Loss of innocence: Incest, other abuse damage children’s minds
Stabroek News – November 27, 2005
By Oluatoyin Alleyne
Jennifer (not her real name) is not your average nine-year-old. At an age when she should be enjoying childish things she has already lost her innocence. Jennifer has been raped repeatedly, has contracted a sexually transmitted infection, and has had to face the accused in court. Jennifer has had to grow up fast.
And as if that were not enough Jennifer’s mother forced her to lie about who had raped her. So Jennifer blamed her drug-addicted stepfather, the father of her mother’s last two children. But after months in the court, the child broke down on the witness stand confessing to the magistrate that her stepfather was not the perpetrator. She named the man.
He was a neighbour who was already before the courts on a carnal knowledge charge involving Jennifer’s six-year-old sister. The man was subsequently charged with committing the acts on Jennifer. Prima facie cases were made out against him in both instances and he is to face trial in the High Court.
This is just one of the horror stories that social workers at Help & Shelter encounter almost on a daily basis.
Counsellor Karen Gomes said when she spoke to the child something just was not “adding up.”
She said it was about two months after the neighbour had been charged with raping Jennifer’s younger sister that her mother indicated that the nine-year-old had also been raped and that she had contracted a sexually transmitted infection.
“The child related to me in front of her mother that her stepfather had raped her but when we were alone and I questioned her she was giving answers that were not adding up, but I could not pinpoint what it was,” Gomes said.
In the end it was discovered that Jennifer’s mother was already involved with someone else and therefore apart from his drug addiction, she had another reason for wanting to get rid of the father of her two younger children. For a long time, Gomes said, the woman was the sole breadwinner of the home.
While Help & Shelter usually deals with battered women, children are also taken there for assistance after suffering all forms of abuse. According to data kept by the agency, between November 1995 and September 2005, counsellors dealt with 241 cases of child rape and 16 cases of incest.
In addition, there were 30 cases of psychological abuse, 13 incidents of sodomy, six cases of alcohol-related abuse, 61 cases of non-physical abuse and four cases of physical abuse.
Of all the age groups, children between the ages of 12 and 14 suffered the worst. The data revealed that there were 243 cases of abuse among children aged 12 to 14 years old. Among those aged 15 to 17 years old there were 229 cases and 117 cases among those between the ages of nine to 11 years old. Fifty-six children under six years old were abused, and 96 between the ages of six and eight years old.
Of all the cases reported, girls were mostly abused with 622 cases on record. And because the centre is in Georgetown the highest number of reports (363) were from the city, followed by Demerara which had 315.
Meanwhile, Jennifer and her little sister, who number among the statistics above, are still living with their mother. Counsellors at Help & Shelter are counselling the children while the mother is being counselled by social workers at the Probation and Family Welfare Department of the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security.
Asked how she felt about the children remaining in the same environment even after it was learnt the extent to which their mother would go to get what she wanted, Gomes said there was nowhere else to place the children. While the father of the six-year-old wanted to take her, his reputed wife wanted nothing to do with the child.
Gomes added: “To be honest with you it doesn’t always work [to say] okay, she has committed a crime let’s jail her, now we don’t have anywhere to put these children what do we do with them? Or we can say fine, you have to be counselled on a regular basis if you don’t go to counselling then we would deal with you and take away these children. Helping her to deal with situations is better, I don’t want to sound like I am making excuses for what she would have done but sometimes circumstances that we might not even be able to comprehend because we are not in the position makes people do things.”
The woman continues to be counselled and she now has a better job.
Within the law
Meanwhile, Minister in the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security, Bibi Shadick recently said there were no cases where children were forced to return to abusive homes because there was nowhere to accommodate them.
“The thing is, however, the law as it stands does not allow us just to go and take children from their parents’ home, we have to go to the court and get that.
The new Children’s Bill is going to cater for that where children can be removed legally by officers,” the minister pointed out.
She said if a child were abused by his/her parents, the social workers work with parents. The child may be placed with another relative, but the parents would be allowed to see him/her.
“We have had cause to remove children from their parents because of the situations they are in. We have a children’s home at Mahaica where we house some children who are going to school. We have between 30 and 40 children… We continue to do things like that and we have accommodations and relationships with all homes – like institutions where we can have a child stay there for two months or so until we can place the child,” the minister said.
She mentioned the case of a 12-year-old who was removed from the home of a 71-year-old man after she was forced to live with him following a religious marriage sanctioned by her parents. “But we do it [remove children from their parents’ homes] on a case-by-case basis. The answer is not getting a home and putting these people inside – the answer is reintegrating and to see how we can resolve situations.”
The minister had recently said that a database to monitor violence against children was being set up in her ministry.
‘Voices of Children: Experiences with Violence’ a report on a recently-conducted study by UNICEF and its partners revealed that some children were disbelieved when they reported sexual abuse.
“The fact is that prevailing attitudes attach a great shame and even sometimes blame the child for being a victim of sexual abuse,” the study said. It stated that revelations of sexual violence were rarely kept confidential and this increased the pressure for the child to keep silent. Many of the children believed that it was the responsibility of the girl or woman to avoid sexual abuse and such an attitude, the study said, was typical of societies with unequal gender relations and was strongly associated with sexual violence.
While many cases of sexual abuse and incest are reported to health workers rather than to the police, the study found that the workers do not always know how to deal with them. It suggested that the workers need to be integrated into the network of authorities who deal with sexual abuse and to be sensitised regarding their role as key witnesses on behalf of child victims.
The study recommended that to prevent and protect children from sexual violence, children and adults should be sensitised to understand that sexual violence and harassment are never acceptable nor are they the fault of the victim.
Even though Help & Shelter’s records show only four cases of physical abuse over a number of years, Counsellor Carol Inniss-Baptiste said children are abused physically in about 95% of the homes in Guyana. She pointed out that any form of beating is abuse. “As long as you cause physical pain it is abuse.”
According to the counsellor because of the way Guyanese are socialised, physical abuse was not regularly frowned upon.
Gomes related that unless a case was really extreme where marks were left on the children’s bodies no one would notice.
“Children wouldn’t get up and say okay we are being abused, and apart from that very rarely the neighbour will report,” Gomes said.
One horrific incident of child abuse that comes to mind is that of 11-year-old Nordex Wilkinson who, according to her sister, experienced numerous brutal beatings at the hands of her father.
The child disappeared in September 2003 and according to her sister Keasha, it was after they had received one such beating and her sister became helpless that her father removed her from their Turkeyen home one night. She never saw her sister again and her father told her to inform anyone who asked that the child had left the country.
After the father continued to physically abuse Keasha, which included biting and being pelted, the child ran away and went to her aunt’s home where she reported that her older sister was missing.
The matter was reported to the police but by then the father had disappeared. He is believed to be in neighbouring Suriname. The police dug up the backyard of the house after Keasha indicated that Nordex may have been buried there but no body was found.
The last beating before Nordex’s disappearance was inflicted because the children had fried an egg.
“He ent beat we with no whip or belt he beat we with a piece of wood and then he cuff me and I fall down and didn’t know where I deh. But before that he take a scissors and clip Nordex throat. Then Nordex been waking me up from the ground after me father cuff me and she blood did dripping on me clothes from she throat,” was how six-year-old Keasha had described the events.
The children’s mother, Nudia Wilkinson had left their father after years of physical abuse and had not seen them for two years before she learnt of Nordex’s disappearance.
Several neighbours had said they were aware of the beatings but they never reported the father.
A woman who was associated with the children told relatives that she had seen the children after one of the beatings and did not see Nordex much longer after that.
According to the woman, both children bore evidence of severe beatings, but Nordex bore the burnt of it since her eyes were swollen, her face marked and there was an injury underneath her chin. She said the children told her that their father had beaten them and she fed them and sent them home. After some time their father told her that Nordex was “getting big and a little own way” so he had sent her back to her mother.
‘Where there is a will there is a way’
Inniss-Baptiste said changing the way society views physical abuse would be difficult but it is possible.
“Why must you discipline your child in pain when you can do it through love?” she questioned.
“You can hug your child and explain to them what they are doing is wrong.” were socialised and also because of the pressures parents face, especially single parents, it would sometimes be difficult for persons to discipline their children in such a manner, the counsellor rebutted, “where there is a will there is a way.”
“People don’t want to change, some want to continue in their ways where in most cases they take their stress out on the children.
“One lash or one slap could inflict a mark on a child; parents do not know the weight of their hands against the skin of a child or the weight of a belt.”
What parents teach
She said parents need to remember that they are teaching their children to deal with issues in a violent manner when they hit them. She noted that in some cases the parents beat the children not to tell lies but later would ask the child to tell a lie on their behalf. “Now how could you beat the child the next time he or she lies?” she asked rhetorically.
The UNICEF study found that there was no clear division between physical punishment like licks with a whip or belt and being hit with other objects such as kitchen utensils.
Rather, the report said, they perceived it as discipline whether it was punishment from lashes on the hand to beatings which bruise or break the skin to being hit with objects causing breaking of bones or unconsciousness. Some 3,855 children between the ages of three and 17 participated in the study.
The report also found that although the Ministry of Education has guidelines about corporal punishment in schools, classroom teachers in all government schools administered physical punishment.
The children described how teachers would lash them arbitrarily as they walked across the classroom.
Help & Shelter does not go out looking for children who are abused, but in most cases they are brought to the agency and are counselled and given court support when the alleged perpetrator is taken to court.
In some instances they are unable to do follow-up sessions with the children because the parents may not have money to travel to Help & Shelter or they may lack the will to do so.
“But we also accommodate sessions being done on the telephone,” Inniss-Baptiste said.
Police still learning
She noted that the police are still learning how to deal with child abuse and domestic violence matters.
However, she commended a police officer for taking a 16-year-old to the Help & Shelter recently after she went to the police station to make a report against her father who had been physically abusing her. The child was counselled and did not return to the home as she had an alternative place of accommodation. The child, she said, went through with the report which saw her father being charged and taken to court.
“What is sad, and it happens in so many instances, on the day of the case the perpetrator had all the support from relatives while the child was made to look like the guilty person. It was very good that we had our court support officer with her which helped her to deal with the situation since she was very much afraid.”
It was learnt that the child had a younger sibling and the father physically abused both of them.
The younger child was not attending school at the time and the counsellor said she later spoke to the father and learnt that he himself did not go far in school and was physically abused as a child. The court matter ended with the father being placed on one year probation and given a two-month suspended sentence. He is also being counselled at the Probation and Family Welfare Department while the children will continue to be counselled by Help & Shelter.
“And even though the children are living away from the father they still see him. It is not a case where they hate him; they just hated what he did to them. The first time I saw the child when she was brought by the police officer her entire face was swollen and black and blue.”