SCIENTISTS from the Medical Research Council (MRC) on Wednesday sounded the alarm over child homicide cases that were "slipping through the cracks", telling Parliament that doctors and pathologists were failing to comply with the Children’s Act and report suspected abuse to the police.

"Many cases are inadequately investigated and the perpetrators are never held accountable," said Children’s Institute director Shanaaz Mathews, co-author of a 2009 MRC study on female and child homicides in South Africa presented to Parliament on Wednesday.

"We have wonderful legislation on protecting children, but the study shows we are failing (them)," Prof Mathews told a joint meeting of Parliament’s portfolio committees on health and women, children and people with disabilities.

The MRC study was based on data collected from 38 mortuaries and the South African Police Service, which yielded 2,363 homicide cases. Of these, 454 were child homicides. A similar study was conducted in 1999.

The researchers identified 14 cases of child homicide that had not been investigated by the police despite clear evidence of abuse in the mortuary files, Prof Mathews told Business Day.

While the number might seem small, she said there were likely "many more" cases of abuse that had been overlooked among babies who had died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Doctors often regarded SIDS as a natural cause of death and did not report it to the police or social workers, she said.

"There are no systematic inquiries, so we are missing a lot of child abuse cases. We want to set up child death review teams at mortuaries to tackle this."

The MRC female and child homicide study, published in August, found a dramatic reduction in the overall female homicide rate for women over the age of 14, which fell to 12.9 per 100,000 people, almost half the 1999 rate of 24.9 per 100,000.

The study found no evidence that police investigations had improved over the past decade, as there were fewer convictions despite a growth in the number of police over that period.

It also flagged weaknesses in South Africa’s strategies to prevent intimate partner violence, as there had been no decline in the proportion of women murdered by an intimate partner.

It was 33% in 2009, compared with 31.5% in 1999.

MRC gender and health researcher Naeemah Abrahams said that there was some good news for South Africa’s legislators in the study, as the significant reduction in gun murders was evidence that the country’s gun control legislation was working.

Gun murders fell to 19.5% of all female homicides in 2009, down from 33.4% in 1999.