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Durban - South African mothers appear to be literally getting away with murder, experts say, and a child death review system will be piloted to try to bring them and other perpetrators to book.

Statistics show that an increasing number of children are dying at the hands of their mothers or caregivers as a result of child abuse, and often under the guise of discipline.

The child death review system, a Children’s Institute project, will soon be piloted in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape to reinvestigate all cases of child homicide.

Academics said fatal child abuse cases were “falling through the cracks” owing to incomplete police investigation, the absence of crucial evidence or the suspected perpetrators’ inabilities to stand trial.

Mothers were one of the most common perpetrators of child homicides for children under the age of 4 while their boyfriends were most often guilty of sexual crimes against children.

Dr Shanaaz Mathews, director of the Children’s Institute who will lead the review system project, said half of South African children were exposed to severe punishment at home.

“We are seeing a pattern of children under the age of 5, but particularly younger than a year, killed as a result of child abuse… Abuse is often in the context of corporal punishment where children are subjected to harsh and severe physical punishment under the guise of discipline.”

Mathews said there was also a problem of under-reporting of fatal child abuse cases such as poisoning – as toxicology results took five years to come back – and sudden infant death syndrome, in which the deaths seemed natural, but the children were possibly smothered.

A Medical Research Council research brief published in 2012, which examined child post-mortem results and interviewed police investigators, found that nearly half of all child homicides in 2009 were due to child abuse and neglect, while almost half of all girl homicides were perpetrated by their mothers.

Professor Naeemah Abrahams, deputy director of the council’s Gender and Health Research Unit, said the “biggest concern” was that most of the fatal child abuse cases were not making it to the courts although post-mortems clearly showed deaths from injuries specific to child abuse.

“We know from our experience that the parents and people around the home are mostly responsible for this, and mothers are the most common perpetrators. That is where the police should start looking.”

In many cases even the police strongly suspected the deaths were caused by the mothers, but could not secure the evidence to prosecute. This was one of the reasons for the pilot child death review system, Abrahams said.

Vanespiri Pillay, Childline KZN’s acting operations manager, said 1 180 abuse cases were reported to its crisis line over a six-month period. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse accounted for the most.

“There are many contributing factors, such as poverty, substance abuse, gambling addictions, poor disciplining/parenting skills, inability of parents to cope with the be- haviours presented by challenging children, lack of anger management skills on the part of parents and a lack of adequate supervision of minor children.

“In recent years an increasingly larger number of younger children are being sexually abused by persons known to them,” she said.

Jackie Branfield, the founder of Operation Bobbi Bear, said the physical abuse of children had escalated over the past five years, with children now not only raped, but killed and mutilated.

“There is an escalation of physical abuse that ends up in sexual abuse… Children are sitting ducks. They are being preyed on because there is nobody to stop (the perpetrators). These men are raping with impunity because they can.”

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The Mercury