Law proposed to protect vulnerable adults' identities

Once reported to social welfare director, they will be protected from public scrutiny

A law to protect the identities of vulnerable adults involved in abuse or neglect cases is being proposed by the Government.

These adults, once made known to the director of social welfare, will be protected from public scrutiny. Nobody - including individuals, websites and the media - can publish information, photos or videos that can identify them. Those who do so face a fine of up to $5,000, and the penalty doubles on second conviction. The proposed law will also prevent anyone from publishing the location of the vulnerable person's temporary place of safety.

Social workers, academics and politicians The Straits Times spoke to applauded the proposed law under the draft Vulnerable Adults Bill, which is now going through public consultation until Aug 23.

While abuse cases involving vulnerable people have remained under 200 a year, the authorities want to put more safeguards in place as this population is expected to grow.

Keeping their identities from the public eye preserves the dignity of those suffering abuse, experts said.

While abuse cases involving vulnerable people have remained under 200 a year, the authorities want to put more safeguards in place as this population is expected to grow.

Keeping their identities from the public eye preserves the dignity of those suffering abuse, experts said.

Just because a person needs help and intervention does not mean he would want his embarrassment "aired for the world to see", said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said the intention is to protect these adults from "undue attention, and to minimise the trauma from exposure by the media or members of the public".

"It also minimises the possibility of revealing the whereabouts of the vulnerable adult to an alleged perpetrator who may cause further harm," said an MSF spokesman.

Keeping identities private also helps to prevent public lynching of possibly innocent family members, added MP (Marine Parade GRC) Seah Kian Peng, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development.

When a video surfaced in July last year of a frail-looking woman being slapped by a younger woman outside their HDB flat, it quickly went viral and received hundreds of comments, many of which pilloried the younger woman.

It prompted Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin to say that it is not appropriate for the public "to chip in and criticise one particular party, or canvass for particular actions, or call for people to visit them".

Associate Professor Straughan said: "When you post a video online, you are not able to contextualise it for your audience and that's not fair to the people in the video."

However, it does not mean that whistle-blowers can no longer alert the authorities to suspected cases of abuse through social media.

"This provision applies only after a case has been brought to the attention of the director of social welfare," said MSF. "The reporting of a suspected case of abuse, neglect or self-neglect of a vulnerable adult to the ministry - either directly or through social media - would thus not be flouting the law."

Still, experts feel that whistle-blowers should report through official channels instead of posting online and calling on a public jury.

To encourage people to do so, there should be just one channel of reporting, said Prof Straughan, so that people are assured that cases will not fall through the cracks with multiple agencies involved.

Ms Petrine Lim, principal social worker at Fei Yue Family Service Centre, said people need to know who to report to so they will not be discouraged from whistle-blowing.

MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua said public discourse should not come at the expense of one's dignity. "The vulnerable people affected may not want their lives and identities exposed this way."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Law proposed to protect vulnerable adults' identities'. Print Edition | Subscribe