Over and over again, Human Rights Watch has found that acts of violence against children are ignored or covered up. Incidents are rarely investigated and perpetrators even less often punished. Many perpetrators enjoy impunity for their actions and go on to abuse other children.
The result is that many children are victimized not only by the initial abuse, but also by the failure of authorities to take effective action against the perpetrator or by acts of retaliation in response to their attempts to seek justice.
For street children who suffer police violence, reporting is seriously hampered by the fact that children must complain directly to the police about police abuse. The threat of repercussions by police is a serious deterrent to any child coming forward to make complaints or testify. Thus, the majority of cases of police abuse of street children go undetected and unreported.
The cases that are reported are often only superficially investigated. One Kenyan boy, who witnessed a police reservist shoot and kill another street child in 1996, told Human Rights Watch that police investigating the incident never interviewed any of the other street children present. Although an inquest file was opened, the reservist was never charged. One child said, “The afande [a Kiswahili term of respect for the police] is still around. He still comes after us and tries to beat us.”
Two years earlier, another Kenyan reservist shot and killed a fifteen-year-old street boy at close range less than two months after having shot and killed five other street boys. The reservist admitted to the shootings but claimed he had acted in self-defense. A judge found insufficient evidence that the most recent victim was armed, but acquitted the defendant, saying that the boy “was killed in the course of arrest after having committed a crime.” Street children interviewed after the ruling said that it signaled to police that they could shoot street children at any time and claim that children were stealing as justification for their conduct.
In Guatemala, the rape of sixteen-year-old Susana F. by police officers (described earlier in this report), also illustrates the failure of police to investigate properly attacks against children. In this instance, Susana F. and another girl who was also detained during the incident provided the police with physical descriptions of the men, as well as the following information: one of the officers claimed to have been transferred from the Petén to Guatemala City, where he was stationed at the First Precinct; one of the officers had “Cruz” on his name tag, the other, “Velásquez.” Despite this information, only two police officers were ever interviewed, and the investigating officer did not even check the First Precinct duty roster to see if any Cruz or Velásquez was working that night. When asked why the leads provided weren’t pursued, the investigating officer said, “We can’t go bothering half a dozen officers on this if they aren’t specifically named!”
Children in institutions also face formidable challenges to reporting violence. Children are frequently not told of mechanisms for reporting abuse, if they exist. Reprisals are a frequent concern. One boy in a detention facility said that boys could complain to the prison inspector, but that boys were afraid to do so because “once the inspector’s gone, they’ll beat you again, so you don’t bother to complain.”
Children in Bulgarian detention facilities have been severely punished for attempting to speak to outsiders about abuse. One child told us:
Children who were caught attempting to send letters of complaint to outsiders were confined in the “isolator” for ten days, according to one Bulgarian NGO. One boy who was beaten by teachers so severely that he had to be sent to the hospital for treatment of head injuries was warned by staff not to discuss the reason for his injuries with doctors or else he would never be able to leave the school.
In South Africa, we found that schoolgirls who reported sexual abuse by their male classmates or teachers were treated by school officials with indifference, disbelief, and hostility. Repeatedly, parents in South Africa told Human Rights Watch that schools asked them not to get the police involved or draw publicity to problems of sexual violence at school. In one instance, a school principal persuaded a parent to drop rape charges against a teacher, promising “to take care of the matter.” Nothing was done, and the teacher continued to teach at the school. In another instance, it was found that a teacher accused of raping a student had been reported at other schools for similar offenses. None of the schools reported him to the police, leaving him free to continue his pattern of abuse in new schools and against additional children.
In Kenyan schools, teachers who have injured children through caning or whipping are rarely disciplined, let alone dismissed or prosecuted. In some cases, parents press charges against abusers. However, in almost every case known to Human Rights Watch, teachers have either been acquitted, the cases have been dismissed, or teachers have been convicted but handed extremely light penalties—generally just a small fine. Most continued to have children in their care, teaching in the same schools in which they previously abused children.
Many Kenyan children have been reluctant to report corporal punishment for fear of reprisals. A twelve-year-old girl told us, “Even if you have been beaten unfairly and your parents are angry at the teacher, it is better for them not to complain, because if they complain, the teacher may then form a grudge against you and then you will suffer more.” Another child said that if a child “reported badly to the parent, sometimes the teachers will be angry and cane more strokes.”
In the United States, we heard numerous accounts of teachers and administrators who refused to act to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from harassment out of the belief that they get what they deserve. The director of a Houston group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth described a case involving a boy who openly identified as gay at school. “The harassment began to get physical,” she told us. “The assistant principal told him that if he didn’t walk around telling people he’s gay, there wouldn’t be any problems.”
In orphanages, Human Rights Watch found that authorities have generally reacted to critiques of their facilities by blocking access to the institutions; punishing or threatening to fire workers if they speak about abuses; and in some instances, promoting those who are responsible for wrongdoing. A Russian journalist who had visited an orphanage told Human Rights Watch that “We were told last time that the nurses who talked with us were fired, but the director stayed on.” An Russian advocate reported:
When workers in Shanghai’s orphanage tried to expose abuses, they were demoted and harassed. The orphanage director, accused of abusing and raping children in the orphanage, used his control over bonuses, staff assignments and housing allocations to harass his opponents and reward supporters. A speech therapist was suspended from her duties and transferred to a position cleaning bathrooms and windows. An orphanage driver was attacked and badly beaten by a group of employees loyal to the director. Eventually, all of the critical staff were forced from their jobs.
 Ibid., p. 28
 Ibid., p. 98
 Ibid., p. 83.