No legal power to help victims without consent

A man in his 60s fell at home, suffered a fracture and was left on the floor to die.

In the three days until social workers were alerted and rescued him, his family did not help him up, take him to a doctor or give him food and water. They claimed he was an irresponsible husband and father and were hoping for him to die.

They also initially refused to allow social workers to see or help him. But after a few hours of persuasion, the family allowed the social workers to take him to hospital.

Ms Odelia Chan, a social worker from TRANS Safe Centre, which specialises in tackling abuse cases involving the elderly, recalled the case from two years ago and said: "He was all skin and bones, and delirious from a lack of food and water when we found him. The doctors said he would have died if we had taken him to hospital any later."

One hurdle social workers regularly face is that they do not have legal powers to intervene if a family rejects assistance or denies them access to someone whom they believe is a victim of abuse.

HANDS ARE TIED

It's very frustrating as our hands are tied if the family refuses to let us in. A person could be slowly beaten to death and we cannot intervene.

MS ODELIA CHAN, a social worker from TRANS Safe Centre, which specialises in tackling abuse cases involving the elderly, on the lack of legal powers to intervene.

They cannot enter a home without permission from the individual or the family, to check on, assist or rescue a suspected abuse victim.

"It's very frustrating as our hands are tied if the family refuses to let us in," Ms Chan said.

"A person could be slowly beaten to death and we cannot intervene."

According to lawyer Ng Bin Hong, current laws do not allow the authorities, including the police, to enter a house, investigate or remove a person suspected of being abused to a shelter without the person or his family's consent. This applies unless the person is deemed to be mentally incapacitated.

Mr Ng said police cannot arrest the abuser without a warrant of arrest, unless the victim has a personal protection order against the abuser; or if the victim has suffered "grievous hurt", such as life-threatening injuries.

Social workers have long raised this concern, which is expected to be addressed soon.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development says it will introduce previously announced legislation this year that will, among other things, give social workers the power to enter a home, assess the situation and remove an abused person to a place of safety if necessary.

The Vulnerable Adults Act will cover those aged 18 and older who are incapable of protecting themselves from abuse or neglect by their loved ones, as they are mentally or physically incapacitated. It also covers self-neglect, which is when a person is unable to care for himself or even inflicts harm on himself.

Theresa Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'No legal power to help victims without consent'. Print Edition | Subscribe