Public Perceptions of, and Reactions to, Street Children

By Roux, Johann le; Smith, Cheryl Sylvia | Adolescence, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Perceptions of, and Reactions to, Street Children

Roux, Johann le, Smith, Cheryl Sylvia, Adolescence

Street children are part of the modern urban scene. Baizerman (1990) maintains that there are social and institutional factors that serve to sustain their presence. The issue of prevalence, too, is a crucial one. Community groups and researchers differ widely in their estimates of the number of street children. According to Baizerman (1988), "the politics of numbers can hide or distort the moral issue . . . and street kids, both as people and as a symbol, may be used to mediate actual and symbolic relations between different social, ethnic, racial, and income groups" (p. 14).

Baizerman (1990) states that "street kids are part of the background of city life for some adults, while for others they live in the foreground... their visibility to adults depends upon their place in the everyday life of these adults" (p. 4). For the purposes of the present study, society has been divided into three groups - law enforcement agencies, policy makers (including social workers and child care workers), and members of the general public-in order to determine why street children are treated with contempt and often abused.


Street children are regarded as nuisances by some and criminals by others. Under the legal systems of many countries, carryovers from the colonial period, vagrancy is a punishable offense, and includes street children (Richter, 1989a). Over the years, the South African public has learned of the inhumane treatment of these children by the police. The Detainee's Parents Support Committee (1986) has detailed these abuses, with the widespread detention and imprisonment of street children being labeled a flagrant violation of human rights and contrary to the stated duty of "care and support" imposed by the Child Care Act.

The Child Care Act has clearly failed to protect children in this regard (Swart-Kruger & Donald, 1994; Goliath, 1989; Maphatane & Schurink, 1993; Schurink et al., 1995). Moreover, although the placement of street children in safe shelters is supposed to be temporary, they often spend months in limbo in these institutions, contrary to the intention of the Act. Starke (1988), however, maintains that the Child Care Act does not provide for children accommodated at shelters. The shelters are therefore disqualified from subsidies unless registered, but registration imposes constraints, especially at the intake phase, that ultimately defeat their purpose. At the first National Workshop on Street Children, held in Cape Town in 1987, it was reported that "no legal designation in the Child Care Act existed which allowed for child shelters at which street children could be rehabilitated. The children therefore fall through the system and end up on the streets" (The Natal Mercury, 1987, p. 8).

Maphatane and Schurink (1993) argue that because street children have developed ways of looking after themselves, and sometimes their families as well, they are a unique category of "children in need of care." They are vulnerable to arrest, and in many cases taken from the city and dumped in some isolated spot, because the public regularly demands that the streets be "cleaned up" (Schurink & Rip, 1993; Duncan & Rock, 1994; Goniwe & Bishop, 1989). Thus, the survival patterns of street children include keeping a keen eye out for the police (Swart-Kruger & Donald, 1994; Donald & Swart-Kruger, 1994; Agnelli, 1986; Gebers, 1990; Keen, 1990).

According to Hansson (1992), low-risk activities known as strolling, parking, and "aanklop" (begging) do not generally attract undue police attention or negative reactions from the community. High-risk activities such as theft, robbery, and prostitution, however, heighten public fear, resulting in increased police harassment not only of the individual but the band as well. In fact, Hansson, citing Bothma's findings, indicates that one of the roles of female members of the band is to keep intoxicated males out of public view and to prevent them from engaging in high-risk activities while in this state - an essential task, as reckless crimes and public inebriation rapidly draw the attention of the police. …

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