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 yesterday when he presented the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill for debate. The debate continues today.
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, such as confining a child in a small space as discipline.
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 and 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.
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 only order these measures after the Beyond Parental Control order is made.
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 - including overseas travel and medical emergencies - for children removed from their families and for whom being reunited with them was deemed not in their best interests.
Mr Lee gave possible scenarios of unlikely reunification, such as when the parent had severely ill-treated or allowed others to do so to the child, or been convicted of causing or trying to cause death to his 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 working foster parents, same as that given to natural parents.
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 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 only order these measures 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 youth are more likely to resist participating in programmes and resent being brought to court by their parents", said Mr Lee.