By Anees Teladia
Child abuse is rampant in the Western Cape but there are ways to prevent abuse. So says Dr Karen Muller, Chief Executive Officer of Child Witness Institute, in the wake of an investigation into the Al Noor Orphanage Centre in Woodstock which faces serious allegations of physical and sexual abuse. 17 children have been removed from the centre, following a preliminary investigation into the complaints by the Western Cape Department of Social Development. This comes just days after National Child Protection week ended on the 9th June earlier this month.
“We’re sitting with a situation where it’s difficult to keep children safe and to monitor them because they tend to be abused by parents, family members or by caregivers,” said Dr Muller.
“Our biggest problem is that children don’t disclose abuse because the offender manipulates them into believing it’s something that they’ve actually done [wrong]. In which case they [the children] will never tell anyone. What you have to do is educate staff members so that they watch each other and ensure you have measures in place, looking at risk factors and rules within institutions, so that kids are not left alone with one individual.”
“We have many educators who do abuse children. Educators need to watch their colleagues and look at what is inappropriate.”
Dr Muller highlighted that parents have a duty to empower their children appropriately when combating abuse. She added that education and empowerment need to come from an early age, regardless of how it makes them, as parents, feel.
“Say to your three-year-old: nobody is allowed to touch you or hurt you,” said Dr Muller.
“We have to let them know that no one can touch them and that if anyone does, they should tell their parents.”
“The research is very clear that education [on what children should understand as normal or permissible behaviour] should start as early as three years old…[however] that seems to upset parents because they don’t feel that they should be talking to children from that age, but what they need to understand is that it needs to be appropriate for their developmental stage. It’s too late to start telling a child at nine or ten, that someone can’t touch them. I can guarantee you that in 3/5 cases they have already been touched by that age.
We have to empower our children.”
Dr Muller indicated that paedophiles and other offenders often target specific places, such as orphanages and schools, in pursuit of ease of access to children.
She also says that while we do have sex offender registries, they are often ineffectual.
“If we’re talking sexual abuse, sex offenders target places where they can access children. So, paedophiles will find a place where they can be close to children because they like children. They get jobs where they are teachers or carers of children,” said Dr Muller.
“We do have sex offender registries but in all honesty, those are ineffectual because our conviction rates are so low…it doesn’t mean much.”
Dr Muller urges parents to be more vigilant and to engage with their children on their feelings about people and places.
She advises that parents ask why their children do or do not like certain people or places and that parents educate their children appropriately. She says that parents need to teach their children that they have ownership of their own bodies, that they have rights and that they are in control.
Dr Muller also suggests that parents monitor behavioural changes in their children. She says that these changes would reflect differently according to the age of the child but emphasised that changes in behavioural patterns or attitudes are not always negative, i.e. certain children may display excessive positivity relating to certain individuals, which can also be problematic.