More training for police officers mooted as part of efforts to better help family violence victims

The basic training, conducted by the Social Service Institute, will equip police officers to better handle family violence cases. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - More than 3,500 police officers will get training to handle family violence cases better, including specialised skills to better engage abuse victims with sensitivity during investigations.

A smaller group of police officers will also undergo training on laws related to family violence.

The basic training will be conducted by the Social Service Institute - a unit of the National Council of Social Service.

This was among the recommendations outlined in a report by the Taskforce on Family Violence on Thursday (Sept 23), aimed at beefing up protection and support services for victims.

Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, who is a co-chair of the task force, said the initiative would help police officers work closely with other agencies early in the investigation process.

He said: "With the understanding of the landscape and issues relating to family violence, we believe this will better equip our police officers to do their work and support other agencies, not only to mitigate but also stop family violence."

Dr Faishal also touched on the expansion of the Home Team Community Assistance and Referral Scheme (HT Cares) to extend help to those who are staying in the same household as the abuser.

Under HT Cares, social workers stationed at police divisions assess what type of social intervention is required for the offender and put the person in touch with the relevant agencies.

From this month, the scheme will provide help not just to the abuser, but also to those living in the same household as the offender being investigated for family violence.

Fei Yue Community Services chief executive Arthur Ling said social workers from his agency are deployed at police stations under HT Cares.

They interview and assess the abuser, and direct the person towards the social services support needed.

This could be in the form of counselling, financial counselling for those facing money problems, and even arranging for their children to attend childcare.

Mr Ling said: "Family violence could happen because of financial problems and other issues at home. So through HT Cares, we help them deal with the issues that could have led to the violence."

The scheme, which was first piloted in Bedok Police Division in January 2019, has engaged more than 300 offenders.

The task force also recommended setting up a 24-hour emergency social service response for family violence cases.

Now, an emergency social service response team from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) responds during after office hours but only to cases of child abuse or vulnerable adult abuse, such as that of elderly family members.

The response team will then try to de-escalate tensions and put together an immediate safety plan, such as requiring an adult, for instance, a grandparent, to be present in the household in the case of child abuse or requiring the vulnerable adult to temporarily move to a relative's home.

Families are later referred to agencies, including family service centres and family violence specialist centres, for intervention like counselling or treatment to address the issues related to the violence.

During a press briefing on Wednesday, Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling said the enhanced emergency response will require "close collaboration between social workers and police enforcement officers".

Where a clear grievous offence has occurred and it is arrestable, the police will take action, she said.

The Government is considering time-limited protection notices in high-risk cases to protect victims and keep them temporarily separated from the perpetrators, Ms Sun said.

For example, these temporary protection notices can help protect the victims while they take further action, such as applying for a personal protection order (PPO) to ensure their own safety in the long term.

The task force report also recommended expanding the National Anti-Violence Helpline scheme to include Internet live chats or mobile and messaging applications to make it accessible to victims who may not be able to call for help.

The 24-hour helpline received 5,300 calls on family violence between its launch at the start of the year and Aug 31.

MSF said the second phase of the helpline scheme, which may include other channels like mobile apps, will be ready by the second half of 2022.

The Government is also considering giving more teeth to laws ensuring protection for victims, such as harsher penalties for the breach of a PPO and empowering the authorities to apply for PPOs for family violence victims as a third party.

A PPO is a court order restraining a person from committing violence against a family member.

Given that the penalties for breaching a PPO have not changed since 1996, the task force recommended that these be brought in line with penalties for breach of the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha).

Under the current law, those who breach a PPO may be fined $2,000 or jailed for up to six months if the order does not relate to a vulnerable adult.

Those who breach an order under Poha against an intimate partner may be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for up to 12 months, or both.

The task force also suggested amending the Women's Charter to introduce new types of orders to ensure victims' safety. These include orders prohibiting the perpetrator from visiting or communicating with the victim or entering an area outside the victim's residence.

A total of 312 PPOs were granted between June and August last year right after the circuit breaker period, up from the 229 PPOs issued from January to March 2020.

Under the proposed recommendations, the director-general of social welfare and appointed protectors, such as specially appointed staff from MSF, can apply for PPOs for victims of family violence even without their consent in high-risk circumstances, if they do not file one themselves due to fear or undue influence of the perpetrator.

Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence, said this recommendation was useful when engaging victims whose lives were at risk.

She said: "I think one of the major issues that we see with a small number of families is where you have situations of Stockholm syndrome, where the victim is not in a position to make decisions because of the undue influence of the perpetrator."

Stockholm syndrome refers to an emotional response that happens to some abuse victims when they have positive feelings or sympathy towards an abuser.

"In a situation like that, we would want to ensure the person's life and therefore, that would be an instance where this kind of PPO would be very useful," Dr Nair added.

However, the task force added that third-party PPO applications should be made only in exceptional situations where the survivor's safety is seriously threatened.

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