Forum: Change law to help non-parent caregivers of children in need

Two girls walk at Lower Pierce Reservoir, on Sept 1, 2013.
Two girls walk at Lower Pierce Reservoir, on Sept 1, 2013.PHOTO: ST FILE

In my line of work as a lawyer, I've spoken to social workers who have encountered many cases of children whose biological parents are uninvolved in their lives and who are being cared for and raised by other families instead.

Such "non-parents" do not have any legal relationship with the child and they inevitably face problems in making decisions on behalf of the child, such as in registering for primary school or applying for certain financial assistance schemes.

In the recent public consultation by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System, our law firm submitted feedback asking for a legislative review to allow non-parents to apply for guardianship orders or specific-issue orders restricted to certain issues in a child's life, such as decisions about medical treatment.

The court should also be able to make such orders on its own motion if it is in the best interest of the child.

A similar call for such a legislative mechanism for appropriate non-parents was made by the Family Justice Courts' Presiding Judge Debbie Ong in a High Court case last year to "provide a clearly defined statutory regime through which non-parents may apply for the necessary orders for the welfare of children".

Currently, non-parents do not have the right to bring a guardianship application to the court.

So, without the application of a parent, the actual caregivers of the children do not have a legal basis or power to make important decisions for the benefit of the child.

In addition, while the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) may apply for orders pertaining to the child's care, there is, in practice, a relatively high threshold of abuse or neglect before MSF will step in.

While legal adoption is a possible option, it is an expensive and complicated process.

Support should be given to non-parents who are caring for children whose parents neglect to do so. The provision for a legal mechanism leading to a guardianship or specific-issue order will legitimise the relationship between non-parents and the children, and empower these non-parents in their care of the children.

Such children should not be further prejudiced, when they are already underprivileged in many ways, and the law should be changed to ensure this.

Ronald Wong Jian Jie

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2019, with the headline 'Change law to help non-parent caregivers of children in need'. Print Edition | Subscribe