Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THINKING about letting the kids blow off steam outdoors at the weekend? Be warned‚ the courts have some advice on responsible parenting.

When your children hurl themselves off swings‚ push each other down slides and run around swimming pools in public spaces‚ it is your duty to keep them safe.

Responsible parenting has been spelt out in a recent judgment handed down in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court‚ which held that mother Karlien van Vuuren‚ and not her municipality‚ was responsible for her eight-year-old son when he injured his face on a water slide at the Durban beachfront.

The incident‚ which took place in May 2011‚ pushed the child’s teeth up to his nose and left them permanently damaged.

Van Vuuren sued the eThekwini Municipality for her child’s injuries‚ saying they might not have been so severe if children in the water slide and pool area were supervised.

She said when her child came down the slide "there were other children who must have bumped him" when he lost control and fell.

She also complained that when she took the bleeding child to a nearby observation tower for assistance none was given.

Van Vuuren said if she had known how dangerous the slides were, she would not have allowed her son to use them.

In support of her case‚ she called occupational health and safety expert Theo Gregersen as a witness. Gregersen said the slide was structurally safe but found the following in a report presented in court:

• Swimming pools are known to pose a danger to children when not controlled;

• During an inspection in November 2013‚ the pool was not supervised and children were running around on wet surfaces‚ bunching up at the top of the slide and pushing each other; and

• The pool area had no fence to control the access of children.

Gregersen said the municipality‚ which maintained the Durban beachfront area‚ was in contravention of safety laws but the court disagreed.

Municipality off the hook

Instead‚ the court found that the municipality was correct when it denied responsibility for the child’s injuries and argued that Van Vuuren knew that children were using the pool and slides unsupervised and still allowed her child to use the facilities.

"It is not reasonable to saddle the local authority with a greater duty of care than what is imposed on parents. Public policy dictates that parents should fulfil the duty of parental care and supervision.

"To expect the (municipality) to employ gatekeepers at the slides to control the number of children using it at a specific time is unreasonable.

"In my view to place a duty on the local authority to act under circumstances where it is not expected of the parent to act would impose an unsustainable‚ if not intolerable, burden on local authorities to supervise other people’s children in instances where the parents are present but fail to do so‚" the court found.

The court also said if it ruled in Van Vuuren’s favour the municipality would have then to supervise every recreational public facility at great cost.

Van Vuuren and the municipality did not respond to requests for comment.

Parents ultimately responsible

Creative parenting expert‚ speaker and author Nikki Bush said parents were ultimately responsible for the safety of their children.

"The bottom line is wherever you are‚ you (as a parent) need to scan the area for potential danger.

"We should be able to rely on emergency help in public spaces but we can’t take that for granted. As a parent, you need to constantly be aware of the environment and have eyes in the back of your head. Parents need to do scenario-planning, so that they are always prepared in the worst case‚" she said.

Attorney Roy Barendse said the ruling underlined the primary duty on parents to exercise parental care and protect the interests of their own children.

Appeal in the pipeline

Attorney Antonio de Sousa‚ for Van Vuuren‚ said appeal papers had been filed‚ asking the court for permission to challenge the high court’s judgment in the Supreme Court of Appeal.

"From our perspective‚ had there been someone there to make sure the kids went down (the slide) one at a time (the child’s injuries) could have been avoided."

De Sousa said it was a step too far to say that every facility controlled by a local authority would need supervision if the court had ruled in Van Vuuren’s favour. Each park or slide should be judged on its own safety risks‚ he said.

The high court has not yet given a date for the leave to appeal hearing.

Challenges for parents

The Parent Centre social worker Carmen de Vos said while parents were responsible for their children‚ there were constraints in some cases.

"The parents may not even be aware of some safety risks. We think of incidents like children going on school excursions and we need to complete an indemnity form to not hold the school liable for any damage."

However, Paul Colditz, the CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools, said liability depended on the circumstances of each case.

According to the Schools Act‚ the state is liable for any loss or damage caused as a result of any act or omission in connection with any school activity conducted by a public school.

In such instances‚ a claim would be instituted against the MEC as the representative of the state‚ Colditz said.

In the case of losses suffered as a result of fundraising activities, the school involved should take responsibility‚ he said.

Kids will be kids

De Vos said ensuring the safety of children at all times was not possible and that responsible parents could prohibit unsafe games or play areas‚ but that the children could disobey their commands.

For this reason, children needed to be taught about taking responsibility for their actions age appropriately‚ she said.

A Johannesburg restaurant‚ Blandford Manor‚ last year banned "problem" children from the restaurant’s premises‚ according to News24‚ saying that when children were poorly behaved and a danger to themselves, parents did not always take action and were sometimes unreasonable.

Owner Peter Chaldecott said: "Regardless of what their children do‚ it is apparently completely unreasonable for us to ask children not to do it. We even got shouted at for moving a small child from under a delivery truck.

"Not only do parents shout at us‚ but they also get into fights with one another because one child has done something to another child."

De Vos said being a responsible parent meant thinking and caring about other children’s wellbeing too.

When play areas have age restrictions, parents should not allow their older children to play on the equipment as it may pose a danger to the structure, which is a risk to other children.

Children needed to know that rules are there for a reason‚ she said.

TMG Digital