Bright Lights Children’s Shelter in Somerset West has come under the spotlight amid allegations of financial mismanagement, unpaid and overworked staff, unaccountability of missing resources, as well as poor treatment of children.
The manager has since resigned following his suspension, a social worker dismissed and the Department of Social Development (DSD) has confirmed that an investigation has been launched, and should there be proof of financial mismanagement the department will lay criminal charges and also recover funds from the centre.
Bright Lights, a care centre for children aged eight to 18 years in the Helderberg Basin, is a registered non-profit organisation (NPO) and public benefit organisation (PBO), and falls under ACVV, a designated child protection organisation rendering social services to children, families and older persons.
Since April this year several whistle-blowers have come forward and sounded the alarm on a multitude of alleged irregularities. All are previous employees and claim that they were never given payslips, some were paid R1 000 a month with no contract, forced to work 12 hour shifts and allegations that money received from the department on a monthly basis was unaccounted for. “There’s never petrol for the vehicles, both of which are unroadworthy, and this results in many of the children just skipping school,” said Thilda Smith, who was employed as a social auxiliary worker at the centre. “There’s also never food, and many staff have to dig into their own pockets just to feed the children. Despite this going on for months nothing was done.”
Just as she has, ex-employees such as Morieta Matthews, Llewellyn de Wee, Shirley Williams and others have made similar allegations, ones that have been going on for months if not years.
They have raised such questions as “Where is the money going?” This is their number one question. Staff struggle with a lack of basic resources, with hundreds of thousands owed to the City of Cape Town for electricity, and subsidies are just not accounted for, they say, and management has always been easy to talk to, which is as far as it goes. There’s not even a working telephone line.
Children of the centre are from troubled backgrounds and placed by the court, and some face substance abuse and other challenges.
According to Nicolette van der Walt, ACVV National Manager: Child Protection, they became aware of allegations after information received in this regard and immediately stepped in.
“Decisive action was taken and ACVV Head Office immediately contacted the relevant role players and informed the Department of Social Development about the situation, and also requested their input and assistance,” she said. The previous manager resigned before the board was dissolved and a new board formed, and a child and youth-care worker was also suspended and services terminated.
Van der Walt also confirmed there are 16 boys at the facility, which is funded per child as per DSD’s finance policy.
She said: “There were issues with the late payment of subsidies and accessibility of the bank account due to a FICA [anti-financial crime fighting] process, but that has been sorted out. It is, however, true that during this difficult time staff had to buy food and electricity with their own money – they will be reimbursed for all personal expenses. We are extremely grateful to the remaining staff for their dedication to the children despite the long hours they had to work and their personal sacrifices.”
According to Van der Walt, the head office of the welfare agency ACVV is still awaiting the audited financial statements of Bright Lights as part of their investigation, and stated the previous manager had resigned before any disciplinary action could be taken.
Spokesperson of Western Cape Minister of Social Development Joshua Covenant Chigome also confirmed the department was aware of the allegations and investigating the matter.
“Furthermore, additional operational support is being provided,” he said, adding that an amount of R4 150 per child per month is given to Bright Lights.
“During the department’s investigation the scarcity of food was confirmed. It seems to be related to the current management instability at the centre. The department as well as ACVV has supported the centre with food relief.”
Chigome added the investigation was still ongoing. “Following the investigation an organisational development plan will be put in place and the department will monthly monitor the progress against the plan,” he said.
Van der Walt concurred: “There are still many challenges, and some days it is two steps forward and one step back, but things are starting to look up. It will still take time to address all the challenges but there is definite progress. The situation is being constantly monitored to see that all actions taken will be in the best interest of the children in the care of ACVV Bright Lights, which remains the most important aspect of all”.
The new chairperson of ACVV Bright Lights Child and Youth Care Centre, Helene Wilson, assured no money is unaccounted for and there never was. “We are currently asking the communities and businesses in and around Somerset West to please assist with anything they are able to and to please contact myself at anytime,” she said.
Wilson can be contacted on 074 558 9356.