Understanding child sexual offending in Johannesburg: evidence from case files

Mhlanga, Nokhetho P
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Introduction: South Africa is a highly violent country and the violence manifests in different forms including sexual violence. Almost half of the sexual violence cases reported to the police are those of child victims. Whilst there is variability in who commits these sexual crimes; research indicates that approximately 42% of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by children and hence there is a need to understand child sexual offending in order to inform early interventions. Thus, this study focuses on understanding child perpetrators. Children are a difficult population to research due to ethical constraints around research with minors, and yet it is important to generate first-hand information from them in order to inform evidence-based interventions. Research that exists in the field of child sexual offending behaviour mainly focuses on generating typologies of child sex offenders. Thus, there remains a lack of research to facilitate societal knowledge and understanding of this phenomenon beyond incidence, prevalence and typologies. Study aim and objectives: The aim of this study was to explore and gain an understanding of child sex offending with the view of making recommendations to inform intervention programmes for children in conflict with the law. The objectives of the study were to: 1. Describe the profile of the referred child offenders using demographic information. 2. Describe the circumstances surrounding child sex offending. 3. Describe the societal context of child sex offending. Methods: A mixed method review approach was used. The study included a desk-top, document review located in an exploratory research design. Data were made available to the researcher from pre-recorded intake and assessment forms from an organisation that receives child sexual offenders for a diversion programme. These data were a mixed quantitative (demographics) and qualitative (descriptions from interviews with the referred child) accounts from the respondents. Thus, a non-probability, purposive sampling method was used based on a predetermined selection criteria. The inclusion criteria were that the case must have been referred from court and the client must be male. The sample consisted of a detailed analysis of twenty case files of child sex offenders who were referred to a diversion programme offered by an organisation in Johannesburg working in the child protection sector. The information gathered from the documents was analysed in two ways: demographic data was analysed and presented quantitatively, and the qualitative interview data were subjected to thematic analysis. As a desk-top study, the researcher faced limitations, including the inability to control for the incomplete documents and an inability to probe for information from the actual subjects. Ethical clearance to proceed with the study was obtained from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Non-medical Ethics Committee. Research findings: The findings confirm that, apart from male sex, children who had committed a sexual offence were not a homogeneous group. The youngest respondent in the study was 11 years of age, the majority were14 and 16 years of age, and the oldest 18 years of age. Seventeen of the respondents attended mainstream schooling, with only three reported to attend specialised schooling. The respondents came from a lower socio-economic class. Many of the respondents lived in high population density and high crime areas such as inner-city or township areas. The research demonstrated a strong paternal absence. The findings indicate that the respondents came from a variety of family structures ranging from single-parented, blended family, the traditional nuclear, and the extended family structure. Most of the cases recorded a form of intention in engaging in the sexual act. None of the respondents reported inflicting physical force to obtain compliance from their victims. The nature of the sexual acts committed consisted of behaviours such as touching of genitals to intrusive sexualised behaviour such as attempted rape and rape. The victims were mainly females, mainly younger than the perpetrator and known to the perpetrator. Discussion: The findings suggest that gender power and control may have bearing in the dynamics of child sexual offending. Media and peers appeared to be the common influence in the child offender’s acquiral of information pertaining to sexuality. The link between prior sexual abuse and child offending was not confirmed in this study, as only one child had indicated that they were a victim of sexual abuse. A common circumstantial feature of the sexual acts was familiarity and the presence of trust between the victim and the perpetrator, which was used opportunistically to approach the victim. Conclusions: There is no single risk factor characterising child sexual offending. Rather there is an interplay of factors and therefore sexual offending behaviour cannot be explained in terms of an overt contributing factor. However, it is also apparent that child sexual offending cannot be divorced from contextual influence. The context provides a space for learning to occur and presents opportunity to enact behaviour. Recommendations: The study highlighted a paucity of knowledge regarding child sexual offending, from the offender’s perspective in the South African urban context. Qualitative research studies are by design contextual; therefore, replication studies are required in different contexts to contribute to the understanding of child sex offenders. It is recommended that replication studies take into consideration the variables outlined in the findings of the current study
This research report is submitted as partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Social and Psychological Research in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, 2021