The potential foster parents seated in the lounge of the Colonial-eraHOUSE in Parktown, Johannesburg, can’t help staring at the teenage girl bouncing past them.
She’s striking, with long, blond hair, a wide smile, azure eyes and a vivacious personality. She greets the strangers confidently.
“She was sexually abused by her father with her mother’s agreement, from very, very young,” Guild Cottage Director Trish Heslop said in the privacy of her office.
“As a littleGIRL of about 5, she was deflecting abuse from her [three] younger siblings. She took the brunt of it — sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, beaten with a stick. …”
Heslop explained that child welfare authorities removed Jessica — not her real name — from this brutal environment when she was 8.
“She was put into foster care, where she was again sexually abused, by her foster father. Again she was removed and put into various places of safety. Then she came to us, because some of her behavior wasHARD for her very religious foster family to bear,” Heslop said. “But fortunately she’s a child with great resilience, and a child who’s smart.”
Lack of treatment centers
Jessica, now 15, is one of an estimated 4 million children younger than 16 in South Africa who’ve suffered sexual abuse, said Heslop, quoting data from various sources, including thePOLICE.
Despite this statistic, and research by the country’s Medical Research Council saying half the nation’s children will be sexually abused before age 18, Guild Cottage is the only specialist residential treatment center for such traumatized youngsters in South Africa.
“Of the horrific numbers of children that get harmed in this way, we only have theFUNDING and facilities to help 18 children at a time,” Heslop said.
The residents are age 7 to 16.
“Most of the sexual abuse is incest. And most of the kids we have here are children who have been sexually abused within the family. Most of those are stepfathers, mother’s new partner, sometimes brothers, grandfathers, uncles, neighbors,” Heslop said.