Current statistics show an alarming number of children entering the South African children’s court system annually. Yet little to no research has been conducted involving children who actually attend children’s court within the South African context, specifically since the promulgation of the new Children’s Act 38 of 2005. Consequently, very little knowledge regarding these children’s experiences and where the court system may be failing them exists.
Statutory intervention with children in the middle-childhood phase is based on the premise that such intervention is in the best interest of the child. The process begins with the assignment of a social worker who is tasked with conducting a comprehensive investigation into the child’s life. Once this investigation has been finalised, the child and all relevant parties will attend children’s court where a final decision will be made regarding the child’s future care. The question arises how children experience children’s court procedures and whether there are areas where improvement would be warranted, especially since heavy caseloads often result in postponements which could exacerbate any negative experiences.
With a view to gaining insight into middle-childhood children’s experience of children’s court procedures, the researcher conducted a qualitative, applied study using a collective case study design. Two literature studies form the knowledge base of the study, where the first explores the various areas of development in middle childhood and the second the children’s court process, with specific reference to the relevant legislation and polices underlying this process.
In-depth interviews with nine children in the middle-childhood phase who had been exposed to children’s court procedures allowed the researcher to gather data from the children’s perspectives, rather than from the perspective of professionals as is the case in the majority of other studies. This empirical study contributed to the knowledge base by providing evidence that children are not by any means adequately prepared for children’s court and do not meaningfully participate in the process. Furthermore, empirical evidence revealed that children in middle childhood often associate negative emotions – notably fear, sadness and anger – with children’s court procedures.
From this empirical study, it was concluded that social workers need to take responsibility for ensuring that children are comprehensively prepared for court procedures. Furthermore, steps need to be taken to enhance children’s level of participation throughout the entire process.