SINGAPORE - A teenager caught rioting with fellow gang members was reluctant to give information about the incident while he was interviewed by the police.
But after appropriate adult volunteer Nurul Shifa, 50, chatted with him about his hobbies, he opened up to her and an investigation officer (IO).
"There was a pocket of time so I asked him what kind of sports he likes, and he said: 'I like soccer.' So I said there are a lot of avenues that you can go (to play)," said the programme coordinator at a non-profit organisation. She advised the 14-year-old to sign up for training and games.
The boy, who was suspended from school at the time, became more comfortable during subsequent interviews and later told the IO, Senior Staff Sergeant Neo Qiao Yi, that he wished to go back to school, prompting her to write to his school.
She said: "We do not just investigate and (find out the) facts but if the youth suspects are showing signs that they want to become a better person, as part of being an IO, we should also help lead them on to the right track."
Volunteers like Madam Shifa are called in as an independent party to provide emotional support to suspects under age 16 during law enforcement interviews such as with the police and the Central Narcotics Bureau.
The support scheme is called the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS). As at October 2022, there are 280 appropriate adult volunteers.
Madam Shifa, who has been volunteering since the scheme started in 2017, said she receives about six to seven cases a month on average.
Young offenders are usually sentenced to probation.
ST reported last year that the volunteers were activated 2,082 times in the financial year between April 2019 and March 2020; 2,048 times in FY2020; and 1,180 times from April to September 2021.
It was announced in Parliament in July that the scheme, managed by the Singapore Children's Society (SCS), will be expanded to cover 16- and 17-year-olds in phases from April 2023 with the aim to complete the expansion by October 2023.
A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) spokesman said that with the expansion, more than 700 people aged 16 and 17 are estimated to be covered by the scheme per year.
Social programme assistant manager at SCS who is in charge of AAYS, Mr Taufiq Salehoodin, estimates that the society will need to double its pool of volunteers to meet this increase.
When asked how SCS intends to attract more volunteers, or if it will consider paying full-time appropriate adults, he said: "We have continued to engage volunteers in the community to support the scheme, and this is likely to remain as such."
SCS publicises volunteering opportunities through its website and social media channels, and has a pool of potential volunteers who will be trained in November and the first quarter of 2023.
Volunteers must be above 21.
Training, which is a day-long session, will remain the same despite the scheme soon applying to an older group, said Mr Taufiq. It involves teaching volunteers how to recognise signs of distress in young suspects, such as through their body language and facial expression, and knowing when to intervene.
Volunteers are also trained to facilitate communication during a law enforcement interview.
Madam Shifa, who is a mother of three teenagers between 14 and 19 years old, said she has never seen an officer raise his or her voice, throw chairs or bang on tables, as seen on television shows.
"But of course there are times when I see the suspect break down and cry, not because they're scared of the police, but maybe they realise 'I made a mistake. How do I face my parents?'."
Madam Shifa urges others to volunteer and said: "(Young people) are our future generation... They want to look up to someone who can assure them that it is actually okay if they make a mistake. You learn from your mistakes."
Members of the public can volunteer as an appropriate adult by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org