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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Foster mother provides holistic support for girls in her care

The girls in Cookie Govender’s care at 101 Children’s foster home play with the neighbor’s dog from their side of the fence. PHOTO: TARYN BELLAMY ’24/THE HAWK

Names of the four girls interviewed for this story are omitted to protect their privacy.

Phoenix, South Africa — The four girls at 101 Children’s foster home prefer to listen to Snoop Dogg, or really any other rap artist. Their house mother, 49-year-old Cookie Govender, prefers old school tunes: Lionel Richie or Célene Dion, among her favorites. 

But 101 Children’s is a house of compromise, filled with music, good food — and healing — for the girls who live there, ranging in age from 11 to 16.

“Even if they are sad and I just put the music on loud, suddenly they’ll be coming in dancing, singing and the mood and the spirits are changing,” said Govender, who the girls refer to as “Cookie Ma.” “You can see the change in them, you can see how their behavior is, so it’s putting them in a happy place.”

101 Children’s Home is the informal name for a cluster foster care home for abandoned and abused girls in Phoenix, South Africa, an area 25km (15 miles) northwest of the center of Durban. Phoenix was created by the apartheid government under the Group Areas Act of 1950 when Black and brown South Africans were forcibly removed from areas reserved for white South Africans. 

The home is funded through Phoenix Child Welfare (PCW), a nonprofit organization that supports the Phoenix community by offering a host of resources and services for children in need and women survivors of abuse. 

The need for support skyrocketed during the pandemic. Aroona Chetty, PCW director, estimated the organization assisted more than 20,000 people during that time both in Phoenix and the surrounding communities.

“Because of the needs in the community, we do lots of different programs,” Chetty said. “Woman abuse and GBV [Gender-Based Violence] is a big thing in this community.” 

Aroona Chetty (left), Phoenix Child Welfare director, and Cookie Govender (right), foster mother, work together to provide support for the girls at 101 Children’s foster home. PHOTO: TARYN BELLAMY ’24/THE HAWK

From October through December of 2021, 2,142 women and 746 children were either murdered or survived attempted murder in South Africa, according to the Police Recorded Crime Statistics in South Africa. In that same period, a total of 14,188 sexual offenses were reported, which includes rapes, sexual assault, attempted sexual offenses and contact sexual offenses.    

Although there is a high need in the Phoenix community for the types of support PCW offers, the system is stretched thin. Chetty said the government relies heavily on nongovernmental organizations like PCW to take on this social work but provides limited resources to assist. 

One source of government funding is the Foster Child Grant, which provides R1,070 ($63.92) per child per month.

“We definitely cannot make it with the money the government gives us, so we have to fundraise constantly,” Chetty said. 

Donors sometimes cook meals for the girls in 101 Children’s or fund fast food favorites like McDonald’s, Nandos or Pedro’s. They also like to take the girls to the movies or to the beach, or play board games at the house.

But funding is not the only challenge. PCW social workers also have caseloads of up to 150 people at a time, Chetty said.

Chetty is familiar with the challenges that arise as a social worker. She began her career as a social worker at PCW 38 years ago and has not left the organization since.  

“I like helping people, and I think it has to be a calling in this job. It’s very hard, but you have to have a calling. Otherwise this job is not for you,” Chetty said. 

Govender has that calling as well, though she relies on Chetty for support, too, especially when the challenges of serving girls who have experienced such loss and trauma become overwhelming. The women shared a laugh about Govender’s late night messages to Chetty.

“She doesn’t sleep. She will be messaging me ‘this happened, that happened,’” Chetty said. “Sometimes it’s good to just talk it out. It’s no use keeping it in.”

All of the girls at 101 Children’s have been living with Govender for at least a year now. One has been there for almost four years. During the first wave of the covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, which shut down the courts as well, the legal processes to relocate the girls were slowed, Chetty said. 

Unlike some other organizations, Chetty said PCW’s mission is to be a temporary stop for children in the system, not a permanent home. 

“Why I don’t like children to be in the system for long is because as they get older, it’s difficult to find placements,” Chetty said. “So the quicker they come and we resolve all the issues and place them with families, it’s better for everybody.”

Cookie Govender points out the vegetables she is growing behind the home where she is taking care of four foster girls. PHOTO: TARYN BELLAMY ’24/THE HAWK

Two sisters, 11 and 13 years old, will be leaving 101 Children’s soon to live with an aunt and uncle who have agreed to foster them. While Chetty said she is hopeful about the family reunification, she worries that the transition will be difficult for the girls as their relatives are conservative Muslims who do not have TV or music in their home.

“Here we are more open, they have more freedom,” Chetty said. “It’s going to be a shift for them, but they’re looking forward to it.”

But while the girls in the home remain in her care, Govender’s job is to find different ways to meet their emotional needs and to help each girl process her individual traumas and challenges. Govender said each girl has a different way of doing that, whether that be through talking with Govender, reading a book, listening to music — or just spending time alone. Nights can be especially hard, Govender said, when dark memories can surface.

“As much as you can provide the shelter, the food, the clothing, give them good takeout or take them out, that’s good, it’s very good,” Govender said. “But on the inside of them, it’s still there. They still have to deal with that problem. That’s where the psychologists and I come in.”

Emotional support is not just a one-on-one process in the home. One of Govender’s favorite ways to support the girls as a group is at the kitchen table. Govender is a former hospitality worker and professional chef who loves to cook.

“A meal on the table with a good conversation is family bonding time,” Govender said. “I love all of us eating together, sitting together, talking, laughing. They must feel the loving even when you’re eating a meal.”

Govender has been passing on her cooking skills to the girls.

“I can make it all,” said the eldest girl, pointing to the scrambled eggs, beans, spiced potatoes and mutton sausages Govender had prepared for visitors. While discussing plans for their three-week winter holiday from school, the girls let out a collective adolescent groan when Govender reminded them of their chores for the next few days — time they would rather spend outside playing with the next-door neighbor’s cat and two dogs or swinging on their playset. They’d like to have a pet of their own, Govender said, but her hands are full with the girls’ needs.

Chores, Govender said, are an important part of team building in the house and allows for the girls to split work evenly so they have more time to spend with one another doing fun activities. 

“I’m so strict, I’m such a strict mother,” said Govender, as she explained, with a smile, how the girls use books to evade chores or the excuse that they didn’t eat so they don’t need to wash the dishes used for the meal. “But as much as I am strict with them, I love them with all my heart like my own children.”

Once the “baby box” at 101 Children’s is operational, Cookie Govender will be the first to know that an infant has been left there. One of the chores for Govender and the girls at 101 Children’s is cleaning out and preparing the small home next to theirs where the babies will stay until a placement is found for them. PHOTO: THE HAWK

Govender lost her 15-year-old son in 2015 in a car accident. Her daughter, now 27, has two children of her own, whom Govender visits when she can on the weekends.

The girls at 101 Children’s are part of Govender’s own healing process. 

“As much as I take care of them, they take care of me,” Govender said.

Govender said one of her goals in her work is to prepare the girls to leave her.

“I try to do the best I can and make sure that when they leave here they have good memories,” Govender said. “They must take the teachings, they must take the experiences with them in their lives so when they leave there they’ve got good things to go out with.”

The girl who has been with Govender the longest may also be leaving soon, depending on the outcome of legal proceedings. She loves to read — Stephen King is a favorite — but she will read anything she can get her hands on. She said she hopes to become a lawyer one day. She sat on a small couch, next to her housemates, watching Govender prepare breakfast for guests. From one of the kitchen cabinets, Govender pulled a large box of Joko tea, sporting a purple ribbon to represent domestic violence awareness. 

“It’s the girl power tea!,” the girl yelled, as the others beside her giggled and Govender joined in the laughter.

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