Task force calls for stronger protection for victims of family violence, beefing up rehab for offenders

The proposals include letting third parties apply for personal protection orders for those experiencing violence, even without their consent. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Victims of family violence will find it easier to get help and better protection against their abusers, if recommendations released by a task force on Thursday (Sept 23) are accepted by the Government.

The proposals include letting third parties, such as the director-general of social welfare, apply for personal protection orders (PPOs) for those experiencing violence even without their consent, if the victims are at risk of serious harm and under undue influence from their loved one not to apply for a PPO. A PPO is a court order restraining a person from committing violence against a family member.

Also called for are stronger enforcement actions against perpetrators who flout rehabilitation orders.

Other key recommendations include:

- Setting up a new emergency response team, comprising social service professionals, that will work with the police to attend to emergency cases that take place after office hours to keep victims safe. There is already a team attending to child and elderly abuse, and the plan is to extend it to abused spouses;

- Training police officers specialising in investigating family violence cases to have the relevant skills and knowledge in issues involving domestic violence;

- Changing the law to allow the Family Justice Courts to order perpetrators to undergo mandatory assessment and treatment if their mental health conditions contributed to or exacerbated the violence; and

- Making it an offence if perpetrators flout efforts to rehabilitate them, such as counselling orders.

Task force member Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, a social service agency that specialises in tackling family violence, said that about 10 per cent of perpetrators ordered to attend counselling do not show up.

Often, these are higher risk cases where if nothing is done to ensure they attend counselling, "something terrible could happen", added Dr Nair.

"This is one of our greatest challenges as the law at this point doesn't have enough teeth to compel them to come. They literally tell us to go fly kite and there is nothing we can do. So we need legislative levers to compel them," she said.

The recommendations come as the Covid-19 pandemic has seen an uptick in cases of family violence, and as Singapore reviews a range of issues concerning women this year.

There were 4,574 inquiries about family violence received by centres specialising in handling such cases in the 2020 financial year, which ended on March 31 - a 57 per cent increase from the 2,906 inquiries received in the 2018 financial year.

These centres handled 1,103 cases in the 2020 financial year, a 24 per cent increase from the 891 cases they dealt with in 2018 financial year.

Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling, the task force's co-chair, said of the rising number of cases: "On the ground, financial stresses have been mentioned as one of the triggers for family violence.

"Different family members are presented with increased stress and spending a lot of time with each other in a confined space, which can be a recipe for emotive situations that can lead to family violence."

The task force was set up in February 2020, but Covid-19 was not the only catalyst for its formation, Ms Sun said. It had wanted to address gaps and find various approaches even before the violence happens.

"We want to break cycles of violence so our young can grow up in safe environments and understand what respectful relationships are about," she said.

Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, the other task force co-chair, said the recommendations address key areas that need to be strengthened "to prevent family violence wherever we can and to support the victim-survivors better, even as we deal firmly with perpetrators and strengthen their rehabilitation".

The proposals, he added, aim to help perpetrators "handle their spate of violence better, so that they are able to get back to their family".

The task force had examined more than 3,600 family violence cases, conducted focus group discussions with those involved in the work, among other efforts, and made 16 recommendations in four areas.

They are: increasing awareness of family violence, making it easier to report the violence and get immediate help, boosting the protection and support for victims, and taking a stronger enforcement approach and beefing up rehabilitation for those who inflict the violence.

The task force found that the prevalence rate of family violence here ranged between 3 per cent and 20 per cent, with the higher figures coming from self-reported data that include having ever witnessed violence at some point in the person's life.

Even with the rising number of family violence cases, Ms Sun, who is also Minister of State for Education, said there is enough capacity currently to give victims a refuge.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) told The Straits Times that there are four MSF-funded crisis shelters, with a total of 230 spaces, for female survivors of family violence and their children. The utilisation rate is approximately 80 per cent.

The task force's recommendations come on the back of a year-long review of issues concerning women. On Sept 18, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the closing session of the Conversations on Singapore Women's Development that a White Paper with concrete proposals to tackle issues concerning women will be presented to Parliament early next year.

The co-chairs have submitted the report to the Government, and Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said the Government will study these recommendations carefully in the coming weeks, and share its response thereafter.

Mr Arthur Ling, chief executive of Fei Yue Community Services, described the recommendations as holistic and comprehensive, signalling the Government's determination to tackle the scourge of family violence.

Madam Zaharah Ariff, executive director of Casa Raudha, a shelter for family violence victims, said the recommendations also send a strong message to victims of family violence that there is a system to support them.

It also acts as a deterrent to perpetrators. She said: "This sends a strong message that what they are doing is not just behind closed doors. They can be arrested and this helps to deter them from violence."

Read the full report by the Taskforce on Family Violence

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