In the Johannesburg suburb of Roodepoort, just north of the sprawling township of Soweto, Loftie Eton manages a small child- welfare agency that has steadily become the front lines in South Africa's troubled war on AIDS.
Here, children orphaned by AIDS find homes. Here, foster parents maneuver through the intricate process of getting legal custody of children and access to the trickle of government grants to help them keep these children clothed, fed, and in school.
The caseload at the Roodepoort Child Welfare Society has grown in the past 10 years from perhaps 60 to 80 children per year to well over 1,000. Social workers each have between 110 and as many as 400 cases to sort through, virtually all of them children who have lost parents to AIDS. The vast majority will be handed over to aunts or grandmothers, but some children simply have no relatives willing or able to take them in.
"We told the government we weren't taking any more cases," says Ms. Eton, a tall, red-haired, friendly Afrikaans-speaking woman who has worked here for a decade. She told the official for the Department of Social Services that "no social worker can handle 250 cases." "They told me, 'If you want to keep taking government funding, then you have to keep taking cases.'"
There are hundreds of agencies like Eton's around the country, technically private charities, but essentially providing a government service. All tell the same story: AIDS has left them overworked, understaffed, and unable to provide the attention their clients deserve.
A report commissioned by South Africa's Ministry of Social Development in 2005 found that the country has half the number of social workers needed to meet the minimum services to children. The shortage is particularly acute in Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg and the capital city of Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria), with an average of 5,395 children per social worker, according to the study. And while the government has won praise for its commitment to children's protection programs in its current five- year plan, there are neither the resources nor the personnel in the country to implement these plans. …