Study Investigates Protection of Child Victims During the Criminal Justice Process

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa states that every child has the right to be protected from abuse. However, in her work in law enforcement and social work, Ms Bathabile Ngubane (42) has witnessed child victims failed by the criminal justice system.

To identify the root causes, she embarked on a research study which saw her graduating with a Master’s in Child Care and Protection at UKZN in May. The dissertation was titled Challenges Facing Child Victims in South African Courts: An Overview of the South African Legal Framework and the Protection of Such Children, with a Specific Focus on Courts in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal and was supervised by Acting Dean and Head of the School of Law Mr Adrian Bellengère.

The study found that secondary victimisation of child victims is perpetrated by police officials when victims report the crime, health workers during medical examinations, court officials during court proceedings and correctional officials when granting parole without liaising with all parties involved.

It concluded that victims’ feelings are seldom considered in court proceedings on matters involving children. Factors that exacerbate the problem include postponement of trials; victims’ exposure to a stressful environment in courts and failure to protect the child victim outside of court.

‘Child victims of sexual offences have lost faith and trust in the criminal justice system. They often find themselves testifying in the presence of the perpetrator, which makes it very hard for them to cope. Victims often feel embarrassed and blame themselves for their victimisation and in many cases, this results in the withdrawal of charges or even not reporting the sexual assault,’ said Ngubane.

Advocating for a multi-disciplinary approach to improve the situation of child victims, she said: ‘Child victims need to obtain all the victim support available to assist them to cope with the ordeal of being sexually assaulted. They must be considered as an important part of all court processes and delays must be avoided as much as possible.’

The study’s recommendations include:

  • Enhanced protection of the child victim in and outside of court; 
  • The establishment of an educational desk at all police stations that is easily accessible to all community members;
  • Awareness campaigns to educate the community about sexual offences;
  • Amendment of Section 170A (1) of the Child Protection Act to make the appointment of intermediaries’ compulsory when dealing with cases involving child victims;
  • The South African Police Service (SAPS) and Departments of Social Development and Health should establish a 24-hour multi-disciplinary service where skilled detectives are available to attend to child victim cases;
  • Training of officials that deal with child victims of sexual violence;
  • Compulsory programmes to support and empower child survivors of sexual offences to be researched and considered;
  • Mandatory rehabilitation of offenders against child victims;
  • The criminal justice system should reconsider the rules relating to the granting of bail to alleged sexual assault perpetrators, especially when there is a risk that the perpetrator may encounter the child victim.

To empower herself in her quest to support vulnerable communities, Ngubane studied policing, social work and forensic investigation. ‘I want to provide the best service to all, so I continually improve my skills and expertise,’ she said.

In recognition of her sterling service, Ngubane was promoted from sergeant in the Pinetown Operational Command Centre in KwaZulu-Natal, to warrant officer in Mount Road Port Elizabeth Local Criminal Record Centre in the Eastern Cape.

She said: ‘My new qualification played a tremendous role in preparing me for my new responsibilities as a forensic investigator. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me go the extra mile to meet all the academic requirements. I would not have made it without the support and guidance of my supervisor Mr Adrian Bellengère.’

On future plans she said that she is looking forward to developing new skills in the forensic investigation field. ‘I will then look at taking a further step towards a doctorate specialising in child protection which is my passion,’ she added.

Words: Hazel Langa

Photograph: Abhi Indarajan