Are restaurants responsible for keeping children safe?

2018-10-03 06:29
Dros rape accused remains in custody. (Alex Mitchley, News24 via Twitter)

Dros rape accused remains in custody. (Alex Mitchley, News24 via Twitter)

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As a court case involving the alleged rape of a child at a Dros restaurant gets underway, questions have been raised about the role of restaurants with play areas in protecting children, and whether they can be held liable in instances where children suffer harm on their premises.

A 20-year-old suspect appeared in court on Tuesday on charges of raping a 7-year-old girl in the toilet of a Dros restaurant in Silverton on September 22.

The suspect is accused of following the girl to the toilet after observing her for some time. The child was in the Dros play area before going to the bathroom alone.

READ: Dros rape accused claims police, public assaulted him

The case was postponed until November 1.

Dros has not been accused of negligence in this case, and experts are at odds over whether restaurants can or should be held liable for the safety of children on their premises. But some restaurants have put in place extra precautions in the wake of the incident, citing the need for extra vigilance.

Writing for News24 this week, Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird pointed out that according to recent police statistics, more than 64 children are assaulted daily in South Africa.

Dros to release statement regarding its child protection policies

He wrote that this case was "unusual", and that "in the majority of cases (approximately 60%) the perpetrators are known to the children and are within their social circle".

READ: Dros rape case: Civil rights groups gather to support alleged child rape victim

On September 25, Dros issued a statement saying the establishment "confirms that an incident involving a minor child took place at one of its franchise outlets". The statement said that Dros was in contact with the child's parents and that it was not in a position to comment or disclose information "due to the sensitive nature" of the issue.

News24 contacted Dros this week to ask about its policies around the protection of children at its restaurants, its policies on parent/restaurant liability as well as whether anything had changed at its restaurants since the incident took place.

Spokesperson Patse Jordaan said Dros was not talking to the media at the moment and that a statement would be issued later this week.

Last Thursday, civil society organisation #NotInMyName met with Dros CEO René Jordaan at the Silverton branch.

Following the private meeting, Dros agreed to improve security measures with the aim of preventing similar incidents in the future.

READ: #NotinmynameSA to visit Dros over 'nonchalant' response to rape of 6-year-old girl

Spur's approach 'pre-emptive'

"With regards to the playroom, because our issue was how could someone snatch a child and rape them in the bathroom, they need to put measures in place - and technology, if they have to spend to make sure the play area is always seen," the secretary general of #NotInMyName, Themba Masango, told News24.

News24 spoke to other, randomly chosen, restaurants with children's play areas.

Spur spokesperson Moshe Apleni directed News24 to a statement on the restaurant chain's website that states that Spur's approach to child safety is "pre-emptive".

"Attendants constantly monitor the situation in the Play Canyon and report any suspicious or irregular behaviour to management."

The areas are also equipped with security cameras. But the restaurant says "it is also" the responsibility of parents to look after their children, and: "Spur has advised parents to accompany children to the toilet facilities."

Staff are not allowed to take children to the bathroom, and, "This responsibility resides with the parent," the statement says.

This policy also applies at Panarottis, which also referred News24 to the statement as the restaurant chain falls under the Spur group.

Security tightened at Papachinos

A manager at a Papachinos outlet in Johannesburg told News24, on condition of anonymity, that the restaurant chain had upped its security in the wake of the Dros incident.

He said that children were no longer allowed to go to the bathroom alone, and that a child minder was obligated to tell the parents if a child wanted to use the toilet.

He said child minders and staff at restaurants were briefed about the incident; the need to tighten security, and child minders were now required to know the name and table number of the parents for each child at the restaurant.

While it was not easy to identify potential child abusers, he said child minders were told to look for "patterns" and "strange behaviour" in patrons, and to alert restaurant management to it.

Senior researcher at the University of Cape Town's Children Institute Lucy Jamieson told News24 that neither the parent nor the restaurant should be held liable in this instance.

Jamieson said it was impossible for a parent to be with their child at every moment of their life.

"Parents are responsible for their child and the child's autonomy. We can't possibly be with our children at every second. We have to allow our children to grow. It is reasonable to allow a child to go to the bathroom alone," Jamieson said.

'Don't assume your child's safety is guaranteed'

She pointed out that it was impossible for the restaurant to have prevented the alleged rape, and that most instances of child abuse are not committed by strangers.

But Dr Shadeha Omar, director of clinical services at the Teddy Bear Clinic, said many restaurants were not doing enough to alert parents to the risks posed to their children.

She said that in many cases, child protection policies in play areas, including the terms and conditions of their use, were not clearly displayed.

Parents could be lulled into a false sense of security unless they were clearly told where their responsibility and that of the restaurant started and ended.

She added that if responsibility for the children was allocated to caregivers, it should be made clear to parents that the person is suitability qualified to work with children. Child minders should also undergo thorough background checks, she said.

"Parents need to be reminded - please don't assume that [your] child's safety is guaranteed," she said.

There may not be purposeful neglect on the part of restaurants, she said, but without "rigorous" child protection measures in place, restaurants could be accused of "situational neglect".

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