Parliament: What is 'emotional injury'? Term explained in proposed changes to law for the young and vulnerable

The current Children and Young Persons Act allows the Ministry of Social and Family Development to intervene where familial relationships are seriously disrupted and the child suffers emotional injury, but the term "emotional injury" gives rise to co
The current Children and Young Persons Act allows the Ministry of Social and Family Development to intervene where familial relationships are seriously disrupted and the child suffers emotional injury, but the term "emotional injury" gives rise to confusion about when the ministry can intervene.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A definition of the term "emotional injury" proposed in draft legislation will allow the Ministry of Social and Family Development to know when it should intervene in situations that require care and protection of vulnerable children.

The current Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) allows the ministry to intervene where familial relationships are seriously disrupted and the child suffers emotional injury.

But the term "emotional injury" gives rise to confusion about when the ministry can intervene, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee on Tuesday (Sept 3) when he presented the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill for debate. The debate continues on Wednesday.

The Bill, which aims to safeguard the interests of abused and neglected children up to age 18, is proposing that emotional harm be defined to include "manifestations such as delayed development or post-traumatic stress disorder".

It also suggested including a non-exhaustive list of circumstances in which a child is emotionally harmed by his parents.

Mr Lee cited the case of 10-year-old Valerie (not her real name), whose mother would deliberately isolate her at home, call her dirty, smelly and unclean, and often blamed her for anything that went wrong.

Valerie's subsequent anger and anxiety manifested as aggressive and rough play in school, but "we need to see past her behaviour, and recognise the emotional harm that is within", said Mr Lee.

 
 
 

"The new amendments make clear that cases like Valerie's fall within the scope of the CYPA," he added.

Another proposed change is the Enhanced Care and Protection Order.

It would let the ministry and caregivers make day-to-day as well as bigger decisions for children removed from their families and for whom being reunited with them is deemed not in their best interests. This includes decisions on overseas travel or medical emergencies.

Mr Lee gave possible scenarios in which reunification was unlikely, such as when the parent had severely ill-treated or allowed others to severely ill-treat the child, or been convicted of causing or trying to cause death to the child or other parent.

He added that parents could apply to vary or revoke the order if there had been "significant and sustained changes" to the safety concerns, and the child is ready for reunification.

Childcare leave was also proposed for foster parents who work, same as that given to natural parents.

Focus on family dynamics

To reflect the family's responsibility in guiding their children, Mr Lee proposed that the term "Beyond Parental Control" be replaced with "Family Guidance Order".

Currently, parents can apply to the Youth Court for help in dealing with children labelled as Beyond Parental Control, like when they display difficult behaviour such as running away or being in the wrong company.

 
 
 

The court may place these children under appointed supervision or in a children's home.

"The term Beyond Parental Control blames the child and holds him solely responsible for his behaviour," said Mr Lee.

He also said social work professionals, lawyers and ministry officials have told him that it is also important to address poor parent-child relationships and poor or absent parenting.

With the new Family Guidance Order, parents and the child have to complete a family programme before filing a court application for such an order.

The court can also order parents to attend mediation, counselling or psychotherapy before, during or after the order application is heard.

Currently, the court can order these measures only after the Beyond Parental Control order is made.

The Family Guidance Order will apply only to children up to age 16, not 18, so as not to worsen family relationships, as "older youths are more likely to resist participating in programmes and resent being brought to Court by their parents", said Mr Lee.

Involving the community

In yet another area of proposed change, Mr Lee suggested allowing members of the public to be trained as volunteer welfare officers. Their duties could include visiting the homes of an abused child to monitor his or her well-being and safety.

He also suggested letting the ministry share information about a child with community partners like child protection specialist centres and children's homes.

This will help ensure quicker intervention to protect vulnerable children from harm, and to work with families to resolve issues before they escalate.