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Some parents have 'a sense of hopelessness': The challenges of reintegrating youth offenders

Some parents have 'a sense of hopelessness': The challenges of reintegrating youth offenders

A youth guidance officer having a discussion with a 17-year-old resident at the Singapore Boys' Home. (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

SINGAPORE: In all his 18 years as a volunteer befriender at the Singapore Boys’ Home (SBH), one moment stands out in Mr Calvin Ong’s mind. 

When he found out a resident was in trouble, he texted the boy to ensure he was all right. The boy eventually responded and asked Mr Ong: “Why are you constantly checking up on me?” 

He was “genuinely surprised” to learn that Mr Ong was concerned about him. It was then that they bonded.

Mr Ong, 48, said many of these residents have given up on themselves because they feel people have given up on them. 

“But they’re still in a period in their life when they can make changes pretty easily. They're still very pliable. They're still very 'mouldable'. So during this period, if more people can reach out to them and also walk with them in this journey, I'm sure they will come out … in a much better place,” he said. 

This is what he wishes he had as a teenager experiencing “a very rough time” during the transition to adulthood. He believes that if he had a positive figure in his life to guide him, even if it was just a listening ear, he would have benefited greatly. 

Likewise, Mr Ken Chelliah got into youth rehabilitative work because of his “familiarity and ability to relate to such youths”. The 42-year-old senior assistant director of the therapeutic casework unit for SBH used to mix around with “youths of a similar profile” when he was younger. 

As he grew older, he saw some of these friends turn their life around with guidance from a social worker or counsellor. 

Being able to empathise with the residents they work with is crucial for Mr Ong and Mr Chelliah, but it doesn’t mean the job’s challenges get easier. 

“Definitely we need to feel a level of empathy to even start some of the work. But I think it's also about being objective," said Mr Chelliah, who has been in the sector for 17 years. 

"Sometimes just getting them to recognise that a lot of the offensive behaviour might be blamed on external factors, but there's also a lot of intrinsic stuff, which (they) need to work on as well."


This is easier said than done, as youths in SBH often come from challenging circumstances. 

SBH, which is a Youth Home under the Ministry of Social and Family Development, functions as a place of detention and a juvenile rehabilitation centre for boys who are in conflict with the law, as well as a place of safety for those who are beyond parental control or in need of care and protection.

The Youth Court may order a youth to reside in SBH when community-based options are unsuitable or inappropriate based on his risks and needs. 

In 2020, there were 76 boys admitted to SBH as a place of detention and a juvenile rehabilitation centre, while seven were sent to the home for a place of safety.

Calvin Ong has been a volunteer befriender at the Singapore Boys' Home for the past 18 years. He tries to visit once a week. (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

Typically, youths in SBH commit offences due to a “combination of individual personal circumstances”, said Mr Chelliah. 

“So this could include things like antisocial attitudes, maybe challenging family circumstances, or just strong negative influences in their life. The other (intrinsic factors) would be low self-esteem, and a want for acceptance and belonging.” 

The real challenge comes when youths return to the community after their stay at the Home and “reconnect with their old peers”, added Mr Chelliah. 

“Sometimes they don’t have that structured guidance and they end up reverting to their former lifestyles. … (With) the challenges they face at work, at school, with their peers, maybe even with conflicts, if they don't have family support, they need a strong social safety net to support them as they navigate these challenges.” 

When the family environment isn’t able to “replicate the structure that (SBH) provides”, this might increase the chances of youths reoffending, added Ms Joan Chan, 32, a senior caseworker at SBH. 

“Other factors could also be things like the gang affiliation or their peers association didn’t really improve.” 

Ken Chelliah has 17 years of experience in the social service sector, including two years as the head of Therapeutic Casework unit across the Singapore Boys' Home and Singapore Girls' Home. (Photo: Hanidah Amin)


Despite the importance of having family support in their rehabilitative journey, Mr Chelliah acknowledged that some of these youths have “acrimonious relations with their families”. 

“Some of the challenges we see with families is that sometimes they are not able to commit to the programme or make time to visit their kids. We try our best to facilitate special arrangements so they can still continue to visit their kids at the least,” he said. 

“Some of the parents, because of the experiences they’ve had with the youth, have this sense that it’s going to be difficult to engage them and they have a sense of hopelessness.” 

Nonetheless, staff at the Home know it is crucial to get to work right away to “reconnect them and restore that relationship”, noted Mr Chelliah. 

One way is to “create small successes” which are visible to the youths and their families, in hopes it will motivate the family to come on board their child’s rehabilitative journey. 

“We try to set common goals at the start. It could be something as simple as the youth doing well in the Centre of Education … or even just being recognised for good behaviour. We try to share as much of this with the family, so that they do see, ‘Okay, my kid is trying to make some changes’,” he said. 

Yet, if the Home is unable to get a boy’s family on board, would he still be able to turn his life around? 

It’s possible but “very challenging”, admitted Mr Chelliah and Ms Chan. 

“Not having consistent support figures or caregivers in the youth’s life is going to be difficult for them. So what we usually do is try to identify other support systems. For example, if there are any extended relatives or any other foster family, or we try to establish their personal interests, such as sports programmes that they're more interested in,” said Ms Chan. 

Additionally, SBH will introduce befrienders, like Mr Ong, who are able to journey with the youth even after his discharge from the Home. 

Youths in SBH also get introduced to a “post-care” worker six months before their discharge date. This worker accompanies the youth for a year after they reenter the community to help them “navigate the different challenges they encounter, provide support and even link them up with relevant resources”, said Mr Chelliah.

A resident who has been in the Singapore Boys' Home since August 2020. He was caught for consuming drugs, fighting and stealing. (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

To manage internal factors, such as emotional dysregulation, that may have led youths to commit offences, SBH has “therapeutic programmes”. 

“Essentially, it’s about equipping the residents with the relevant skills to manage their risks and needs. So at the point of admission, (we) identify the right risks and needs for that particular individual and then tailor the programmes such that they target these specific risks and needs,” said Mr Chelliah. 

“We want to be hitting the right points, and that's why our assessment process has to be holistic to ensure that we really capture the right risks and needs. So that when we do channel them to the different programmes, it (targets the youth’s) underlying issue.” 

Some target areas include violence and theft, as well as general skills, such as emotion regulation and conflict resolution, to help youths stay clear of offending. 

Given the nature of the work, Mr Chelliah added that staff at SBH deal “a lot with emotions and naturally as humans, we are going to feel those emotions in us as well”. But there is also “a lot of success”. 

“When I see a youth who has turned his life around, and a family and youth reconnecting, these are the moments that when I look upon them, I think: ‘Yep, this is why I'm doing this.’” 

Source: CNA/gy(cy)


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