Child abusers ‘hard to spot’

2016-08-08 09:38
Parents have been warned that those who prey on kids are closer than they think.

Parents have been warned that those who prey on kids are closer than they think. (File)

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There is no way to know what a paedophile looks like, or to know who may be grooming your child for sex.

The national executive director of Childline SA, Dumisile Nala, has warned that parents must be aware that those who prey on young children for sexual gratification “are people who are known and are close — family members, friends, neighbours, school teachers, church and community leaders”.

Nala was speaking to The Witness in the wake of the storm that erupted recently in Pietermaritzburg when a former primary school guidance counsellor was arrested and charged with two counts of rape and two of sexual abuse of his charges. The counsellor, whose name is known to The Witness, cannot be named for legal reasons. He is in custody at present following the alleged sex attacks on young children at a prominent primary school.

Nala warned that abusers “are not strangers lurking on dark corners waiting to pounce on our children”.

She said in the majority of child abuse cases a process of “grooming” takes place before any abuse occurs during which the perpetrator befriends the child, making him/her feel comfortable and settled.

She said rape or other forms of abuse are also not necessarily physically painful for the victim, and may be performed by the abuser in a “gentle” manner.

It is extremely difficult for parents to detect signs of abuse in their children and they may be unaware of abuse taking place, she added.

“This is why it is important that children know that no matter who it is who behaves in a way that makes them uncomfortable, they are allowed to disclose it.

“It can be their mother, father, grandfather, uncle, teacher or anyone,” she said.

“The way to protect them is to talk to them.”

In a separate interview, a prominent Pieter­maritzburg psychologist, who cannot be named for professional reasons, echoed similar views.

He said the “grooming process” before abuse occurs, is likely to create internal conflict in a young child who only knows that what is happening does not feel right. “Yet because of the grooming the child doesn’t want to lose what is good in the relationship,” he said.

Nala said parents should talk to their children from a very young age about their sexuality and spell out what “right and wrong” forms of touching are so they can protect themselves against sexual abuse.

The information must be delivered in a sensitive way to protect your child but not create an expectation of abuse or fear in them.

Another expert, a prominent Pietermaritzburg psychologist who asked not to be named for professional reasons, said it was important to note that when abuse does happen the parents are not to blame.

Nala told The Witness that it is vital for parents to start talking to their children from as early as two years of age and teach them about their right to privacy.

“These talks should not be serious or formal but so that the child feels comfortable. It can be done in the context of bathing or when the child is getting dressed … From a very young age they need to know these are their private parts. Of course as a parent you will know what their level of understanding and development is and use your instincts,” she said.

Nala said adults feel uncomfortable about talking to children about these issues because we “all want our children to grow up carefree and not feel threatened or worried”.

“We are not saying children must be warned every day against abuse. The message they get should be that this is their body and it is private,” she said.

The psychologist said it is important to note that if a child is abused, the parents are not responsible.

“It is no indication that these are bad parents or were not caring enough.”

He said abused children are often secretive and it is difficult to detect signs that they have been abused.

“Children may experience intense internal conflict but they can contain it. They go about their day-to-day life. They split what happened to them from their daily lives and a parent may not notice, or may realise something is wrong, but attribute it to something else happening.”

The psychologist said there is no foolproof way to guard against children becoming victims of abuse. “You can teach a child about traffic laws but you can’t stop them running across the road … The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and talk to them,” he said.

He too believes parents should be talking to their children about right and wrong ways of touching and issues of privacy from as early as pre-school age.

He said while critics could point to risks of children “imagining” abuse, in his opinion the greater risk exists in not giving children information.

“There is no such thing as too much information,” he said.

The psychologist said when children are abused at a young age they require “intermittent” counselling at the various developmental stages of their lives as they deal with new issues and changing relationships.

“If a parent dies, that child experiences the loss in a different way as he or she grows older. The same is true in cases of sexual abuse.”

Abuse in early childhood that is not dealt with can manifest itself in different ways. Some victims are known to “become abusers”, others may simply become withdrawn and anti-social.

The psychologist said when a child is abused the whole family is thrown into crisis. “Emotions will range from intense anger, deep guilt, deep sadness.”

DUMI Nala, national executive director of Childline SA, said while it is difficult to assess how prevalent sexual abuse of children is in the country, the most accurate recent statistics have emerged from a four-year study conducted by researchers from University of Cape Town and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, which has been published online.

According to UCT’s website the study, which was commissioned by the Optimus Foundation, found that one in three young people in South Africa have experienced some form of sexual abuse during their lives.

“According to the study, 784 967 young South Africans are likely to have been victims of sexual abuse by the age of 17. This number would fill the city soccer stadium in Johannesburg eight times.”

The report says 351 214 of these cases of sexual abuse would have occurred in 2015 alone.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  child abuse

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