Call for support group for kleptomaniacs

Kleptomania is the recurrent failure to resist urges to steal items that the person does not really need and that usually have little value.
Kleptomania is the recurrent failure to resist urges to steal items that the person does not really need and that usually have little value. PHOTO: ST FILE

They need continued treatment and close monitoring, say experts

Experts believe that people who feel compelled to steal need to continue seeking treatment outside of prison, especially since a thorough assessment could reveal more serious underlying mental issues.

They also called for the creation of a support group for such people.

On Monday, former engineer Goh Lee Yin, 36, fell to her death a day before a scheduled pre-trial conference to hear her criminal case for stealing items including an oven.

Dr Thomas Lee, a consultant psychiatrist at Novena Medical Centre, said close monitoring of those suffering from kleptomania can help pinpoint stress factors, and prevent them from having a relapse or taking more drastic action.

It was a point which senior consultant psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow also agreed with, as he urged for more thorough medical assessments. "While those convicted may receive medication and eventually psychological therapy, some people face complex problems- such as developmental or personality issues - which may require more time to identify," he said.

 

Kleptomania is the recurrent failure to resist urges to steal items that the person does not really need and that usually have little value. The sufferer tends to feel extremely uncomfortable or anxious until he steals the item. Doing so brings a sense of relief or gratification. Sufferers may have a concurrent disorder, such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Goh was first convicted of theft in 2005, but her initial sentence of 2½ months was later changed to two years' probation on appeal. As part of the probation, she was required to get psychiatric treatment for kleptomania.

Goh reoffended while on probation, but a day's imprisonment and fine was replaced by a fresh probation order of 18 months on appeal. In 2011, Goh was convicted again, and even as a report on her suitability for probation was being prepared, she reoffended and was sentenced to six weeks in jail.

The next year, she was convicted of two counts of cheating and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, later cut by half on appeal.

Before her death, Goh was facing nine charges, most for theft. The pre-trial conference had been adjourned several times, as she had committed fresh offences.

Dr Lee said the criminal justice system has evolved to better understand offenders with mental illnesses and provide more suitable sentencing and rehabilitative options. Since 2010, for instance, offenders suffering from mental health issues which have contributed to their offences can be given a Mandatory Treatment Order (MTO). This allows the court to order the offender to attend psychiatric treatment sessions instead of having to serve a jail term.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, said: "Involving partners such as family service centres under the umbrella of MTO can also be useful as they have more immediate access to the homes of the offenders."

The Straits Times understands that offenders with psychiatric conditions will receive treatment during their prison stay. Upon release, they will continue to need help.

Dr Lee said support groups specifically for kleptomaniacs are important as the condition is a chronic one which can haunt a person through his life. There are no such dedicated support groups now.

Dr Lim said: "Decriminalising offenders with mental health issues and medicalising their behaviour will lead to more being treated and lowering risk of reoffending."

Goh will be cremated today.


Goh Lee Yin's trials over the years

April 2005 to November 2005: On appeal, then Chief Justice Yong Pung How set aside a 2½-month jail term for Goh Lee Yin in favour of two years' probation with stringent conditions. The sentence was based on charges of theft of items from a supermarket and a department store in May 2005. Charges for shoplifting in April 2005 were taken into consideration.

November 2006 to November 2007: Facing charges of theft of items including a Louis Vuitton handbag, Goh was fined $8,000 and jailed one day by district courts.

A fraudulent possession charge and a 2005 offence of stealing $70 worth of costume jewellery were also considered. The prosecution appealed for a longer jail term, but Justice V.K. Rajah put her on 18 months' probation in place of the original sentence. This was a landmark judgment hailed as an enlightened approach in meting out sentences for offenders with mental illness.

February 2010 to November 2011: Out on bail awaiting sentencing for stealing branded goods such as a $4,790 Chanel bag, Goh was caught shoplifting. She took items including magazines, toiletries and airtight containers worth a total of $83. This time, the courts sentenced her to six weeks' jail and a $4,000 fine.

November 2011 to November 2013:After Goh pleaded guilty to cheating two women of four handbags worth $97,000, the court called for a special hearing to find out if her offences were related to personality disorders. Psychiatrists agreed that she has a mental condition, but were split on their diagnoses and the relation to her offences. Goh appealed against the original sentence of nine months' jail and the High Court called for a report to assess her suitability for probation. Her sentence is instead cut to 4 1/2 months.

August 2015 to 2016: Goh was charged with thefts committed between August and December 2015, including taking branded clothes and shoes as well as an oven. She was also charged with fraudulent possession of a gift bag worth $6.10 and a Banana Republic top of unknown value.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2017, with the headline 'Call for support group for kleptomaniacs'. Print Edition | Subscribe