CYC-Online 46 NOVEMBER 2002
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policy and practice

Preventing sexual abuse: Rescuers without resources

Jackie Loffell looks at the need to broaden public and official understanding of the causes of child sexual abuse, and the need to overhaul the formal child protection system, in a manner appropriate to the South African context.

While we have no reliable way of calculating the prevalence of child sexual abuse, all the signs suggest that we have a pervasive and escalating problem, which is interwoven with the pressures and deprivations of poverty and forms part of the “culture of violence” that has taken root in South Africa. (McKendrick and Hoffman, 1990:32-3).

Of particular significance are recent data that indicate that a generation of young people is growing up in the belief that sexual coercion is a normal part of life. There seems to be social pressure, especially on males, to engage in sexual violence (CIET Africa 1998). Furthermore, significant numbers of young people say that they believe that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, and say they are willing to spread HIV (CIET Africa 2002). Add conditions of mass poverty in close proximity to conspicuous wealth, a 40% unemployment rate, a constant barrage of images of sex and violence via the media, plus the consumer society context, with its drive towards instant satisfaction of every impulse, and the recipe for high levels of abusive behaviour becomgs extremely potent.

The scale of child abuse in our society gives credence to the view of David Gil (1990), that child abuse arises from conditions in society which, as part of its way of life, obstruct the development 0f some of its members to the benefit of others. The resultant blocking of growth and energy is re-channeled into interpersonal violence and other forms of destructive behaviour. In this sense, abusive families are “agents of structural violence” (Parton, 1985:168). Loney (1989:18) notes that the view of child abuse as resulting from “sick” behaviour within families allows society to avoid looking at broader causes; it also relegates the responsibility of intervening to designated professionals, even where they lack the necessary resources and training.

Child abuse must cease to be framed as the concern primarily of the police, the courts and the social services. As a nation, we have to build a child and family friendly society and all our structures and systems need to be shaped accordingly. Our economic policies need to be based on this premise, likewise our land, agricultural and labour systems and the design of our industries. Our schools, health care facilities and places of worship need to be centres of caring, growth and healing for children and families. Local government is a key role-player when it comes to developing safe neighbourhoods with recreational space for children, and housing policies that sustain families and help build community. The concept of the child-friendly city is one that should be pursued with energy in all our urban centres.

State of the child protection system
The child protection system in the sense that I am using the term is the cluster of structures that carry formally designated responsibilities for dealing with reported cases of neglect and abuse, including sexual abuse, of children, along with the legislative and policy frameworks within which they operate. The sectors with legal mandates to deal with, or at least report, child maltreatment are the social services, the police, the courts, the medico-legal services, the health care services, and schools and preschool care facilities. The correctional services have a crucial role when it comes to dealing with offenders. Most of these sectors have also been instrumental in formulating preventive and proactive strategies that are a logical outflow of their more reactive work in this area. NPOs and volunteers form part of the formal child protection system, especially within its social service component. Personnel from all the relevant disciplines must work in close partnership with each other, and with communities, in order to succeed in their tasks of preventing abuse and dealing with children referred into the system.

It is often said that the South African child protection system is in a state of chronic disarray (NCCAN 1996). It can even present a positive danger to children. Legal interventions in the lives of children and families, if carried out ineptly or without sufficient resources to support them, can cause great harm. There have been repeated calls for an overhaul of all components of the system and for the implementation of measures to ensure that they are properly resourced and coordinated for their tasks, and linked with appropriate research and data collection processes. Human resource issues are of particular concern “remuneration and service conditions for personnel in this system are extremely poor; stress and burnout are pervasive: training is often inadequate or non-existent; and turnover is at debilitating levels. There has been an inexplicable paralysis at national level in addressing these matters.

All this is not to deny that there are pockets of quality in the system and that those children and families lucky enough to encounter them do find meaningful help. What traumatised children encounter in the protective system, however, is a hit-and-miss, luck-of-the-draw affair. A child may be dealt with by sensitive, experienced practitioners who work in close cooperation according to a properly planned approach, or may find his or her life pulled apart by well-intentioned “rescuers” who are brand new on the job, have little awareness of the possible impact of their actions, and receive inadequate support and guidance from their employer bodies (Loffell, 1996; 1997). Practitioners within and between sectors often work according to different frames of reference, imposing on the child a set of processes that are incoherent and unresponsive to his or her needs. Criminal processes are notorious in this regard, but social work interventions can be just as devastating. Inept medico-legal services can also compound the trauma experienced by the child and further fracture the family.

What the “system” does with perpetrators is equally unpredictable and incoherent “most seem to fall through both criminal justice and social service processes altogether (Loffell, 1997). A study in the southern areas of Johannesburg showed that an average of only one in 16 complaints of sexual assault of females aged 12 and older was registered as a case (CIET Africa 1998). Those few who are actually charged, prosecuted and convicted are often given sentences that are not in any way designed to change their behaviour or to protect future victims. Those who are taken up in treatment or management programmes designed specifically to address their victimising behaviour are a tiny minority.

The social service component of the child protection system is critical in that it is responsible for the management and delivery of protective services to children, for guiding and supporting children and families through children's court processes, for alternative care provision for children who cannot remain at home, and for the provision of healing experiences for all concerned. It is also supposed to deliver preventive programmes in order to strengthen families and communities amid help prevent abuse and neglect. This part of the system is in my view set up to fail; chiefly because no one accepts responsibility for financing it. At the root of this situation is a quite extraordinary form of “partnership” between the government and the child and family welfare NPOs through which the relevant services are supposed to be delivered.

Dysfunctional partnership
Child protective services involve the exercise of state power given that they may breach the privacy and autonomy of families. In most countries, mandatory services are delivered by the state. In some cases they are contracted out to NPOs, but this tends to he on a circumscribed basis and normally involves payment for core services by the government (SA Law Commission, 2001. I am not aware of any country other than our own where it is possible for organisations to spring up anywhere and, subject to some basic registration processes, (a) acquire statutory power for intrusive and potentially damaging actions, such as removal of children from their families, and (b) be tasked with such a far-reaching public mandate without any reliable arrangement for its financing.

A child and family welfare organisation typically receives a subsidy from the Department of Social Development (DSD) in the province in which it operates; however this contribution is entirely discretionary and bears no relation to the costs of delivering the service. Further, since the so-called shift to the Developmental Social Welfare paradigm as of the mid-l990s, funding for these services has been frozen for protracted periods, as the DSD has come to see the central focus of its service arm, as well as its social security arm, as fighting poverty. Child abuse, while inextricably bound up with poverty, is not poverty as such, and requires interventions that are not perceived as “developmental”, hence the leverage of the protective services is weak when it comes to state financing. In recent years the gap between the costs of services and the subsidies paid has been escalating.

Subsidies used to be increased when civil service pay increases occurred, so as to allow NPOs assisting the state with these services to adjust their salaries. This practice has been dropped and a massive salary gap has developed between social workers in the civil service and their NPO colleagues. This has led to an ongoing exodus of child protection social workers from the NPOs to the DSD, where they liaise with and monitor their NPO colleagues from positions of relative privilege.

While their allocations from the state have been shrinking, organisations have simultaneously faced increasing difficulties in fundraising from sources outside government because:

So child sexual abuse is seen as a national crisis but nowhere is there a budget for the relevant services. Everyone sees this as someone else’s responsibility. A host of other problems flow from this vacuum “poor pay and staff turnover that have a crippling effect on the quality of work done, caseloads that make meaningful services impossible, lack of service coverage particularly in rural areas, and so on. Community leaders and public figures make speeches following each highly publicised incident of child abuse, in which the words “we will not tolerate" and “we will root out this scourge..." feature prominently. Unfortunately the words “we will support/improve/expand services" never feature at all, let alone “let’s change the structures of our society".

The NPOs, meanwhile, help perpetuate the problem by obligingly taking on the “rescuer” role in relation to hundreds of thousands of children in all kinds of trouble, while being without the resources to do more than skim the surface. In no other sector would non-governmental structures agree to such an untenable form of partnership and in no other sector would government have the nerve to suggest it. Of course, this lets the broader public off the hook, allowing them to rest secure in the illusion that a contingent of “experts” with heroic and saintly qualities is attending to the problem; also that they themselves can do nothing as they are “not qualified”. We need to find out what it is the psychology of social workers that leads us to collude in this manifestly unworkable arrangement.

In search of solutions
Clearly, the formal child protection system is in urgent need of repair. The social service component is in particularly bad shape. The following are some factors that we need to take into consideration:

Disproportionate emphasis on law enforcement is likely to be counterproductive. This applies both to criminal processes designed to punish offenders and to children's court processes aimed at “rescuing” children and placing them in alternative care. Although both types of action are essential, in many instances they involve significant hazards for children and families and may do more damage than they prevent. In neighbourhoods where there is high unemployment, high levels of substance abuse, a lack of proper accommodation, no safe playing spaces for children, no provision for the care of children while their caregivers are working, and general demoralisation, then trying to process every case of child abuse through the criminal courts and/or the children's courts is probably not going to be very effective. Such action can only be seen as a small part of the solution. A multi-sectoral commitment to develop safe neighbourhoods, with local government playing a strong role, is far more likely to bring down the rate of abuse.

Some of the western technologies that have been uncritically imported into our system have generated problems in the countries that developed them. We must take note of these in our efforts to improve our own system. These include mandatory reporting and registration of child abuse. Elaborate, high-tech risk assessment systems are also among the tools we have been looking at. Both are features of the systems of child protection that operate in Britain and North America and are heavily loaded towards highly structured investigative processes. These “child rescue” systems tend to be legalistic and adversarial in nature, and to create a dichotomy between protective programmes and those designed to strengthen and support families. A positive aspect of our situation is that we are not as far down the law enforcement/investigative road as our English and American colleagues, and we can plan for approaches that are better balanced and more appropriate to our own context.

Preventive education needs to empower communities rather than to direct them to services that are nonexistent or inadequate, or are only geared to the “point of entry”. There is a tendency for campaigns to be focused on inducing people to report abuse to one or other service or authority, without ensuring that these have the necessary capacity to respond effectively. Although some people can be effectively helped on a short-term basis, for others the legal interventions that may come with referral to child protection services may be the beginning of a process lasting years. Crisis intervention services must be linked to properly functioning ongoing services, or people are left in mid-air, sometimes with the children concerned being more vulnerable than ever. Temporary safe houses must be connected with longer-term care provision or they just fill up and become long-term facilities themselves. Children in any form of statutory care can end up “drifting” indefinitely with damaging consequences. The “point of entry” service with-its element of “rescue” tends to have more appeal for the public, volunteers and funders than do the ongoing services; the one cannot, however, operate without the other. If we do not have the resources to look at-the whole continuum of care, we should perhaps choose other approaches entirely. Income-generating activities can make it possible for women to leave partners who are abusing them and/or their children: A service that provides care and development opportunities for pre-schoolchildren may do more to keep them safe than one designed to remove them from their homes or to track down perpetrators.

We must guard against the “encapsulation “of child sexual abuse. Levett (1989) refers to the tendency, because of the particular emotional connotations of child sexual abuse, to focus on it in isolation from the contexts in which it occurs. For children caught up in dire poverty, sexual abuse is likely to be only one of many issues facing them. Intervention that arises only because of, and focuses disproportionately on, sexual abuse will not necessarily address the matters that are of greatest concern to the child, and may contribute to the labelling and stigmatisation that sexual abuse tends to draw down on the victim.

We cannot address child sexual abuse without addressing poverty. I would suggest that the single most powerful intervention for reducing child sexual abuse, along with endless other ills affecting children, would be the introduction of a Basic Income Grant, as proposed by an increasingly large coalition of civil society organisations. Apart from reducing the worst extremes of the stresses of poverty, which in themselves are drivers of abuse and neglect, such a measure would:

How far can the current arguments about costs hold water when we are talking about the single intervention that could do most to give the children of our country back their childhood and restore some dignity to all, our people?


CIET Africa. Southern Metropolitan Local Council of Greater Johannesburg 1998. Prevention of sexual violence “a social audit of the role of the police in the jurisdiction of Johannesburg’s Southern Metropolitan Local Council.

CIET Africa 2002. Presentation to the Parliamentary Task Team on the Sexual Abuse of Children.

Gil. D. Have we really overcome Hitler? Paper presented at the 8th International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, ISPCAN, Hamburg, 1990.

Levett, A. “Child Sexual Abuse: the damaging effects of popular ideas”. In The Child Care Worker, 7(6), 9-11, 1989.

Loffell, J M. Social work intervention in child sexual abuse. Ph.D. thesis, Wits University, 1996.

Loffel I, J M. Towards effectiveness in services to sexually abused children in South Africa: some learning from a longitudinal study. Paper presented at SASPCAN conference. Durban, 1997.

Loney. M. “Child abuse in a social context”. In Stainton Rogers W et al (eds.) Child Abuse and Neglect “Facing the challenge, London. Open University, 88-96, 1989.

McKendrick, B. and Hoffman, W. (eds.). People and Violence in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1990.

NCCAN: National Strategy on Child Abuse and Neglect, Department of Welfare, Pretoria. 1996

Partnerships for Children and Families Project: Assorted conference and research papers Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada,

Parton, N. The Politics of Child Abuse, London: Macmillan, 1985.

SA Law Commission. Discussion Paper 103 “Project 110: Review of the Child Care Act. 2002

This feature: Loffell, J. (2002). Preventing child abuse. ChildrenFIRST Vol.6 No.45, pp.11-15

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