Is the Street Child Phenomenon Synonymous with Deviant Behavior?

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INTRODUCTION

Street children are subjected to physical assault, sexual abuse, harassment from the public, intimidation by gang members and criminals, and arrest by the police (Richter, 1988b). This victimization frequently repeats what has occurred in the home. Though often victims themselves, street children, according to Swart (1988c), are regarded as irresponsible and lawless and a serious financial burden to society.

Richter (cited in the Natal Mercury, June 15, 1988) has stated that the phenomenon of street children has become an emotional issue, evoking strong feelings among those committed to helping them, as well as those determined to get rid of them (see also Swart-Kruger & Donald, 1994; Donald & Swart-Kruger, 1994; Jayes, 1985). Further, Richter (1991a, 1991b) has noted that these children live on the periphery of society, and as a result they are often misunderstood.

CHARACTERIZING STREET CHILDREN

The term street children can be applied to a large number of youths, all of whom spend a great deal of time away from home, but do not necessarily share other characteristics (Agnelli, 1986). Definitions vary, but they generally have three main elements in common: (1) these children live or spend a significant amount of time on the street; (2) the street is the children's source of livelihood; and (3) they are inadequately cared for, protected, or supervised by responsible adults. Richter (1988c, 1991b) has pointed out that the characteristics of runaways, or homeless youths, in First World countries differ from those of working Third World street children. These differences will be considered in the context of South Africa.

A survey of the literature on street children reveals that three groups are frequently identified: children with continuous family contacts, who work on the street, usually go to school, and go home to their families at the end of the day; children with occasional family contacts, who work on the street, do not go to school, and seldom go home to their families; and children without family contacts, who consider the street their home, and it is there that they seek shelter, food, and a sense of belonging among peers. Lusk (1992) has emphasized the psychological characteristics of four groups of street children: poor, working children who return to their families at night and usually attend school - they are not likely to exhibit delinquent behavior; independent street workers, whose family ties are in the process of breaking down - their school attendance is erratic and they exhibit increasing delinquency; children who live and work with their families on the street - poverty is the overwhelming reason for their presence; and children who have broken off all contact with their families - they live full time on the streets and are the "real" street children. Aptekar (1994) divides the process into stages, beginning with the child spending a small amount of time away from home, and progressing to the total adoption of the street lifestyle and culture (compare Baizerman, 1988; Visano, 1990).

Richter (1988a), Konanc (1989), Cosgrove (1990), and Aptekar (1995a) have stated that street children can be defined according to their relationships with family. Children of the street have left home permanently and usually have little or no contact with their families. Children on the street, who constitute the largest group, return home from time to time, usually contributing to the financial support of their families (Ennew, cited in Richter, 1988c; compare Aptekar, 1994).

Thus, street children encompass various categories. In addition, this term is commonly used in Africa, while in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, the terms homeless children, runaways, throwaways, and pushouts are more common.

The United Nations has developed its own definition of street children: "any girl or boy . . . for whom the street in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, and so on, has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults" (Inter-NGO, cited in Swart-Kruger & Donald, 1994, p. …