Committee of Supply debate: Ministry of Social and Family Development

Help for those from broken homes to keep family intact

A pilot programme is to be rolled out for children of abusive or negligent parents to let them continue to stay at home with their loved ones instead of being sent to a children's home or put up for foster care.

In announcing the move in Parliament yesterday, Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said it is conventional wisdom that the most ideal environment for children to grow up is in their own homes with their families.

Under the programme, to be launched by December this year, social workers will visit the families every week to understand their strengths and needs.

They will then counsel them, coach the caregivers on parenting skills and connect them to relevant resources in the community.

This "family preservation" service offered by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and voluntary welfare organisations will last for six months to ensure the family is back on an even keel.

For children already in foster care, the ministry will offer a "family reunification" service to pave the way for them to return home to their family. It will last 12 months.

Both services come under the pilot programme, to be called Safe and Strong Families.

It is expected to help 400 families and children in the next three years.

Mr Tan, speaking during the debate on his ministry's budget, said that in the coming years, the ministry will continue to strengthen "these fundamental family relationships''.

"Where relationships have problems, we try to help repair and preserve them. Where they have broken down, we try to minimise the negative impact," he said.

"Central to our work here is the interest of the children and their development," he added.

Currently, about 800 children and young people are living in 23 children's homes, and 350 with foster families.

Also, several agencies provide some form of family preservation or reunification support for such vulnerable families. These include Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre, Gracehaven children's home run by The Salvation Army, and Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home.

But the pilot programme will be a more intensive and targeted home-based service.

Ms Serene Tan, senior social worker at Big Love welcomes it: "Children grow up best with their parents as there is natural bonding and innate attachment."

Also, research in the United States shows more such support reduces the risk of the child being physically or psychologically harmed in the family and increases the likelihood of the child continuing to live with the family.

Her centre has handled about 500 child protection cases in the last three years.

It provides counselling and other home-based services to families torn by financial, addiction, housing and employment problems as well as marital discord or mental health.

Ms Lakshmi Alagappan, deputy head of Gracehaven, said it is vital to have staff whose main task is to help the families, especially the children.

"If the children go back to unstable homes, the issues may escalate and they may have to return to children's homes again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'Help for those from broken homes to keep family intact'. Print Edition | Subscribe