Parents who abused, abandoned children will not be able to seek maintenance under changes to law
SINGAPORE: Parents who abused, abandoned or neglected their children will not be able to seek monetary support from them under amendments to an Act passed on Tuesday (Jul 4).
In his opening speech, Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng (People's Action Party-Marine Parade) said the Maintenance of Parents Act is not intended to legislate or enforce filial piety, but to ensure children provide for needy elderly parents at a basic minimum level.
“It respects the duty of an adult to his parents, and requires that each of us carry this duty, rather than pass it onto our fellow men, in requiring that the state provides this private care,” he said.
But for abuse victims, undergoing proceedings under the Act can be distressing because it involves facing their parents after avoiding them for years; and possibly recounting experiences they have tried to forget, Mr Seah added.
Under the amendments, parents with records of abuse, neglect or abandonment must now seek permission from the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents before proceeding with their claims, to avoid putting victims through the process.
Parents who abused, abandoned or neglected their children will not be able to seek monetary support from them under amendments to an Act passed on Tuesday (Jul 4). Tan Si Hui with more.
Mr Seah leads a nine-member workgroup formed in 2022 to review the Act, which came into effect in 1995 and provides elderly people - who are unable to maintain themselves adequately - with a legal channel to seek maintenance from their children.
It was last amended in 2010 through a Private Member’s Bill, also tabled in parliament by Mr Seah, with the key change then being the establishment of a conciliation-first approach to resolving disputes.
This time, the workgroup proposed four key amendments to the bill to prevent seniors who did not fulfil their parental duties from misusing the Act, and to enhance support for neglected elderly parents.
The commissioner and tribunal have observed cases of parents filing maintenance claims against children whom they had abandoned, abused, or neglected; causing “severe and undue distress” to their children, said Mr Seah.
About one in four cases at the Office of the Commissioner, and one in three cases at the tribunal, involve children who alleged abandonment, abuse or neglect by their parent when they were young.
Parents will now need to declare records of abuse, neglect or abandonment for the child they are claiming against. Official records could include personal protection orders, care and protection orders and criminal convictions.
The commissioner will reference official databases for records and can then refuse or terminate conciliation, and the parents would then have to go before the tribunal for permission to proceed with the claim.
“The general approach would be to not notify and involve the child in the hearing at this stage,” said Mr Seah.
The tribunal may grant permission if a parent shows a “good arguable case” that they did not abandon, abuse or neglect the child.
Even if the case proceeds to a hearing, the tribunal can still find that the parent had abandoned, abused or neglected the child based on evidence provided by the child - and go on to dismiss the case.
For children without official records in databases, they will be called upon to provide accounts, said Mr Seah.
“We have to balance between protecting the child and ensuring that the elderly parents have fair access to justice. We certainly need to be fair to both sides,” he added.
Under the new amendments, the president or deputy president of the tribunal can now dismiss frivolous or vexatious applications, instead of only when three members of the tribunal are present.
Such applications can also be dismissed without informing or involving the child.
LACK OF OFFICIAL RECORDS
MPs who spoke on the subject expressed concerns over the lack of official records of abandonment, abuse or neglect.
Ms Joan Pereira (PAP-Tanjong Pagar), who is part of the workgroup, said it received feedback on cases where children alleged they were abused but had no official records as the abuse went unreported.
“How do we strike a balance between protecting these children from claims from their parents and ensuring fair access to justice for elderly parents, in cases where no records exist?”
Ms Carrie Tan (PAP-Nee Soon) noted that many cases of domestic abuse or neglect still go unreported despite increased awareness in recent years, and that there were likely to be many unreported cases in the past.
She supported the amendment allowing for children to present evidence to the tribunal to have their parents' case dismissed.
“While some may argue that for someone who has been abused before, to be approached to present evidence can itself be an experience that opens old wounds and be distressful and we should avoid that all together, it is unfortunately something we cannot avoid,” she added.
While many would prefer to avoid “dredging up old skeletons in the closet”, it can still be a catalyst for healing, with therapeutic support in place, said Ms Tan.
Under the new amendments, the application for permission must be dealt with without informing or involving the child, except when the child was already involved in any prior conciliation and is agreeable to participate in proceedings, noted Mr Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon).
“I understand the need to avoid re-traumatising a child who may have been previously abandoned, abused or neglected … However, the child may wish to have the opportunity to decide whether or not to participate in their application for permission.”
The commissioner or the tribunal may grant permission for maintenance application if there is a good arguable case that the parent did not abandon, abuse or neglect the child.
“How can the commissioner or the tribunal determine whether there is a good arguable case if the child does not even know that the application for permission has been made?” asked Mr Ng.
It could also be traumatic for a child who was not involved to suddenly be told that they are facing a maintenance application, he said.
Mr Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok), who is also part of the workgroup, noted that in focus group discussions, participants who came from troubled family backgrounds said they would prefer not to be told of their parents’ application for permission at the initial stage.
The records of abuse, abandonment and neglect should also speak for themselves, he added.
“There should not be too much subjectivity involved when it comes to perusing and understanding the contents of the records.”
To address this issue, the tribunal and commissioner have also implemented trauma-informed practices to manage and minimise distress for the children, said Ms Pereira.
“These practices involve training and educating the staff on trauma-sensitive approaches, ensuring they have the necessary skills and understanding to respond to the unique needs of children who may not have official records, and promoting collaboration between relevant agencies to protect the affected parties,” she added.
THOSE UNWILLING TO SEEK MAINTENANCE
The other key amendments to the Act will enhance the protection of neglected elderly parents, such as those admitted into welfare homes due to a lack of support.
A number of destitute parents often choose not to claim maintenance from their children for fear of straining the relationship, Mr Seah noted.
In such cases, welfare homes and the authorities cannot do anything to get children to fulfil their obligations.
"As a result, such children effectively leave their parents to the care of the state when they can well afford to maintain them. This is an unfair use of public funds," he said.
The workgroup initially proposed to empower the Commissioner to apply for maintenance on behalf of destitute parents, even without their consent.
However, this was met with mixed reactions, with some believing that the parents' wishes should be respected.
The workgroup then moderated the proposal to only empower the commissioner to have children attend conciliation sessions, so that care arrangements can be discussed.
"This softer approach will still uphold the principle that children have the obligation to maintain their parents and allow the commissioner to hear the children’s side of the story and encourage the child to support the parent, where appropriate," said Mr Seah.
MPs welcomed the moderated approach, noting the need to balance relationship sensitivities with parents' needs.
Ms Tan said: "In considering that preserving a good relationship between parent and child is the utmost priority in elderly parents’ minds, we have to ensure that we do no harm.
"What we really need to ensure is in the implementation that the communication to children being asked to come forward for conciliation know that the request is being made by the commissioner and not by the parents."
Under the amendments, the tribunal will also be empowered to give non-monetary directions to address underlying issues that cannot be solved by a monetary order.
For example, in cases where the child refuses to pay maintenance to a parent with a gambling problem, the tribunal can require the parent to attend gambling counselling.
The tribunal will be able to order that maintenance payments be withheld until the parent complies with the direction.