Look back 2019: More child abuse cases probed amid growing awareness

Parents or step-parents made up close to 90 per cent of those who abused their children in the cases investigated by the ministry last year. PHOTO: TNP ILLUSTRATION

The Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) Child Protective Service investigated a record 1,163 cases last year - a 30 per cent jump from 894 cases in 2017 and the highest number in the past decade.

A few cases were in the news recently, including one in which a couple were charged with the murder of their two-year-old daughter. The toddler's remains were found in a pot in a Chin Swee Road flat five years after her death.

Parents or step-parents made up close to 90 per cent of those who abused their children in the cases investigated by the ministry last year. Besides being physically hurt, some of the children were sexually violated or neglected by their parents.

Why it matters

Besides the threat to their lives and safety, abused children suffer from long-term negative effects, say social workers, citing numerous studies.

These range from mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety disorder, to a higher risk of developing violent and criminal behaviour in adolescence.

A spokesman for the ministry said it has over the years introduced more rigorous screening tools for child abuse and trained more professionals, such as social workers, educators and health personnel, to spot abuse and get the child appropriate help. This has led to the growing number of cases being probed.

She added that the ministry has been working with government and community agencies to support families facing complex and interlocking challenges, by boosting the sharing of information and coordination of cases.

She said: "This network of support helps better detect families and children who may face challenging circumstances."

  • 1,163

  • Number of child abuse cases probed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development's Child Protective Service last year - a 30 per cent jump from the 894 cases in 2017.

Social workers interviewed say there is also greater awareness of the problem and more people are reporting child abuse.

Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, which specialises in tackling family violence, said the 30 per cent increase in cases last year may not necessarily be a bad thing.

She said: "It shows that when we have the right tools and we are clear about the need to report, people do step up and children are protected. Most importantly, professional help comes into the family."

However, social workers note that many family members remain reluctant to report domestic abuse.

They may not want the abuser to be sent to jail or are worried about how to get by if the abuser is the breadwinner and is jailed.

Others do not want the family to break up, said Ms Ng Sook Wai, principal counsellor at Heart@Fei Yue.

"Some believe it is a private matter and that it is the right of the family to deal with its own parenting matters. The acts are not seen as child abuse and (they feel) reporting them will not help the family situation, as an investigation would cause more problems," she said.

What lies ahead

By next March, key amendments to the Children and Young Persons Act, such as the introduction of a new Enhanced Care and Protection Order and the extension of the Act to include those aged between 16 and 18, are expected to be in force.

These amendments will boost government and community support for abused children.

For example, the introduction of the Enhanced Care and Protection Order will allow the ministry to apply for a court order when it assesses that it is not in the abused child's best interest to be reunited with his family.

The order also empowers a child's caregivers to make care decisions for the child that would otherwise require the parents' consent.

The ministry said it is reviewing how the network of agencies and community groups can be further strengthened.

Dr Nair feels that more people need to step up to report abuse if they know it is happening.

"Secrets are toxic and breaking the silence of abuse is critical. A failure to break it perpetuates the violence," she said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2019, with the headline More child abuse cases probed amid growing awareness. Subscribe