When it comes to the sexual abuse of children with disabilities, anything that is not the norm in the children's behaviour should raise a red flag.
While all children are at risk of abuse, given their vulnerability, children with disabilities are at even greater risk of falling victim to sexual predators, many of whom gravitate to places where they can access defenceless children.
This is according to Teddy Bear Foundation Clinical Director, Shaheda Omar.
The Teddy Bear Foundation is a non-profit organisation that works with children who have been abused or neglected. It is based within the Charlotte Maxexe Johannesburg Academic Hospital in Johannesburg Gauteng. It run by a multi-disciplinary team of paediatricians, doctors, forensic nurses, social workers and volunteers.
Omar added that a child with a disability will manifest the same symptoms as a child without a disability, however, the signs can easily be mistaken for the normal developmental delays and mental challenges that children with disabilities experience.
“For instance, in a child with autism, increased obsessive compulsive behaviour, such as the pulling out of their hair, may be attributed to their autism and the sexual abuse may be missed,” she explained.
That is why it is important for the primary caregiver of a child with a disability to be fully aware of the behavioural challenges the child faces and how they react in various situations, she said.
“This knowledge will allow them to better identify behavioural changes. For instance, if a child becomes more aggressive – using physical force, shouting and screaming – it could be a pointer to say that something is wrong.”
Pay special attention
Omar said caregivers should pay special attention if the child becomes;
- More withdrawn
- Eats less or substantially more
- Weeps all the time when previously they were calm
- Has increased bladder and bowel control challenges
- Loses the ability to focus or listen attentively
- Suddenly displays episodes of insomnia
- Sleepwalking or nightmares.
Anything that is not the norm, should raise a red flag.
“Be very aware of possible sexual abuse if a child acts out sexually or displays age-inappropriate behaviour. Always ask what the child is trying to tell you,” said Omar.
“Children with speech challenges are at increased risk because they cannot verbalise what is happening to them. Cognitively challenged children are also extra vulnerable because while they might instinctively know that they are not okay, they are powerless to stop the abuse or to articulate their feelings,” she added.
Omar said sexual abuse cases involving children with a disability present unique challenges because it is often difficult to get them to express or narrate what happened to them. Special interventions are needed by professionals with the necessary skills to deal with the various types of disability.
The Teddy Bear Foundation will, for instance, work with Autism South Africa if a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is referred to them.
“We must consistently reinforce caregivers’ knowledge and the importance of knowing the child’s normal behaviour so that signs of abuse can be detected,” said Omar.
She explained that all children, even those with disabilities, need to be taught about their bodies, about private body parts and the changes their bodies may undergo.
“All children need to be protected from danger – they require supervision and monitoring. We need to control who has access to them and ensure that the people employed to work with children with a disability are properly screened,” she said.
Seek medical attention
If you suspect a child has been abused, seek medical attention, said Omar.
HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies are of concern.
“It is critical that the abuse is reported to the authorities. This is not a moral obligation but a legal one, in accordance with the Children’s Act and the Sexual Offences Act,” she said.
The Teddy Bear Foundation’s focus is on prevention and early intervention. Education programmes are held at schools – including special needs schools.
“We also work closely with educators at special needs schools to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms, management, reporting and legislation relating to sexual abuse.
“Children are at such a high risk of being abused and the responsibility lies with each member of a community to ensure the safety of our children, especially children with disabilities,” she said.
If you need assistance relating to child abuse, contact the Teddy Bear Foundation for assistance at 011 484 4554 or Childline at 08000 55 555.