The psychologist’s schedule was already filled with shattered children when she sat down with the parents of an eight-year-old who had been sexually assaulted by a 12-year-old relative.
She wouldn’t be able to see their son for another four days, but didn’t want to send the couple home to him empty-handed. So Marita Rademeyer gave them a story, about a vulnerable mouse, a creepy spider and a pig wise enough to know it takes courage to tell certain secrets.
Rademeyer said that when she did see the boy, he told her, "I’m exactly like that mouse." She said he was ready to trust her immediately, instead of the weeks it can sometimes take.
"Stories are medicine," said Rademeyer, whose therapy often includes creating narratives with children that combine elements of the violence they have suffered with suggestions on how to imagine a better ending to their life stories.
"The journey of Mouse" and two dozen other stories written and collected by Rademeyer, social worker Edith Kriel and Kriel’s mother Else Rohrs, a retired school teacher, have been compiled into a new book, "Voices of Hope."
In an interview in the sunny, high-ceilinged room filled with toys where she works, Rademeyer said the book is a tool for those who care for traumatized children. She and Kriel, who wrote "The Journey of Mouse" with her mother, add that in a society increasingly worried about the violence its children face, the book is also for the general public.
"A child will take from a story what makes sense to them," Kriel said in an interview. "Let’s say a healthy child listens to the story of the journey of mouse. That child might think it’s about bullying, or about helping a friend. It doesn’t have to be a traumatized child for it to be meaningful."
"Voices of Hope" also has a CD version. Book and CD are being distributed to police stations, schools and elsewhere.
The stories are filled with Moon Boys, hip meerkats and mischievous monkeys. But it’s not a book of happily ever after. In one story, a monkey whose parents fight is unable to reconcile them. But he does find a way to cope.
"He kept a secret supply of crunchy bugs — and if his parents started to argue he put a bug in his mouth and crunched hard. Then he couldn’t hear them arguing and that made him laugh and laugh in the way only vervet monkeys can laugh," ends one of Rademeyer’s stories.
The use of animal characters throughout the book recalls traditional African tales, Kriel said.
"Storytelling in the therapeutic context is very well established," Rademeyer said. "Storytelling in the African context is part of the natural process of healing."
In its most recent report on crime, the South African Police Service pointed to what it called "significant — actually shocking — increases" in violent crimes against children. Attempted murder of children increased 42 percent over the past two years. Sexual offenses against children were up 36 percent. Child murders were up 14.5 percent.
The country’s minister for women, children and people with disabilities says that nearly half those seeking help at shelters the government has set up over the last three years for victims of sexual assault are between the ages of 12 and 17.
Rademeyer sees the roots of the epidemic in apartheid, a violent, racist system that demeaned the majority of South Africa’s population and broke up black families, sending fathers and mothers in search of work far from their children.
Women were particularly victimized, Rademeyer said, marginalized by both apartheid and conservative thinking about whether they should have the power to make decisions about their own lives.
"In Africa you find very strong, capable women who will move mountains to protect their families," she said. "Then you find women who have been in such a bad space for so long. You find moms don’t protect their own children … because they’ve never been protected.
Kriel said many of those who traumatize children were traumatized, neglected or emotionally abused when they were young.
"We’re now seeing the children of the children who were left behind," Rademeyer said. "These are my clients."
AIDS has also played a role. Many of South Africa’s 3 million orphans lost parents to AIDS. Sexually explicit pop music lyrics, videos and pornography are readily available to children on their cell phones. Even those with no money for phone service can get explicit movies from their friends, exchanged through short-range wireless connections.
The resulting strain on the mental health of children is particularly troubling in poor and middle-income countries such as South Africa, which have few resources to train mental health workers. Two years ago, Rademeyer and Kriel formed an aid group, Jelly Beanz, to raise awareness about child abuse and try to get tools for therapy into the hands of more South Africans. "Voices of Hope" is part of that effort.
"It’s looking at how we can reach children in a much bigger way than just working with them individually," Kriel said. "Because, I know that there are lots of kids out there that I will never get a chance to meet."
Rademeyer, and other therapists, have compiled a book "Voices of Hope" which is used as a tool for treating abused children. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell).