Alex, a child with disabilities, was sexually abused at school twice. Neither the school nor police intervened. Her parents are warning professionals working with differently-abled children to always be mindful.
‘‘It was a long time before we were blessed with our child, Alex. The pregnancy was difficult and complicated, but we loved our unborn child. When Alex was born with special needs there were challenges to overcome, but with the help of research, we were determined to ensure that she could participate in activities like her peers.
There are no educational facilities that are suitably equipped to guide children with intellectual disabilities such as Alex. Because of this, she has changed schools nine times to date. This is due, in part, to schools not having appropriate tools and staff, such as teachers who are specifically qualified to teach children with intellectual disabilities.
The first step towards positive change is the willingness of people within the education sector and the wider community to put in the effort to include people with disabilities. This does not always require extra materials or money, just kindness and creativity.
People tend to underestimate people like Alex. You might have to explain things a bit more slowly or more often, but with patience, Alex has been able to achieve academic success and participate in several different sports and after-school activities. We are grateful for the few educational interactive programs that try to include her.
Unfortunately, Alex has suffered abuse on two separate occasions during school hours, mainly due to the neglect of the adults tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of children under their care. When Alex was nine years old, another student sexually assaulted her in the bathroom. The students’ bathrooms were in a deplorable state, and certain areas were dark and out of sight. An adult should have accompanied younger students to the toilet; however, this did not happen. There was a rule in place that boys and girls were not allowed in the bathrooms simultaneously. However, this was clearly not enforced. It was an unsafe situation, and because teachers were neglectful, this incident occurred.
‘‘Alex was not believed nor offered adequate professional guidance and we were not immediately notified’’
The aftermath only made things worse. When the incident was reported, Alex was not believed nor was she offered adequate professional guidance and we were not immediately notified. The school did not inform us about the abuse until the end of the school day, so Alex initially had to deal with this trauma without the loving support from her parents.
After our many requests to discuss the incident, the school management told us that the teachers did not believe Alex and such a happening was not possible, despite Alex’s ability to clearly identify the student that did this to her. The bathroom situation was also not improved despite our recommendations.
We spoke to the Education Department, left our contact info at the time, but no one contacted us, and nothing was done. We felt that everyone preferred to cover up the sexual abuse instead of doing the work to prevent another incident.
We went to the police station to make a report, which was a very unsupportive and further traumatising experience. The police demanded to talk to our child alone, which was difficult because of her age and disability. It was obvious that the officers were not trained to interview children with disabilities. Despite our numerous follow-ups, to this date we have not received any updates or additional information about the case from the police. We feel that the report at the police station and hospital were a waste of our time, and this remains an open case for us.
Alex was assaulted for a second time a few years later, again due to the lack of supervision of teachers. Once more, we felt that the institutions that are responsible to protect children were not willing or able to assist
As a family
We have coped with these abuses by focusing on what we can do together as a family. Together with friends and professional assistance we continue to help Alex process and heal from these traumatic events. After Alex was abused the first time, her behaviour changed negatively. Alex became aggressive with her toys and began to self-harm. Years later, Alex is still dealing with a great deal of mental and physical stress, causing concentration and stomach issues.
‘‘Years later, Alex is still dealing with a great deal of mental and physical stress, causing concentration and stomach issues’’
To protect Alex, we have set strict rules whilst still encouraging her to participate in school and other activities. We teach her to be more aware and how to recognise and avoid dangerous situations, such as never being alone during school hours. Alex is also not allowed to take off her clothes to change whilst in school or for other activities. She is not allowed to go to the bathroom alone under any circumstances and has been taught about body parts and boundaries.
All children are vulnerable and need to be protected from abuse. Children with disabilities can be even more susceptible to abuse as they might face more challenges processing violence and verbally or physically saying no. Due to our experiences, we feel that children’s rights, and especially the rights of children with disabilities, are not being enforced on Sint Maarten.
We implore professionals who work with children to be always mindful during their work. You can make all the difference – one moment of neglect can lead to lifelong consequences.’’
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy and identity of the minor and others involved. The persons on the photo’s are models.