A practice placement in South Africa: working with orphaned children, children with Aids…

This is an account of the process and rewards that can be achieved, both for the social work programme and for the student, from searching the international arena for a student’s practice placement.

A practice placement in South Africa, where caseloads can reach beyond 500, proved intensely rewarding for Thulisile Thokoza, while Steve O’Loughlin describes how the placement was set up

The practice co-ordinator’s perspective
There has always been a shortage of suitable placements for social work students. But the arrival of the three-year degree  increased practice days from 130 to 200, intensifying the need for more locally based placements, writes Steve O’Loughlin.

But although placement finders tend to concentrate their efforts nearer to home, this can lead to opportunities being ignored   because they are viewed as involving too much trouble. The attempt to find a placement for a final year student in South Africa was at the student’s request because she had links to the country. This is the first international placement the social work  programme at Leeds University has arranged.

Making links and acquiring knowledge of resources is one thing most social work students are taught, so the first step was to make a link. The easiest approach was to contact one of the universities in South Africa to discuss the possibility. This initial approach was rebutted because the university didn’t have the time to facilitate the placement. I then looked closer to home at one of the existing placement agencies which we use and found by researching the internet that they had links to South Africa.

Negotiations with the UK agency regarding the South African agency followed, which culminated in direct contact with the South African agency in Johannesburg. They worked with children affected – or infected – by HIV/Aids who had either lost their parents or other relatives to the disease or had no one to care for them.

The agency provided accommodation, education and did therapeutic work with the children. The student would be involved in admitting children to the residential home and taking part in some of the therapeutic sessions. The home also engaged with reunification work with families and direct work with children who had been abused.

We considered how best the student could be supported and supervised by the university while she was on placement and various options were considered including video links. This technology was not available for this placement so it was agreed that contact would be via e-mail/mobile phone and text messages.

Additionally, the student, her tutor and myself agreed that in order to facilitate and develop the links between SA and UK and to establish a better rapport about some of the issues, (support, supervision, contact, payment) we would need to visit her on placement at our own expense. This would ensure that the placement was meeting the student’s learning needs and would allow us to assess any risks.

The university has benefited from organising this placement in that it has extended the learning opportunities available to students, giving one the opportunity to experience a breadth of practice not available in one setting in the UK.

It has increased and improved the attractiveness of the course to potential social work students and has further developed international community co-operation and engagement. This has implications for us developing a greater mutual understanding of each other’s different perspectives and similarities.

Personally, it has strengthened my belief and understanding in what it takes to make the impossible happen. It has encouraged me to learn about political change, transformation and reconciliation. And I have increased students’ understanding of the social structures that operate in a predominantly non-white country.

One of the most important things I learned from doing this is that in pioneering anything new you will encounter obstacles but, with patience, determination and clarity of purpose, these can be overcome.

Second, it is difficult to plan for every eventuality, but by placing two carefully matched students rather than one they would be able to support one another. Third, that establishing links with the local universities would also be beneficial so that students could have access to local educational facilities.

I hope my brief time in South Africa will have a ripple effect which will encourage other social work colleagues to consider international social work placements as a way of educating social workers for working in a multi-ethnic, multicultural society which is part of a larger world.

The student’s perspective
My practice placement was in a residential facility for children aged four to 18, writes Thulisile Thokoza. Epworth Children’s Village has eight houses, each accommodating up to 12 children. Children accommodated at Epworth are found to be in need of care under section 12 (2) (a) of South Africa’s The Child Care Act 1983 and are placed through the children’s court.

They have either been abused, neglected, abandoned, orphaned, or infected/affected by HIV/Aids. Placing children in care is a temporary measure during which family reconstruction work is done so that children can be returned to their families or a foster place can be arranged.

Epworth Village only has one social worker based there. She handles about 90 cases, liaises with the education department, child welfare department (more like a local authority) as well as doing court work when necessary. I thought her caseload was huge until I spoke to a social worker from the State Welfare Agency who was the named social worker for 500 cases.

I had several cases to work on, one of which was with a mother whose two eldest children were in residential care and she was living with her youngest child. The aim of engaging with this family was to assess and evaluate the possibility of returning the children to their mother. I completed a genogram with her and discussed issues which were acting as barriers to her children being reunited with her, such as unemployment  and fears of being a single parent. I also worked with the children’s biological father who was willing to commit to reunification services.

In working with the mother it became clear she was suffering from mental illness. After liaising with the psychiatrist and community psychiatric nurse, I helped her obtain hospital treatment.

I did a lot of work with a nine-year-old HIVpositive girl using non-directive play therapy. I helped her to settle into the home, evaluated her family relationships and assessed the possibility that she had been sexually abused. I also assessed the child’s father who had shown interest in taking the child back into his care. I set up supervised contact for the father and the child and recommended further therapeutic work for the child and investigative work to be done with the father before a decision on reunification was made.

I worked with a 15-year-old girl in individual therapy, which led to establishing links with her extended family. Through working with the External Reunification Agency, we assessed the girl’s uncle, the home circumstances and I coordinated a meeting between the child, the family, the childcare worker and social worker to discuss a reunification strategy and the way forward.

I had the opportunity to write a proposal for the Grief Support Group for five children aged eight to 10 years old that I facilitated and ran for eight sessions. It used strategies such as art, music and various activities in exploring grief. I spent one day a week at a local HIV/Aids community project where I did trauma counselling for abused children with the qualified social worker.

I learned so much from this placement. For example, I learned to control my frustration when faced with insurmountable  difficulties of poverty, unemployment and homelessness and to adopt a long-term strategy for facilitating change. I gained insight into the importance of planning ahead to manage the pressures of the work, the value of early therapeutic intervention and the importance of being committed to the work you are doing. I also found that I was able to apply the UK codes of practice to the South African context.

Steve O’Loughlin is now an independent social work consultant. He has interests in practice teaching, fostering, adoption, advocacy, practice co-ordination and black issues. As a university social work practice co-ordinator he developed the practice curriculum for the social work degree, arranged, developed and maintained practice placements for social work students.

Thulisile Thokoza was a student at the University of Leeds where she obtained her BA (Hons) social work degree. Her interests lie in working with children and families, particularly providing long-term family support. 

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

Further reading
● M Connolly, Y Hill, T Ward, Culture and Child Protection, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006
● J Scott, H Ward, Safeguarding and Promoting the Well-being of Children, Families and Communities, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005

This article appeared in the 5 April issue, under the headline “A South African placement”



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