Death of 14-year-old: Experts welcome police review on procedures for questioning youth

The body of a 14-year-old boy was found beneath a HDB block in Yishun on Jan 26, 2016.
The body of a 14-year-old boy was found beneath a HDB block in Yishun on Jan 26, 2016. PHOTO: SHIN MIN FILE

Those under age 16 should be treated as vulnerable members of society: Experts

Social workers, lawyers and psychologists have welcomed a decision by the Singapore Police Force to review its procedures when interviewing a minor.

It comes after a 14-year-old boy called Benjamin was found dead at the foot of his Housing Board block in Yishun on Jan 26, 90 minutes after being released from Ang Mo Kio Police Division, where he was questioned regarding an alleged molestation case.

No adult was present at his interview as there is no legal requirement for that in such cases here.

But in Britain and parts of Australia, officers must find an "appropriate adult" - a parent, guardian or social worker - to sit in during the questioning of a person under 18.

 

In response to public concern following the teenager's death, the police said on Monday that they will review the procedure to allow a grown-up to be present in such cases in future.

Benjamin's father told The Straits Times that his wife received a call from their son to say he was being taken from school to the police station.

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The police said they sent plainclothes officers and unmarked cars to pick up Benjamin from school "to keep investigations discreet".

Benjamin's father said that when his wife picked the boy up from the station, "his hands were freezing, he kept to himself, he was quiet".

"We knew that he didn't feel too good," he said.

Social workers and lawyers believe that youngsters under 16 should be treated as vulnerable members of society.

The Association of Women for Action and Research said the case "raises troubling questions about the treatment of minors who come into contact with the criminal justice system".

Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society, said: "Children below 16 are an especially vulnerable group. We should always seek professionals who are trained to handle children. The children should not be handled like adults, and intervention should be done in a more delicate manner."

Criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan believes the appropriate adult should not be a parent but an "independent person" whose job is to prevent each side from making "frivolous accusations" about the other.

"This is the standard problem we have in terms of police investigations. We don't have an independent source of what goes on inside the room."

Former policeman Lim Ah Soon, 70, believes parents should not be present at interviews. "Children may tend to be more defensive when their parents are around. Similarly, the parents would be protective of the child."

Dr Munisada Winslow, senior consultant psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare, Novena Medical Centre, suggested having a counsellor or a trained officer help the minor after a police interview.

Experts also suggested that interviews with minors be recorded on film and that youngsters should be granted access to legal help.

In Singapore, only people with intellectual or mental disabilities are allowed an appropriate adult during investigations.

A Ministry of Education spokesman said that while schools have an obligation to cooperate with the police, they also have a duty of care to students. He said schools have a set of guidelines, including speaking to the student and contacting his parents or guardian first, before he can be taken away by the police.

A spokesman for the secondary school involved has confirmed that the police and student had both spoken to a parent over the phone. "We noted from the conversation that the parent would be going to the police station. Throughout the process, we were mindful that as a young student, he would be frightened and we strove to give him as much emotional support as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Interviewing of minors: Police review welcomed'. Print Edition | Subscribe