How to spot signs of abuse in children

File: Parents and caregivers can look out for certain warning signs and changes in behaviour if they suspect child abuse. Photo: GCIS

JOHANNESBURG - High levels of violence and sexual abuse against children remain a problem and incidents often go unreported because children lack the capacity to do so.

It is therefore up to parents and caregivers to look out for signs of abuse.

Sometimes, it may be hard to tell the difference between age-appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour. That is why it is important for adults to talk openly with children and make sure they know there is someone to listen.

Community-based organisation Child Car SA said children are naturally curious about sex, their genitals and pregnancy.

These are some behaviours that are normal in children:

- Children aged zero to five years commonly use childish language to refer to body parts, are curious about pregnancy and touch their own genitals. These children rarely discuss sexual acts or use sexually explicit behaviour.

- School-going children aged six to 12 years commonly ask questions about menstruation, pregnancy and sex. They may experiment with other children during games. They may kiss, touch or partake in role-playing games. These children rarely masturbate in public or show adult knowledge of sexual behaviour.

- Adolescents may ask questions about relationships and sex, as well as using sexual language and talk amongst themselves about sexual acts.They might masturbate in private and experiment sexually with adolescents of their own age.

It is important to note that disabled children may develop at different rates, depending on the nature of their disability and can be more vulnerable to abuse.

Children with learning disabilities, for example, may behave sexually in ways that are out of step with other children their age. Particular care should be taken in educating these children and help them understand their sexual development, and to ensure that they can communicate effectively about any concerns that they have.

Warning signs of possible abuse:

- Physical signs such as bruising, head injuries, broken bones or malnutrition.

- Changes in behaviour such as not going to school, withdrawal, poor concentration, fear, anxiety, suicidal or self-harming behaviour.

- Other signs such as obsessions, inappropriate sexual behaviour, inappropriate anger, bed-wetting and difficulty sleeping, or changes in eating.

- Public masturbation and sexual contact with much younger children or adults.

READ: Parents of abused pupils also need counselling: child abuse expert

According to Gita Dennen, the head of the Department of Community Awareness and Prevention Programmes at Childline Gauteng, child abuse can be reported to statutory bodies including the police, 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 have 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 said.

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

Useful contacts:

Childline SA: 08 000 55 555

Child Welfare: 074 080 8315

Teddy Bear Clinic: 011 484 4554

Police: 08600 10 111

Department of Social Development 24-hour Command Centre: 0800 428 428







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