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Closing Speech at Second Reading of Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill

Type: Official Speeches (All), Official Speeches: Desmond Lee

Topic(s): Protection from Domestic Violence Rehabilitation

1. Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank Members for acknowledging the difficult but meaningful work of MSF's child protection officers and our social service agency partners. Let me now respond to your questions and suggestions.

I. Safeguarding the interests of abused or neglected children

Definition of emotional and psychological abuse

2. First, I note that several Members of Parliament were concerned that the power to protect abused or neglected children could overly interfere with how parents legitimately discipline and raise their children. Mr Christopher De Souza touched on the definition of "emotional harm". While the concepts of emotional harm, emotional abuse or psychological abuse may seem broad or subjective,

  • what we have sought to do in the Bill is to give as much clarity as we can on what constitutes such harm or abuse,
  • by providing some specific circumstances. For example
    • "Infantalisation" - this occurs when the parent or guardian deliberately treats the child as being much younger than the child's actual age and in a way that is not developmentally appropriate, e.g. a child in upper primary school being made to wear diapers.
    • Being confined in "a small space" - refers to a space that is not conducive for the child's development and is beyond socially accepted boundaries for punishment, for example locking the child in a cage, toilet or storeroom, as a form of punishment.

3. I wish to assure members that we do not intend to diminish parental authority, we do not intend to unduly interfere with parents' rights to discipline their children, and we do not intend to overly intrude into the private lives of families.

  • The vast majority of parents are responsible, and do their best to care for and raise their children.
  • Within the private lives of families, the bounds of parental authority, there is a wide berth of space for parents to nurture, raise and discipline their children.
  • Unfortunately, a small number struggle to parent responsibly.
  • When parenting or so-called discipline crosses the line and becomes overly harsh or abusive - whether physically, or emotionally - we may have to intervene to protect the children.

Placements in Out-Of-home Care

4. Mr Louis Ng, Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Ms Anthea Ong and Mr Christopher De Souza spoke about the impact of removing children from families, and asked whether MSF could provide a sense of continuity and familiarity to children who have been placed in out-of-home care.

5. Let me explain to Members how MSF handles reports of child abuse or neglect.

  • When we receive reports that raise concerns about the safety of children, we first undertake a comprehensive social investigation.
  • Often our social services move in, rather than immediately the Child Protective Service.
  • We look at factors such as the context, intention, severity and persistence of the abuse or neglect, the likelihood of future harm to the child, and the strengths as well as needs of the families.
  • In doing so, we are aided by evidence-based assessment tools.
    • Our child protection officers are sensitive to the emotions that may overwhelm the child, and are trained to apply trauma-informed practices>1 when interviewing children.
  • We also consult professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists when needed.
  • The police may concurrently investigate if a criminal offence is reported or suspected to have taken place.

6. Our efforts focus on keeping the family intact, with safety plans in place.

  • But when the home environment is unsafe for the child, MSF may have to remove the child from his parents, as a last resort.
  • We then work quickly to ensure that the child can be placed in a safe place, whether under the care of
    • his grandparents or other relatives such as aunts and uncles,
    • foster parents,
    • or a children's home.

7. And when the child is in out-of-home care, these caregivers, who may be extended family members, will be able to make decisions for the child in a timely manner.

  • MSF will also work closely with professionals in the child's network of support, such as school counsellors and teachers to review the child's progress from time-to-time.
    • Where needed, we may consult independent panels such as the Committee on Fostering which comprises a range of professionals from the relevant fields such as education, child psychology and psychiatry.
  • We will facilitate constant contact between the child and family members, where possible, to maintain relationships. Family reunification remains the long-term goal for many children in state care.
  • The Court may also order the parents to attend counselling or other programmes to ensure the well-being and safety of the child, and also make orders to assist the child in recovery.
  • Ms Sylvia Lim asked if there is financial support for parents to comply with the orders made by the courts. We will ensure that no family will be denied services because they are unable to afford them. For example, MSF does not charge for the services we provide to the families. Our appointed Social Service Agencies also have arrangements to keep their services well accessible to families regardless of their socio-economic status.

8. I will share the policy considerations behind how we place children in out-of-home care. Mr Henry Kwek and Ms Denise Phua spoke about fostering. Family-based care is preferred, as a supportive family environment will help children who have been abused or neglected. However,

  • About 47 per cent of children in out-of-home care are looked after by foster families today.
  • Our goal is to place two-thirds of such children in family-based care.
  • The reality is that we do not have enough foster parents for every child in need of protection.
  • This challenge is especially so for older children.
  • There are also children with more complex needs, whose interests are better served in a residential care setting.

9. Mr Louis Ng and Ms Anthea Ong spoke about sibling groups in out-of-home care.

  • MSF strives to place siblings together as far as possible. Doing so preserves their relationships and allows them to support each other through difficult times.
  • Yet sometimes we have to split them up.
  • We have to consider the circumstances of each case, and manage within the realities of our out-of-home-care landscape.
    • The age, gender, as well as the care and intervention needs of each child,
    • availability of foster families, especially those who can care for more than one foster child, and
    • the resident profiles in children's homes
    • are taken into account when deciding a child's placement.
  • Even though siblings may not stay together in some instances, MSF and our partners will facilitate contact between the siblings as well as with their natural parents.

10. Mr Louis Ng also spoke about school arrangements. MSF is guided by what is in the child's interest.

  • Where the expected duration of the out-of-home care placement is short, or the child will soon be taking a national exam, or the current school provides good support for his needs, we prefer to let the child continue in his current school.
  • If a change of school is in the interest of the child, MSF will work with the schools, the foster families or children's homes to help with the transition.
    • In the case of Allie, referred to in Mr Louis Ng's speech, the change of school was done for her benefit. The distance between the Home and her original school meant very long and tiring daily commutes for her, and that showed when she returned to the Home.
    • My colleagues have recently checked on Allie, and I'm told that she is progressing well in her placement, despite initial adjustment difficulties.
  • I thank Mr Ng for his concern.
  • We will monitor the girl's situation and work towards reunifying her with her family.

Enhanced Care and Protection Order

11. Mr Speaker, I now turn to questions relating to the Enhanced Care and Protection Order, or ECPO.

12. Mr Saktiandi Supaat was concerned that it may undermine the role and standing of parents.

  • When a child has been placed in out-of-home care, we seek to return the child back to his family as soon as possible, with the caveat that if it is safe to do so.
  • Hence, before applying for an ECPO, MSF and our community partners would already have sought to reunify the family.
  • This includes providing counselling and psychotherapy, identifying responsible adults in the family to anchor possible safety plans, and preparing the relevant touchpoints in the community such as schools and preschools to play a part in those plans.
  • In making an ECPO, the Court must be satisfied that
    • the child has had to stay in out-of-home care for at least 12 months for a child who is below 3,
    • or at least 24 months for a child aged 3 and above;
    • the parents are not fit to provide care for the child;
    • and it is not appropriate to return the child to the care and custody of any of his parents.
    • I gave some examples yesterday.

13. Let me explain to Mr Saktiandi Supaat that the ECPO does not allow MSF nor the caregivers to make decisions relating to religion on behalf of the child.

  • Our practice is to try to place children with foster families of the same race and religion as far as possible, or if that is not possible due to fostering constraints, we will consult and seek parental consent.
  • Our children's homes operate on a secular basis, while providing for the religious needs of the child, including other requirements such as dietary needs.

Foster parents

14. Mr Darryl David and Mr Henry Kwek asked about fostering and adoption.

  • While this Bill in itself does not touch on adoption, foster parents may apply to adopt children under the Adoption of Children Act.
  • Adoption of a fostered child may be considered if it is in the welfare of the child. This is if natural parents are unable or unwilling to care for the child, or will significantly compromise the safety and well-being of the child. This is a high threshold. We will take your feedback on facilitating the adoption of children in state care, into consideration as we review our laws and processes.

15. Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Ms Anthea Ong asked whether income tax benefits can be given to foster parents.

16. Foster parents face caregiving challenges, similar to natural parents.

  • The childcare leave benefits that we are proposing to extend, will give them more time to spend with their foster children.
  • Financially, foster parents receive fostering allowances to defray expenses for the children. The quantum is higher if the children have special needs.
  • They also get childcare and medical subsidies to assist them.

17. Ms Anthea Ong and Mr Desmond Choo also spoke about supporting other caregivers in caring for abused or neglected children.

  • For some children whose parents are unable to provide a safe living environment, MSF may appoint relatives to provide care, similar to how natural parents care for the child.
  • The amended legislation will extend childcare leave to such appointed caregivers to support them in their caregiving roles.

II. Improving rehabilitation and reintegration of youths with offending behaviour

Balance between rehabilitation of youth and safety of others

18. Some Members spoke about amendments relating to the rehabilitation of youth offenders.

19. Let me outline our approach to youth justice and rehabilitation, to set the context for our amendments.

  • Youth justice in Singapore is premised on gradated intervention. Our approach is to divert youth offenders, including those between the ages of 16 and 18, away from the Court wherever possible.
  • Youth offenders who are not diverted are assessed whether they are suitable for probation. Probation focuses on community-based rehabilitation and the Court may order accompanying conditions depending on the needs of the youth.
  • This means that youths who are required to reside in places of detention and juvenile rehabilitation centres generally have higher-risk behaviours, complex needs or a weak family environment that does not support rehabilitation,
  • and that tends to manifest in their behaviour and interactions with other people.

20. Earlier, I explained that we need to strike a good balance between

  • helping youth offenders rehabilitate and reintegrate into society, on the one hand,
  • and ensuring the safety of residents and staff in places of detention and juvenile rehabilitation centres, and of the public in general.

21. This brings me to my next point, on how we seek to achieve such a balance.

  • Ms Sylvia Lim asked about the treatment of youth suspects and youth offenders, by law enforcement officers, MSF and the Courts.

22. Ms Lim correctly pointed out that there are existing laws and protocols that law enforcement officers must adhere to when handling youth suspects, such as not detaining arrested persons for more than 48 hours.

  • Our amendment to section 30 of the Act inserts this deadline explicitly into the CYPA itself, in line with section 68 of the Criminal Procedure Code,
  • so there is no ambiguity in how law enforcement officers handle arrested youth suspects.

23. The law enforcement officers, such as the Police, are trained to handle youth suspects.

  • Where feasible, the Police try to expedite the investigation of cases involving youth suspects.
    Police protocols also involve the activation of Appropriate Adults to support the emotional needs of young suspects,
    and to ensure close coordination between law enforcement and other agencies, such as schools and MSF, for appropriate follow-up.
    The Appropriate Adults and the Police are trained to look out for signs of distress by youths during the interview, and can assess if the youth is in a suitable condition or state to be interviewed or not.
    The Police officer can also decide to discontinue the interview, and reschedule the interview when the young suspect is in a more stable emotional state.
    After investigations, a decision on whether to release and divert the youth, or proceed with a charge, is made.

24. We also recognise that some youths, especially the older youths, may commit serious offences, and can be repeat offenders.

  • This is where the Public Prosecutor, as well as the Youth Court, have the discretion to charge the offender in either the Youth Court or a Court of appropriate jurisdiction, such as the State Courts.
  • In terms of protecting the identity of youth offenders, the State Courts continue to be able to issue gag orders to ensure the identity of the youth is not revealed by media.

25. The Youth Court, in making any order, must consider the needs of each youth and their risk of re-offending in future.

  • The Youth Court typically calls for a pre-sentencing report to determine if the youth is suitable for probation or otherwise,
  • and weighs several factors,
  • such as whether the youth has prior offences, the youth's behaviour in school, his relationships with peers.
  • Family circumstances, the availability and strength of familial and community support are also important.
    • Whether there is adequate supervision, appropriate discipline, consistent parenting
  • After taking into consideration the risk and needs of the youth, the Court can order a youth offender to undergo rehabilitation under a probation order, or in a Juvenile Rehabilitation Centre.
  • In considering whether a youth requires reformative training, the Court would call for a suitability report to determine whether the youth's physical and mental condition is suitable for reformative training.
    • The Youth Court would also consider whether the youth has demonstrated aggressive or violent behaviour, such as when the youth was remanded at the MSF Youth Homes.
    • The youth may be assessed to have such a high risk of aggressive behaviour, that it may not be safe for the youth to be detained in the JRC, especially if it may affect the safety or disrupt the rehabilitation of other youths in the JRC.
  • The assessment of individual risk levels and needs of the youth determines the regime and environment that best supports his rehabilitation.
    • Hence, in incidents involving more than one youth, it may be possible that the Youth Court may grant different orders as is needed for their rehabilitation.
  • At the same time, parity in sentencing is vital to preserve and protect public confidence in the way justice is administered.

26. I cited earlier the case of a 15-year old resident, with unruly and aggressive behaviour.

  • While he was at the Singapore Boys' Home, he repeatedly threatened youth guidance officers and intimidated other residents.
  • He is burly, well-built at about 1.83m tall.
  • In one instance, he held his dormitory mate by the neck and lifted him off the ground, choking him. Fortunately, staff witnessed it and intervened immediately.
  • This is one out of many scenarios where our officers find it essential to be able to deploy the use of restraints and other measures quickly, to safeguard other residents.
  • Let me share another example. Members may be aware that a serious incident took place at the Singapore Boys' Home last year.
  • Seven residents physically assaulted an auxiliary police officer and two MSF officers, inflicting serious injuries.
  • The auxiliary police officer suffered serious eye injury, while the two MSF officers suffered head injuries.
  • Though all three officers are back at work, we must reduce the risk of such incidents repeating.
  • The Homes are places of rehabilitation and our youth guidance officers, psychologists, counsellors and therapists need a safe environment to provide rehabilitative support.
  • Other youths also need to be assured of their safety.

27. Mr Darryl David asked therefore whether we have the capability to handle older and bigger-built youths in MSF's Youth Homes. Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Ms Anthea Ong asked about the necessity of mechanical restraints.

  • Like I mentioned yesterday, they will not be used as a punitive measure.
  • But members will appreciate that there are indeed real-life situations where the use of such restraints is necessary to prevent escalation, escape or harm.
  • Let me assure Members that the MSF Youth Homes adopt a range of approaches to de-escalate, and manage the youth's aggressive or violent behaviour when encountered.
  • Youth Home staff will attempt to verbally de-escalate tensions, calm down any aggressive residents, and persuade them to cease aggressive behaviour.
  • When suitable, the Youth Homes also use therapy, or padded rooms to help calm agitated residents down.
  • If a youth remains aggressive or the situation escalates despite our efforts to calm him down, MSF Youth Home staff will first verbally issue a warning.
    • If the youth persists, MSF staff will apply de-escalation techniques based on their training on Management of Actual or Potential Aggression (MAPA), as mentioned by Ms Anthea Ong;
    • Only when absolutely necessary will our officers use restraints to manage the resident, so as to minimise risk of injuries to other residents or staff.
    • As far as possible, it will be the auxiliary officers who do so.
    • However, in some instances, our officers may also have to respond and take appropriate action for the safety of residents and staff.
  • MSF will put in place stringent procedures and processes in the use of restraints. This includes recording each use of restraint, and removing the restraint once the need has passed.
  • Rehabilitation of the youth is important. After the restraints are removed, an MSF officer will help the resident to process his feelings. Where necessary, a multi-disciplinary team comprising the caseworker, psychologist and psychiatrist will also support the youth through this process. Our aim is to provide a safe and secure environment for all residents and staff in MSF's Youth Homes, to facilitate rehabilitation.

28. Some members asked about the management of youths of different ages. When we raise the age limit to below 18 at point of admission, some youths may remain in our care or custody till they are about 21 years old.

  • There are various considerations in how we group the residents in the MSF Youth Homes.
  • Their risks and needs are considered.
  • Given the differing levels of maturity, the young ones are generally housed separately from the older youths at the MSF Youth Homes.

29. As the older youths are at a different stage of development from the existing younger youths,

  • Our officers need to have adequate training and experience to address the different risks and needs of older youths.2
  • This includes being able to supervise and guide the youths in day-to-day activities such as attending educational classes or playing sports in a group setting. This helps the youths to gain soft skills, which are important in interacting with youths of different ages.
  • Ultimately, our intent is to facilitate their rehabilitation and reintegration with family and society at large.

III. Strengthening partnerships with the community to care for vulnerable children
30. Many MPs like Mr Desmond Choo spoke about providing support for families. In particular, Ms Anthea Ong, Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and Ms Denise Phua spoke about providing early support for at-risk families, before their situations worsen.

  • I agree.
  • Vulnerable individuals and families sometimes face complex challenges and require the support of multiple agencies and community organisations to help them regain stability.
  • MSF has been working with our partners to transform our social services, integrate service delivery and strengthen last-mile support.
  • The objective is to provide more comprehensive, convenient and coordinated support for these families.

31. We have also made significant investment in the early childhood sector to give every child a good start in life and to support families with young children.

  • The KidSTART programme provides support for child development, coordinates and strengthens services for families where needed, and monitors the developmental progress of children from birth.
  • Since KidSTART was piloted in July 2016, 1,000 children from low-income families have benefited.
  • We will be expanding KidSTART further as Prime Minister had announced at National Day Rally, to reach another 5,000 children from low-income households over the next three years.

32. MSF has also worked with schools to conduct parenting programmes.

  • We have reached out to 292 schools to make internationally recognised evidence-based parenting programmes available. These will support parents to become more confident in their parenting, reduce parental stress and better manage negative behaviour in their children.

33. Mr Henry Kwek and Professor Lim Sun Sun spoke about digital wellness and online addiction.

  • There are programmes in the community for families facing such challenges.
  • The National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) provides treatment for persons with gaming or Internet addictions.
  • Community agencies such as Fei Yue Community Service and TOUCH Community Services, conduct programmes to support children, including teaching them coping strategies to manage their gaming activity.
  • Statutory intervention and legal enforcement should not be the only or "go-to" approach. As far as possible, our families should be supported by the community. Where a parent decides to apply to the Youth Court for a Family Guidance Order (FGO),
    • the court can mandate that the child and/or the parents undergo counselling, or any other programme or treatment to protect well-being.

34. Ms Sylvia Lim asked whether families and children have the right to be heard before the Youth Court. She also wanted to know what options are available for children and families who are unable to engage lawyers.

  • I like to first emphasise our starting point - that legal recourse ought to be a last resort.
  • This is why we have programmes that divert youth offenders away from the court system,
  • and why we are requiring families to attend a mandatory family programme before applying for Family Guidance Orders.

35. For cases that are before the court, it is important to keep the law accessible and easy to understand. 

  • There are provisions to ensure that the child's or his parent's voices are heard during proceedings. 
  • Section 42 of the CYPA also provides that where a child is brought before the Youth Court, it is the court's duty to explain the substance of the offence to the child in language suitable for his age and understanding. 

36. Moreover, for child protection cases, MSF caseworkers are guided by the best interests of the child. Similarly, for FGO cases, a counsellor will work with the family through their difficulties. These professionals help to safeguard the interests of the child and family.

37. Exceptionally, if the presence of lawyers is necessary, there are avenues of assistance available for those who are not able to afford lawyers. 

  • They may seek assistance from the Law Society Pro Bono Services or legal clinics run by various community, religious and social service agencies. 
  • Criminal legal aid is also available through the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) for children and young persons who are accused of a crime or an offence. 

38. The Community Justice Centre (CJC) also assists litigants-in-person. 

  • For example, CJC runs a scheme where an assigned "Court Friend" provides practical and emotional support. 
  • The Court Friend may provide information on court procedures and explain the judge's instructions to the child or parent.

IV. Breaking cycles of abuse, neglect and offending 
Calibrated pace of operationalisation

39. Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, community partners will play a bigger role in caring for children under our regime. We consulted many stakeholders, including our social service agencies, members of the Youth Advisory Group, and so on. They have told us that they need to build capacity and capabilities to manage both a higher number of children, as well as older youths with differing needs and risks. 

  • MSF will ensure that all our community partners and agencies are given sufficient time to work through their plans and processes, so that we are collectively ready to implement these changes.

40. MPs such as Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Mr Louis Ng, Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Mr Darryl David also spoke about our ability to manage the larger number of children who will be covered under the Act. I assure members that we have been planning and working on building capacity and capability to enable us to be ready to implement these changes.

  • The preparations are ongoing, but will take time and additional resources. 
  • Our community partners have emphasised the need to prepare and be ready.
  • This is why we are staggering the implementation of the Bill.
  • We intend to bring into force the amendments to expand care and protection for children first next year. 
  • While we seek to amend the CYPA at this sitting to raise the age limit for older youths to be tried by the Youth Court, time will be needed to bring these specific amendments into force as various things need to be put in place first.  
    • I have explained that it takes time to strengthen the safety and security within MSF's Youth Homes. 
    • We need to make changes to infrastructure to enable age-appropriate rehabilitation, and expand the existing academic and vocational curriculum that is provided. 
    • We also need to strike the right balance, to provide an environment that is safe for residents and staff, and conducive for rehabilitation in the Youth Homes. 

Outcomes for children

41. Ms Rahayu Mahzam and Mr Louis Ng spoke about the data and research that informs us about our programmes and policies.  

  • In the past five years, we have seen more child abuse and neglect cases being reported and investigated. This is in part:  
  • Because of our efforts to increase awareness, such as the Break the Silence campaign, people have been able to identify cases more easily and speak out against violence; 
    • And better detection of child abuse cases using screening tools and processes. For example, we developed a Child Abuse Reporting Guide (CARG) that is used by our partners such as childcare centres, schools and medical professionals, to guide them on what to look out for in detecting child abuse.
  • The overall recidivism rates of our youth offenders have remained stable. 
  • We have published a number of research papers, covering topics such as 
    • Family profiles of maltreated children, and the predictors of re-entry into the child protection system in Singapore,
    • Impact of childhood maltreatment on recidivism in youth offenders, and family characteristics linked to youth offenders in Singapore,
    • Evaluation of programmes such as Functional Family Therapy for youth probationers, and Violence Prevention Programme for youth offenders.
    • These are publicly available.
  • The findings inform the work that we do, for example through the National Committee on Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism (or NCPR), that I co-chair with Minister Josephine Teo from MHA. 
  • We will continue to track data and outcomes in relation to abuse, neglect and offending. 

VI. Conclusion 

42. Mr Deputy Speaker, let me round up by outlining what this Bill means for our children, families and stakeholders. 

43. First, for abused or neglected children, the Bill safeguards their interests by expanding the coverage of the Act to older children. It also enhances our intervention in emotional or psychological abuse cases and provides stable out-of-home care arrangements.

44. Second, for youths who have committed offences, the Bill would help them ease back into their families and with society, and better support them to avoid further offending. 

45. Third, for families that require guidance in parenting, the Bill would help strengthen family relationships and better guide parenting of children.

46. Finally, for stakeholders in community, the Bill also strengthens how we partner them to work with vulnerable children.

47. Sir, the Bill seeks to provide better outcomes for children, and break the cycle of abuse, neglect and offending. At the same time, our work with vulnerable children cannot be accomplished by legislation alone. 

48. Only when we work collectively as a community can we help our vulnerable children overcome their difficult circumstances to have the best shot in life. 

49. I thank Members for their strong support for this Bill and I would also like to take this opportunity to put on record our thanks and appreciation to our child protection officers, our youth guidance officers, our Home staff and Auxiliary Police Officers (APOs), our probation officers, our therapists, psychologists, counsellors, social workers and healthcare workers, our Child Protection Specialist Centres, Family Violence Specialist Centres, Divorce Support Specialist Agencies, Family Service Centres and social work professionals, our youth work Integrated Service Providers, our foster families, our Board of Visitors, our Advisors of the Youth Courts, our Youth Advisory Group, our Community Partners and our Volunteers. 

  • For the hard work and dedication behind the scenes often under tremendous pressure, to protect our children, our future and to guide vulnerable families. 

50. I also appreciate the policy officers and the legal officers for working hard on this Bill, and this Bill is a result of their hard work and recommendations borne out of many years of experience. 

51. Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I beg to move.


[1]Trauma-informed practices involve understanding, recognising and responding to the effects of trauma.

[2]Training would include understanding of developmental stages (late adolescence), counselling, enforcing discipline, as well as de-escalation techniques.