Spike in child abuse

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Better detection tools and training led to almost 60% rise in cases under probe last year

When a child is abused by a stranger, family members are quick to report the crime.

Not so when the abuser is a family member, said social workers.

People have to be trained to spot signs of children being ill-treated by family members, including physical and sexual abuse, and neglect. Over the past two years, more people have been trained to better detect abuse cases, which has led to a spike in the number of cases investigated.

Last year, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) probed 873 child abuse cases, almost 60 per cent more than the 551 cases in 2015. Last year's figures are preliminary. MSF investigated 381 cases in 2014. A ministry spokesman said that more rigorous screening tools introduced over the past two years have improved the detection, reporting and management of child abuse cases.

MSF also trained more professionals, from social workers to healthcare staff to educators, to use these tools. About 2,500 of these professionals have been trained so far.

Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, a charity that specialises in tackling family violence, said there was a lot of under-reporting of abuse in the past. "The numbers now are a better reflection of what is actually happening," she said.

Of the cases investigated last year, one in two involved physical violence. They included a five-year-old boy who died last October after his parents allegedly poured hot water on him several times.

  • GET HELP

    • If you suspect a child is abused and his or her life could be in danger, call the police on 999 immediately.

    • If you are worried about a child's safety and well-being, call the Ministry of Social and Family Development's Child Protective Service Helpline on 1800-777-0000 or send an e-mail to the ministry at MSF_cpsintake@msf.gov.sg

The MSF Child Protective Service (CPS) was alerted after the boy died and it stepped in to ensure the safety of the couple's three other children. The mother was charged with murder and has not been sentenced. The CPS has the power to remove children from their family if necessary to keep them safe.

The abused children in cases under probe range from babies to teenagers under 16, and they were hurt by family members.

Last year, one in eight cases involved sexual abuse. The child could have been raped or molested by a family member. In the remaining cases, the children were neglected. This happens when parents failed to provide adequate food, medical care and supervision for the children, among other concerns.

The MSF spokesman said the public is also more aware about reporting abuse, given all its public education efforts.

Last year, it received 3,035 reports and inquiries about child abuse, about 50 per cent more than the 2,022 inquiries in 2015. Some of the calls were from the public.

Ms Serene Tan, lead social worker of Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre, said several high-profile cases last year could have raised public awareness of the problem.

They included the case involving a two-year-old boy who died in 2015 after being repeatedly abused by his mother and her boyfriend.

He was kicked and slapped nearly every day for over a month. The pair, both cleaners, also stomped on his chest and forced him to eat dried chilli. The mother was sentenced to 11 years' jail and her boyfriend to 10 years' jail and 12 strokes of the cane last year.

More recently in March, a food stall assistant, who sexually abused his biological daughter for more than two years, was sentenced to 23½ years' jail and the maximum 24 strokes of the cane.

The girl was aged between 11 and 13 when her father violated her.

At first, she did not tell anyone about the abuse, fearing that it would break her family up.

But she eventually told her mother, who called the police.

Last Wednesday, a bus driver was jailed for seven years and given nine strokes of the cane.

He slapped, stomped on and strangled his four-year-old stepdaughter until she suffered a broken rib and over 20 other injuries.

Mr Alfred Tan, chief executive of the Singapore Children's Society, pointed out that MSF has pumped in a lot more resources in recent years to tackle child abuse.

In 2013, MSF appointed two charities, Big Love and Heart@Fei Yue, to specialise in managing abuse cases that are considered moderate risk. It included children who were caned excessively or neglected, whose well-being or safety was at stake.

Pave started handling cases from MSF in January.

Setting up these child protection specialist centres frees MSF to focus on the more serious and high-risk cases.

Mr Tan said: "The family is meant to protect their children and it is troubling that they are hurting them. So child abuse cannot be just a family matter, and society must find a way to protect these children as the child does not have a voice (to speak out against the abuse)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline 'Spike in child abuse'. Print Edition | Subscribe