Monday 25 April 2016

More child abuse cases being investigated

Better detection by agencies - from schools to hospitals - results in larger number of serious cases probed by MSF unit
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 24 Apr 2016

For the better part of a year, the storeroom was her home. It was where an 11-year-old slept, ate, studied and used a bucket to relieve herself.

She was so afraid of being punished that she did as she was told, remaining there even though the storeroom was not locked.

She was allowed out only for a daily bath - and to go to school, where she never spoke of her ordeal.

Her mother and stepfather regarded her as a jinx, the cause of all their woes. And they ordered her siblings not to talk to her.

Her case came to light only after the school counsellor noticed that she often reeked of urine, and had changed from being a vocal child to a listless soul.

Better detection of child abuse cases by a host of agencies - from schools to hospitals - has resulted in more cases of serious abuse being investigated by the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) Child Protective Service (CPS).

Last year, the CPS received 2,022 reports and inquiries about child abuse. Of this, it investigated 551 that were instances of serious abuse.

This was an increase of about 40 per cent over the period from 2012 to 2014, when it probed between about 380 and 400 cases of serious abuse a year, CPS director Carmelia Nathen told The Sunday Times.

Last year's 551 serious abuse cases included instances of rape and molestation, and serious injuries inflicted by a family member.

While the CPS assesses all abuse reports received, it may refer the moderate and lower-risk cases to charities, designated as child protection specialist centres, and which are tasked with and equipped to handle such cases.

But for serious abuse, the CPS steps in and has the power to remove the child from the family if necessary - and keep the child away until it is satisfied that the parents have changed their violent ways.

Ms Nathen said the CPS has improved its screening tools and processes. This has enabled those in the child protection system - from teachers to medical staff to social workers - to better spot abuse.

The training of such professionals has led to improved detection, management and reporting of abuse cases.

It is also taking a more proactive approach by looking into some cases managed by professionals outside the ministry to ensure that these children are kept safe.

Overall, the cases can vary from babies who were shaken so violently that they suffered brain injuries, to teenagers molested by their fathers.

The abuser - often a parent - comes from across all income and ethnic groups. In some instances, he is also mentally ill or addicted to some vice, said child protection officer Firdawati Masri.

She had a case of a six-year-old girl with multiple burns and blue black marks on her body - all because her curiosity irritated her alcoholic father, who heated a metal spoon and pressed it against her when he was angry.

Said Ms Firdawati: "She likes to ask questions and wanted his affection but he got irritated with this."

The girl's parents are separated and her mother is more interested in her new partner than her daughter's welfare. The CPS placed the girl in the care of a family friend.

Other parents are overwhelmed by multiple problems and go overboard trying to discipline their children, while some just resented their children, Ms Firdawati said.

In the case of the girl confined in the storeroom, she was placed in foster care for several years.

This was until her parents were helped to change their parenting practices. Their relationship with the girl has since improved and she has moved back to live with them.

Specialist centres help to tackle less severe cases
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 24 Apr 2016

The Ministry of Social and Family Development's Child Protective Service (CPS) received 2,022 inquiries about child abuse last year and handled them based on the nature, severity and frequency of the abuse allegations, among other considerations.

It investigated 551 of the most serious cases. These included children who had been sexually violated, or seriously hurt by a family member.

In 2013, the ministry appointed two charities - Big Love and Heart@Fei Yue - to specialise in managing cases that are considered of moderate risk. A third such centre, run by Pave, will be up in the first half of next year.

Setting up child protection specialist centres frees the CPS to focus on the more serious cases. Last year, the CPS referred about 15 per cent of inquiries to the specialist centres.

Moderate-risk cases include children who are caned excessively by parents, and those whose welfare may be neglected by drug-addicted parents, said Big Love centre director Wong Meng Kong. "If nothing is done, the child will suffer," he said.

Cases included that of a consultant in his 40s who would hit his wife and three children whenever he was angry. His eldest child, a 15-year-old girl, had to go to a hospital as one of the marks she received from caning had to be stitched up.

The hospital alerted the CPS, and the case was referred to Big Love, whose staff realised that the man could be mentally ill. They encouraged him to see a doctor and taught him how to manage his anger and communicate with his children. The beatings have since stopped.

About 10 per cent of the inquiries that CPS received last year were deemed of low risk. Such cases were referred to family service centres.

These included instances of families under stress because of money, marital or health problems. Their situation affected their ability to look after their children.

Ms Samantha Lim, assistant director of the Singapore Children's Society Family Service Centre (Yishun), said families are plunged into a crisis when the breadwinner falls ill, a parent walks out or is sent to jail. The remaining parent may be overwhelmed by the crisis and so neglects the children.

So social workers step in to link these families to financial aid and other forms of support.

The CPS attended to remaining inquiries by giving them relevant information, or referring them to other agencies that could help. It has received an average of about 2,000 inquiries a year in the last four years. Most calls were from hospitals, schools, the police, the courts and voluntary welfare organisations.

Tackling hostile parents part of child protection work
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 24 Apr 2016

Parents are often hostile when the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) Child Protective Service (CPS) steps in to stop them from abusing their child.

And about one in six families challenges the CPS' actions, for example, to remove the child from his parents' care for his own safety.

In such cases, the CPS has to get the courts to decide where the child will stay, among other things.

CPS director Carmelia Nathen said bringing cases to court to get a care and protection order is the last resort.

This happens when parents refuse to cooperate with the CPS to address safety concerns for the child. Contested legal proceedings can drag for a few months to a year.

Said Ms Nathen: "This is not ideal as the intervention work and services for the family cannot take place expediently."

Two years ago, a couple who physically and emotionally abused their young son repeatedly went so far as to sue two child protection officers in their personal capacity.

After the CPS placed their son in a children's home, they challenged the decision in court.

When that failed, they filed a civil suit against the two CPS officers handling the case - a first-ever situation for CPS staff.

But the court dismissed the suit.

Ms Nathen told The Sunday Times that the CPS does not take a child away from his parents unless there are serious concerns.

Instead, it finds ways to keep the child safe at home - by roping in relatives and social workers, for example, to keep tabs and provide the help that is needed, and getting parents to address the causes that led to the abuse.

But if this does not work out, the CPS may move the child.

One such instance involved an eight-year-old boy who was repeatedly beaten with a back-scratcher by his mother, who was stressed by marital woes and having to look after the boy.

The mother agreed to get help to manage her stress and anger. A relative, among others, stepped in to help with some caregiving duties.

All was calm for half a year until the mother lost her temper again.

This time, the beatings were so bad that the boy's arm swelled. His school reported the incident to the CPS and the boy was placed in foster care.

While parents object to their child being taken away, separation is also traumatic for the child, said child protection officer Firdawati Masri.

So the CPS tries to place the child with someone he knows, like a relative or family friend. Otherwise he is placed in a children's home or with foster parents.

Still, as Ms Firdawati noted, some children want to live at home even if they are beaten: "Their parents are the only people they know."

Some abused children stay in foster care or in a children's home for years, until it is safe for them to go home.

But a small group do not get to go home at all as their parents have not changed their abusive ways.

Ms Nathen said CPS has placed some abused children up for adoption with their parents' consent. But there are also "very few" instances where children are placed for adoption without parental consent.

Said veteran social worker Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave: "Child protection work has come a long way. Now, we have moved to picking up cases even before serious abuse happens.

"I see the shift in the MSF in that it has realised it cannot do it alone. It needs the eyes and ears on the ground to help it."

New hotline is abused kids' lifeline
By Wong Shiying, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2016

For over a year, Jack (not his real name) lived with his maternal aunt while his parents were in prison.

But the 10-year-old had to endure her verbal insults as she did not want to care for him.

There was no one else he could turn to as his paternal grandparents had abused him before, hitting him with a stool and hanging him upside down.

When a Family Service Centre (FSC) became aware of Jack's plight, its staff reached out to Heart@Fei Yue, a Child Protection Specialist Centre set up by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in April 2013 to handle child abuse cases considered of moderate risk.

Previously, it took on only abuse cases referred by the MSF but since April this year, it has opened its doors to the public with its hotline.

Social workers from Heart@Fei Yue have since met with Jack and his family members to make arrangements for him to stay in a children's home near his school until his parents are released.

Moderate risk means children are victims of harsh physical punishment afflicted to areas other than the head, or whose welfare may be neglected by parents who are substance abusers or mentally ill, said Heart@Fei Yue centre director Ng Kwai Sim.

Members of the public can contact the centre directly to refer possible cases of child abuse or neglect, or to consult a social worker.

Severe cases, such as those involving sexual abuse, are referred to the MSF's Child Protective Service while low-risk cases are handled by FSCs.

Since opening its services, Heart@Fei Yue, which serves the whole island, has had an average of a call a day through the hotline, but the numbers are expected to rise as people become more aware of it.

Principal social worker Ng Cher Meng said: "We hope to make Heart@Fei Yue more accessible to the public. The earlier (help is rendered) the better it is for the children."

The public can reach Heart@Fei Yue via its hotline on 6819-9170 from Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.30pm.

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