Earlier this month a water polo coach at a prestigious Johannesburg school was arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting more than 20 boys. In a separate incident, a female teacher at a Northern Cape school was suspended after allegedly sexually assaulting a female pupil.
These aren’t isolated incidents, and nor are they limited to cases of sexual assault, or learners. Approximately 700 cases of elderly abuse have been reported to the Department of Social Development in the last five years. Mental health patients suffer the same, sometimes at the hands of those whose responsibility (by choice or by profession) it is to care for them.
Prevention Starts With Effective Screening
Surprisingly, there are no effective checks in place to protect the elderly, mentally ill, and mentally handicapped. A simple background screening, criminal record, and reference check constitutes the screening strategy of most government institutions when it comes to the hiring of nurses. NGOs aren’t compelled to have any screening strategies in place (although many of them do) whatsoever.
According to a source at one of the country’s leading mental health institutions, a distinction between nurses and carers is also important; where nurses are subject to rules and regulations of a regulatory body, carers on the other hand aren’t. Abuse, my contact assures me, is often (but not always) at the hands of carers who remain by and large unregulated.
With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in most cases those entrusted with the care of infants and children are, at most, subject to the same screening requirements as the carers mentioned above – which is to say, it’s at the discretion of the employer.
CarerCheck is a CSI Africa initiative which was initially developed to help schools comply with the Children’s Act of 2005. It’s scope has since been extended into the secondary education sector. It verifies the identity and credentials as well as criminal record status of individuals applying for positions as carers or teachers.
CarerCheck, however, is only a safeguard against individuals who have already been identified as a potential risk to infants and young learners. In other words, if there are records of misconduct or references willing to confirm wrongful or inappropriate behaviour, CarerCheck will pick it up.
To this end additional layers of screening should be implemented. Among the most effective of these is polygraph testing.
Adding Another Layer of Protection
To date polygraph testing is seen as a measure employed in commercial and investigative scenarios. In many cases its aim is to determine whether a specific situation, such as suspicions of theft or fraud or corporate espionage, warrants further investigation.
For that very reason it can also provide the means to identify instances of abuse, or at least incidents that warrant further investigation. It boasts an accuracy rate between 85% and 95%, and also increases the potential of a confession related to wrongful behaviour (we see this rather often).
A sound employment strategy will therefore include both background screening and pre-employment polygraph testing, as well as subsequent periodic polygraph testing. These methods, especially periodic polygraph testing, also act as a deterrent and can help prevent wrongful conduct.
The water polo coach mentioned earlier is young, and had been a learner at the very school at which he was employed. There’s no reason to suspect that there was any record of previous wrongdoing. And yet, 20 young boys are now the victims of abuse.
Whether you agree with background screening and polygraph testing or not, at least we can all agree that more should be done. It’s time we lend our voices to those who cannot speak out for themselves by demanding effective protection strategies from those institutions where they are entrusted.