23 January 2012

The road to justice

Intellectually disabled women are often sexually abused, and the perpetrators get off scot-free. But the success of the SAVE programme is changing that.


How would you feel about appearing in court to give evidence in a case of sexual abuse? Scared, nervous, afraid of being made to look foolish? Frightened of the consequences?

Imagine how much more scary it must be for the intellectually disabled (ID), who have been victims of this kind of assault. Which is why, in the past, perpetrators of sexual abuse against ID victims often managed to get away with it. Or thought they could, as there was a perception that the victims would not be able to testify against them, or that they would not be believed by the authorities.

But all that has changed. Seventeen years ago, an exceptional project, aimed at giving these people the opportunity to see their attackers behind bars, was launched by the Cape Mental Health Society in the Western Cape. It helps such victims of sexual abuse from disadvantaged communities to be properly prepared for, and assisted during, their court appearance. And the programme has had a phenomenal success rate.

High conviction rate
In fact, it has a conviction rate of 28,1%, which is higher than the provincial average in mainstream court cases, according to SAVE programme manager, Carol Bosch.

“These are particularly difficult cases for a court to resolve,” she explained. “Often an adult victim has a mental age of a small child and the victim, court and police need to be properly prepared to ensure justice is done.”

A recipient of a Silver Award from the Impumelelo Innovations Award Trust in 2007, SAVE is the only project of its kind in South Africa and is so effective that there is an eight-month waiting list of victims needing assessment before their cases can go to court.

The Sexual Abuse Victim Empowerment (SAVE) programme, a privately funded initiative, will be held up as a South African example of “Best Practice” at the upcoming Cape Mental Health Conference entitled “Exploring Service Excellence” taking place in Cape Town on October 21 and 22.

How the programme operates
SAVE employs four part-time psychologists and a team of 20 social workers who do clinical assessments and court preparation of victims, and provide ongoing support for victims and family members. The project also provides training to the SA Police Services and court officials.

Cape Mental Health launched the project 17 years ago to deal with a handful of cases involving victims with intellectual disability who needed to appear in court. Nowadays the psychologists see between seven and nine new victims a month who are referred by the Department of Justice for psychological assessment of their level of functioning and ability to testify as a witness.

Psychologist Jeanine Hundermark said the programme did not only provide trauma counselling, but also ensured that a victim appearing in court had the best possible chance of seeing justice served.

“The courts in the Western Cape are familiar with our programme and use our service,” she said. “It’s heartening to see that police and justice staff try to ensure that a victim with intellectual disability is helped as much as possible.”

ID vulnerable to sexual assault
Hundermark said people with intellectual disability were especially vulnerable to a sexual assault, because of the perception that they “couldn’t tell” or wouldn’t be believed by police or in court.

“This programme has been developed to give people with intellectual disability a voice,” she said. “The psychological testing establishes whether or not a victim can go to court as a reliable witness.”

At the upcoming Cape Mental Health conference Bosch will join colleagues René Minnies and Santie Terreblanche to speak on the topic “User Participation and the Role of Self Advocates” in a presentation entitled: “We can speak for ourselves.”

In recent years the SAVE Programme has seen an increasing number of victims from rural communities and, says Bosch, that the rights of people with intellectual disability would be given a huge boost were SAVE to be emulated by other provinces.

If you are interested in attending this conference, you can obtain information by phoning +27 21 4488475, or visiting the conference website .

(The conference is an accredited activity for CPD points with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and qualifies for 16 CPD points for 16 hours’ attendance.)

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, Of Course Media for Cape Mental Health)




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