'Strengthening our Ability to Protect'
1 The Vulnerable Adults (VA) Bill was introduced in Parliament today for First Reading.
2 Singapore's population is rapidly ageing. By 2030, there will be over 900,000 residents aged 65 and above, a number of whom would be single or have no children. The number of people living alone is projected to increase from 35,000 in 2012 to 83,000 in 2030. This is of concern as elderly who develop dementia and ageing persons with disabilities may not be able to adequately care for themselves. Such individuals are particularly susceptible to abuse, neglect and self-neglect.
3 The family and wider community have a crucial role to play in protecting vulnerable members in our society. The family must be the first line of care and support for their elderly and disabled members. The community plays a critical role in supporting families. They can also help keep an eye out for and report suspected cases of abuse to professionals. However, where family and community interventions have been exhausted, the State will intervene as a last resort to protect these vulnerable individuals. The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has thus introduced the VA Bill to complement existing laws that address violence, maltreatment and abuse against VAs.
The Vulnerable Adults Bill
4 The Bill will strengthen the Government's ability to intervene to protect VAs, who have fallen through the net of family and community support, from abuse and neglect. Such individuals may include the elderly, as well as persons with disability and special needs. The VA Bill also provides a way forward for social service professionals to seek support from the State to gain access to VAs whom they have had difficulty reaching out to.
5 However, the Bill will be a law of last resort, because personal care arrangements are matters for individuals and families to decide on. Wherever possible, MSF and our community partners will adopt social work interventions to support caregivers and help families resolve challenges, and better care for their vulnerable family members. Community support may also be brought in, when appropriate. The State will only intervene if absolutely necessary. MSF and its officers will, however, continue to engage the VAs and their families on the VAs' personal care arrangements to ensure appropriate outcomes for all.
6 In administrating the Bill, the welfare and best interests of the VA are paramount. Generally, a VA with mental capacity has the right to decide how s/he wishes to live and whether to accept assistance. Where a VA lacks mental capacity, his/her views (both past and present), wishes, values and beliefs must be considered.
Key Provisions of the VA Bill
7 The key provisions of the Bill are as follows:
a. Empowering State intervention
These measures will allow MSF and its officers to step in to protect and ensure the safety of the VA. It will enable MSF to:
i. Enter and assess. Enter the home of a suspected VA and assess if s/he has suffered or is suffering from or at risk of abuse, neglect or self-neglect.
ii. Obtain information. Obtain information and examine records about an individual where there is reason to believe that the individual is a VA, and has suffered or is suffering from or at risk of abuse, neglect or self-neglect.
iii. Remove and relocate. Temporarily remove and relocate VAs to designated facilities that can provide care and ensure the VAs' safety, or place them in the care of a person who is competent to provide care for the VA.
b. Introduce Court orders to protect VAs
The Bill allows MSF to apply for Court orders. These Court orders include placing the VA in alternative care options, protection-related orders such as restraining the perpetrator from causing further harm and excluding the perpetrator from the VA's living environment, and making the VA's home a safe living environment. MSF can also apply to the Court for an order to assess, intervene and protect a VA in certain exceptional situations where the VA has refused assistance. This may include instances where the VA is in imminent danger of losing his/her life or where the refusal of assistance stems from duress or pressure from family members or the perpetrator.
c. Powers for MSF to enforce offences
The VA Bill empowers MSF to investigate offences under the Bill. This is to allow MSF to calibrate the level of intervention necessary for each case through a combination of both deterrence and a social work approach. Abuse within the family may occur for a variety of reasons, including caregiver stress. Even while MSF has enforcement powers against perpetrators, MSF may also apply for a Court order to require perpetrators who are caregivers to undergo counselling and other programmes, where appropriate. The aim is to repair relationships and enable family members to care for one another.
d. Protection for whistle-blowers
Protection is afforded under the Bill for those who come forward with information about alleged abuse, neglect, or self-neglect of a VA. This will encourage family members, neighbours, bystanders and the larger community to play their part in protecting VAs.
e. Enhanced penalties for offences committed against VAs
Offences committed against the vulnerable will not be taken lightly. Relevant offences under the Penal Code (e.g. voluntarily causing hurt or grievous hurt and wrongful restraint) and Protection from Harassment Act committed against VAs will have their penalties enhanced. Amendments will also be made to the Women's Charter to increase the penalties for contravening a protection order that relates to a VA.
8 In summary, the VA Bill will strengthen Singapore's protection framework for VAs. It is however a law of last resort, only to be activated when social intervention fails. Early identification and protection of VAs require strong family and community support. Those who suspect something amiss must step in and seek help from the relevant authorities.