“KEEPING FAMILIES-IN-CRISIS TOGETHER”
Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am honoured to join you this morning, at the inaugural International Family Law Conference. I am glad to see this opportunity where so many of us can share our thoughts and experiences on issues we are passionate about. We must endeavour to learn from each other.
Importantly, in this same room, we have family practitioners as well as policy-makers. Many of us have different roles. Some work in the court room, some are in the community with clients, some are working the processes in an office. But there is an important constant - we are all partners who care for families in crisis.
We share the same heartache of seeing families enter our family justice and welfare system. When there is acrimony in divorce and battles in Court, our children become embroiled in the embittered tussle. And there are consequences for our children in the long haul. When there is abuse in the family, our children bear the physical and emotional scars.
As agents in the family law and social welfare fields, we share these experiences. We all know the life-stories that tell of anger, vengeful disputes between spouses, violence against family members, and the subsequent long-term damage left on a child.
Keeping families-in-crisis together
Against this backdrop, let me state categorically that we as a society have a duty to support these families. Every community has families who experience moments of crisis. Whether the crisis is the threat of family break-up, or the destructive spiral of perpetual violence, the social and justice systems must have a ready response.
In Singapore, we want a supportive system that is thoughtful, compassionate and hopeful in preserving families.
The family is the building block of a strong, safe and stable society. Each family unit must function as a safe environment of care and protection for our children, as well as, vulnerable family members.
I will elaborate, in three parts, how we intend to keep families together.
Upstream and preventive efforts to break cycles
First, I want to keep families intact by going upstream and this will involve ramping up preventive efforts. I want to break the cycles.
Let me share Jane’s story of her encounter with violence. You may read about this in MSF’s recent publication “Protecting Children in Singapore”.
Jane’s nightmare of being sexually abused by her stepfather began when she was eight. At fourteen, her teacher found her crying in school. Tearfully, Jane disclosed how she had been violated over six years whilst growing up. What followed was an intensive, conscientious response in investigative and protection work. We supported her and helped her recover. We made every effort to work with Jane and her care-givers to repair this young lady’s sense of safety, and security.
Even with the comprehensive support of the social system, victims of abuse often continue to experience long-lasting and complex trauma. This sometimes manifests in challenging behaviours that may cause distress to those around a young person dealing with trauma.
You might meet young people like Jane, and their families in a variety of contexts. As a judge, you may be required to decide on the child’s placement, while weighing the crisis that the family is undergoing. What would a thoughtful and compassionate decision be? Would the child be able to recover in a family who, at present, is working through how it can provide a safe environment? Or would a children’s home be more appropriate for the time being, to ensure the child’s immediate safety? But when then is it okay for the child to be reunited and be raised by his or her natural parents?
Now as a social worker, you may encounter such a child. You will have sessions where you’re partnering the family to work through the safety considerations and practical arrangements necessary, given the child’s fragile state. Would the agreed-upon plan work when the family’s relational issues are still work-in-progress? These are practical questions grappled by many of you daily. It is frightfully difficult. It is very easy for people to comment on social media. But it is very difficult, and emotionally very challenging for many of you.
For the benefit of our friends from abroad, Singapore’s child protection system comprises a network of agencies. This includes my Ministry’s child protection officers, the Police, the judiciary, hospitals, schools, and voluntary welfare organisations. These are my Ministry’s close partners. They are key partners because they all encounter children in their day-to-day work. And the key word is partnership. We need to do this together.
In 2015, we introduced a national framework for child protection. The screening and reporting guide for our partners to better detect and manage child abuses was part of it. Tailoring the guide for healthcare, social service and education sectors was an effort highlighting our commitment to outcomes, and willingness to work better as a system.
Frontline professionals who have regular contact with children use these customised guides. It allows them to relate, and respond to the specific situations in which they find themselves.
These include deciding whether to be rightly concerned about a particular child they encounter. Whether to take further action – such as surfacing the suspected abuse within their organisation. In some cases, they may need to make referrals to the right agency to follow-up to protect the child. The development of these customised guides was significant for Singapore; lauded, in fact, as a first-of-its-kind effort among any child welfare system in the world. I am glad that MSF has allies in these partnering agencies. I value their dedication in working with us to adapt international best-practices for our specific, local use.
Together, our efforts have uncovered more suspected child abuse cases. Now these cases could have gone undetected in the past. Currently, MSF’s Child Protective Service is investigating more cases of serious harm done to children. The average number of such investigations used to range from 40 to 50 a month. Today, the numbers have doubled. And we really cannot do this work alone. We need families, professionals, volunteers and you to make collective efforts to keep children safe.
It is equally important for us to remember that behind each statistic, is a precious life and a family. We need to have as few children as possible, if not none, who live in fear every day. As we work with families at risk of breaking down, we must adopt family-based strategies that are child-centric in approach.
Let me now share an example of what my Ministry will do to keep families intact as far as possible. MSF will be starting the Safe and Strong Families (SSF) pilot programme by December 2016. The SSF consists two types of services: family preservation and family reunification services. The Family Preservation Service involves intensive in-home services to support and keep families together and prevents unnecessary removal of the child from the family. The Family Reunification Service seeks to reunify children who are in alternative care, such as foster or residential care – so that they can be reunited effectively with their families in a safe and timely manner.
After hearing Jane’s story, some of us may be sceptical about whether all families can be safe and nurturing for their children. And I will confess that when I first came to this Ministry – and as a Member of Parliament who has personally seen some of these issues on the ground – I had also wondered if we should be prepared and more ready to take children away sometimes, from the contexts in which some of the children find themselves in.
But there is growing research that shows that children need to be protected by their caregivers, and know that they can depend on them. Such children will grow to have higher self-esteem as well as better self-reliance. They also tend to be more independent; have lower reported instances of anxiety and depression, and are able to form better social relationships.
Having the natural family empowered and supported to capably meet the children’s needs would be ideal for families in Singapore. Having said that, when the natural family is not able to do this, and when we feel that it is in the best interest of the child, we must also be prepared to take the child away; and when it is suitable, to reunite them to their family.
In MSF, we try very hard to ensure that children who have been temporarily separated from their natural families are placed in a familial environment when they are in our care. We also endeavour to ensure that the children are safely reunited with their natural families. Hence, for the SSF pilot, a crucial element is an evidence-based intervention programme known as Functional Family Therapy. Trained professionals visit the place of residence and conduct intensive weekly sessions in the child’s family environment for four to six months. They aim to help the family address a range of issues such as violence, substance abuse and conduct disorders.
Such an intensive therapy is particularly suited for families where there are more complex relationship problems, and specialised psychological support for families is needed. So it is never just about the child, it is about the context, the broader family unit as well.
The advantage of this intervention is that it is delivered in the child’s natural home environment, which ensures the child’s natural caregivers are also actively involved. This increases the chance of treatment success. We are hopeful that these families would, ultimately, be able to support their child, and the child will grow up to be a healthy young person and adult.
Timely and child-centric family services
Moving on to the second strategy for preserving families in Singapore. Now this involves reaching families-in-crisis with timely services, delivered in a child-centric manner.
Many of us know that family forms in Singapore are changing. This has many implications on how we serve families in need of support.
A significant proportion of marriages involving Singaporeans are transnational in nature – close to 40%. Most of these couples they will form stable and strong families, but some non-resident spouses face difficulties managing cross-cultural differences as they settle down in Singapore.
So in 2014, we rolled out programmes – including the Marriage Preparation Programme and Marriage Support Programme – for Singaporean-foreigner couples. We need to better understand this group, as we review our policies and programmes to better support them.
Unfortunately, divorces are also on the rise in Singapore. When a marriage breaks down, children are invariably caught in the middle. 46% of divorces in 2015 involved at least one child below 18. We know that it is not always easy to keep the family together. But we can mitigate some of these challenges. Acting early to support families to strengthen their bonds can help them stay together, especially when children are involved.
Things also will get complex when a transnational family experiences divorce, as there are cross-border issues. Let me share with you the story of a 10-year old girl whom we shall call Mei Mei. Mei Mei’s father was a foreigner, and her parents had a family business in China. Her parents often bickered over where was the best place to raise Mei Mei. Unfortunately, the business failed soon after Mei Mei became ill with epilepsy.
When her parents divorced, Mei Mei felt that she had been the cause of the divorce. After the divorce, Mei Mei was left in Singapore with her mother, who had to cope with the outstanding debts. Her father went on frequent travels to China with the hope of re-starting his business. He was not paying his maintenance on time and Mei Mei saw him irregularly. She felt that her father no longer loved her and blamed her illness as the start of all the bad luck.
It was only after the Supervised Visitation programme held at one of MSF’s appointed Divorce Support Specialist Agencies, that the family was better able to understand their hurts with the help of a counsellor. This safe platform allowed for the child to rebuild her trust in her father again. Her parents also learnt how to co-parent by putting Mei Mei’s interest first, so as to help the family move forward despite the divorce. Remember. You may not be husband and wife anymore. But you still remain a father and mother.
As we work with families who face divorce, we are aware of these increasingly complex circumstances facing the family. However, as in the case of Mei Mei, the welfare of the child is at the heart of our efforts and it must be so. We are hopeful that a collaborative system of support will lead to better outcomes for the children.
We must be compassionate in our approach when working with families who face conflict and crisis. The Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) support divorcing and divorced couples with children below 21. As new players in the delivery of family-centric services, they give the child a voice, and work with parents to fulfil their duties to their child even amidst conflict.
a. The staff from the DSSAs are counsellors and social workers equipped with specialist knowledge and skills to handle divorce issues. To ensure that the child’s interests are looked after, DSSAs offer programmes that adopt a child-centric approach, which help parents understand the impact of divorce on their children.
b. Counselling and support groups are also emplaced to ensure that parents can learn to co-parent better. In this way, we hope that the child can still thrive and become resilient even when the family has experienced the pain of divorce.
c. So MSF has set up a one-stop resource hub to facilitate seamless coordination of referrals between the Courts and MSF. This allows families affected by divorce to be supported immediately and effectively.
One of the new services that DSSAs will deliver is the mandatory parenting programme. From December 2016, divorcing parents with minor children who are not able to agree on all matters of the divorce have to attend this programme before they can file for divorce. The programme aims to guide parents to consider living arrangements, finances and housing arrangements post-divorce, and to increase parents’ awareness of the impact of divorce on their children’s well-being. A secured online portal will also be launched in November 2016 as part of the implementation of this programme.
Future-ready policies that are attuned to the family
Finally, the third prong of our work in preserving families requires our social and justice systems to be future-ready.
Both policy and practice call for anticipating, and being prepared for emerging trends. Singapore’s families are no longer as large as they used to be. These days, most couples tend to have only 1 or 2 children, or none at all. With shrinking family sizes, families have fewer members to rely on for support.
We are also aging. By 2030, there will be over 900,000 residents aged 65 and above, a fair number of whom would be single or have no children. Elderly who develop dementia may be unable to care for themselves. This is especially worrying for those who are living alone – this number is projected to increase from 35,000 in 2012 to 83,000 in 2030.
So it is even more important for family members, both immediate and extended, to maintain close ties with one another. As we grow older, our families will increasingly become our source of physical, emotional and financial support.
For our seniors, we are mindful that strengthening family ties among their siblings, nephews and nieces, is no easy feat. Our ground-observations point towards weaker extended family ties, and more seniors living alone. So, we need to do more to encourage a broader sense of family. We cannot force it, but it is something that is there, and we must encourage. We know social isolation can become a serious issue. It is not a problem, or an issue for those living alone. It is a problem for all. When we grow old, we can be socially isolated. It has an emotional, psychological impact, and, it impacts the physiological well-being as well.
But this is where our social system must think about how we deal with it. For one, I think we have a big strength in Singapore. I personally believe that the grassroots system is particularly important, where we can begin to develop the community networks well – and I believe we do it today – we develop the habit of reaching out to those amongst us who are older. And, we develop the habit of keeping people engaged, keeping people occupied, visiting and knowing how people are doing. I think this can go a very long way in addressing the concerns we may have. When we are mobile, we can travel, we can visit our families, our friends. But at some point we will become less mobile. And, our immediate neighbours become particularly important.
The other part of the social system that is equally important, in terms of how to support the vulnerable elderly, whose very safety is at risk, is actually the legal system. In this light, we will strengthen legislation where required. While family members will serve and must serve as the first line of protection for vulnerable adults, and, they must also be supported by a network of community and social service agencies, more legislative support must be rendered.
MSF will be tabling a proposed Vulnerable Adults Bill to allow the State to step in for high-risk cases, to protect and ensure the safety of the vulnerable adult.
I am referring here to a person over 18 years of age who is unable to protect himself from abuse, neglect or self-neglect, due to a physical or mental infirmity. He or she may be abused physically, sexually or psychologically. He or she may be neglected due to a lack of essential care, to the extent that injury or pain is caused or reasonably likely to be caused. Self-neglect is also conceptualised in this Bill, because the vulnerable adult may fail to care for himself. In such a case, we might find him living in unsanitary or hazardous conditions, malnourished or dehydrated.
So we should empower the social system to organise protective care around such persons. In high-risk cases where MSF would intervene, we need to work closely with community partners, and the families. We want to keep families intact as far as possible. We also want to ensure a safe environment for all its members.
It is early days yet, and our social system will be tested in terms of how ready our response would be in dealing with crisis-situations involving vulnerable adults in our community, and with the family that cares for them. The numbers will increase, the complexities will increase as well, but we must be prepared.
The three strategies and examples that I have shared demonstrate how tricky it is dealing with families-in-crisis.
Singapore has made important strides forward – whether in legislation, family intervention strategy, or services for families. For that, I want to applaud the strong partnership within the network of systems that comprise the social welfare and family justice system in Singapore.
As we move forward, we need the courage to do right by our children, and preserve families in the process. I want to also underscore the importance of our social agencies and our social workers in being aware of what has been shown to work for families, and to continually adapt our practices to meet needs of the families we work with. We need sound, evidence-based methods that work best in our local context.
I also want us to ask ourselves a crucial and very practical question - How do we, through what we do, break the vicious cycles that we see occurring in some families? We must break those cycles.
We must enhance our social system to help families through their situations, to thrive again in a sustainable way. If we do this well, tomorrow’s families avoid the dysfunction triggered by conflict and crisis, because of the support we render today.
Let us commit to building a stronger social and justice system. With each passing day, we empower families to be strong, stable and to thrive. Thank you.