SINGAPORE: The proposal for the use of restraints in rehabilitation homes for youth offenders and the possible undermining of parental rights and status were among the concerns raised during the debate on the amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA).
Members of Parliaments (MPs) took to the floor to give their views on the Bill over two days starting on Tuesday (Sep 3).
One concern was on the use of restraints in Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) Youth Homes and whether these could create more psychological damage to the children.
The use of restraints “could add to the trauma faced by the children and such actions seem anti-thesis to the spirit of rehabilitation”, said Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mazam.
Similarly, Nominated MP Anthea Ong questioned the intent of using restraints, pointing to the existing use of padded rooms and calming rooms to manage self-harm and aggressive or violent behaviour through therapeutic means.
READ: Better protection for abused, neglected children after changes to Children and Young Persons Act passed
In response, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee on Wednesday cited the case of a burly and well-built (about 1.83m) 15-year-old Boys’ Home resident who held his dormitory mate by the neck and lifted him off the ground.
“This is one of the many scenarios where our officers find it essential to be able to deploy the use of restraints and other measures quickly, to safeguard other residents,” he said.
He stressed that the restraints "will not be used as a punitive measure".
"But members will appreciate that there are indeed real-life situations where the use of such restraints is necessary to prevent escalation, escape or harm," Mr Lee said.
He explained that MSF will put in place "stringent procedures and processes" when it comes to using restraints.
"This includes recording each use of the restraints, and removing the restraints once the need has passed,” the minister said.
“Rehabilitation of the youth is important. After the restraints are removed, an MSF officer will help the resident to process his feelings. Where necessary, a multi-disciplinary team comprising the caseworker, psychologist and psychiatrist will also support the youth through this process,” he added.
Workers’ Party (WP) MP Sylvia Lim asked about the basis for determining a first-time youth offender’s suitability for Reformative Training (RT).
“RT is a tough regime that emphasis military-style discipline and involves participants who are older. With these amendments, RT will usually be ordered for offenders between 18 to 21 years of age," she said.
“On what basis would a youth court conclude that he would be a failure at a JRC (juvenile rehabilitation centre) if he has never been sent there. Is there a danger of overreach here?”
Mr Lee noted that youths would only be sent for RT after careful consideration by the Youth Court.
“The court will call for a suitability report to determine whether the youth’s physical and mental condition is suitable for reformative training,” he said.
He added that demonstrations of aggressive or violent behaviour would factor into the decision to send the youth for RT.
“The assessment of individual risk levels and needs of the youth determines the regime and environment that best supports his rehabilitation,” he said.
UNDERMINING PARENTAL RIGHTS?
MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Saktiandi Supaat also raised questions on whether the Enhanced Care and Protection Order (ECPO) would undermine parent-child relationships.
“We could compromise the structure and integrity of families by being overzealous in interfering with the discipline and care of children,” he said in Malay.
He also asked if MSF would protect children from being coerced into joining another religion under their caregiver.
“There may be caregivers who are over-enthusiastic in trying to promote their own religion, and perhaps this is with all good intentions, but they should respect that the child should be allowed to make his/her own decision after reaching 18 years of age,” he said.
Mr Lee explained that MSF aims to return children in out-of-home care back to their family as soon as possible, if it is safe to do so.
He added that the ECPO does not allow MSF or caregivers to make decisions on religion on behalf of the child.
“Our practice is to try to place children with foster families of the same race and religion as far as possible, or if that is not possible due to fostering constraints, we will seek parental consent,” he said.
SUPPORT FOR EXPANDED RIGHTS OF CHILDREN AND CAREGIVERS
Several MPs spoke up in support of replacing the term "emotional injury" with "emotional harm", which gives stakeholders like the ministry, social service agencies and the court more clarity on when to intervene in the care of children.
MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Intan Azura Mokhtar said: “Injury tends to suggest that the abuse is rather tangible, explicit and is visible, while harm is more all-encompassing and suggests that while it may not necessarily be visible, the damage the abuse has caused is much more far-reaching and may manifest itself in ways other than that which is visible.”
Dr Intan added that some parents or guardians may end up subjecting their child to “emotional abuse or acts of degradation” in their “fervour” to bring out the best in their children.
“Some parents see the scolding or nagging, or even acts of punishment as necessary acts of discipline for their children. Where and how do we draw the line?”
WP’s Ms Lim also placed her support behind a new amendment made to the Passport Act to “allow the Director-General, a protector or a foster parent to give consent for a child to be issued with a passport for international travel”.
She raised a case where a child’s parent refused to give permission for their child to travel to Malaysia with his foster family, as the parent was highly critical of the care given by the foster parent despite evidence that the child was happy and doing well.
Citing her overall support for the amendments, Ms Lim said: “The changes in this Bill are overall steps in the right direction and bring our law in line with international norms.”
The Bill was passed in Parliament on Wednesday, following the debate during which 13 MPs spoke on the proposed amendments.