SINGAPORE: A bill that will allow the Government to intervene to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and self-neglect was passed in Parliament on Friday (May 18).
The Vulnerable Adults Bill defines such individuals as those aged 18 years or older who - because of mental or physical infirmity, disability or incapacity - are not able to protect themselves.
During the Second Reading of the Bill, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said that the bill seeks to protect individuals from, among other things, physical, psychological and emotional abuse and neglect such as deprivation of necessities. It also seeks to protect against self-neglect, which could see vulnerable adults end up living in "grossly" unsanitary or hazardous conditions.
The Bill empowers the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to enter private premises and to assess a possibly vulnerable adult, if there is reason to believe that the individual was, is, or is at risk of experiencing abuse, neglect or self-neglect.
MSF may also remove vulnerable adults from their residence and commit them to gazetted care facilities, or to the care of a fit person.
“I wish to assure members that committals to these care facilities will only be done as a last resort, for an appropriate duration, until the vulnerable adult can be safely reunited with his family,” Mr Lee said.
BILL REQUIRES FAMILY AND COMMUNITY MEMBERS TO STEP FORWARD
The effectiveness of the Bill, however, is dependent on those who meet and interact with vulnerable individuals stepping forward to raise alarm bells for community agencies and the authorities to intervene, Mr Lee said.
He also brought up another case in which help was provided after neighbours sounded the alert when they saw a 68-year-old early-stage dementia patient walking around with bruises.
The Family Service Centre (FSC) found that the daughter of the patient, identified as Madam Chua, would beat her mother every time the elderly woman soiled herself or left the stove on.
Social workers found out that the daughter was remorseful, and that her anger stemmed from frustration and stress from dealing with her mother’s failing health and a special needs son.
The daughter agreed to participate in counselling and assistance programmes to help her manage Madam Chua’s failing mental and physical health.
Since the FSC’s involvement, there have not been further incidents of violence, Mr Lee added.
“Cases such as this remind us of the complexity of family relationships, and the crucial role that family and community intervention plays in helping vulnerable individuals,” Mr Lee said.
BILL PROTECTS WHISTLE-BLOWERS AND PROFESSIONALS
Mr Lee gave assurance that the Bill will protect individuals who report such cases to the relevant authorities.
"Whistle-blowers will be protected from civil and criminal liability, as long as they had acted with reasonable care and in good faith," Mr Lee said, adding that professionals such as doctors, lawyers and counsellors will also not be regarded to have breached any professional etiquette or ethics.
In order for swift action to be taken by agencies to protect the vulnerable adult and hold perpetrators accountable, confidential information relating to a vulnerable adult may also be shared among agencies where necessary, Mr Lee said.
MEMBERS QUESTION SCOPE OF BILL, POWERS TO INSTITUTIONALISE
Members unanimously supported the Bill, but asked for clarifications.
Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim and MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua raised concerns on how the government will exercise its power to institutionalise vulnerable adults.
“Before the State exercises its drastic powers of intervention, I would expect that a case by case, subjective assessment would have to be made,” Ms Lim said.
Being institutionalised generally comes with a loss of pride and a loss of autonomy, having to live by an institution’s rules, she added.
In response, Mr Lee said that the individual's state will be assessed by a qualified person. A "mental capacity" form that is in the works will first have to be filled up. He added that the situation will be assessed holistically.
Members also asked why financial abuse was not included in the definition of abuse. The Bill refers to abuse as emotional, physical or psychological abuse.
Among members who questioned the exclusion of financial abuse were Nominated Member of Parliament Chia Yong Yong, Jalan Besar GRC MP Lily Neo and MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng.
Financial abuse is under-reported, due to its "subtle, non-tangible nature" said Mr Seah. Quoting a 2014 study by Trans Safe Centre, which deals with abuse against the elderly, he said that one in three cases of such abuse was of a financial nature.
The government can intervene if financial abuse occurs alongside neglect and abuse covered under the Bill , Mr Lee said in response. He also said that other family members do step forward to prevent financial exploitation.
"Let us gain more experience in operationalising this vulnerable adult protection framework while we continue to study this complex issue of financial exploitation of family members," he added.