When caning of children becomes abuse: Lawyers explain the legal parameters

When caning of children becomes abuse: Lawyers explain the legal parameters

Child Abuse 03 - file photo
Photo illustration of a child being caned. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: When Mrs Tan’s son misbehaved when he was younger, he would be put through a "sentencing process" – his offences listed out with the corresponding strokes of the cane and a date set for the painful deed. 

“We would usually cane the next day and it’s always either the palm or the buttocks,” Mrs Tan* told CNA. Delaying the punishment ensured that the caning was done in a “very objective way” and not in the heat of the moment. 

“It’s to communicate to the child that we are punishing you because of your behaviour, not because we don’t love you ... he can take the time to reflect as well,” she added. 

However, Mrs Tan, a mother of three, admitted that there were times when she caned her children “out of frustration and anger”. 

“I would cane too hard and afterwards I also regretted ... even though I was taught not to spare the rod or you spoil the child.” 

While most parents CNA spoke to acknowledged that corporal punishment or caning is a necessary means of disciplining their children, they are also cautious of going overboard. 

Earlier this month, a 33-year-old man was sentenced to nine months' jail for “ill-treating” his son by causing him “unnecessary physical pain”. The three-year-old boy was caned excessively, which left marks all over his body. 

READ: Man gets jail for excessively caning -year-old son, leaving marks all over his body

Although it is not unlawful for parents to cane their children, some lawyers said there are legal “parameters” that ensure it does not go into the realm of child abuse. 

Under the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA), inflicting “unnecessary” physical pain, suffering or injury, any emotional harm, or injury to a child’s health or development - amounts to ill-treatment.

Mr Lee Ee Yang, the managing director of law firm Covenant Chambers said: “Of course there's no clear, bright line - we are talking about a continuum perhaps.

“It is a multifactorial kind of approach to be exercised and determined by the court, to see if the boundaries have actually crossed. The whole context would have to be examined.”

FREQUENCY, PROPORTIONALITY AND AGE 

There are several factors to consider when determining if parental corporal punishment becomes a criminal offence. Lawyers interviewed by CNA said that the proportionality of the punishment to the “transgression” of the child would play an important role.  

Why the child was punished and how he or she was punished are two questions he would ask, said Mr Ray Louis, a criminal lawyer and managing director of Ray Louis Law. He gave the example of a child being punished for not “scoring all As”. 

“Can a parent punish a child for that? That’s a judgment call (for the parent) ... but how is the child punished? If it’s no meals, bruises on the legs and feet ... then obviously the line has been crossed,” he explained. 

Child abuse
File picture of a bruise on a child's arm.

Mr Ashwin Ganapathy - who is a partner at I.R.B. Law and specialises in family law and criminal defence - added that when it comes to misdemeanours like stealing, “no one will be jumping” on punishment such as caning the child’s palm once because stealing is a “wrong and serious thing”. 

“It is better to nip the problem in the bud,” he said. “People may disagree with the disciplinary method, but I do not believe anyone will see that as abuse.” 

In comparison, if a child gets kicked by a parent “for no reason” and it goes on “for days or weeks”, there is reason to suspect abuse. 

READ: 'People might think we might be playing God': Inside the Child Protective Service

In the case of the three-year-old, the accused caned the boy on his arms, legs, back, sometimes even the chest and the front of his torso. The listed reasons for caning included when the boy did not tell the accused that his diapers were full, when the boy did not tell his father what he wanted and when the boy snatched items from his sister or other children. 

“The proportionality is definitely infringed upon because the cane marks were found all over ... it does not correspond to the severity of the transgression,” said Mr Lee.

The child’s age is also crucial in determining if the proportionality of the punishment is justified. 

“If the child is not cognitively developed in a way where they can appreciate the severity of the punishment ... you’re not really educating the child,” he added. 

“Discipline would have lost its purpose and the court would definitely take into account in deciding whether this is actually abuse.” 

Verbalising that his diapers are full, for example, is a “minor transgression”, which even his own three-year-old would not be able to do, Mr Lee said. 

The frequency is “incriminating” as well, given that the accused caned the boy once every two weeks. 

Other reasons for the caning also included: When the accused felt stressed after a day of work, or when the accused felt stressed over financial troubles such as his salary or having to pay maintenance to his ex-wife.

To that, Mr Lee added that when it becomes clear that caning is a “means of venting frustrations on the child”, it is not a case of disciplining but child abuse. 

The Big Read: Amid rising child abuse cases, the community needs to step up and be ‘busybodies’

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Most parents that CNA spoke to expressed the importance of self-awareness when disciplining their children. 

“I remind myself that discipline ... is always about the other party’s progress, it’s not about you, your personal agenda and need to vent,” said Mr Josiah Ng, who has a four-year-old son. 

The 32-year-old added that he has learnt to “walk away” and “cool down” before he applies a punishment. 

Similarly, Ms Shazni Yasir who has a two-year-old son, holds herself back and asks herself: “Am I hitting this child because I am tired or is this child really doing something wrong?

“It’s to make sure that I don’t hurt him unintentionally,” she added. 

CHANGING THRESHOLDS FOR EMOTIONAL ABUSE 

Amendments to the CYPA were made in 2019, where the definition of “emotional harm” or injury was sharpened to allow the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to know when it should intervene in situations that require care and protection of vulnerable children.

“Emotional harm” includes delayed mental and physical development, when a child is found to be “of danger to himself” or others, “severely withdrawn, anxious or depressed” or having a mental health condition such as post‑traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or psychosomatic disorder. 

READ: Better protection for abused, neglected children after changes to Children and Young Persons Act passed  

Lawyers CNA spoke to noted that while the threshold for what constitutes as physical abuse has decreased over the years, the awareness of emotional abuse has also increased. 

“What has definitely changed is awareness over emotional abuse. In the past emotional abuse wasn't even talked about,’ said Mr Louis. 

“In the past generations, shouting was very normal. But now, even shouting can be seen as emotional abuse. People are more aware now that words, especially from a parent - can stay with us for life.” 

child abuse file
Photo illustration of child abuse.

Mr Ganapathy agreed that shouting can put the child in “a constant state of fear and suffering”. However, he also cautioned that there is “a lot of difficulty” in bringing a charge against a parent or legal guardian that is only based on emotional injury. 

“You have to connect the injury to the action. When it comes to emotional injury, it becomes harder to draw that clear connection. How do we go as far to say that - because of your systematic abuse, it has caused your child to suffer emotional injury?

“It’s a far more difficult question because we know that the mind is complex. There may be other things that happened (in one’s life) that can come into the equation.” 

Parents also acknowledged that the way corporal punishment is carried out can inflict emotional hurt on their children. 

“I still think physical punishment is necessary, but I would not use the hand, just the cane. The hand is used to love them, to sayang (show affection to) them, but if you want to punish, you shouldn’t use the same thing to beat them or slap them,” said Mrs Tan. 

When she caned her children without control of her emotions in the past, it made her children feel “unloved”. 

“It was not an immediate realisation, but it took me a while to realise that it affected our relationship,” Mrs Tan said, adding that verbal punishment can hurt more than the cane. 

“Until now, my siblings remember whenever my mum said something very hurtful. They were caned as well, but they don’t remember much of that.” 

For Mr Ng and Ms Yasir, they make it a point to check in with their children after physical punishment is carried out. 

“After every punishment, we have a reflection, a heart-to-heart talk, when all of us are calm,” said Mr Ng. 

“We are very sensitive to how he reacts after he gets caned. If he is reacting in a way where he is afraid of us, that's where we kind of have to regroup.” 

While Ms Yasir flicks her son’s hand or ear when he misbehaves, she will sit him down after he stops crying to give him “hugs and kisses” and words of encouragement. 

“Usually, he won’t make the same mistake again, he knows that it’s wrong. Even if he does it, he knows he is not supposed to be doing it,” she added. 

LAWS “ROBUST” ENOUGH; EDUCATION IMPORTANT

While there are countries in the world like France, and most recently Japan, that have banned corporal punishment at home, lawyers who CNA spoke to said the provisions in the CYPA are “sufficiently robust” enough to prevent child abuse. 

READ: France to approve ban on smacking children

“It is not just having robust laws but enforcement is very critical. We have strong institutional support to enforce laws, such as MSF and the Child Protective Service,” said Mr Lee. 

Responding to queries from CNA, MSF said that the Child Protective Service uses “a suite of internationally recognised, evidence-based tools” to determine the seriousness and potential rush of alleged abuse.

“Where there are serious child protection concerns, such as when the discipline by parents results in serious physical injury or emotional trauma to the child, Child Protective Service will investigate and intervene where needed,” said an MSF spokesperson.

The ministry added that for cases that do not require Child Protective Service's direct intervention, social sector agencies such as the Child Protection Specialist Centres and Family Service Centres can provide support to parents, what includes “guiding them on alternative ways to manage their children”. 

“While we respect that parents have the responsibility to raise their children, MSF encourages parents to build positive relationships with their children, and seeks to educate parents on child-raising via parenting programmes and public education efforts,” the ministry said.

Instead of banning corporal punishment, Mr Louis emphasised that public education and awareness have a larger role to play in curbing child abuse cases. 

“The more publicity there is on the ways to report suspected abuse, the risk of children getting abused will be lesser,” he said.  

"The law as it stands provides that minimum safeguard and a few boundaries for discipline,” Mr Lee added.

“It’s a minimal baseline that says, if you cross these boundaries, you will be subjected to these sanctions - for the protection of the child.”

To report concerns over a child's safety, the public can dial MSF’s Child Protective Service Helpline (1800 777 000) or ComCare Call (1800 222 0000).

They can also contact any of the Child Protection Specialist Centres (Big Love and HEART@Fei Yue), Family Violence Specialist Centres (PAVE Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection Specialist Centre, TRANS SAFE Centre and Care Corner Project StART) or visit breakthesilence.sg.

Children who need support can call Tinkle Friend (1800 2744 788).

*Mrs Tan's full name has not been used.

Source: CNA/ct(cy)

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