifically coming from fractured communities with generational trauma; trauma that was man made. The injustice of apartheid meant that communities were torn apart, and cut off from freedom, education and opportunities to prosper.
“Many of the then children — now adults in our country — were told to know their place, and yet we ask families to dream dreams and pretend that this fracture didn’t happen. A fracture that as a nation we are still trying to repair. “
It is true that people still get to make individual choices, but we need to realise that detachment, dismissiveness and trauma change how we respond. Some of us get a better space and more opportunities to choose from than others in life, and this can mean the difference between thriving and surviving.
How do we create spaces where adults can experience tangible safety, out of which they can do the same for their children?
Here are some tips:
- Churches can respond with parenting support groups, ensuring that there is a sense of belonging, of pressing into relationships with people and not just seeing problems. When people come to church for help, we look at hearts and find practical options to support, advocate and engage. We recognize that we are whole beings that need responses that mirror this.
- Organisations like The Warehouse, Bottomup, LMF, Arise Family, New Day to name a few are coming at this from different angles – walking alongside, seeking critical engagement, looking at family strengthening, and unpacking what hope looks like in these circumstances.
How do we advocate for children in our own communities, and neighbouring communities, because they are our neighbours:
- Ask children what they need: Is it a soccer, drama, art, homework club? Is it someone who can tutor them or ensure that there is a desk to work at after school? (Outliers, The Sozo Foundation)
- Ask children what they need input on? Partner with schools in the area and get involved with organisations like The Life Matters Foundation.
- Find out what parents need support with: Positive discipline is often highlighted, but again, how do we do this without recognising where we as parents are being triggered and bringing our own sense of hurt/ shame/ helplessness in response to our children because we don’t have the skills.
- Does your church have a child protection policy? Has everyone had police clearance prior to working with children? Do you know the Children’s Act? (The Warehouse offers a resource book, presentations & workshops on Children, Church and the Law).
- What are you doing to build bridges with churches in communities that are different to yours? Are these positioned as “outreach” or learn from each other” spaces?
What makes this important? If we aren’t engaging and enabling children and young people to critically engage with the driving forces behind the systemic, structural and individual violence against children, we normalise the fact the world looks like it does. Too often we are scared to do this because we don’t have all the answers, we don’t want to depress our children and we want to protect their ‘innocence’ – yet at the same time we are asking our children to develop empathy and compassion.
Credit for presentation notes: Alexa Russell Matthews
Organisation Contact details:
- BottomUP: They promote active citizenship and participatory democracy with children and youth.
- Website: bottomup.org.za
- Call: (+27) 021 012 5365
- Email: email@example.com
- Life Matters Foundation: Their LifeSkills Portfolio provides counselling, mentoring, camps and Teenage Awareness programmes to equip learners to thrive in the face of challenges of their context and adolescence, ad become active citizens.
- Website: lifemattersfoundation.org
- Call: 021 712 0383
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Arise: Arise believe that all families should thrive. How this happens is through Family strengthening & preservation as well as adoption advocacy programmes. Arise creates professionally taught and facilitated therapeutic and support groups for both children and adults.
- Website: arisefamily.org
- Call: 021 633 4058
- Email us: email@example.com
- New Day – https://www.newdayunited.org/
- Outliers: Their mission is to build capacity in after-school programs through training, resourcing, and connecting to opportunities.
- Website: outliers.org.za
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Sozo Foundation: They run five core projects that work to promote Education, Skills, Youth and Wellbeing in Vrygrond. These projects are Educentre, Eden, Design, Care and Youth Cafe.
- Website: thesozofoundation.org.za
- Call: 021 825 5529
- The Warehouse Trust: They support local church congregations towards justice-seeking action.
- Website: warehouse.org.za
- Call: 021 7611168
- Email: email@example.com