Research to improve care for orphans in South Africa


Charles Darwin University postgraduate student Judith Taylor researches caregiver attachment at a children’s home in South Africa

Charles Darwin University postgraduate student Judith Taylor researches caregiver attachment at a children’s home in South Africa

Inside a re-purposed brick office building on the outskirts of a South African city, a Charles Darwin University postgraduate student reads books with a small group of girls, teaching them about personal protection.

The building is home to about 30 vulnerable children, aged from four to 14, who have been orphaned, separated from their parents, or abandoned.

Master by Research student Judith Taylor has spent almost two years investigating the link between quality of care, and the psychological, emotional and developmental wellbeing of children living at the small institution in Pietermaritzburg, about 60km from Durban on South Africa’s east coast.

“Few studies have looked into caregiver attachment regarding institutionalised children; this study specifically explores attachment as a characteristic of caregiving,” she said. 

“Not all institutionalised children are destined for developmental compromise, indicating that the quality of care provided – whether family-based or institution – makes a difference.”

Ms Taylor said she first volunteered at the home in 2013, at a friend’s request and on the proviso that she could give more than she gained; she wished to avoid “orphanage tourism”.

“We developed activities to allow the children to have ‘normal’ experiences, including camping, going to the beach, ordering and paying for their own food in a café, and their first visit to a bookshop,” she said.

“We also helped resource Play Therapy training for several carers who were interested in child counselling; playing, to children, is what verbal communication is to adults.”

Ms Taylor began the Master program early in 2016 after her third visit to the home, when a seven-year-old girl grew so attached to her that her return to Australia was difficult for them both.

“I asked the question, ‘is something better than nothing?’ while talking with psychologist friends about the wisdom of visiting children in care and developing attachments,” she said.

“I decided to explore the answer through a continued commitment to the children at the home, and this research.” 

Ms Taylor, who owns a child psychology practice in Sydney, has established a non-profit organisation to help provide orphaned and disadvantaged children with food, clothing, educational resources, counselling and social activities, in Australia and South Africa. 

She will continue her research on the ground, with her sixth visit to Pietermaritzburg, this month.

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