Inclusive, Enabling Communities

Inclusive, Enabling Communities
Learning Brief

Children's Institute

Reporting child abuse and neglect: What you need to know

Category: Inclusive, Enabling Communities | Women and children affected by abuse/violence | 12 January, 2015 - 09:55



Violence against children is a pervasive problem that affects large numbers of children in South Africa[1]. Yet, child abuse and neglect is largely under-reported. Between 2011 and 2012, roughly 25 862 children were reported victims of sexual offences, and another 23 000 children were physically assaulted – almost half of them suffering grievous bodily harm[2]. These reported cases are only a small proportion of the total number of crimes against children. An Eastern Cape study found that when asked, 89% of young women and 94% of young men said they had experienced harsh physical punishment, and almost 40% were sexually abused before age 18 but most did not report these incidences of abuse[3].

The Children's Act and the Sexual Offence Act both establish mandatory reporting obligations to report abuse. Failure to report is a criminal offence, but more importantly it could leave a child at risk without support and services. This learning brief explains when the different obligations apply, to whom and what must be reported, and how to go about reporting abuse and neglect.

Reasons why child abuse is underreported in South Africa

Among the factors contributing to low levels of reporting are young children’s lack of capacity and ability to report abuse to appropriate authorities, their fear of being harmed by people close to them if they tell about the abuse, and the social acceptance of practices like corporal punishment and sexual harassment.

Violence and abuse have long-lasting impacts on society

Child abuse has pervasively negative impacts on the individual that affect all aspects of social life. The impact of child abuse goes beyond physical injuries and visible scars. Research evidence shows that such abuse has long-lasting psychosocial consequences that differentially impact the social development of girls and boys[4]. Where girls are victimised for instance, the consequence of abuse can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, and unwanted pregnancy. Boys in turn are prone to manifesting behaviour such as truanting, gang involvement, and crime[5]. Abused boys are also at an increased risk of engaging in risky behaviour and becoming perpetrators of violence later on in their lives, including rape and violence against their intimate-partner[6].

Furthermore, experiencing or witnessing violence in childhood has an enduring intergenerational effect: children learn violent ways of resolving conflict and come to valorise such behaviour in the community as they feel it earns them the respect they seek. Such children struggle to grow into adults that contribute positively to family and community life.


Who must report?

Section 110 of the Children’s Act compels the following people to report incidents of child abuse and neglect:

Any correctional official, dentist, homeopath, immigration official, labour inspector, legal practitioner, medical practitioner, midwife, minister of religion, nurse, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, psychologist, religious leader, social service professional, social worker, speech therapist, teacher, traditional health practitioner, traditional leader or member of staff or volunteer worker at a partial care facility, drop-in centre or child and youth care centre.

What must be reported? / Compulsory reporting

If you are one of the people listed in section 110 of the Children’s Act you must report:

  • Physical abuse causing injury;
  • Sexual abuse; and
  • Deliberate child neglect.

When must you make a report?

Any official report must be based on the conclusion that abuse or neglect occurred, and not on mere speculation. However, don’t ignore suspicions. Instead, if you suspect abuse or neglect, then look to the guiding Regulations of the Act that can help you conclude whether or not a child has been abused or neglected as defined by set indicators. In deciding whether a child has been abused or neglected, the Act requires that these signs or indicators be considered in the “total context of the child’s situation”. This means that the focus should not fall on only one factor or indicator alone.

Who do you report to?

Once a conclusion is reached that there was/is abuse or deliberate neglect, it must be reported to one of three authorities: a designated child protection organisation, the provincial Department of Social Development or a police official.

What does the reporting entail?

When reporting a case of abuse or neglect to an appropriate authority, ensure that Form 22 is completed. This form triggers a child protection investigation by a designated social worker.

What is voluntary reporting?

The compulsory reporting obligation applies only to sexual abuse, physical abuse causing injury, and deliberate neglect. However, there are many other circumstances that may leave a child in need of care and protection. In these cases anyone can make a voluntary report. The full list in section 150 (1) of the Act provides that a child is considered to be in need of care and protection if, for example, the child:

  • Has been abandoned or orphaned and without visible means of support;
  • Lives or works on the street or begs for a living;
  • Is addicted to a substance and without support to obtain treatment;
  • Lives in or is exposed to circumstances which may seriously harm his physical, mental or social well-being;
  • Is in a state of physical or mental neglect (see the full list for more examples).

If you find a child in any of these circumstances you can make a voluntary report to the appropriate authority. Complete Form 22; submit it to a designated child protection organisation or official, and a social worker will be assigned to do an investigation into the circumstances of the case.

What about a child’s privacy and confidentiality?

Should a child’s right to protection from abuse or neglect override his or her right to privacy and confidentiality? The simple answer is yes. Children’s rights cannot be understood in terms of a hierarchy of importance – they are all inter-dependent.  The realisation of one right often involves the simultaneous realisation of another but at times there can be tension between the achievement of different rights.

The legal obligation to report cases of abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities is always overarching, even where the child doesn’t want to pursue the case further. In such circumstances, it is important to clearly explain to the child the boundaries of confidentiality, and to involve them in decisions about how and when the information will be reported. Delicately explain the reasons for overriding the child’s wishes, and keep the child fully informed throughout the process.

Remember, violence and abuse of children serves to disempower them. It is therefore vital that the strategies adopted to protect them should not be further disempowering.

Must you report consensual sex between adolescents?

No, professionals do not have to report consensual sexual acts between adolescents (children between the ages of 12 and 15). However, it is an offence for a person older than 16 years to have sex with an adolescent child, and any form of sexual abuse must be reported.

Sexual experimentation by adolescents is a normal part of growing up. However, adolescents’ health and wellbeing may be at risk if they engage in sexual activity without the necessary knowledge about contraception, STIs and HIV, or before they are mature enough to understand and handle the emotional and health consequences. It is in the best interests of children to minimise these risks by not engaging in sexual activity.

In 2007, the Criminal Law Sexual Offences Act was amended, making it an offence for children aged 12 to 15 to engage in consensual sexual acts (ranging from kissing to penetration). The Act obliges anyone who knows of such a sexual offence to report it to the police – even if those involved are consenting adolescents. However, civil society organisations successfully challenged this amendment in the constitutional court. The court found that “the reporting provisions are likely to create an atmosphere in which adolescents will not freely communicate about sexual relations with parents and counsellors[7] and essentially decriminalised such actions. Moreover, the court stated that it is important to ensure that “children are appropriately supported by the adults in their lives, to enable them to make healthy choices. … If children are not made to feel that there are safe environments within which they can discuss their sexual experiences, they will be stripped of the benefit of guidance at a sensitive and developmental stage of their lives”.


This learning brief has acted as an awareness-raising message regarding the obligation of all South Africans to report child abuse and neglect. It has discussed the reporting obligations according to the children's act and has described in simple, practical terms how and where to report once a case of abuse is identified. Finally, discussed the child’s privacy and confidentiality, and concerns about reporting consensual sex acts between adolescents.

[1] Richter L & Dawes A (2008) Child abuse in South Africa: Rights and wrongs. Child Abuse Review, 17(2):79-93.

[2] South African Police Services (2012) Police Crime Statistics. Pretoria.

[3] Jewkes R, Dunkle K, Nduna M, Jama N & Puren A (2010) Associations between childhood adversity and depression, substance abuse and HIV and HSV2 incident infections in rural South African youth. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34(11):833-841.

[4] Maniglio R (2009) The impact of child sexual abuse on health: A systematic review of reviews. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(7):647-57.

[5] Callendar T & Dartnall L (2010) Mental Health Responses for Victims Of Sexual Violence and Rape in Resource-Poor Settings. SVRI Briefing Paper. Sexual Violence Research Initiative. Medical Research Council. Pretoria. South Africa.

[6] Abrahams, N & Jewkes R (2005) What is the impact of witnessing mother abuse during childhood on South African men’s violence as adults? American Journal of Public Health, 95:1811-1816.

[7] Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and RAPCAN v Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Another CCT 12/13 [2013] ZACC 35, para 73.


Children's Institute

46 Sawkins RoadCape TownRondeboschWestern CapeSouth Africa

 021 6895404

In Short

This learning brief acts as an awareness-raising message regarding the obligation of all South Africans to report child abuse and neglect. Any person working with children, families, or community development will find it instructive for knowing how to deal with such cases of abuse if they become apparent in their work.

 Search for lessons learned:

Leave blank for all. Otherwise, the first selected term will be the default instead of "Any".
Leave blank for all. Otherwise, the first selected term will be the default instead of "Any".