Former school bus driver jailed for locking 3-year-old girl in van without ventilation for more than an hour
SINGAPORE: Upset that he was not being paid more to take extra students to school, a school bus driver locked a three-year-old pupil in his minivan for more than an hour without ventilation.
Zulkahnai Haron, 47, was given 10 months' jail, fined S$3,000 and banned from driving for a year on Wednesday (Jan 6). He pleaded guilty to one count of ill-treating a child by causing her unnecessary suffering and an unrelated traffic charge.
The court heard that Zulkahnai was a driver at a transport services company, taking students to and from school on designated routes.
On the morning of Jan 20 last year, Zulkahnai reported to work as usual and had finished dropping off the students on his routes when his supervisor asked him to pick up more students.
Zulkahnai asked if he would receive an extra allowance for this, but "did not receive a satisfactory answer" from the supervisor and began feeling unhappy.
He did take one extra student to school but remained upset about the allowance.
Despite knowing that the victim was still in the minivan, he asked the bus attendant to leave first, breaching company policy stipulating that bus attendants could leave only when all the students had left the bus.
Instead of taking the last pupil to school, Zulkahnai drove home and parked his van in a multistorey car park at Admiralty Drive at about 9am.
He left the girl in the van, locked it and went to buy food at a stall before going to shop for groceries at a supermarket. After this, he went home.
At about 10am, a man walking in the car park with his wife heard a voice saying "hello, hello" coming from the minivan.
They found the victim inside sobbing and calling for her mother, still strapped in to her seat with a safety belt.
The man called Zulkahnai, whose number was listed on the vehicle, while his wife called the school and took a photo of the girl.
HE LIED TO PASSERS-BY AND POLICE
When Zulkahnai got back to his vehicle, the woman scolded him, but Zulkahnai told her not to worry, as it was "only a few minutes". He said he would take the girl to school, but the woman insisted on tagging along as she was concerned about the girl's safety.
When they got to the school, the woman told the victim's teacher what had happened.
Zulkahnai was not forthcoming in investigations. In his statement to the police, he said he had left the victim unattended for about 30 minutes to return home to change. He claimed he had a stomach ache and had inadvertently soiled his pants.
He maintained this account until he was confronted with closed-circuit television footage of him in the supermarket. He eventually admitted leaving the victim in the van as he was upset about his allowance.
He admitted that he had returned to the van only after receiving a call from the passer-by and that he lied as he was afraid of getting more charges if he told the truth.
VICTIM SUFFERED PTSD, AFRAID OF BEING ALONE
The victim was examined at the Institute of Mental Health's child guidance clinic and found to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident.
According to the victim's mother, the girl was scared to be alone and could not sleep without her mother for six months after the incident. She was also afraid to take the school bus as she was afraid the driver would forget about her and leave her alone inside.
Zulkahnai also admitted to an unrelated charge of beating a red light in April last year and causing injuries to a motorcyclist who fell while avoiding a collision.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Yang Ziliang asked for a year's jail as well as a fine of S$3,000 and a driving ban of one year.
He said this was the first prosecution under the newly amended law for unnecessary suffering caused to a child.
Statistics show that the number of child abuse cases has increased more than twofold over the last nine years, said Mr Yang, and any sentence imposed must strongly deter other offenders.
"She was locked in the bus for more than an hour, unable to move or get help. The pain she must have suffered at that point in time would be very hard to calibrate," he said. "We submit that the psychological wounds, while invisible to the eye ... will leave an indelible mark on the victim's psyche."
Zulkahnai committed an egregious breach of trust and was dishonest during investigations, the prosecutor added.
VICTIM NOT PHYSICALLY HURT: DEFENCE
Defence lawyer Sofia Bennita Mohamed Bakhash said there was no element of physical hurt to the child, although she was in discomfort. She was not hurt or bruised, and there was no indication of breathing difficulties while she was in the van.
Ms Sofia said there was a concern over the child guidance clinic report, as it was taken a while after the incident and via the mother, so there "could be inflation of the issues raised".
Her client was facing "financial difficulties" at the time of the offences and has since changed his line of work, staying away from anything vehicle-related and working as a security guard.
A jail term would affect his family life, as he has two school-going children aged 17 and 18 he has to support, said the lawyer.
In response, the prosecutor said it was fortuitous that the van had not been parked under the sun or more harm could have been caused.
District Judge Marvin Bay said he understood that Zulkahnai's frustrations arose from not receiving extra allowance for the additional passengers, but said he had placed the child in a potentially dangerous situation.
"Alone and restrained in the unventilated van, the three-year-old child would be at risk of oxygen deprivation if left there long enough," he said, adding that "we do not know how long you would have left the child in the vehicle" if not for the passers-by.
He noted Zulkahnai's plea of guilt and clean record, but also considered the element of premeditation he had by discharging the bus attendant before parking the vehicle and his attempt to conceal the crime.
For ill-treating a child, he could have been jailed for up to eight years, fined up to S$8,000 or both.