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What to do if you suspect a child is being abused

On the 30th of December Baby L was admitted to ICU with broken ribs, a fractured skull and damage to her kidneys and pancreas. While her mother's boyfriend is being charged with attempted murder and child abuse the mother herself faces the same charges because she did nothing to stop the abuse of her child.

The case of Baby L has shown that a mother who does nothing while her child is abused is held equally responsible by the law. But this responsibility doesn't stop within the four walls of a home. Any person who knows or suspects that a child is being physically or sexually abused has a legal and moral responsibility to report it.

It is never acceptable to stand by when a child is being hurt or sexually abused by an adult but reporting abuse can be a daunting process. We've explained some of the steps involved and listed the various institutions that you can turn to for support.

Reporting child abuse
According to Gita Dennen, the head of department of Community Awareness and Prevention Programmes at Childline Gauteng, child abuse can be reported to statutory bodies including the South African Police Services, Child Welfare or the Department of Social Development.

If you are uncertain if abuse is really taking place or you are not sure what steps you should take you can contact Childline for support. They also have referral services that will help you report known or suspected abuse in your area.

Once the abuse has been reported, depending on the available evidence, the abuser will be arrested and charged with the crime. He or she may be released on bail to await their court date. If they are found guilty, they may face time in jail.

It is important to remember that any person who works with children in an official or medical capacity including doctors, dentists, teachers or occupational therapists has a mandatory obligation to come forward if they know or suspect that there has been physical abuse. Neighbours or friends are not required by law to report physical abuse, but are encouraged to do so, Gita says.

In the case of sexual abuse, however, anybody who suspects it is taking place has a mandatory obligation to report it.

But, of course, the obligation to report abuse rests predominantly with the parents of the child.

Getting a protection order
Because violent or unstable people commit abuse, those reporting the abuse may fear for their safety. Under the Domestic Violence Act and the Children's Act, it is possible to obtain a Protection Order to prevent the perpetrator of the abuse from gaining access to his or her victim or the person reporting the abuse.

Before a Protection Order can be granted, the abuser must first be reported to the police. The order can then be obtained from the Magistrate's Court to prevent the abuser from coming within a certain distance of the child, from being alone with the child in a house and, if alternative accommodation cannot be found, from entering a certain space in the house where the child can be safe.

Protection orders are great on paper but can be difficult to implement, says Gita. But it's important to have one so that if things get worse or if the couple divorces, the order and its contraventions will act as a string of evidence as to why parental rights and responsibilities should be rescinded.

She adds that if a person's parental rights have been taken away, that doesn't free them from the responsibility of paying maintenance, so the non-offending parent need not be concerned with finances at this stage.

The signs of child abuse
One of the greatest impediments to reporting child abuse is a lack of certainty. However, even if you only suspect that abuse is taking place you have an obligation to report it. According to Childline, these are some of the signs a child will display when they are in a physically or sexually abusive situation:

  • Knowledge of sexual acts that is age-inappropriate
  • Personality changes
  • Eating disorders/changes in eating habits
  • Self-mutilation
  • Running away, rebelliousness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Withdrawal, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • Overly eager to please
  • Unexplained bruises welts or burns
  • Reluctance to go home or to school

Why child abuse goes unreported 
There are a number of reasons why a parent might not report known child abuse. Key among these is that physical abusers are often also violent towards the non-offending parent as well, so that person might fear for their own physical safety. A mother may also have battered women syndrome, in which abused women struggle to free themselves from the abusive situation.

Another reason that abuse may go unreported is that the mother may be financially dependent on the abuser. If he is arrested or found guilty, he may lose his job, and the family would be in serious financial trouble. For this reason it is important for the financially dependent parent to appeal to family members for their assistance or to try and achieve some sort of financial independence.

No matter what the circumstances it is imperative that abuse gets reported, but Gita explains that people who are struggling to do so for either of the mentioned reasons need to be treated with empathy.

The only alternative to reporting abuse is for the abuser to be willing to acknowledge fault, go for therapy and be committed to changing. The family should go for group therapy, and the abuser must go for individual therapy as well, says Gita. But abusers are unlikely to be willing to go through with this so it's important not to expect or rely on it.

Take the first step
If you know about or suspect child abuse, it is your obligation to report it to the authorities. If you are uncertain as to how to proceed, contact Childline Gauteng  or Childline South Africa for advice and support. Let Baby L's story be a reminder to us all.

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