Last week I introduced you to an article I read in a magazine called “Servamus” entitled “The forgotten crime victims: Disabled Children” written by Kotie Geldenhuys. You can find the previous article here:
In part two of her article in Servamus: 10 June 2013, Kotie Geldenhuys highlights that without enough support and education, those caring for disabled children may become neglectful, even abusive. She says it is important to ensure that parents and caretakers of children with disabilities get the support they need and that children understand personal safety issues.
Obstacles unique to the disability community – Kotie Geldenhuys highlights some of the numerous social and legal problems faced by children with disabilities as follows:
• Isolation: Children with disabilities often suffer physical and social isolation. As a result of pervasive isolation, children with disabilities may not learn about available services and resources, nor be routinely informed about the legal rights they have. Many of the children who are chronically victimised do not even know that society condemns such predatory conduct and has tools to end and redress that wrong. In November 2012, South Africa’s Deputy Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, announced that at least 467,000 disabled children are not going to school, which contributes to their isolation. Reasons for them not attending school include lack of access and limited facilities for disabled children.
• Limited access: In many instances, children with disabilities do not have physical access to services. Structural barriers in buildings and public transport systems mean that many children who were victims of crime cannot visit criminal justice agencies or access victim assistance programmes. Attitudes towards the child with a disability are as important, if not more important, than physical accessibility. In addition to physical accessibility, programme staff must be welcoming towards children with disabilities and show in their demeanour and the quality of their programmes that they sincerely want to work together to serve them. Special schools do not have all the necessary basic requirements, such as ramps for children in wheelchairs, or even functioning toilet facilities. Out of 100 special schools in the country, only 3 percent of those schools had the necessary basic facilities.
• Underreporting of the crime: Underreporting of crime is a pervasive problem. A crime may go unreported for many reasons, including mobility or communication barriers, the social or physical isolation of the victim, a victim’s normal feelings of shame and self-blame, ignorance of the justice system, or that the perpetrator is a family member or a primary caregiver. In crimes involving a victim with a disability, one or more of these factors may prevent the crime from ever being reported. When the crime is reported, the Police often fail to note that the victim has a disability, especially if the crime is reported by someone other than the victim. Later, assumptions and prejudice about the reliability of the testimony of the victims with disabilities can deny them access in the Courts.
• The perpetrators: Perpetrators who act violently towards disabled children can be categorised as intra-familial (family members) or extra-familial (non-family members). Research has found that the vast majority of offenders were adult males and in 99 percent of the cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim. In 44 percent of the cases, the location of the abuse was disability-related i.e. a hospital or an institution.
Motives for abusing disabled children:
In the case of sexual abuse, the motivations most often cited are:
• Sexual gratification
• A need for intimacy/closeness
• A lack of sex with an adult partner
• Life stressors (unemployment, marital problems)
• Non-sexual emotional needs
• Sexual attraction to immature bodies
• Contact as an expression of anger
• Contact as an inappropriate way to show affection or love
The writer of this article (Kotie Geldenhuys) cites research done by Hartley (2001) who was of the opinion that perpetrators have both sexual and nonsexual motives for engaging in sexual contact with a disabled child. Motives include desire, physiological needs or impulses that serve to incite action. Hudson and Ward (197) found individuals who perpetrate against disabled children are “opportunists” who carefully and systematically plan the abuse.
The problem is that many victims seek natural affection from their offenders. A disabled child seeks to be hugged, cuddled and accepted just like any other child. Some victims even feel kind and loving towards the offender, which the offender then interprets as being “seductive” (Bartol, 1999).
Unwillingness to report crimes against disabled children:
There are various reasons why crimes against disabled children go unreported. They may be unable to communicate verbally what has happened to them, or may not be believed as a result of their impairment. They are often less able to defend themselves, have less knowledge about their own bodies and what may be considered as “normal sexuality”, and they may be dependent on the abuser. These are all circumstances an adult may misuse.
Children with a disability are often reluctant to report crimes to the Police due to previous bad experiences or repercussions which followed such reports. Some children with a disability may be unaware that they are victims of crime or that they are entitled to seek Police assistance. Threats made by the offender against the victim may also hinder the disclosure of details.
Other reasons for the lack of disclosure may be:
• The person to whom the disclosure is made has difficulties in understanding the child’s verbal communication
• Victimisation against a disabled child may be regarded as less severe for the child and therefore ignored
• Schools for disabled children fear acquiring a negative reputation, leading them not to report possible incidents. Several institutions, however, have tried to act on their own, such as asking the abuser to resign
• A lack of disclosure may be due to the parents’ or caretakers’ lack of faith in the existing judicial system. If victimisation is suspected, they choose not to trouble the disabled child with a medical examination, believing that a trial would probably not lead to a conviction.
In South Africa, Detectives working at the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) units of the South African Police Service, are trained to interview disabled children. If disabled children cannot communicate, they are referred for forensic assessment by experts dealing with children with communication problems. However, even this process has proven (in some instances) to be unsuccessful.
Westcott and Jones (1999) made it clear that identifying abuse among disabled children is one of the most pressing difficulties facing practitioners. Those who commit crimes against disabled people are often given lighter sentences than others who commit similar offences against non-disabled victims. This suggests that these crimes are considered in some way to be less important (Sherry, 2000).
Reasons for the ineffective adjudication of crimes against disabled children according to Sorensen (2000) are:
• Difficulties in investigating cases
• A lack of special skills and special training required for these cases among common law enforcement
• The isolation and communication difficulties for some victims
• Negative stereotypes and prejudices that continue to contribute to discrimination against these victims
Prevention of crimes committed against disabled children:
Preventing the abuse of disabled children is even more difficult than preventing the abuse of non-disabled children, and even more important as these children are at increased risk and less able to defend themselves. Westcott and Jones (1999) are of the opinion that early recognition and deterrence are particularly valuable. They further state that to prevent the abuse of disabled children in care, the following are needed:
• An explicit commitment to child protection
• Clear definitions of good practice
• Environments that are open to criticism and scrutiny
• Close contact with families, communities and disabled adults
• Respect for children’s ethnicity, religion and individuality
• A high internal awareness of the risks of abuse
To prevent the abuse of disabled children in institutions and schools, staff recruitment issues are also important. Wescott and Jones (1999) say that it must be done in terms of thorough Police, reference and background checks, and also that institutions must recruit staff who are willing and able to contribute to a caring environment that respects the wishes and requirements of disabled children.
In South Africa, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 makes provision for a Sex Offenders Register, where the names of people who are not suitable to work with children are published.
Support for victims (I prefer to call them survivors):
Mothers of disabled children experience little support for their children themselves. According to Carmody (1991), in most instances the victim does not receive counselling and medical services at the time of the disclosure, or they are referred to services only many weeks after the incident. This results in the victim requiring longer term treatment, and creates difficulties for the Police in obtaining evidence and statements from witnesses at the time of the assault or revelation. With regard to this, a number of changes to service provider practices are suggested that may reduce the risk of abuse (Sherry 2000).
• Improved procedures for employing staff so that convicted abusers are unable to obtain work as residential care staff or caretakers
• Staff training in recognising the signs of possible abuse and responding to abuse. This would involve standard protocols for reporting abuse to the Police and ensuring investigations occur quickly. Staff who report fellow workers should be supported by the service.
The writer of this article, Kotie Geldenhuys goes on to say that although many disabled children suffer abuse, many others are living with parents or caretakers who are well motivated to provide good care for these children. They recognise and accept that they and other children need additional support and are keen to take up available services. Parents find the support provided helpful.
It is clear that many disabled children suffer from abuse due to their vulnerability. To prevent a situation where these forgotten victims’ disabilities actually protect their perpetrators, it is important to expose perpetrators. Remember that, according to law, we all have a responsibility to report any form of child abuse.
Wow, I am so pleased to have found this article. It has really been so enlightening and encouraging. I hope you thought so too.
Thank you to Kotie Geldenhuys for writing this article after doing all the necessary research. I look forward to reading more such articles in future.