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Published in the Independent on Saturday, 12 July 2003

A child protection unit on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast has become the unlikely focus of hundreds of concerned mothers across the United States, writes MEGAN POWER

Policewoman Franci Hannaway is weeping. It's a rare sight; not one to which her streetwise colleagues are accustomed. Faced with the daily horrors of rampant child abuse and baby rape, the tough commander of Port Shepstone's child protection unit has long steeled herself to the atrocities she encounters daily.

But today, a grinning Mickey Mouse, a tubby Winnie-the-Pooh and a bright green Barney the Dinosaur have clearly got the better of her. The soft toys in her arms, joined by hundreds more at her feet, represent the most overwhelming outpouring of support the 42-year-old unit commander has ever experienced. And it comes from big-hearted strangers thousands of kilometres away.

When American women and children learnt of Hannaway's work through an article published in the New-York-based Marie Claire magazine in January, a tidal wave of generosity was unleashed.

A staggering 300 parcels, bursting with toys, teddy bears, Barbie dolls, books and games, have since winged their way from towns and cities throughout the United States to an unsuspecting South Coast post office. More than ninety of them are already snug in the arms of youngsters battling the memory of recent physical and sexual abuse.

"You have to see it for yourself to understand the joy it has brought," said Hannaway, sitting crosslegged on her office floor, surrounded by a sea of colourful toys, almost all brand new. "The children's eyes and mouths react immediately they see the toys. They hold them tightly to their bodies; it's total happiness," she says.

A far cry from having nothing but a few grubby, damaged dolls available to dole out. And, says Hannaway, there were never enough. It's unlikely the unit will run short again. The generosity of American mothers, children, doctors, teachers, students, churchgoers - and even leading US companies like General Motors and Columbia Pictures - from Chicago to California, San Francisco to Illinois has filled an entire office from floor to ceiling.

Even a female inmate of a Washington prison has written to Hannaway offering to send warm quilts made by the prison sewing group. "In my wildest dreams, I never thought this could happen," says Hannaway, who founded the unit in Port Shepstone in 1990. She and 21 dedicated colleagues investigate some 60 to 100 cases of child abuse a month, half of which are child rape.

"It has touched my heart. And the letters which accompany some of the parcels move me to tears.

"South Africans would never have responded like this. If this article had run locally, I would have been lucky if I'd got one box of toys," she says.

Readers told Hannaway they were "outraged", "devastated", "grief-stricken" and "heartbroken" by the story which detailed the senseless rape of a two-month-old girl near Port Shepstone in March last year.

Wrote a teacher from New York, who has started a toy drive at her school: "I was so horrified ... that I could not finish the article. Luckily your unit was mentioned in a highlighted section... Your cause is noble and all those who work in the CPU display an ummatched bravery."

Said another from Kansas: "I was shocked and horrified... Your article mentioned you needed teddy bears. So I've enclosed all the teddy bears that I have from my childhood. I hope they will help comfort and ease the fears of the tiny victims you help."

Now a grateful Hannaway is gearing up to write thank-you notes; her area commissioner has already paid for 300 aerogram letters to help her in the task. But there've been some local heroes as well, Hannaway adds. When the first batch of parcels arrived in South Africa in January, customs and tax duties had to be paid. After a flurry of phonecalls and paperwork, the unit secured an import license and was also granted tax exemption on the donated toys. But when Hannaway could not get around paying the R18 per parcel handling fee, local businesspeople, church groups and individuals stepped in. To date, they've coughed up more than R5000 to have the parcels released.

"The response from everyone has simply been overwhelming," says the grateful commander, as yet another batch of foreign parcels arrives. Indeed. But for a child protection unit which last year boasted the highest rate of convictions in the country, it has no doubt been a long time coming. * Childline and the Children's Rights Centre in Durban, both mentioned in the same article, have also received donations but in far smaller numbers.


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