Fighting elder abuse: More eyes and ears needed to report cases to centres

For months, neighbours heard screams from a thin, frail woman who looks much older than her 58 years. Some said they saw her beaten by her daughter or husband.

But until Mohamed Juani - a neighbour - secretly filmed and uploaded a video of one such abuse incident on Facebook on Monday evening, no one really spoke up. And, crucially, no one reported the matter to the authorities.

Once the video went viral, some neighbours told reporters they saw her being slapped and kicked. Others saw her hair being pulled. Yet others saw her being berated and beaten with brooms.

The shroud of silence that surrounds abuse cases may shock some, but comes as no surprise to those at the front lines of the battle against elder abuse.

Trans Safe Centre, Pave and Care Corner Project Start provide specialised community-based support and services for people affected by family violence. This includes older folk who are scolded, beaten, defrauded or denied access to others by people they love, most frequently their own flesh and blood. 

While there are some family, friends and neighbours who do speak out, social workers in all three agencies have seen cases where others knew of the abuse but did nothing to help.

Pave, for instance, helped a 74-year-old woman who was often kicked, slapped and hit on the head by her son-in-law. She would shout for help. Once, when he was hitting her and she screamed for help through the kitchen window, a small crowd had gathered downstairs to gape. But no one offered to help or report the matter. Eventually, a visiting grandson was shocked by her condition and reported the matter to the authorities. 

Similarly, in other cases reported to the Trans Safe Centre and Project Start by family members or police, neighbours acknowledged seeing the violence, but did nothing about it. Some do not intervene for fear of being hurt or harassed by the perpetrator who, after all, lives just a door or two away. They may fear making the violence worse for the victim. Others feel being a "kaypoh" - or nosy - neighbour is too "paiseh" (embarrassing). 

Most of all, social workers say, many bystanders feel outsiders should not interfere in domestic disputes - even when violence is invoved. 

It is unclear exactly how many people harbour such views today, but a 2007 study of more than 1,000 people by what was then the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports showed that half believed family violence was a private matter, down from nearly six in 10 in 2003.

But this is a totally wrong view.

The law does not stop at the threshold to private homes. If it did, killings at home won’t be murder, and criminals can flee the law simply by returning home to shut the door. 

Neighbours and bystanders need to know that domestic violence is a crime, the same way violence to a co-worker in the office, or a stranger on the street, is a crime.

People should "dare to care", says Kristine Lam, a social worker at Project StART. "Whether it occurs in public or in the privacy of someone’s home, violence is violence."

Secrecy increases the risk of violence, adds Pave executive director Dr Sudha Nair. Often, survivors may be reluctant to report the perpetrator, but want the violence to stop, she says.

"Violence is not and cannot be solely a family affair. Reporting it must be a community responsibility."

In some countries like the United States, it is mandatory for individuals to report abuse to law enforcement or social service agencies or a regulatory body. But even there, for every case of elder abuse that is reported, experts estimate that 23 go unreported.

Singapore does not have such a provision to mandate reporting.

Experts say that among domestic violence victims, it is elder abuse that is most likely to be undetected.

Teachers or counsellors at school can spot child victims of violence. An angry wife subject to prolonged abuse is more likely to report her husband than a dialect-speaking mother who is assaulted by her son. In fact, because of denial, dependance or unconditional love, many elderly victims cover up signs of abuse and protect perpetrators. 

As Trans Safe Centre director Tan Ching Yee told me when I was working on a series of stories on elder abuse late last year, "You can divorce an abusive husband, but you can never divorce your own child."

If the victim doesn’t report abuse, the community can step in.

What can neighbours, concerned friends and relations do?

If a victim’s life is in danger – call 999. Short of that, it is best to report concerns to specialist agencies like Trans Safe Centre, Pave and Project Start.

Staff at these centres are trained to negotiate the tricky terrain of fractured family relationships with both tact and tenacity. They are seen to be less threatening than the police. They can not only protect the victim, they can also work on the perpetrator’s issues, through mandatory counselling for example. Yet public awareness of these help agencies appears to be low. Studies in the past have shown that when asked who they would approach to report family violence, three in four mentioned the police. 

An informative MSF video from 2012 on the tell-tale signs of elder abuse directing people to approach the specialist agencies, on the other hand, has been viewed fewer than 900 times on YouTube.

The agencies themselves have stepped up public education efforts. During a community outreach session on Tuesday morning, hours after Mohamed Juani uploaded his video, social workers from Trans Safe asked a group of Bedok residents what they would do if they witnessed or suspected elder abuse. Most said they would call the police, though some voiced doubts about how effective that would be.

After learning about the centre’s work, most vowed to call social workers should they witness violence, said Ms Tan. 

Protecting the powerless from their own flesh and blood is tough work. The experts need as many eyes, ears and helping hands as they can get. It isn’t about being nosy. It’s about being responsible.

Where to get help:

Care Corner Project StART 
Phone: 6476-1482

Phone: 6449-9088