Wednesday 22 May 2019

Protecting Singapore’s vulnerable: Will tougher laws make a difference to those at risk?

Recent changes to the Penal Code have introduced tougher penalties against those who abuse domestic workers, children and people with disabilities, and identified new groups of vulnerable persons. Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong look at whether harsher punishments would translate into better protection for five groups of vulnerable people.
By Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 21 May 2019

A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest members and Singapore's move to recognise more vulnerable groups who need protection is a reflection of a more compassionate nation, say experts.

Under laws passed in Parliament earlier this month, those who abuse vulnerable victims will face up to twice the maximum punishment for similar crimes against others.

For instance, offenders who cause grievous hurt face up to 10 years' jail with a fine and caning, but if the crime is committed against a vulnerable victim, the jail term can go up to 20 years.

The scope of those considered vulnerable will also be widened under the new laws.

Besides the existing vulnerable categories of domestic workers and people with mental or physical disabilities, three groups will be added: children under 14, victims in close relationships with their offenders, and victims in intimate relationships with their offenders.

The need to deter abuse of the weak through extra legislative protection was first recognised more than 20 years ago.

In 1998, the Penal Code was amended, introducing 11/2 times the maximum punishment for certain offences committed against foreign domestic workers.

Last year, similar enhanced punishments were introduced for abusers of vulnerable adults - defined as those aged 18 and above who are unable to protect themselves due to disabilities - under the Vulnerable Adults Act.

During the Bill's debate, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin said the changes were borne out of the desire to deter abuse.

He also said the move was an opportunity "for this House to register our strongest condemnation against acts that harm the most vulnerable among us".

The new laws are encouraging, said experts like Mr Norman Kee, an early childhood and special needs education lecturer at the National Institute of Education, who was of the opinion that the law now gives these "silent groups" a voice.

He said: "The changes do signal the need to move towards a more humanistic, compassionate and inclusive society... (It is also a) representation of their distressing and 'unbearable' suffering."

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the move to recognise victims in intimate or close relationships with their abusers signals that such acts, which are sometimes dismissed as "domestic problems", cannot remain private if they involve abuse.

"It is a recognition that we have a responsibility to raise the alarm and not close one eye... that we must feel outraged and act to prevent or stop abusive behaviour," he said.

But on the ground, welfare and social service groups say the new laws will not necessarily translate into better protection.

Under-reporting is also common when it comes to abuse cases, said the experts who noted that published statistics could represent just the tip of the iceberg.

To be effective, the new laws must come in tandem with measures to protect and educate the victims and those around them, say the various organisations who look out for the vulnerable.

In Parliament, Mr Amrin acknowledged that the law has its limits.

"The law can shape social norms, but it is only one factor," he said, adding that while the legal direction is now clear, the Government needs to work with community partners, including non-governmental organisations, to be effective.

Abuse of maids on the rise despite stiff penalties
By Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 21 May 2019

The number of maid abuse cases charged in court has gone up in the last three years, despite a legal provision in place since 1998 that provides for enhanced sentencing against employers who mistreat their domestic helpers.

Foreign domestic workers were the first vulnerable group to be given added legal protections when it was decided that abusive employers could receive 1.5 times the maximum penalties for certain offences, like causing grievous hurt, wrongful confinement and insult of modesty.

The move was made in response to an increase in maid abuse cases, said then-Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng in Parliament.

But two decades on, these measures do not seem to have deterred abuse, say welfare groups.

There were 28 cases of maid abuse cases charged last year, the highest since 2014. This is an increase from 10 cases in 2016 and 20 cases in 2017.

The number of cases sentenced in court increased to 13 last year, from just six cases in 2017. There were 15 such cases in 2016 and 13 the previous year.

Under the new laws, offenders can be given twice the maximum penalties, up from 11/2 times, for all Penal Code crimes against maids.

The move is necessary and further recognises the vulnerability of domestic workers, said experts, who note that abuse also includes cases where maids are threatened or deprived of food or rest.

However, the law alone is not enough to prevent maid abuse, said Mr John Gee, who chairs the research sub-committee at Transient Workers Count Too.

He said: "What is really needed is to reform the system that ties domestic workers to their employers, because it causes them to be isolated from the outside world and potential sources of help and advice."

There are already strong penalties in place, media coverage and policies barring errant employers from hiring another maid, noted Mr Gee.

"If potential offenders are not deterred by this, will increasing the penalty discourage them? It may not make much difference," he said.

Under-reporting of abuse is also a concern, said Ms Stephanie Chok, former research and advocacy manager for Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).

Many factors prevent domestic helpers from reporting abuse, and they range from the fear of losing their jobs to having their passports impounded during police investigations and having to stay in Singapore indefinitely.

"Without legally-guaranteed social support services and protection, it will be difficult to encourage migrant women workers to assist in investigations and bring perpetrators to justice," she said.

People with disabilities 'more at risk'
By Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 21 May 2019

Several months ago, a man became acquainted with a few special-needs adults from the Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN).

He befriended them online, gained their trust and convinced them to send him illicit and compromising photos of themselves.

Fortunately, he was discovered, and the APSN stopped him from making further requests and reported this to the authorities. The case is pending legal proceedings.

The victims involved also received follow-up counselling with the association.

Under the Vulnerable Adults Act (VAA) which came into force last year, those who commit certain crimes against disabled and infirm individuals aged 18 and above, can receive 11/2 times the maximum penalties.

Changes under the Criminal Law Reform Bill passed earlier this month will bring this up to twice the maximum punishments for all crimes against the disabled.

While there are currently no instances where the VAA has been invoked, the Ministry of Social and Family Development's Adult Protective Service has handled an average of 110 cases yearly since 2015.

Welfare groups who care for the disabled said they hope the harsher punishments will deter those who prey on the vulnerable.

Perpetrators might now think twice about the ramifications of getting caught, said APSN alumni manager Loke Jun Leong, who works with adult beneficiaries after they graduate from APSN programmes.

People with disabilities are, in general, more susceptible and vulnerable to abuse, said Mr Loke, explaining why tougher punishment is necessary.

On average, the association sees about five cases a year where someone with intellectual or mental disabilities is abused, and the perpetrators can be family members, friends and strangers.

Already, it takes a lot for a victim who does not have any disabilities to come forward and make a report, said Mr Loke, because it requires a fair degree of awareness, self-reflection and courage.

"Having a person with intellectual disabilities undergo this same process will likely require significant assistance," he said. "Some of them don't even know they are being exploited."

Instead of just focusing on punishing the perpetrator, a more effective move would be to empower the vulnerable by teaching them to protect themselves and to make a report if necessary, added Mr Loke.

Often, people with disabilities are reluctant to report cases of abuse by their caregivers as they fear the repercussions, said Ms Teo Pek Wan from the SPD, a charity that supports people with disabilities.

Ms Teo, who is SPD's acting director of adult and elderly services, said this includes the fear of betraying a caregiver and the worry that the person whom they rely on for activities of daily living will be taken away.

She said: "Public education is necessary to bring across the point that reporting abuse is not to punish the abusers or cause them harm, but to allow the vulnerable to receive help and intervention."

Dilemma for kids when abuser is kin
By Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 21 May 2019

It is hard for children who face abuse to come forward because more often than not, their abuser is a parent or a loved one, say experts.

In fact, enhanced penalties for abusers could backfire and instead turn victims away from reporting, said family therapist Evonne Lek, who works with abused children.

The number of children who were abused by a family member spiked by 30 per cent last year, with sharp increases in physical and sexual abuse cases, according to figures from the Ministry of Social and Family Development released in March.

The ministry investigated 1,163 child abuse cases last year, a jump from 894 in 2017.

Last year's figure was the highest in the past decade and the number of cases probed has been rising each year since 2015, when the ministry looked into 551 cases.

Ms Lek said that while the rise can be attributed to more awareness and reporting, the official numbers do not reflect the true extent of the problem, given that under-reporting is an issue, especially if the abuser is a parent or a family member.

"(Children) have mixed feelings on whether to report the abuse. They want the abuse to stop, but they don't want someone they love to go to jail," she said.

Emotional attachment and practical concerns, especially if the abuser is the sole breadwinner of the family, are barriers to reporting, said Ms Serene Tan, director of Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre.

"It's more complicated than just putting the law in place. It won't mean the abuse stops," she said.

But tougher laws to protect children are necessary, given how it has become easier for offenders to carry out abuse against minors while hiding anonymously behind the Internet, said Ms Tan. "There are so many ways for an offender to prey on a child and the Internet heightens that risk."

Ms Lek said that once the courts start handing out the harsher punishments, it might make some abusers "sit up and realise that they had better stop what they're doing".

But still, prevention should be the main objective, because once the need to utilise the law arises, it means hurt or damage has been inflicted, she added.

For 12-year-old Marilyn (not her real name), the physical scars have faded but the emotional trauma lives on. Whenever she spots someone in a purple-red chequered shirt, the Primary 6 pupil panics. While it has been three years since she escaped the daily beatings and scoldings by her father, the sight of such a shirt still brings back scary memories as he often wore one.

Even as a toddler, the older of two girls was always covered in bruises.

On one occasion, her father pulled her ear so hard that it bled. Another time when she was five, he dangled her outside their flat window.

Her 48-year-old mother, who wanted to be known only as Ms Leila, welcomed the changes, but stressed that more focus should be on offering the victims a way out.

Based on her own experience, it was the fear of her former husband that made her suffer in silence for almost 15 years before she found the courage to end the marriage.

"Until today, my girls and I still fear that he will come and find us. We are no longer in the same home, but there's still the fear," she told The Straits Times.

Intimate or close ties pose problems
By Tan Tam Mei and Cara Wong, The Straits Times, 21 May 2019

Those in intimate or close relationships with their abusers can soon find some relief under new laws granting them added protections.

Passed in Parliament earlier this month, the changes recognise victims in these two groups as vulnerable. Their abusers can be given twice the maximum punishment for the crimes of rape, wrongful confinement and causing hurt.

Before this, there was limited recourse for victims not related or legally bound to their abusers, said social service groups, noting the pressing need to recognise the two groups.

This is important as societal norms have changed, with couples getting married later and people cohabiting, said senior social worker Kristine Lam, manager of Care Corner Project StART.

She said: "Changes in relationships and living arrangements create new groups of people in situations where protection is needed too."

An intimate relationship is determined by several factors, such as if parties live in the same household or share daily duties, as with couples who cohabitate or share child support.

Close relationships cover those who live in the same household and have frequent contact with each other, and can include roommates.

The call to recognise the plight of victims of intimate-partner violence is what family violence specialist centre Pave has campaigned for.

Since 2015, it has received an average of 53 enquiries on intimate-partner violence each year.

However, the number of cases fluctuates. Last year, Pave saw four cases, a drop from 17 in 2017. It saw 11 in 2016 and six in 2015.

Though the figures are small, the victims who come forward - usually only after much cajoling - are often badly beaten, said Dr Sudha Nair, founder of Pave.

There are no official figures for violence in close relationships, but social service agencies have seen cases involving rental flat roommates or children abused by a parent's live-in partner.

Ms Lam noted a peculiar case where a maid abused her female employer's paraplegic husband.

When the wife found out, she was reluctant to fire the maid as she was concerned about the extra costs involved.

The changes signal society's abhorrence of such acts, and Ms Joyz Tan, centre head of Fei Yue Family Service Centre (Bukit Batok), said the law now makes clear that abuse in close or intimate relationships is an offence.

But added protections do not equal total prevention, said experts, and factors such as emotional attachment can hinder reporting.

To counter this, Ms Lam said there should also be focus on educating the public that such violence is not an internal affair and to raise the alarm when needed.

Writer Dawn Teo, 25, said she was raped by her ex-boyfriend when they were both 17, but she did not report it to the police out of fear of ruining his future.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Ms Teo said her feelings for him and the lack of knowledge of the police system also stopped her from telling anyone.

She said they remained a couple for another year after the incident, and she later found closure after talking with him about what had happened.

"I was concerned about him at the time, even though in hindsight, the consequences he would have faced shouldn't have been a concern," said Ms Teo, adding that she told only her close friends about the alleged rape after the break-up.

Ms Teo, who has given interviews about her experience, said harsher punishments are welcome, but more should be done for victims to seek help.

"You can put abusers behind bars, but life won't snap back to normal for the victims again," she said.

Penal Code Review: Proposals aim to better protect vulnerable; Criminal Law Reform Bill Passed in Parliament on 6 May 2019

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