/ 8 June 2005

Causing offence

How does a society rehabilitate a 14-year-old rapist? In South Africa, we don’t. We lock children like this up. Put them away, run them through the criminal justice system and turn them into hardened criminals. But is this an effective and humane way to deal with children?

The problem, according to the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Jacqui Gallinetti, is that, ‘our prisons do not offer any form of rehabilitation whatsoever. There are no programmes for children offered by the Department of Correctional Services. The only programmes that are offered are through NGOs that have access to prisoners.”

That is why the UWC, along with partners from the University of Cape Town, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders and other civic organisations, established Saystop, a diversion and intervention programme for young sex offenders.

The main idea behind a programme such as Saystop is that the child’s personality, attitudes and beliefs are still in their formative stages and can be altered where there are serious behavioural problems.

Gallinetti explains how this ‘diversion programme” works: ‘The offenders are arrested on a charge and so they’re already caught up in the criminal justice system. Basically this programme diverts children away from court. They won’t go through the whole formal procedure of being found guilty and being sentenced — but they will be sent to a particular programme.

‘Saystop aims to intervene with first-time offenders. You have to be a first offender and the offence you are charged with must be the least- serious type of sexual offence. You can’t have any aggravating circumstances like it was a gang rape, or the use of a weapon, or anything like that. Mostly the kids who end up on the programme commit indecent assault.”

In May 2004 there were 3 594 children under the age of 18 serving time in prison. Of these, 12% were sex offenders, 52% were awaiting trial, and the other 48% were already convicted.

‘Often when children do sexually offend, they do so with younger children, or with children who are in their families, or children in the neighbourhood,” says Gallinetti.

‘Often the families don’t want the child to go through the [criminal justice] system. But they also recognise that the child needs some form of intervention. So if the child is willing to take responsibility for what they did, they can be diverted to this programme. What the programme aims to do is to correct any deviant behaviour, specifically around sex and sexual offending.”

The programme deals mainly with boys aged between 12 and 16 years, who come from backgrounds ‘across the board”, says Gallinetti.

There are three main providers of sexual offending programmes for youngsters: Saystop, which operates in the Western and Eastern Cape; The Teddy Bear Clinic in Gauteng; and Childline in KwaZulu-Natal. None of these organisations really has the capacity to deal with juvenile sexual offenders adequately.

Beyond the intervention programme, Gallinetti is also involved in establishing a broad-based prevention and education programme, called Playstop. ‘It hasn’t really taken off yet,” says Gallinetti. ‘We developed it, but then ran out of funding to train people. This prevention programme is a much bigger programme [than Saystop] and can be aimed at any group of children.”

Another valuable aspect of Playstop is that it ‘can also serve to prevent children from becoming victims. It debunks a lot of myths, like, ‘If girls wear short skirts, it means they want to have sex.’ It deals with anger management and victim empathy and those kinds of things. They’re general skills, but within a sexual context. It is the only prevention programme regarding sexual offending. And we’ve got thousands of manuals if anyone wants to be trained.”

At the moment, the government’s approach is to make hardened criminals out of young sexual offenders by putting them through the criminal justice system and locking them up in prisons. Programmes like Saystop extend a vital lifeline by recognising that these offenders, despite the horrific nature of their crimes, are, in fact, still children.

For more information about Playstop please contact (021) 959 2950 or e-mail: [email protected]

‘We are creating criminals’

‘Conditions are terrible in many of the prisons where children are held. In April [2003] in Johannesburg Medium A prison, in cells supposed to hold 38 prisoners, there were 101 juveniles. There are about three or four such cells, each with one toilet only. By 10am there is no water to flush the toilet or to use for drinking. While conditions may vary, many children are subjected to gangs, are sodomised, become infected with HIV/Aids, suffer from scabies, and have no access to education or rehabilitation — we are creating criminals because of the conditions children are subjected to in prisons.” — Judge JJ Fagan, inspecting judge of prisons