by Arlene London
August 29, 1999
What is child abuse?
It is the physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect or general maltreatment of a child.
Physical abuse is the intentional physical injury or pattern of injuries caused by a parent, guardian or caregiver.
Signs of physical abuse
- unexplained bruises
- fractures to limbs
- head injuries
Behaviour associated with physical abuse includes fear, timidity, violence towards others, being afraid to go home and resisting physical contact.
The following are some of the injuries to children noticed by counsellors and workers in the field of child welfare in Guyana. Most of the children were twelve years or under.
- marks and welts on the body made by belt buckles
- holes on the skin (inclusive of lips) made by cigarette butts
- broken ribs due to kicks or cuffs
- cuts and bruises about the body, especially the middle and lower back and abdomen made by cutlasses, sticks, paling staves, iron bars or other instruments
- swollen or cut foreheads due to slamming against walls
In one case the fingers of a child were badly burnt after her mother plunged them into a pot of boiling rice because she stole meat from her stepfather's food, while another's face was branded with a hot iron. Yet another was chained in a standing position for the whole day while his father went to work.
Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in any sexual practice with an adult or older child. It includes fondling of private parts, making suggestions of a sexual nature and penetration (anal, oral or vaginal).
Signs of sexual abuse
- precocious sexual behaviour
- unexplained bleeding or discharge from genital or anal areas
- stress related disorders
- infections in the mouth or throat
- sexually transmitted diseases
- loss of appetite
- unexplained vomiting and gagging
- ruptures to the wall of the vagina, uterus and/or anus
A sexually abused child would be withdrawn, depressed, self destructive, obsessed with private parts, fearful and sometimes suicidal.
Emotional abuse is the repeated rejection and humiliation of a child, constant negative communication, withholding love and affection and the ultimate destruction of the child's self esteem.
Signs of emotional abuse
_ physical problems resulting from stress
- poor performance at school
- low self esteem
This form of abuse would cause a child to be depressed, excessively passive or aggressive, slow in development and have sleep problems.
Child neglect is the failure, intentional or unintentional, of a parent or guardian to provide the basic needs of a child. There is physical neglect, the failure to provide food, shelter, clothing, health care and protection for a child; emotional neglect, the failure to provide consistent love and nurture for a child and educational neglect, which is the failure to enrol children in school and ensure they attend regularly.
Signs of neglect
- unkempt appearance
- lack of medical and dental care
- consistent hunger
- poor hygiene
- drug and alcohol use by the child
- lack of parental concern for the safety and supervision of the child
- failure to attend school regularly
- lack of books, uniforms, pens and pencils, lunch, etc.
- failure of the child to progress intellectually
Some forms of behaviour associated with neglect include:
- not wanting to go home from school
- frequent absence from school
- consistent fatigue and listlessness
- falling asleep in class
- running away
- sleep disorders
- hysteria, obsession
- passive-aggressive behaviour
- anti-social and destructive behaviour
- attempted suicide
- alcohol and drug abuse
As a parent you can be alert
- never leave a young child alone, even in a car
- listen to your child when he/she says that he/she does not want to be with someone or wants to talk to you about something, and always believe what your child is telling you
- get to know your child's friends and activities
- be aware of changes in your child's behaviour
- do not dress your child in clothes which display your child's name. Anyone with bad intentions can pretend to know your child, which gives the child a false sense of security
- be sure that your child's school or nursery does not allow anyone other than yourself or someone you have identified to collect your child from school
- talk to your child about whom to talk to or call when lost or separated from parent or guardian away from home
The maximum penalties for certain forms of child abuse are as follows:
rape - life imprisonment
carnal knowledge of a female below 13 - life imprisonment
above 13 - five years (the age of consent being 13 years)
incest (below 16 years) - seven years
buggery - life imprisonment
indecent assault (an act which the public would find grossly indecent, not necessarily sexual) - two years
assault - five years
simple assault - one year
(N.B. What is stated above represents only the maximum sentences. Judges and magistrates, especially in sexual assault cases, have a certain amount of discretion in sentencing, and may choose to hand down a sentence below the maximum.)
Counselling the abused child
Child abuse cases are sometimes brought to the attention of the Help and Shelter organisation by a visit or phone call from a concerned parent, guardian or neighbour.
When an instance of abuse is reported the parties involved are invited in for counselling, which means that all the parties will be present at the same time. A letter is sent to the alleged perpetrator of the abuse, who in most cases turns up out of fear or curiosity.
In collaboration with the family welfare and probation service of the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security the abused child is medically examined and the home visited to ascertain whether criminal charges can be laid against the abuser.
Sunday Stabroek spoke to Elizabeth Cox, director, Lisa Thompson director, counsellor and training co-ordinator and Pat Shreeratan, fund raising and marketing manager of Help and Shelter about the organisation's approach to child abuse.
Through counselling some cases have been successfully concluded while others have remained unresolved because of non-attendance by counselees. A lack of financing or having better things to do with their time were some of the reasons offered by parents for non-attendance at counselling sessions. The child who is under age and dependent on his or her parents therefore has no choice but to miss these important sessions.
The counsellors have found that some parents are hesitant, mainly in sexual abuse cases to follow through with legal proceedings because the abuser may be the breadwinner of the family or they may be wrongfully angry with the child for allowing the abuse to happen, or at themselves for not being aware of it. What eventually happens is that the victim is left in the abusive situation after receiving little or no help.
They opined that the major contributor to child abuse in the society is the attitude of parents and/or guardians who see children as their property, which gives them a free reign to discipline them as they see fit. It is, however, hard to imagine the chaining of a child to a bed, beating him or her with an electric cable or pushing them down a stairway as constituting discipline.
They also noted that children are not respected enough and are seen as second class citizens who have no opinions or contributions of their own towards the good of society. Some parents also use their religious convictions to justify child abuse.
What eventually happens is that our children are so terribly bent out of shape that they end up perpetrating the same acts when they themselves become parents, continuing a vicious cycle of abuse.
They are also of the view that over one third of Guyana's children have been sexually abused, with no bias according to region or wealth. This form of abuse is committed only rarely by strangers; it is far more usual for the perpetrators to be persons trusted and close to victims.
According to statistics compiled by Help and Shelter, sexual abuse accounts for more than 50 per cent of cases reported to the organisation. Out of 295 reported cases between November 1995 and June 1999, 162 were of a sexual nature.
Elizabeth Cox, a director of the Help and Shelter organisation expressed the view that Guyana is a very incestuous society, but it is not much talked about because the subject is taboo.
One difficulty faced by the organisation is the lack of systems in place to support the abused child. As an organisation, Help and Shelter has no legal powers to take a child out of an abusive situation. If a parent or guardian, for the safety of a child, desires to have them housed in Help and Shelter's facilities, a written and signed letter of permission would have to be lodged with the organisation.
However, Help and Shelter is at present trying to bolster its facilities with the construction of a crisis centre expected to be completed by January 2000. The organisation not only sees the construction of the crisis centre as a major step in the struggle against domestic violence and child abuse but also as a major contributor toward poverty alleviation in partnership with government.
Another cause for frustration is the lack of support from police officers to whom reports of child abuse, especially physical abuse, are made. Individuals complain about not receiving the necessary support from officers, especially in rural communities when they are asked to intervene in cases of child abuse or domestic violence.
The counsellors noted that while the Domestic Violence Act is disregarded by some officers, the Convention on the Rights of the Child would be toothless unless law officers were made aware of their duties and responsibilities in abuse cases.
When contacted the Police Public Relations Officer, Ivelaw Whittaker said that he was unaware of any individual case and therefore he was unable to comment. However, he noted that police officers were trained in those areas and were therefore expected to follow through with what they were trained to do.
Help and Shelter offers counselling services for all forms of abuse, support through the court experience for victims of rape and child sexual abuse and consciousness raising for the community.
Although their work is concentrated in Region Four, Help and Shelter has been able to touch outlying communities through outreach and public education programmes. Plans are afoot to establish a more comprehensive public education programme once the necessary funding is available.
'Family secrecy is a major hindrance to prosecution' -- Deputy Chief Probation and Welfare Officer
The Probation and Family Welfare Department of the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security is integrally involved in cases of child abuse.
Reports can be made by parents, teachers or concerned citizens who may have noticed signs and symptoms of child abuse to the nearest police station or any agency or organisation with responsibility for the welfare of children. Such cases can be referred to the department which will investigate and deal with the matter. In severe cases of abuse the police would be called in to bring charges against the perpetrators.
Sunday Stabroek spoke with Ann Greene who is the Deputy Chief Probation and Welfare Officer in the Ministry's Probation and Family Welfare Department. She pointed out that child abuse is an old problem with a new awareness.
With reference to how a child can be protected in instances of abuse Green noted that the department does not have the power to take a child out of an abusive home unless it can be proven that the child is in immediate danger. It would not be a criminal offence if a concerned citizen took a child away from a home once if the child's life was in immediate danger.
Under the Domestic Violence Act, she noted, an order of protection can be applied for from the Magistrate's court. The magistrate can then order the child removed from the home to a safe place or the abusive parent removed.
She also mentioned that under the Juvenile Offenders Act a child who runs away from home can be charged as a delinquent. A probation officer is then assigned to the case to investigate the state of the child's home. It is then decided in the best interest of the child whether or not he or she will be removed from the home and placed in the protective custody of relative or guardian.
When instances of abuse are brought to the attention of the department the parties involved are called in for counselling. The probation officer tries to ascertain the reason for the abuse which may be stress related, or as a result of high expectations of the child by the parent. Parents are then helped with their parenting skills and briefed on their role and functions as a parent while the home is placed under supervision.
If a parent is unable to cope with the behaviour of a child they can request supervision from the probation and family welfare department. A probation officer would be assigned to the child who would receive counselling in substance abuse, on how to be selective in choosing friends and would be required to report to the department after school hours.
Greene referred to family secrecy as a major hinderance in the prosecution of some cases.
She made reference to the added pressure of extra lessons on students preparing for examinations as a new form of abuse in which they are made to feel anxious and stressed out because of the high expectations of their parents. She also noted an increase in child neglect cases as a result of the type of jobs their parents do which require long hours and night duties.
The probation and family welfare department of the ministry also sponsors workshops and seminars for professional organisations, church groups and persons in the field of education in recognising the signs and symptoms of abuse and the necessary action to be taken.
Prosecuting child abuse cases
Prosecuting a child abuse case is no different from other cases. Special consideration is only given in cases of sexual abuse, namely, incest and rape. For the victim the legal system provides some measure of privacy by hearing the case in a closed court allowing only the victim, the defendant and their respective attorneys along with the presiding magistrate into the sessions.
Restrictions are also placed on the publishing of the name or any information that would reveal the identity of the victim in the media in an effort to protect their privacy.
According to a legal source, incest, rape and child neglect cases involving babies and young children are becoming more prevalent. However parents are tolerant of these activities and hardly ever follow through with legal proceedings.
In cases of physical abuse, in order for there to be a case it has to be established that there was actual bodily harm to the child.
In prosecuting sexual abuse cases difficulties arise when a baby or a very small child is involved. It is hardly possible for such a victim to give evidence in a court of law. At times when the child is a little older they may lack the intellectual ability to describe the nature of the assault to the court.
There is also a religious aspect that sometimes frustrates the successful completion of a case. Some victims may be able to express themselves intellectually but lack the necessary religious knowledge to be sworn in. In effect they are unable to say anything comprehensive about God, hence they have to give unsworn testimony.
This necessitates the existence of a witness who can corroborate the evidence given by the victim. In the absence of such a person or evidence the magistrate cannot commit the accused to stand trial in the High Court. This remains a major difficulty because most sex offences are committed in secluded or deserted places where the presence of a witness is unlikely.
When asked about the length of time sexual assault cases take to be prosecuted the source explained that there are a number of determining factors. In the passage of time the child who is obviously older may be embarrassed at the proceedings so is therefore deemed a reluctant witness, or the parents may have settled out of court or are reluctant to carry through because of fear or the accused being the breadwinner of the family.
In other cases the accused may not have been in custody and is therefore not found when the case is ready to be heard, or witnesses may be unavailable.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples