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How do we help children exposed to criminal violence?


How do you help children forced to watch while their mom is gangraped? Or a shy, teenage boy whose mother remains silent when a gang threatens to rape him unless she reveals the safe? (*see below for help organisations)

Perhaps the more important question is why are there not massive campaigns in schools to help children traumatised by burglaries, those present during armed robberies, hijackings, the rape or murder of a parent? Why do we assume children are resilient, that their silence means they are coping, that their refusal to discuss the matter means we should desist from doing anything?

Yesterday I returned from lunch to find this note: “A week ago my daughter returned home in the evening. She saw a BMW higher up the street and thought it was safe to open the gates. As she got out of her car four armed men confronted her and forced her in at gun point.

“The family was rounded up, beaten and made lie on the floor. They kicked them and shouted for guns and demanded cash. They took her husband’s wallet but there was not much money in it then threatened to rape the son if they were not given more money. My daughter has a safe hidden in her bedroom where she keeps cash.

“Her son pleaded with her to please give them the money instead of keeping quiet. She took two robbers to the bedroom. They opened the safe and removed R10 000. They put a gun to her groin and asked if she wanted them to fuck her. They tied them all up and left.

“The family have a counsellor but the child is in a bad state. He complained that his mother should have given them the money straight away. What advice can you give me?”

This case is typical of many. Usually though the mother gets raped, most often next to her bound husband and always with the children forced to watch and sometimes even to hold her hands down.

The rape is a deliberate act of profound aggression against the men in that house. It wounds far more deeply and for longer than if they shoot the men. All men see themselves as protectors and when they cannot act against such criminality it emasculates them — and let’s be quite clear, we don’t want them to act, because if they do, the whole family dies. Their inaction is profound courage because it ensures life for all and there are ways to get over the deep scarring, but more about that in another blog.

Let’s get back to the children. They have imperfect ideas about sex and are then forced to watch their mother get raped. It’s worse if they are in a home where sex is a taboo because the family then collapses after such an assault and it requires a complete reworking of all.

If a child is threatened with harm it is critical that parents react immediately, no amount of money is worth harm implied or real, give robbers the car keys, show them the safe (and ideally never have a gun or a safe in your home, it always makes you a target), give them the ATM card and the correct PIN. We can earn more money, insurance will pay out most losses, we can replace jewellery, but life and the mind are fragile.

Let’s first deal with a mom raped in front of her children. In one case, a divorced mom was asleep in her bed when a rock was thrown through her window, destroying the burglar bars and allowing entrance to a gang of three. They woke the children and loaded loot into the mom’s car, then raped her, forcing the children to watch — hitting them when they averted their gaze.

They then forced the mother into the car with the son. They left the 10-year-old daughter at the house with one of the gang and made the mother drive the car, with a firearm to the 11-year-old boy’s head. At one stage the mother began sobbing but her son reached over and touched her shoulder, “mom, we’re going to be alright”. She says that somehow cleared her mind and she remained calm, but fearful, as they drove to Soweto. The robbers made them get out and kneel while they removed the goods from the car and disappeared into the night.

The mother and son raced home to find the petrified daughter locked in a bathroom. The robber guarding her, left not long after the mother drove off. She was not physically harmed. But the children refused to return to school. The son was perpetually angry.

And this is where psychologists and psychiatrists have to change the way they deal with these matters, the first consult with such traumatised individuals cannot be 55 minutes, with a clock being watched above their heads. It has to be as long as it takes and in my experience it is never less than three hours and often more.
While the incident is important and the initial recounting of it is critical, it’s most important that you get the family to move forward. I speak to the family together then each separately. I showed each child how they had behaved heroically and in a manner necessary for the family to live. Then I began negotiating about their return to school and asked their permission to address classmates and we discussed how I would do it.

Both went to exclusive schools. At each school I made the teachers sit at the back and started by asking children whose home had been burgled, nearly all. Who was present during a hijacking, armed robbery, who had been tied up, who had someone in their family raped or murdered, I could hear the stifled gasp of teachers as large numbers of children raised their hands. And this repeats itself at schools of all socio-economic strata.

The next step is to ask the children what actions from others helped — most often it is people who allow them to speak without giving advice, a supportive friend … What didn’t help — those who tell them what they should have done eg fought, who told them not to talk about it, not to cry, not to tell anyone.

The words that helped or didn’t help — most hated words include: time will heal, forget about it, get on with your life, aren’t you lucky (to be alive), don’t say anything it upsets your mother/father/grandfather etc …

And then I give a brief overview of what happened to the family — the kids have already heard rumours — so I begin a process of managing the information. I always point out the child’s heroic deed. Then I say, “John is nervous about coming back to school, what do you think you need to do to make it easier for him?” The teachers are not allowed to intervene, the children have to manage this process and they come up with wonderful ideas every time. They also have to say if it is better that the child returns, tomorrow, in three days or a week — usually restricted by whatever the children put in place to welcome their friend back.
And so they heal understanding that they all need healing. But we have to put them in charge; criminals remove our freedom, we have to help those harmed take it back and we need to honour them in that process.

In the instance where a child feels betrayed by a parent? We explain fear, how some people become very clear-headed and rational, others panic and fumble. When we don’t forgive each other, the criminals win. They leave, they’ve forgotten about us, but we, fallible humans, carry the nightmare they left behind, we argue, we blame and we forgot those who are really at fault.

Most of all, if there has been a violent event where children were present, take them for help; let them express themselves. Don’t respond to their anger with anger. Be an adult, a loving, courageous parent. How we cope will determine how they learn to cope.

  • Excellent organisations to assist children: National — Childline, Lifeline will give good referrals. Johannesburg — Teddy Bear Clinic, Kidz Clinic in Boksburg. Cape Town — Rapcan. Durban — Bobby Bear. Port Elizabeth — Rape Crisis. Venda — Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Centre. Nelspruit — GRIP.
  • View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.
  • Author

    • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


    1. Plonked Plonked 1 December 2009

      Charlene you are still addressing the problem after the event. Its too late. We need to understand how to prevent violence and crime happening.

      Results of the National Demonstration Project, June-July, 1993. Social Indicators Research, 47(2): 153-201. Effects of group practice of the Transcendental Meditation program on preventing violent crime in Washington D.C.:

    2. Judith Judith 1 December 2009

      THank you Charlene for your wonderful compassion and your amazing ability to do the right thing! May others learn from you as I have done

    3. mjs mjs 1 December 2009

      i actually felt angry,sad and anxious
      but after reading your article I am very
      grateful to you.

    4. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 1 December 2009

      As long as South Africa is a land where crime pays, the situation will not improve. People even in the highest office in the land literally get away with murder so if they can do it, why not us??
      I think that we have to get cops in from overseas during the world cup, as our cops need to be free to continue with their rape of the country? Who really trusts a cop these days? Are there any good ones left? The days of Al Capone and bad cops is waht South Africa has now. Viva ANC Viva.

    5. Brett Nortje Brett Nortje 1 December 2009

      The godless, shameless ANC promised us a modus vivendi between black and white – does this sound to anyone like a modus vivendi? The one thing that the ANC could bring to the table when it was unbanned was the promise of peace and stability when this country had a legitimate elected government. Does it sound to anyone as if the ANC has kept its promises? It is a damning indictment of the ANC’s ‘transformation’ of the criminal justice system that such a discussion even takes place.

      The ANC are not the only shameless ones here. Charlene Smith uses these little children’s tragic reality to take a side-swipe at gun owners. How does a family member owning a gun make these families a target? Does Smith have any proof for the proposition that these home-invaders go around with a list from the local firearm registration centre specifying which are gun-owning households and that those are the households which get hit?

      The SAPS went to a great deal of effort – not least, a well publicised media campaign – to intimidate gun owners into locking their registered firearms in gun safes. Deliberately ensuring those guns were not at hand when needed.


      Now the accusation is that a gun in the home merely makes you a target?

      What is mine is mine, Charlene. Take careful note.

      Sorry to disappoint you, but I guess you will not be playing my saviour, huh?

    6. Brett Nortje Brett Nortje 1 December 2009

      Rape: A weapon of war
      Egloo Sibanda looks me in the eye and says with determination: “I want you to use my real name. For too long, Zimbabwean women have been silent about the crimes against them. It’s not going to solve anything if we keep hiding.”

      We are in a small room at the Southern African Centre for Survivors of Torture in Braamfontein, where a few women are sharing their stories with the Mail & Guardian. They are from Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo — countries where sexual violence is commonly used as a systemic form of torture.

      “Women are vulnerable to torture and its effects, specifically because rape is used as a weapon of war against them,” says Anna Moyo, legal officer at the centre.

    7. MLH MLH 1 December 2009

      Can’t not comment! But I’m shattered!
      I cannot believe you deal with these things regularly and maintain equilibrium.
      Your story speaks to a friend’s experience years ago, when her twins were about three. Seventeen years later, I can see why they have struggled so.

    8. Moss Moss 1 December 2009

      Reading this brought tears to the eyes of this middle-aged man, Charlene. Your words on the use of rape as a means of exerting power and emasculating men are truly profound. Keep up the wonderful work you’re doing.

    9. Charlene Smith Charlene Smith Post author | 1 December 2009

      * Plonked – I have yet to hear a solution from you, let’s hear them.
      * Brett Nortje – Brett, the minute they come in they ask for guns, I’m pretty certain if I had had one it would have been used on me. Do what you believe is best. They do this all the time, I hope you can succesfully take out a gang of 4 with guns. Lots of those I deal with have guns, none have been able to use them – including highly trained cops & specialist military guys – in every instance the criminals have taken them – to use on others. We’re all big with advice until it happens to us

    10. Peter Pumkin Eater Peter Pumkin Eater 1 December 2009

      Until we speak to sociologists and criminologists about solutions, ranting about crime or moaning about the cops and government will not help.

    11. Rory Short Rory Short 1 December 2009

      @plonked two things:
      1. These awful events are happening and the survivors need to be lifted up. This contribution of Charlene is about doing that.
      2. Governments are elected, and paid by the citizens, with the purpose of ensuring the safety of all citizens. Unfortunately the present government does not appear to be able to do that very effectively. It would be great if it could carry out all its responsibilities as effectively as it has managed to do in bringing the tax system in to order.

    12. Glynis Smith Glynis Smith 1 December 2009

      You read an article full of compassion and humanity and all you can see is a warning that gun ownership may make you a target?
      Words fail me

    13. mj mj 1 December 2009

      Our children in this country are not only expose to the criminal violence but also to our role models from the old school who are aggressive,
      violent,practice bigotry,racists,……..etc
      I am afraid to say our psychological problems
      are much more greater..
      14 years into our democracy it has not improved at all…
      In Pretoria it is common to find these types of
      personalities even in professions eg legal,medical
      and clergy.

    14. Paul S Paul S 2 December 2009

      What a sickening read – absolutely made my skin crawl. I know you do this with the best intentions, but all I can think is THANK GOD I NO LONGER LIVE IN THAT PITIFUL COUNTRY.

    15. Plonked Plonked 2 December 2009

      Hi Charlene

      Maybe you did not read my post properly. I supplied a link to research on a 23% drop in violent crime in Washington DC. If that were implemented in SA it would be good. The research was conducted in 1993 and published in “Social Science Indicators’.

      I am not saying that is the only solution, but as a journalist writing about violent crime you should be researching potential solutions for your readers, otherwise we are either just marking time or sliding downhill.


    16. Plonked Plonked 2 December 2009


      Governments are a reflection of the collective consciousness of the people. The people of this country need to develop a ‘solution consciousness’ otherwise these horrendous crimes will just continue as they are or get worse. In fact we cannot wait for governments to do things, we citizens have to look for solutions and lobby governments to implement them, otherwise nothing happens, look at climate change, whether you are in an industialised democracy or the third world, governments most places do the absolute minimum.

    17. Brett Nortje Brett Nortje 2 December 2009

      Glynis, Charlene picked this fight – not I.

      If I had the magic wand we would not see the little children with thousand-yard stares (like the Bosnian refugees we used to see on CNN 15 years ago) on Carte Blanche regularly.

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