Protecting the children

Children who have been sexually abused might feel like their world is falling apart when testifying in a criminal court against an alleged perpetrator, who is often known to the child.

It can’t be easy reliving the trauma of an abusive experience. And when parents are unable to adequately assist their children during a court trial the situation only worsens.

Moefeeda Salie-Kagee, the programme manager of RAPCAN’s Child Protection and Support Services, oversees the NGO’s Child Witness Project.

She says their aim is to “act in the child’s best interest” alongside parents to ensure that children are ready for court appearances.

The Child Witness Project was launched in 2001 and has offices at the Atlantis, Cape Town, Khayelitsha, Paarl, Parow and Wynberg regional courts where sexual offences are heard. It receives funding from the Western Cape’s social development department and works closely with the provincial department of justice and the National Prosecuting Authority to ensure that child witnesses are ready to take the witness stand and face alleged sexual offenders.

Salie-Kagee says that between August and October this year they have worked with an average of 291 children per month who have either witnessed or experienced sexual abuse. Sometimes more than one child was involved in a sexual abuse case.

Salie-Kagee says her unit of 25 court supporters and four social workers has also assisted an average of 497 clients per month, including the children and their caregivers linked to these cases, with court preparation services.

“We aim to reduce the secondary trauma that children experience when going to court. We give them the skills to engage with the criminal justice system. We help them understand that their healing is not dependent on a guilty verdict [for the alleged perpetrator],” says Salie-Kagee.

“We have a child friendly facility that is cordoned off from the main court. We create a space where the accused or their supporters can’t intimidate children and where children can feel safe and have their needs met in an age-appropriate manner.”

A typical case would involve up to four court visits for the abused child. The Child Witness Project not only ensures that the child is ready to face an accused or defence counsel during cross-examination but also offers children and their parents debriefing sessions after each of their court appearances.

“Court supporters will also help the child to understand the court process and what is required of them. They may use tools such as puppets to help children understand the role-players in court,” says Salie-Kagee.

“We work to re-socialise the children so that they can trust others. Sexual abusers make children believe that the abuse is their fault. All these myths are put into a child’s head to make them think that nobody would believe them. The child heals when somebody listens to them.”

Court supporters do not “engage in the merits of the [court] case” though, says Salie-Kagee.

“There is no contamination of evidence. We won’t ask a child what happened and who did it. We just ensure that children are prepared for the court process,” she adds.

Support is extended to parents so that they are aware of how they affect their children’s ability to testify in court.

“We can help caregivers to understand that each time they cry at court they give their child a message that they must not talk. When they see their mother’s crying they think they’re saying something wrong. So they would rather be quiet,” explains Salie-Kagee.

“We also listen to what children want. Sometimes we think that children don’t want to testify in court. But we have found some children become very angry when they were unable to go to court. They just wanted somebody to hear what they had to say.”

Salie-Kagee believes that their work aims to provide the justice system with “competent witnesses”.

“The prosecution is only as strong as the evidence it leads. That’s an important part of our process. But our intervention is firstly to ensure that the best interests of children are brought forward,” she says.

The Child Witness Project also highlighted an important counselling need that RAPCAN address via its Healing Toolkit. This resource comprises a series of therapy books for children, a caregiver’s manual which helps parents reconnect with their abused children and also a Helpers Manual to facilitate the child’s healing process.

RAPCAN designed the Healing Toolkit “specifically for those working in communities… especially rural areas”. RAPCAN is in negotiations with Mpumalanga-based NGOs to extend the project to that province.

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