Q&A | 'They don't have ability to make something up': Why children must be believed about sex crimes

Marius Pistorius. (Supplied to News24)
Marius Pistorius. (Supplied to News24)

WARNING: This investigation contains descriptions of child abuse that you may find triggering or difficult to read. 

Edith Kriel is a social worker who specialises in working with children who have been sexually abused. She spoke to Deon Wiggett about warning signs, listening to children, and her involvement in the case of alleged toddler rapist Marius Pistorius.

Pistorius, whose wife owns a creche in Melkbosstrand, is accused of sexually abusing children in the 2010s. He denies all the allegations against him. His full response can be read here.

Deon Wiggett: Much of this case hangs on the trustworthiness of three-year-olds. How does a three-year-old, with their limited vocabulary, disclose these things to us?

Edith Kriel: There’s this perception that children under six are not good witnesses, which is not true. There have been cases where they have used young children, three-, four-year-old children, who’ve done well in court. But it takes specific dedication and an understanding of the development of a three-year-old.

Three-year-olds have a limited vocabulary. If they are telling you something, it can only be from their experience – it happened to them or they saw it.

Little children remember sensory things. They’re really good in giving you the basic information, but they can't give you anything that, often, the system or the grownups want to know. How many times did it happen? What happened first, what happened second? As grownups, details fit our frame of reference; children focus on the core elements that stand out to them. So, the experience was painful or scary, that's what the focus would be. If it was something that’s maybe playful or gentle or even makes them feel good, they wouldn't necessarily understand that as being wrong, because they wouldn't be fearful of that person. 

Deon: It seems to me that you can’t really find a more reliable witness than a three-year-old. Can you tell me about how you can lie when you're three years old?

Edith: Little children do lie, but they lie to get out of trouble. 'Did you take the cookies? No, mommy'. But you can see it written all over their face that they did. They lie to get out of trouble; children do not lie to get into trouble. They don't have the ability to make something up – one of the things that, obviously, we need to think about is whether the parents coached them. Yes, you can coach a three-year-old to say, 'Yes, the uncle touched my cookie. I don't like the uncle, the uncle’s mean.' You can teach them a couple of stock-standard phrases. 

But we don’t just look at what children are saying, we also look at what children are playing. That's the language of children and children cannot play trauma if they haven't experienced it. You can't coach your child to play out traumatic information. Children of three have rich fantasy lives - "My daddy is so strong he can pick up this house". Fantasy can be distinguished from reality in young children without much difficulty. 

Deon: How might a child play out trauma?

Edith: In a variety of ways. Three-year-olds are still starting to learn symbolic play. So, they might take a daddy lion and a mommy lion, and then the daddy lion and the mommy lion have a big fight and the lion cubs go and hide in a corner, and they are scared. 

Sometimes, they might play it out quite literally – say you’re busy playing with a baby doll and you want to put other clothes on the baby doll. You are changing the nappy and they go 'the baby’s cookie is eina'. So you start exploring what happened to the baba. Even if a child says cognitively – where parents have coached them – that Uncle Tommy hurt your cookie, it doesn't mean that they can necessarily play it out. 

Parents say to their children, "If anybody touches your cookie, you must come tell me". And they may say that to the kid 100 times. But when it happens to the child, particularly if it is by another child or a caregiver – or someone who pays the child a lot of attention and makes sexual touching seem playful to the child – it’s hard to correlate what their parent said with what has happened to them.

That's where it's so difficult sometimes with little children, because the court system is a verbal system; it wants the words and it wants the statements. The only thing they might allow a child to do is to show things on anatomically correct dolls. Other than that, in a courtroom they don’t ask, "Can you draw me a picture and explain to me?", "Could you show me what happened?" – the system is word-based. And children are still learning that language.

Deon: When we spoke on the phone, you mentioned "listening with your eyes". What does that mean?

Edith: Sometimes, we as parents are focused on what children are telling us – and that's really important – but we also need to look at children's non-verbal behaviours. A child says, "Mommy I don't want to go to school". Every time mommy takes him to school, the child cries and cries and cries. Mom says, "Why don't you want to go to school?" The child says, "I don’t know", but the child cries and cries and cries. There's something about us as adults that tends to write that off as children just being silly children. We as adults tend to ask a lot of why questions to children. Young children often do not have the ability to deal with such an abstract question.  

A preschool teacher might even affirm that and say, "Give her to me. By the time you’ve driven around the corner, she’ll be fine." And they literally pluck the child off the mommy. The child is screaming and shouting and, yes, five minutes later, mom’s around the corner and the child has stopped crying. Because the mom’s left him – what else must he do? 

I think sometimes we downplay or minimise what children are trying to tell us . And the only way really that they can tell us is in their behaviour and in their play. Parents need to really try and be focused on listening to what their children have to say, but also watching them, observing them, reflecting on their behaviour, and not just making it off as being naughty, or just typical behaviour for two-year-olds. Really reflect on it, think about it. 

As a parent, one thing I have learned is to trust your gut. Even if you can’t explain why somebody or something makes you uncomfortable, rather trust your gut, because that’s going to be the safer option. 

Deon: We hear about children who don’t want to be dropped off at school, who plead not to go to school. Is it always significant? Could the answer not just be, ‘Oh well, he just doesn’t want to’?

Edith: I think often, understandably, parents are in a rush; they need to get to work. It becomes a bother when the child is crying. Children sometimes do things particularly at the worst moments, from a parent’s perspective, when parents are not able to really pay attention. 

If my child is crying every time I take them to crèche, it doesn’t mean that they’re being sexually abused. But there’s something that I need to try and understand: why it’s distressing for my child to separate from me. Is it always this distressing? If I go to my friend’s house or I pop away to the shop, does my child have the same reaction? Or is it just when I take my child to crèche? Is there maybe another child that’s bullying them? Even if, in the moment, you can’t necessarily put all the pieces of the puzzle together, we as parents need to be reflective of our children’s behaviours and not minimise it or make them off as naughty or – the favourite – attention-seeking. "They’re just looking for attention."

Maybe… it would be really cool if you can put this in: Attention-seeking is not attention-seeking; it’s connection-seeking. It’s not coming from a malicious or mean place; it’s coming from a place of, "I need you to connect with me because there’s something that I’m not coping with". When we call this connection-seeking behaviour, then it’s a whole different ballgame. So instead of making it out to be like kids are just naughty, it’s actually saying, ‘There’s something important I need to pay attention to here’. 

As parents, we need to quieten ourselves at times, to be reflective of what is happening to our children and to us as parents. How are we parenting? If my child cries and cries and cries every time I drop them off at crèche, how am I responding to that? Am I helping? Am I harming? It's such a busy world we live in and I think that parents are just so exhausted a lot of the time. That's where sometimes things really slip through the cracks. You don't know as parents, if it’s your first child, your second – each child is different. 

Deon: Bedwetting is something that comes up often. Effectively, all you've got is a baseline of your own child, especially if it's the first one. Is a change in behaviour always significant?

Edith: Particularly if it's a sudden change in behaviour. So, where you have a very chilled, calm child who suddenly starts being very aggressive, or a child that's generally quite confident now being tearful and wanting to hide behind mommy – when who you know your child to be suddenly changes, it is very important. With the little ones, in terms of sexual abuse, we may suddenly see sexualised behaviours or play. They would start playing inappropriate sex games.

In terms of bed wetting, we have to look at primary and secondary enuresis. Primary enuresis is when a child has never managed to get through a night dry. You get some children with primary enuresis, in some who have never been able to not bed wet. What’s concerning is secondary enuresis: in other words, the child has learned to sleep through the night without wetting – there might be an accident here or there – but when they start bed-wetting again every single night, we need to be thoughtful of something going on with a child who is developmentally able to stop bedwetting and then starts again.

But it could be in any kind of regressive behaviour. We often see that the child wants to suck a dummy again or wants their bottle again. They've had no interest in that for a year and suddenly now they want this. Again, it could be because there's now a baby sister in the house and baby sister's getting a lot of attention. But some children have to self-soothe – particularly children who have been traumatised. 

We also tend to say, 'Goodness! You're five now, you can't be using a bottle, you’re a big boy now'. We often deprive that from the child, because it doesn’t fit into our frame of reference of what a five-year-old child should be. My response is always: fulfil the need, because then the child can move on. What does it matter that they go to bed with a bottle if they're five? It doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. One day, they’ll still be able to go to university. Let's deal with what's going on now. 

Nightmares are another thing. Most children have nightmares. But if they are consistent nightmares, and they're interrupting a child’s sleep on a regular basis, several times a night, and the child can’t be soothed… Know your child and what's going on now. 

Deon: Let’s turn to the Melkbos matter. Can you tell me about your involvement in the case?

Edith: So, because I specialise in doing sexual abuse work, I was approached by one parent to do an assessment and then that parent told another parent, who told another parent. I did assessments with four children; other children were also referred to me that I then referred out. I think let’s leave the ethical reasons out. So, initially, my involvement with the case was doing four assessments. 

Deon: What is the conclusion you came to regarding Marius Pistorius?

Edith: It was my conclusion was that there had been sexual abuse with all four children.

Deon: How could you tell? What is your methodology to establish something like this?

Edith: There are specific protocols for assessing the possibility of sexual abuse in young children which guide our assessment. These include meeting with the parents for a thorough background history. Then I would meet with the child – generally for four sessions of 50 minutes each. I’d bring the child into the playroom and we would then start exploring their world through whichever toys or things interest them. We call it funneling – you want to look at the overall functioning of the child, the kind of experiences the child has in their world – and then look at the possible atypical themes in their play.  

So, when a child is playing out or saying things that don't fit what a three-year-old or four-year-old’s experience of the world should be, we have to explore it further. It might be in a drawing; it might be playing out in the dollhouse. And then you look at those atypical themes and how can you  explore them in more depth with this child.

Deon: What has your experience been of this case? You wrote a report on horrifying affairs. How do you feel about everything that's happened since then?

Edith: I feel that the system has failed the children – not just those children, but the children who were potentially abused afterwards. In some ways, it's really difficult for me, because I know what I know. I did everything I could to help bring justice for these children. I was supported by many colleagues who were as horrified as I was at what was happening, but nothing we did made a difference.

Deon: Would you say the case has been haunting you?

Edith: It's definitely one of the cases that, for the last 10, 11 years, is regularly on my mind. Every time I'd drive to Melkbos, I think of it. It was definitely something like a thorn in the side. It's always there. Sometimes it just digs deeper than other times.

Deon: Thank you for being there for all of those kids. Is there anything we've not spoken about that is important for me to fully understand our conversation today?

Edith: We need to start giving children a lot more credit for understanding their world. Try to listen to them. Try and think of what it's like to be a three-year-old, to better parent your child. And trust your gut. Really trust your gut with your kids. I so wish that the child protection system was able to step up and do the right thing and protect these children and protect other children. My sense is that we're worse off now than what we were 10, 15 years ago. Which is awful.

This story is part of an investigation by News24 and My Only Story NPC  into allegations of the sexual assault of toddlers at the Babbel & Krabbel pre-school.

The main article can be found here.

Marius and Annet Pistorius have denied all the allegations that have been made. Their respective responses can be read here.

Sometimes a report like this can trigger negative memories or experiences for you. If you need any help, please contact Childline on 116 (toll free).

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