According to the South African Crimes Statistics, there were 943 murders and 24 000 sexual offences against children from April 2019 until March 2020. Although these statistics are slightly lower than the previous year, the data still leaves a lot to be desired.
In light of national Child Protection Week, which is commemorated annually from 30 May to 6 June, community members are encouraged to help fight the scourge of violence and neglect against children.
Dr Elmien Truter, a senior lecturer at the North-West University’s (NWU) School of Psychosocial Health, gives insight on child abuse and neglect indicators, and where and how one can report incidents of abuse.
Signs of a neglected or abused child
Dr Truter says that children can either be abused or neglected. In terms of neglect, she says there are numerous signs that help identify a neglected child, but it all depends on how care is defined, because neglect boils down to not caring for a child.
“People have a restricted notion and tend to adopt the definition of care based on how they were raised,” says Dr Truter. “Caring for a child is more than just providing food and shelter.”
She suggests community members should use the definition of care that is found in the Children’s Act 38 of 2005, which defines care beyond simply providing for child’s basic physical needs, but for example, includes that caring for a child means having a sound relationship with him or her.
She says there are some physical, behavioural and emotional indicators that might indicate some type of abuse or neglect. These include – but is not limited to – cigarette burn marks on a child’s arms and legs, bruising around the neck, frequent bruising and different colouration of bruises. Other indicators are sadness, children who bully other children and children who display inappropriate sexual behaviour or who have developmentally inappropriate knowledge of sexual activities. Furthermore, poor hygiene, sores around the mouth, children who are obese or severely underweight, and children who shy away from adults – especially one specific adult – can also be indicators. Finally, abuse or neglect is indicated when a child outright tells you they are being abused or neglected.
Reporting abuse or neglect
She says that school teachers, health care practitioners, pastors, members of the public and a host of other people mentioned in Section 110 of the Children’s Act 38 of 2005, who suspect or have reasonable grounds to believe that a child is being neglected or abused, are mandated by law to report such knowledge.
This they can do by completing Form 22, which can be obtained from any social work organisation, and submitting it to the Department of Social Development, the South African Police Service, or any designated child protection organisation such as the Suid-Afrikaanse Vrouefederasie (South African Federation of Women), NG Welsyn (Dutch Reformed Church Welfare), or Child Welfare SA. Failure to report such suspicion or knowledge could result in imprisonment, fine or continuous harm to the child.
“Most people don’t want to report abuse or suspicion of neglect, because they ‘don’t want to get involved’ and fear being sued if their suspicions are incorrect. According to the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, one cannot be liable for civil action if such a report was made in good faith,” she says.
After reporting an incident, a designated social worker is assigned to the case. This person will investigate the matter and determine whether the child concerned is in need of care and protection or not, and will then provide a recommendation to the presiding officer of the relevant Children’s Court.
Dr Truter says social workers aim to restore, heal and keep families together. However, when a child’s life is in imminent danger or there is a risk of further abuse, a designated social worker will remove the child from the environment and the child will be placed in a place of safety until the investigation is concluded.
“Children need to be protected because they cannot protect themselves. Unfortunately, the child protection workforce in the country is not functioning properly. This can only be fixed if the government, policymakers, ground-level designated social workers and academics have a serious conversation about feasible and practical ways to support the child protection system,” concludes Dr Truter.