I have recently started subscribing to a magazine called “Servamus” which is a community based safety and security magazine. In the May and June 2013 editions there was an article which really caught my attention: “The forgotten crime victims: Disabled Children”. The article was written in two parts – part 1 in the May 2013 edition and part 2 in the June 2013 edition and both written by Kotie Geldenhuys.
The article was very well written, packed with information and references which makes it very difficult to paraphrase the entire article, so I will share with you a few important points which stood out for me. I will be using the writers exact words so please do not credit any of this to me – I am merely pointing out important information for the benefit of those who might be interested and who do not have access to this wonderful magazine.
The writer starts off saying that children who are victimised are vulnerable to exacerbated suffering. Most victims will experience a sense of shock, disbelief or denial that the crime occurred, often followed by cataclysmic emotions: fear, anger, confusion, guilt, humiliation and grief among others. However, those with disabilities may have intensified reactions because they may already feel stigmatised and often have low self-esteem due to societal attitudes. In many ways, people with disabilities are the forgotten victims of crimes.
Types of violence:
According to the United Nations (UN), the type and the amount of violence against disabled children varies depending on whether it occurs within the family, in the community, in institutional settings or in the work place.
Many crimes inflicted on disabled people by family members, partners or caretakers who are employed to look after the welfare of the person. The more caretakers a disabled person has, the greater the risk of a hate crime being committed.
Violence in the home includes:
• Infanticide and mercy killings – disabled children may be killed either immediately after birth or at some point after birth and sometimes years after birth. Reasons include that the child is evil or will bring misfortune to the family or the community or that the child is suffering and will be better off dead.
• Physical, sexual, emotional and/or verbal abuse of the disabled child in a violent household. Many parents are violent towards children who are not disabled, but when a disabled child lives in a violent setting, his/her disability often serves to intensify the nature and extent of the abuse.
• Neglect as a precursor to violence – when parents respond to the stress of caring for a disabled child with neglect rather than active violence. When this neglect involves the denial of food, medicine and other life sustaining services, it must be considered a form of violence.
• Violence and abuse linked to social isolation – when a disabled child is shunned within the household. Only a few family members talk to him/her or overseeing their safety. The child is sometimes not allowed to leave the house to ensure his/her own safety but in many cases the child is kept isolated because the family fears the reaction from other members of the community.
• Abuse by support staff within the home – physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse may be conducted by caregivers without the parent’s knowledge, or while the parent is away.
Children who live with a form of disability (whether it is a physical, sensory, intellectual or mental health disability) are among the most stigmatised and marginalised of all the world’s children. Although all children are vulnerable and at risk of being victims of violence, disabled children have a significantly increased risk because of negative traditional beliefs and ignorance. Regarded as easy victims, the disabled are often targeted by abusers.
Violence in educational institutions:
• Because educational facilities for disabled children are scarce, many children travel long distances to school. These children may be physically or sexually abused by those responsible for transporting them to and from school.
• According to the UN, disabled children are also often bullied, teased or subjected to physical violence (being beaten, stoned, spat upon, etc) by members of the community on their way to and from school.
• Violence inside the classroom – disabled children may be beaten, abused or bullied by teachers, particularly untrained teachers who do not understand the limitations of some disabled children. Teachers who humiliate, bully or beat children not only directly cause harm to the child, but also model such behaviour for other children in the classroom who may follow the teacher’s lead in physically harming, bullying and socially isolating the targeted disabled child.
• Residential schools – children living away from home are often subjected to both physical violence and sexual abuse. Reporting mechanisms for violence in residential schools are limited or non-existent for most children. They often have little or no regular contact with their parents or cannot effectively communicate with their parents due to their disability.
Violence in institutions:
Many disabled children are placed in institutions at birth or as toddlers, and remain there until death. All available data show that children in institutions are far worse off socially, educationally, medically and psychologically than children raised in supportive community settings. Children in institutions are sometimes subjected to physical violence and sexual, verbal and emotional abuse by staff and even fellow patients.
According to a UN report, children with disabilities are sometimes kept in overcrowded wards where they have little or no physical contact with caretakers, lying for hours or days unchanged on urine-soaked mattresses and suffering from under-nourishment and malnutrition. They receive little or no stimulation in the form of individualised adult attention, toys or attempts at toilet training, training in self-care or other education.
Children who are considered demanding or troublesome may be inappropriately restrained by, for example, being chained to their beds. Many institutions are under staffed which contributes to the violence and abuse of these children.
Several studies suggest that 80 to 85 percent of criminal abuse of residents in institutions is never reported to authorities. When these crimes are reported, there are lower rates of Police follow-up, prosecution and convictions. These children are further victimised by the very system put in place to protect them and promote their welfare.
Violence in the community:
Stigma and prejudice allow some members of the community to regard disabled children as easy targets of rage, anger or sexual aggression. They are at increased risk because they are physically vulnerable and in some cases, emotionally needy. They are not only abused by adults in the community, but also by able-bodied children who physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally abuse such disabled children through teasing and bullying.
In addition to the risks encountered in community settings, some types of violence and abuse are, according to the UN report, disability-specific such as:
• Virgin rape and the AIDS epidemic – the belief that those with sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS can rid themselves of the infection if they have sex with a virgin. This is a particular risk for disabled children. In many societies, individuals with a disability are incorrectly believed to be sexually inactive.
• Exorcism and related traditional practices – in some communities it is believed that if a child is born with a disability or becomes disabled, attempts to “heal” the child by driving evil forces out through severe beatings, starvation or other forms of violence are unacceptable but widespread. Such violence against disabled children causes not only serious injury and death but can also do profound psychological damage to the child involved.
A child born with a disability, or who becomes disabled, in a community where such beliefs exist may be directly subjected to physical violence or sexual, emotional or verbal abuse in the home, the community, institutional settings or later on in the workplace. Disabled children are far less likely than their non-disabled peers to be included in the social, economic and cultural life of their communities.
Disabled children used as beggars:
The most common form of employment outside the household for disabled children is begging. Families place disabled children on street corners to beg for money and, according to the UN report, some are sold by their families to other people who keep disabled children in organised rings of beggars. Either way, such children are routinely subjected to violence, both in order to keep them on the streets, and, once on the streets, by members of the general public who regard such children as easy prey. The UN report made the shocking revelation that in some countries non-disabled children are physically maimed to ensure they will generate money as beggars.
Lack of knowledge about disability within the legal system:
While inaccessibility (eg lack of ramps, lifts etc) at Police Stations and Courts is a significant barrier that blocks children with a disability from seeking help or protection from violence under the law, an equally troubling fact is that disabled children are rarely believed when they do seek help.
Charges of violence or rape from individuals with a disability are often dismissed by the Police or Judges who are not familiar with disability. There are also assumptions that a disabled child is unable to tell “right” from “wrong” or can’t decide for themselves what they want or do not want to be done to their bodies. It is often decided on their behalf that disabled children will not make good witnesses and they are then discouraged from pressing charges.
The UN report found that in a number of countries, individuals with certain types of disabilities are barred from presenting testimony in court, wearing an oath or signing their names to legal documents. In this type of climate, those who want to perpetrate violence against children will seek out the disabled children as there is little or no consequences, even if the abuse is discovered.
Violence or rape is NO less traumatic for a disabled child than for a non-disabled child.
Disabled children may be perceived as ideal targets because their disabilities may make them unable to escape or communicate their experiences easily. It may also be more difficult for disabled children to recover from abuse because of their dependency on others and the isolation created by the disability. Some reasons for the high rate of abuse among disabled children may include the following:
• Disabled children are perceived by some as being less human and therefore less worthy of care and concern
• There is a perception that disabled children have no feelings
• Parental stress and frustration in caring for a disabled child can lead to lashing our directed at the child
Abusers may think that it is safer to abuse disabled children, particularly those children who literally don’t have a voice.
Assumptions about disabled children:
• It is often assumed that children with severe complex and intellectual impairments do not experience the same emotions as non-disabled children. There are even those who believe that disabled children don’t mind abuse because they don’t know the difference. This is known as the “lost knowledge” of abuse within disability services.
• A myth exists in South Africa that mentally challenged children have a very high sex drive, which allows offenders to think that they are merely fulfilling the child’s needs in this regard b sexually abusing them. However, this myth is far from the truth. Some mentally disabled individuals have an inability to comprehend choices and would, for example, touch their genitals in public. This would not necessarily be a sexual act, but when they are approached and asked if they want sex, they would say “yes” not understanding what the act, the question and the answer to is actually involves. This behaviour may be interpreted by a potential abuser as a sexual pre-occupation.
Although children and young people with disabilities experience harm at far higher rates than their peers without disability, impairment does not in itself make a child or young person vulnerable. For example: having Down’s Syndrome does not make a teenager vulnerable. A lack of social connections, and networks, the absence of a trusted adult in their life, and caregivers who do not understand any individual communication methods they have would make them vulnerable. It is in the interaction between the person and others, and the relationships and support systems they might need to live a full and fulfilled life, where the relationship between vulnerability and harm becomes very important.
Social, cultural, economic, physical and psychological factors contribute to a climate in which disabled children become the victims of crimes. Negative attitudes towards disability have played a major role in making disabled groups more vulnerable to crimes. Crimes flourish in a climate of imposed hopelessness and disenfranchisement.
Types of victimisation:
Crimes against people with disabilities are often classed simply as “abuse” or “neglect” rather than being called “crimes”. These forms of abuse can include hitting, violating someone’s bodily integrity, torturing or killing a person.
Reported crimes against disabled children include sexual assault, illegal restraint and seclusion, aggressive physical force, violation of legal rights, neglectful lack of action or failure to respond to harmful incidents, restricting their access to training programmes, degradation, threatening patterns of communication (explicit threats, insults or harassment) usually high death rates, denial of medical treatment, chemical restraint and wrongful incarceration and emotional neglect. Included in incarceration is being locked in a place or not allowed out, overuse or misuse of medication, medical experimentation or involvement in invasive research without consent, all forms of sexual crimes, including rape and pornography-related crimes and financial abuse.
Disabled children display the following non-verbal signals when they are being abused:
• Loss of appetite
• Sleeping problems
• Introverted behaviour and apathy
When such behaviour arises, the caretakers of disabled children generally link these symptoms to bullying, failures, wrong medication and fear of future hospitalisation. In many cases of abuse, the closest family member/guardian knows what is going on, but neglects to acknowledge the sexual abuse if the child has a disability.
• Dependency of disabled children on others – physical, social or emotional dependence is a key factor in their vulnerability
• Emotional deprivation and social isolation
• Institutional care – represents segregation (physical, emotional and social isolation) to a greater degree
• Communication – is vital in the context of disability and child abuse. Some of the most vulnerable children are those whose impairments prevent them from communicating either verbally or behaviourally.
• Disabled children are being considered less credible than non-disabled children – when and if they report abuse
• Disabled children being unable to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate physical contact, whether violent or sexual
• Negative attitudes towards disability
• A lack of support, advocacy and safeguards
• Inadequate cultural support for violence
• Gender and power imbalances
• The level of abuse in state institutions
Wow, all that’s left for me is to say thank you to Kotie Geldenhuys for writing this article. I look forward to sharing part 2 with you next week.