He's the light of her life. No matter how old he gets, he's still her baby and they spend most of their time together.
So, when she heard her 16-year-old non-verbal autistic son had been allegedly raped in a psychiatric ward at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, she was shocked.
Mom Andiswa Ngalo* got the call from the hospital on 27 September telling her the news – her teenage son had been allegedly raped by an older patient in the same ward.
As a minor, he wasn't supposed to be in a ward with adults, she tells us.
She had taken her son to the hospital in the hope he’d get the best care possible after a violent episode linked to a mental illness that he's still being tested for.
“My son is autistic. He was born with the autism but then he got sick with a mental illness on top of the autism last year October. He was admitted to the hospital after his illness became worse earlier this year,” the distraught mother tells Drum.
When he was admitted on 30 July, Andiswa says she was worried about whether he was going to share a ward with anyone because he’s an adolescent. They assured her that he wouldn’t, and told her that he was in safe hands.
She went back a couple of days later.
“I understand that not many people understand his condition but I found out they’d moved him. I left him with a bag of clothes and when I went to collect his dirty clothes to give him clean ones, his bag was empty. The nurse didn’t know where the clothes were and she asked me if I had written his name on them.”
Andiswa had not because she was told her son was not going to share a room with anyone.
“She [the nurse] told me he’s not alone and others might take his stuff, not knowing they don’t belong to them because they are also mentally ill, so I should bring him one set of clothes at a time."
He was moved around a lot, she says. She visited him on his birthday, 1 September, and he was alone. After that, she was told she could no longer see him because of Covid-19 but he was sharing a room.
Andiswa still visited in the hope of catching a glimpse of her son.
“I remember when his doctor told me he was sad and I told him that maybe he’d be happier if he saw me. So, I saw him through the corridor and we spoke at a distance. But I was never allowed to get close.”
The dreaded call
She remembers the night she got the phone call all too well. Her son's doctor told her she needed to get to the hospital urgently as there had been an incident that couldn’t be discussed over the phone.
Andiswa assumed he’d broken a window or something of the sort.
“When we got there, they told us the news that my son had been sexually assaulted by a 22-year-old man.
"I had many questions. How did this happen? The hospital is supposed to be a safe place. We were clearly wrong. We realised that there is no safe place.
“I can’t change it because it’s happened, but it’s so wrong. He can’t express himself. He can’t speak because after his illness last year, his speech stopped.”
She says she tried to tell the nurses he needed special care.
“They didn’t understand me because they’d say, ‘what about other patients?’.” I told them he’s not like other patients because he has a mental illness and he’s autistic."
Uncertain next steps
Frustrated, Andiswa says she’s not sure what to do. Even if they go to court, her son wouldn’t be able to tell them what happened because he doesn’t speak.
He’s still at the hospital and she’s tried to talk to him a few times, hoping he’ll break his silence.
“Who knows, maybe it was not the first time, but he couldn’t tell anyone. Fortunately, the doctor was able to tell me what happened.
“We are hurting. My daughter is not allowed inside the hospital after the incident. They only allow me to go in, but I’m not the only who one who is affected.
“It’s difficult to tell how he’s been affected by the incident because now it looks like he doesn’t know he was violated. Maybe it has not sunk in. But my fear is that maybe it will come back to haunt him later in life.
"He lost his father when he was seven, but now every time he has his episodes, he calls out his father’s name. This means the grief of losing his father is only hitting him now.”
Andiswa has not been able to work since the assault and her employer has arranged therapy for her. She says this should have been offered by the health department for the whole family.
All she can do now is hope her son will recover and come home soon.
"He is such a lovely person. He is polite, friendly and lovely to everyone. We are a close family. He is always with me.
“I am hurting. I am deeply wounded. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s hurtful. I try to tell myself that he was sick, and he had to be admitted because he needed to get well, but it’s only a way of consoling myself.”
The official word
The Gauteng Department of Health says the case is under investigation.
“The CMJAH incident happened on Sunday, 27 September 2020 and involves two mental healthcare users, a 15-year-old male and the alleged perpetrator who is a 22-year-old male. Both incidents have been reported to South African Police Services for further investigation. Counselling has been arranged for the affected patients.”
The case was reported to Hillbrow police station. The police did not respond to calls from Drum for comment.
*Not her real name to avoid identifying the minor victim