May 23 2008 at 03:27PM
By Vivian Attwood
Val Mellis, the Senior Public Prosecutor at the Point magistrate’s court, has pretty much seen it all.
In a career encompassing many years’ involvement with child welfare and, more recently, taking a particular interest in the rights of street children in the Point area, she has been exposed to the underbelly of a society that still places a low premium on the safety and wellbeing of its
By rights, she should be hardened to much of what she encounters. Not so.
‘The rights of the child shall be paramount’
Although colleagues wonder how she can shoehorn everything she does into her working day, be a mother to two young daughters and still be on call 24/7 for people in crisis, she is fuelled by the desire to make a difference in her jurisdiction. The issue of street children is a passion.
"It’s pretty much an all-encompassing job," she concedes.
"I took my present position in 2007, because I like the idea of a fresh challenge."
The Public Prosecutor was challenged immediately – to attempt to keep her fury under control when, on May 25 that year, the provincial department of welfare blew the budget it had been allocated to assist the homeless, on a massive street party.
"To me, that was nothing short of criminal," she said.
‘It’s absolutely crucial that a first-phase shelter is established’
"I hate those so-called event days. Instead of lavishing money on something with no long-term benefit, we need to put continuous programmes in place for the homeless, particularly the street children.
"Some provinces – the Western Cape being a case in point – have legislation on street kids, and a functional, well-regulated system. It is up to the provincial department of welfare to draft similar legislation for KwaZulu-Natal and submit it to parliament."
Mellis is adamant that government stakeholders have to be held accountable for the fate of the street children.
"Section 28 of the Child Care Act states: ‘The rights of the child shall be paramount’," she said.
"We are committed to putting their interests first."
Commenting on the controversy that has flared each time Metro Police officers rounded up street children to remove them from the gaze of those attending events to promote the city, Mellis said: "The round-up approach simply doesn’t work. We need a co-ordinated effort and a task team where every member knows the mandates of the others. At the moment it’s hopelessly disparate."
The prosecutor said that while the Metro Police and the street kids don’t see eye to eye, the Point SAPS take a more sympathetic approach to issues concerning street children.
"I can guarantee you that since February last year the Point SAPS have not conducted a single round-up of street children. They are concentrating on building bonds with the kids to avoid problems."
In 2007 Mellis’s department ran a project targeting homeless adult men. They were taken off the streets, put up at hotels on Marine Parade, and given jobs with the Department of Parks and Recreation for three weeks.
A proviso was that they did not abuse substances during that period.
"The project produced encouraging results, but the most problematic participants were those who had grown up on the streets," she said.
"They were all over 18, but lacked birth certificates and ID documents. In many cases there were no families to contact for details of their date and place of birth. They were battling with addictions.
"One young man struck me in particular. He was a lovable rogue. We were grooming him with the hope of getting him off the streets, but then he blew it by committing a crime, and ended up in prison. I was agonising about why he’d thrown away his chances, when another member of the team explained that he’d not been able to kick his glue-sniffing habit."
Mellis decried the public tendency to dehumanise children living on the streets. Sadly, she said, the children can all too easily internalise the belief that they are subhuman.
"It is scary to contemplate, but if you don’t have an ID book, you literally don’t exist. You are a nothing in society, and therefore you have no self-worth. Why not turn to crime? The guy who doesn’t in those circumstances is a pretty remarkable individual."
The loss of family to HIV and Aids, poverty and abuse are some of the reasons children end up on city streets. Mellis related a recent incident that brought her to tears.
"It was pouring with rain and I found a small boy huddled in a doorway. His face wasn’t familiar, so I stopped to question him.
"He said he was 13 years old and came from Umlazi. Both his parents had died, followed by the aunt who was caring for him. He had no one left in the world."
Mellis identified two critical areas that need to be addressed to ensure that street children do not fall through the cracks.
"It’s absolutely crucial that a first-phase shelter is established. Not at the Point, though, because there is too much temptation and the children will backslide. The second pressing need is to co-ordinate efforts to help the street kids. I want to convene a meeting with all the stakeholders so that they can explain their mandates and begin pooling efforts."
She praised the work done by Umthombo and I-Care in particular: "They are doing an excellent job and I support them in their efforts. They are working within the legal system and following the processes so that the kids are assigned a social worker and are properly assessed. The city has tended to have a poor reputation in that regard."
Apart from the other forms of degradation street children are subjected to, Mellis is greatly concerned by the prevalence of sexual assault on both male and female children on the streets.
"Sometimes they endure the exploitation because of a financial incentive, but that is by no means always the case," she said.
"Cars stop at night and lure the children in. Law enforcement is not keeping track of these sex offenders, although Umthombo is attempting to compile a database on the issue."
Sadly, even when sex offenders who prey on children are identified and arrested, it does not follow that they receive jail terms, said Mellis.
"In every case where we have tried to prosecute these offenders, the cases collapse because the kids are too terrified to testify, and run away," she said.
"My job does get very intense, and the after-hours demands are tough, but you have to be available to help, because you might be the only chance some child has."
o This article was originally published on page 10 of Daily News on May 23, 2008