SINGAPORE: Children who may be neglected or abused by their caregivers will receive better protection, after amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) were passed in Parliament on Wednesday (Sep 4).
The Act also seeks to provide greater support to youth offenders to reintegrate into society.
To better protect abused or neglected children, the age limit for what's considered a young person has been raised from 16 to 18. This would allow the authorities to intervene in cases of abuse involving older children.
The definition of "emotional injury" has also been sharpened, so that there is clarity on when stakeholders like the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), social service agencies and the court can and should intervene, and when they should not.
READ: Strengthened support for abused and neglected children proposed in amendments to Children and Young Persons Act
To illustrate the change, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee used the example of 10-year-old Valerie (not her real name), saying that the child’s mother would deliberately isolate her at home or confine her to her room.
The mother would also tell her that she was “dirty, smelly and unclean” and refused to hold her “unclean” hand, as well as blamed her for anything that went wrong.
When Valerie’s father tried to protect or side with her, the mother would threaten to commit suicide, Mr Lee added in his speech during the second reading of the Bill on Tuesday.
“Valerie was very much affected by the emotional abuse. She fears, and not unexpectedly, bears hatred for her mother,” the minister said. “Her anger, coupled with anxiety, has manifested as aggressive and rough play in school.
“This is a 10-year-old girl who needs help. And we need to see past her behaviour and recognise the emotional harm that is within.”
The new amendments make clear that cases like Valerie fall within the scope of CYPA, he said.
Mr Lee also assured MPs that the ministry has been preparing for the ability to manage the larger number of children who will be covered under the Act. He said the implementation will be staggered, and the intention is to bring into force amendments to expand care and protection for children first in 2020.
ENHANCED POWERS FOR GUARDIANS OF VULNERABLE CHILDREN
Another change to the CYPA is the new Enhanced Care and Protection Order (ECPO).
ECPO allows MSF and designated caregivers to children who are in out-of-home care to make day-to-day as well as more substantive decisions such as overseas travel - just as what parents would do in normal family settings, said Mr Lee.
He did note that sensitive decisions out of these parameters can only be made with parental consent or court authorisation.
He used the example of Ben (not his real name) who was placed with foster parents by MSF. The 13-year-old has multiple conditions that require frequent medical appointments, but his mother had been unwilling to care for him since he was born while his father was uncontactable, the minister said.
Once, Ben was admitted to hospital for persistently high fever and doctors recommended surgery to prevent further medical complications, but his mother was unwilling to provide consent. MSF had to apply to the court for orders to allow the child to go for surgery, he added.
“The new ECPO will allow the foster parents, with MSF’s authorisation and in consultation with medical practitioners to make a more timely decision to allow Ben to be treated,” Mr Lee said.
He pointed out that ECPO does not sever legal ties between parents and child, and they can bring to court their disagreement over any decision made by MSF or designated caregivers.
The CYPA amendments also catered to the 510 foster families in Singapore, granting the parents childcare leave benefits like those enjoyed by other parents.
Mr Lee, in response to suggestions by MP Desmond Choo and NMP Anthea Ong to support other caregivers like relatives, said that childcare leave will be extended to them too.
HELPING YOUTH OFFENDERS GET BACK ON TRACK
Youths who may have strayed are also given a helping hand under the CYPA amendments.
For one, the Youth Court will have expanded jurisdiction to hear cases of offenders who are below 18, up from 16 previously. This will be the default for most youth offenders, Mr Lee said.
Previously, those 16 and above are tried as adults in the State or Community courts unless they are diverted away from the criminal justice system, but the minister said studies have shown that these young people may still not have the full cognitive maturity of adults.
That said, there will be exceptions for these youths who commit serious offences such as gang or drug-related activities and unlicensed moneylending, or who are repeat offenders.
Mr Lee said in such cases, the public prosecutor will have the discretion to charge the youth in Youth Court or another with appropriate jurisdiction.
“This is intended as a deterrent; that we are not soft on crimes, especially those of a serious nature,” the minister said.
Additionally, the Youth Court will be able to impose probation on a child with a minimum age of 18 even if they do not express willingness to comply with its conditions. Currently, the Youth Court must ask the child who is 14 and above if he or she is willing to comply before imposing probation.
With the change, this addresses the gap where some youth offenders reject probation in favour of a shorter jail term, which is against the court’s and MSF’s efforts to help them rehabilitate and reintegrate into society, Mr Lee explained.
The minister also said a youth offender’s criminal record will be considered spent once he successfully completes his Youth Court order.
“For youth offenders who have been successfully rehabilitated, we must make sure they have the best shot in life,” Mr Lee said, adding that the label of ex-offender makes reintegration more difficult.
“Therefore … youths who have completed their Youth Court orders can, if asked whether they have ever been convicted or have a criminal record, legitimately declare ‘No’,” he said.
BETTER SECURITY AT JUVENILE REHABILITATION CENTRES
The minister also mentioned initiatives to bolster security at its two Juvenile Rehabilitation Centres (JRCs) amid incidents that had resulted in harm there.
He narrated two incidents at the Singapore Boys’ Home during his speech on Tuesday. One incident saw a 15-year-old youth verbally threaten one staff member every day he was there, and on the day of his court hearing, swung his arm towards an MSF officer to intimidate him.
Another youth punched and injured his dormitory mates on various occasions, and also assaulted and injured a few auxiliary police officers and MSF officers, Mr Lee said.
As such, the Youth Court can decide if an offender aged 14 to below 18 can be safely detained at a JRC or order the youth to undergo Reformative Training without first having to go through a JRC, he said.
This new provision will be for a small minority of youth offenders who are found to be “so unruly that, in the court’s opinion, his presence at the JRC would be disruptive to the rehabilitation of the other residents there”, the minister explained.
MSF officers working at the homes are also allowed to use restraints such as handcuffs, leg braces and flexi-cuffs to prevent incidences of escape, self-injury or injury to others, the minister said.
“Such hostile behaviour, if not put to an end, can escalate quickly and compromise safety,” he said.
There will be “strict guidelines” related to the use of such restraints, the minister stressed. He added that these will not be used as a punitive measure and MSF officers must be trained before they are authorised to use the restraints.
FAMILY AT THE FORE
MSF is also changing the term of “Beyond Parental Control” to “Family Guidance Order” (FGO), as it looks to shift the focus from blaming children for their difficult behaviour to that of the role of and dynamics within the family.
“The term ‘Beyond Parental Control’ blames the child and holds him solely responsible for his behaviour,” Mr Lee said.
“However, many social work professionals, legal practitioners and my own MSF colleagues have shared with me that it is just as, if not more important, to address poor parent-child relationships and poor or absent parenting.”
The new framework requires parents and the child to complete a family programme before the parents can file a court application, while parents can also be ordered to attend a mediation, counselling, psychotherapy or programme before, during or after FGO applications are heard.
The age threshold for FGOs remain at below 16 as older youths are more likely to resist participating in programmes and resent being brought to court by their parents, Mr Lee said.
“The Bill seeks to provide better outcomes for children and break the cycle of abuse, neglect and offending. At the same time, our work with vulnerable children cannot be accomplished by legislation alone,” the minister said in his closing speech.
“Only when we work collectively as a community can we help our vulnerable children overcome their difficult circumstances to have the best shot in life.”