BEING A VOICE FOR CHILDREN WHO ARE VICTIMS OF THE UNSPEAKABLE IS BOTH OUR MORAL AND LEGAL DUTY
Written by Dr. Ronel Aylward – General Manager CMRN
1Based on the most recent statistics, such as the 2019/2020 Annual Crime Statistics of the South African Police Service, around 24,000 children are being sexually assaulted in South Africa per year, which is higher than the global average. This prevalence of sexual abuse of children is confirmed by the number of new cases that are referred to CMR North, which amounted to 622, just from 2020-2020, and just in the geographical areas that have been designated to the organisation.
There are two pieces of legislation in our country that prescribes the mandatory reporting of any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse, namely the Children’s Act and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act. But whilst lack of reporting is a criminal offence and therefore no doubt our legal duty, we as a society also have a moral obligation to be a voice for children who are victims of the unspeakable. This article briefly sheds light on some of the quintessential facts on sexual abuse of children, to help raise awareness and combat this unacceptable offence against vulnerable children.
Why do children need us to report sexual abuse on their behalf?
The fact that reported child sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions globally, has generally had a dual effect on society over the years.
On the one hand, it has increased awareness on the issue. On the other hand, it has also instigated a backlash movement which questions the credibility of such reports, and brought with it complaints of false allegations and brainwashing (By Silence Betrayed, John Crewdson; Child Sexual Abuse, Kathleen C Faller, The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War, David Hechler, etc.) A critical denominator of the majority of these studies is that they demonstrate the importance of a comprehensive, facilitated process for the disclosure of these heinous crimes, as these victims are typically unlikely to disclose it themselves.
How Children Tell: The Process of Disclosure in Child Sexual Abuse by Teena Sorenson and Barbara Snow for example points out the following:
- the large majority of credible victims at first deny their abuse; and
- denial has been identified as a frequent response when the child is too threatened, frightened or insecure to acknowledge the abuse.
This denial is more often than not also prevalent, even when there is clear evidence to the contrary. In a study by Muram and colleagues for example, of all the children with medical findings that were indeed consistent with sexual abuse, almost half failed to disclose the sexual abuse. Similarly, studies such as What To Ask When Sexual Abuse is Suspected by Leventhal and Co, indicate that false accusations of sexual abuse by children are highly uncommon, with false allegations only constituting as little as 1% of reports. In conclusion, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that shows that children who are victims of sexual abuse are highly unlikely to report it themselves and that when the evidence of their abuse emerges, they are also highly likely to deny it. Plus, when they do report such abuse, it is highly unlikely to be false. The fact of the matter is that when children’s allegations of abuse are discounted out of hand, they have not only been victims of their abusers, but also of a society that neither believed nor protected them.
Who must report child abuse?
In South Africa, the laws determine that that any person with knowledge of, or who reasonably suspects that a child is abused or neglected must report it, and the failure to do so is a criminal offence. Section 11 of the Children’s Act mandates several categories of professionals to report it, which includes all the following: correctional official, dentist, homeopath, immigration official, labour inspector, legal practitioner, medical practitioner, midwife, minister of religion, nurse, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, psychologist, religious leader, social services professional, social worker, speech therapist, teacher, traditional health practitioner, traditional leader or member of staff or volunteer
worker at a partial care facility, drop-in centre or child and youth care centre.
What does the process for disclosure of sexual abuse of children entail?
The following is an example of how the process will typically unfold, from the moment the suspected sexual abuse of a child is reported:
- A member of the community or one of the professionals listed above has knowledge of, or reasonably suspects abuse and then completes a “form 2” at the Children’s Court who has the ultimate jurisdiction over the children.
- A registered child protection organisation (CPO) such as CMR North then facilitates the process to ensure that an investigation on the alleged abuse is conducted. Alternatively, the Children’s Court issues a “form 9,” instructing and mandating the CPO to conduct such an investigation on
- The CPO typically takes the child victim to a registered social worker (who has been specifically trained in the FACT socio-emotional assessment technique) for a socio-emotional assessment.
- This assessment deploys twelve different interview techniques, each of which serve to interrogate and confirm the findings of the other.
- Parallel to this, collateral investigations are done to determine the home circumstances of the child and the biological parents. Usually, these background investigations are done by a designated CPO where the parent(s) are residing.
- If the socio-emotional assessment confirms the suspicion of abuse, the CPO ensures that the child is taken for a forensic assessment, either by the SAPS or a qualified, independent social worker who has been trained in forensic assessments.
- If the medical exam that forms part of this forensic assessment confirms abuse, the CPO completes “form 22” with the Department of Social Development (DSD).
- Should it not be possible to remove the alleged perpetrator from the child’s domestic environment, a “form 36” is completed to place the child in a safe environment, pending a full investigation on the matter. The Children’s court has to confirm the form 36 within 48 hours after it had been issued and issues a detention order placing the child in temporary safe care and instruction a full investigation into the circumstances of the child. The children’s court can also set the form 36 aside if it is not convinced that such dramatic steps were justified.
- The child is then emotionally prepared for what to expect in Children’s Court, as it is traumatic for them to testify about their abuse, in a strange environment.
- This preparation simply involves describing the physical environment of the court and behaviour towards the presiding officer. In Criminal Court investigations, the child is typically prepared by an intermediary or a forensic social worker of the SAPS.
- All the details of these case are noted and recorded in line with the prescriptions of the Children’s Act and all incidents and sessions are documented and kept on file.
- A network meeting is then held that involves all the parties, including the designated social worker and manager, the social worker who conducted the socio-emotional assessment, and any other professionals who might have been involved in the case i.e., lawyers, as well as the biological parents of the children concerned.
- All evidence is finally presented in the Children’s Court, where it is cross-examined by the presiding officer of the Children’s Court, the legal representative of the child and other relevant legal representatives.
- During the court proceedings, all parties involved have an opportunity to respond and make their own presentation.
- The final outcome is determined by the presiding officer of the Children’s Court.
A key observation is that this process enables the constant and objective questioning and confirmation of all the information presented by all parties at hand, throughout the entire process. All the different assessments are conducted by various independent parties. All these are then fully interrogated by the subsequent legal proceedings, the final outcome of which is ultimately decided by a court of law.
Should the details of children’s sexual abuse be publicly discussed?
In line with the Children’s Act and the Code of Ethics that social work professionals have to adhere to, exceptional care and consideration has to be taken before sharing any information on vulnerable children in the public domain, to protect their honour and dignity. In addition, when the details of these victims’ cases are widely and openly discussed, it can expose them to even more trauma and greater abuse, on top of everything else they already had to endure. Perhaps most importantly, to retain the confidence and trust of all those who are under its care, CPOs such as CMR North has to consistently demonstrate their commitment to protecting their identities and information. This uncompromising approach to integrity forms the very cornerstone on which the CMR North’s 86-year-old legacy has been built.