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Safeguards to Ensure Suitability of Adult Who Foster or Adopt Children Who Have Endured Traumatic Past

Type: Protection from Domestic Violence,

Topic(s): Protection from Domestic Violence,


Questions

Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) what safeguards are in place to ensure the suitability of adults who express interest in adopting children, especially children who have endured traumatic pasts; and (b) what measures exist to prevent incidents of abuse by such adults.

Ms He Ting Ru asked the Minister for Social and Family Development whether the Ministry will (i) enhance existing training schemes of social workers and professionals handling cases of vulnerable underaged persons to detect sexual and other forms of abuse and (ii) strengthen its due diligence and surveillance over the youth development firms the Ministry works with that have exposure to vulnerable underaged persons.

Answer

The Minister of State for Social and Family Development (Ms Sun Xueling) (for the Minister for Social and Family Development): Sir, may I have your permission to take both questions – Question Nos 8 and 9 – together?

Mr Speaker: Please proceed.

Ms Sun Xueling: Ms Nadia and Ms He probably have in mind a recently reported case where a child from a children's home was sexually abused by a kith caregiver. Kith caregivers are adults who are not related to a child and meet the child through family or community connections, and are not registered as foster parents. I would like to clarify that while the offender and his wife had expressed the desire to adopt the child, they had not taken any steps to start the adoption process. I would also like to clarify that the offender's firm was not working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), but directly with the children's home.

 Ms Nadia asked about the safeguards in the adoption process. The primary consideration when processing applications for adopting children is the child's welfare and best interest of the child. There are various steps in the adoption process to ensure this.

 During the first stage, prospective adopters must undergo a comprehensive Adoption Suitability Assessment. This is conducted by social service staff from an accredited adoption agency. Prospective adopters are assessed on a range of factors including their ability to provide a protective and nurturing environment, their motivations for adoption, stability of the marital relationship and overall capacity to meet the child's needs. Prospective adopters also undergo screening for risk factors, including criminal records.

 If found suitable, prospective adopters receive a favourable Home Study Report. This allows them to search for a child to adopt through adoption agencies or their own contacts. Once a child is identified, the adopters then make an application to the Court. As part of the adoption proceedings, the Court will appoint MSF as the Guardian-in-Adoption.

 Where the child is already being cared for by the family, an MSF officer will conduct a social investigation to check on the safety and well-being of the child in the family, including whether the prospective adopters are providing good care for the child and meeting the child's needs. This stage involves interviews with the child about the child's views on the adoption, checks with character referees and consultations with the applicants' support network, which could include household members, friends, teachers and social service professionals working with the family.

 Ms He asked how the contact between children and staff, volunteers and vendors is overseen. Social workers and professionals employed at our children homes receive compulsory training to recognise signs and symptoms of sexual and other forms of abuse. Professionals at MSF's accredited adoption agencies also receive training to help them identify abuse.

 Staff, volunteers and personnel engaged by children's homes are screened for prior criminal records before they have contact with children. In the recently reported case, these procedures were followed by the home. The offender did not have a prior criminal record.

 This incident is very regrettable, and all the professionals and social service workers who have been in contact with the child are shaken. Based on our knowledge, the children's home had made every effort to perform due diligence on persons who have contact with the child and to supervise the contact. The social service professionals had also followed up actively with supervised visitations, check-ins and house visits.

 While every effort is made to ensure adopted children enter families that provide a safe environment, it is not possible to predict with absolute certainty how the relationship between an adopted child and the adoptive parents develops.

 We are very grateful to the teacher whom the child confided in. This shows the critical role of having trusted individuals in one's life. We would like to call out to everyone, whether a teacher, neighbour or friend, to promptly report abuse when they come to know of it or suspect it. We need the collective help of everyone to protect the safety of our children.

 Mr Speaker, the MSF will continue to emphasise to the homes the importance of selecting and training their volunteers well, and to constantly monitor their residents' safety and well-being. At the same time, we should not let this incident make homes reluctant to work with community partners and volunteers, many who do good work and befriend children and run recreational and other activities for them out of a desire to help the children. It would be a shame if our homes isolated children from well-intentioned volunteers who wish to help them.

Mr Speaker: Ms Nadia Samdin.

Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin (Ang Mo Kio): I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Indeed, with many other Singaporeans, I think we were very disturbed when this case first came to light. I would like to ask three follow-up supplementary questions.

 First, if the Minister of State could provide more details of this kith caregiver scheme, in terms of how the volunteers are assessed to be suitable and managed over a long period of time, that would be very helpful.

 Second, given that the abuse, very unfortunately, happened over a prolonged period and throughout this time the youth was actually receiving social service support. What improvements are the home and MSF putting in place to try and avoid from such incidents happening again?

 Finally, given that MSF does work through various agencies, be it through the adoption agencies or other social service agencies (SSAs), such as this kith caregiver scheme, how does MSF ensure the rigour of supervision, check-ins, home reports, and how is this applied equally across the different agencies that MSF works with?

Ms Sun Xueling: I thank Ms Nadia for her questions. On the first point, there are two schemes that we are talking about. You had mentioned kith caregivers and volunteers. There could also be instances where volunteers are not kith caregivers. So, I would touch on both the points.

 For kith caregivers, before a caregiver is identified to provide care for a child or a young person under MSF's care, like I have mentioned before, background checks and assessments are conducted by trained professionals. For this particular case, MSF had conducted background checks on the man and his wife before they were identified as caregivers for the child. They had no adverse records.

 Trained professionals had also assessed the couple as capable of providing adequate and safe care for the child. There had also been paced contacts between the couple and the young person that had ranged from supervised visitations at the treatment centre to outings and home leave, before the couple provided full-time care for the child.

 There were regular therapy sessions, check-ins and home visits conducted by the professionals, both prior to and during the child's home leave and while under the couple’s care. And during these interactions, the professionals had observed that the couple provided supportive care and they did not identify any signs or symptoms indicative of sexual abuse by the caregiver.

 The child did not disclose any abuse to the professionals until she informed her school teacher in November 2020. From what I understand, the sexual abuse was between the period of September 2020 and November 2020, whereas the interactions that the child had with this caregiver started in 2019.

 Coming back to volunteers, which was another aspect of the Member's question, I had mentioned before that all volunteers in MSF-funded programmes who have contact with clients, will need to undergo suitability assessments and background checks. These are run by the agencies. So, as part of the suitability assessment, all prospective volunteers must provide information about their areas of interest in volunteering, the skills and expertise that they have to offer, any medical concerns and any prior criminal convictions.

 The SSA will then review the submitted information and interview these prospective volunteers to better understand their motivations and abilities to support the SSA's programmes and engagement with clients. Background checks are also conducted to verify the information which has been provided including screening for criminal records and to identify other risk factors including adverse history.

 Interviews with character references and checks with other SSAs where the prospective volunteer may have previously volunteered in, are also performed.

 I will now like to go to her second question, which I believe was about what more we can do, if I am not wrong.

 I had talked about the training that all social service professionals have to undergo. For staff at children's homes, they have to attend compulsory training courses. This include understanding the legal frameworks and the legislation that protects children in state care. They also have to undergo training and strategies to identify child abuse and how to keep children safe. This training is provided by the NCSS Social Service Institute (SSI) in Singapore.

 The training courses are either developed by MSF or in partnership with local stakeholders from the social service, education, health and law enforcement sectors. The training includes evidence-based assessment frameworks, which are recognised internationally, to promote safety and well-being for children and young persons at risk of neglect or abuse. And this training has been contextualised to the Singapore context.

 Just to give a few examples of this training. The training courses include introduction to the child protection framework, the sector-specific screening guide and the child abuse reporting guide.

 The Member may recall that we had a task force on family violence, and family violence includes many forms of violence, including sexual abuse. This was co-chaired by myself and Minister of State Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim. We had earlier recommended to develop consistent, standardised assessment and screening tools to enable frontline professionals to better identify and detect family violence cases, of which sexual abuse is one form of it.

 This is to manage the risks and needs of survivors and also perpetrators, and know when to report cases.

 MSF will progressively be launching a suite of tools to ensure a more robust and consistent decision-making system for the domestic violence sector. So, this is something that we are working on to make sure that not only has there been training provided to social service professionals, but that there are standardised assessment tools so that the social service professionals know what the baselines are and under what circumstances to report.

 Finally, on the Member's last point, MSF meets with the SSAs regularly. The SSI is also a platform where the SSAs come together regularly to receive up-to-date training.

 Learning from this episode, I think it is a stern reminder to all of us that we will continue to focus on making sure our social service professionals are up-to-date when it comes to training, to recognise family violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse and to know when to report, what are the symptoms to look out for. But at the same time, I think it is also a clear reminder to all of us that we have to work with many other community partners, including teachers, because in this case, it was a teacher who reported after the child confided in the teacher.

 We must recognise that even as our social service professionals continue with supervised visitations, home check-ins, house visits, this may not take place on a daily basis. Whereas if we compare that to a child's interaction with a teacher at school or a neighbour to the home, these are almost daily interactions, if not daily interactions; there is more opportunity for a child to share instances of neglect and abuse. I think this is a call to action for more members of the public to be aware of what are the signs of family violence, domestic abuse, sexual abuse.

 MSF has been very active in rolling out the MSF’s Family and Domestic Violence Awareness Training, which is part of the Break the Silence campaign. We have reached out to 7,550 individuals, which include preschool teachers, students at the National Institute of Education (NIE), teachers in our foreign system schools. And we will continue in this effort to make sure that more members of the public are aware of the signs to look out for and in so doing, all of us can better protect the safety of our children.

Mr Speaker: Ms He Ting Ru.

Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have a couple of supplementary questions. The first is, I think the Minister of State mentioned earlier about the importance that teachers can play in this. I just wanted to know, is there and what is the basic training given to preschool educators and assistants to enable them to recognise these signs? Is there a very general training that is available to these preschool educators to enable them to detect signs and symptoms of abuse in children, given that children of this age are usually less able to articulate or verbalise what is happening to them?

 My second supplementary question relates to, when we talk about training given to educators and to people who work within the social services sector, especially those with vulnerable young children, we talk about reporting and understanding the reporting framework. I would like to check whether this training that is given to them also includes training about how best they can respond initially to a child coming up to them and telling them potentially that they have been — or recognising that this child might actually be a victim? I am just wondering whether or not there is basic training given to teach them how to respond and how best to first respond to these children, so that these children are not further traumatised or are better protected.

Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for her two supplementary questions. On the first point, the MSF’s family and domestic violence awareness training has been rolled out. I mentioned that we have engaged 7,550 individuals, many of whom are teachers. We have a curriculum in place and the topmost in this curriculum includes sharing with teachers what are the different forms of abuse.

 I use the term "family violence" but actually, within this context, there are different forms of it, such as physical violence, sexual abuse, neglect, psychological and emotional abuse. So, we teach our teachers who come for this training that all these forms of neglect and abuse, all come under the ambit of family and domestic violence.

 We fully recognise that victims or survivors may respond differently, especially when we are dealing with children. That is why we have focused on teachers, because they are an important touchpoint with children and young persons. So, in the training, we also train our teachers to recognise how children and young persons may respond or show symptoms of such abuse and neglect. For instance, is the child more withdrawn than usual? Are there visible marks on the child? Is the child adverse to physical contact? Are there changes in the child's behaviour? Has the child lost appetite, not interested anymore in the games and the activities that the child used to be interested in?

 Some of our SSAs also use play therapy. We have observed that some of the children, because of their young age, they are not able to verbalise their personal experience, not able to talk about it in first person terms. Instead, they have to use toys, other objects and talk about it from a third-person perspective because that is their way of protecting themselves from further hurt. These are ways that children and young persons can communicate. Our teachers and our social service professionals are made aware and sensitive to the point that children may respond in such ways. So, that is the first point on what we aim to do and continue to try to do through the family and domestic violence awareness training.

 On the second point, we have a specialised division called the Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service team which provides specialised psychological services to children, youths and their family, and in particular, they have a good understanding of how to understand the profile and needs of children who have undergone trauma and abuse, and how to communicate with these children and their families. We will look at how to ensure that this expertise is also further translated and communicated to frontline professionals, which include the teachers and social service professionals that I had talked about.

Mr Speaker: Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin.

Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin: Speaker, thank you for your indulgence. Minister of State, with all due respect, this is a case of a child who first witnessed her mother's suicide and then was sexually abused by her own biological father, before then being sexually abused by this fatherly figure. I think what many people truly want to know is beyond training, how do we improve the current processes? How is the home looking at improving its current protocol, recognising that constant, or even daily check-ins, are too resource-intensive? How do we really strengthen the rigour applied across the different MSF agencies to ensure that this does not happen again, as much as possible?

Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for her follow-up questions. I would say this: we would spare no effort when it comes to training our social service professionals to identify signs of abuse. That is their job and when social service professionals come to this profession and want to help children and young persons, in particular in children's homes, they are well intentioned and this is what they set out to do every day.

 So, like I said, this incident is something that has shaken the community. Nobody wants to see this, in particular, the social service professionals who have been in contact with the child. We all know the traumatic experience of this child. It is terrible for a young person to have to undergo this in her own biological family, to seek refuge in a children's home and to have a glimpse of a future with a prospective adopter, only to be abused at the hands of this potentially trusted adult that she has come into contact with.

 Like I said, this has shaken the community. What we will continue to do, is that even though training sounds like a very generic term, it is a very important one because it is fundamental to equipping our social service professionals to have the means and the background to identify, to prevent and to stop abuse from happening.

 I would like to further reinforce the point that the social service professionals, with all the resources that they have and they are managing many cases at the same time, they are in contact with the child through supervised visitations, check-ins, home visits. During COVID-19, there was the added element of check-ins over video. But, of course, post-COVID-19, we have replaced that with physical home visits because that, fundamentally, is the best way of assessing the environment.

 But what is very, very important is that we really need members of the public to be together with us in this fight to protect our children. As you can imagine, for a young person or child who is experiencing this, you never know at which point and what might trigger the child to finally open up. When he or she decides to open up, then there must be a trusted adult nearby for him or her to open up to. In this case, it was a teacher who was open, who had obviously spent time building a nurturing and trusting relationship with the child; and it was one such teacher whom the child had trusted and whom she confided in.

 So, I would say that the most fundamental, and perhaps the most comprehensive, way of tackling this issue is to raise greater awareness among more members of the public, in particular, persons who have immediate touchpoints with children and, therefore, I mentioned teachers, I mentioned neighbours, I mentioned friends.

 At the same time, I would also like to share that we had rolled out the hand signal for help because we want to make sure that whether there is opportunity for the child to be in the community and should he or she decide to disclose this abuse, that he or she is able to reach out for help. We hope that members of the public will recognise what the sign means and please call the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment helpline or reach out to Social Service Offices or our protection specialist centres, so that help can be given to this survivor victim of family violence as soon as possible.

Mr Speaker: Assoc Prof Jamus Lim.

Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim (Sengkang): I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response to the safeguards that the Ministry has in place. Let me state at the outset that I fully agree with the exhaustive, almost to the point of onerous, processes that are necessary to protect the children in Home Study Reports and the various other safeguard mechanisms.

 That said, I wish to caution against going too far in the other direction and let me elaborate. I have had residents who wish to adopt the children of their spouse from second marriages. Based on their feedback, this process tends to be very drawn out, and more often than not, the child is of a foreign nationality. And so, the Permanent Residency and citizenship process, based on what they have shared, is very lengthy.

 I think, in this case, it is a little bit different just because at least one biological parent tends to be present.

 I wonder whether the Ministry will, even as they review their processes to protect the child, not to go too far in the other direction and make the process of adoption more onerous, especially for children that result from second marriages.

Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for raising this. I suppose the Member has a specific case in his mind when he shared this. If he does not mind, perhaps after this Sitting, he could share the case with me offline, so we can take a closer look at it.

 In general, for prospective adopters, what happens in the process is that they first have to attend a pre-adoption briefing and they have to undergo a comprehensive  Adoption Suitability Assessment which is conducted by social service staff from an MSF-accredited adoption agency.

 The prospective adopters have to first obtain a favourable Home Study Report that I mentioned earlier, before they can proceed to identify a child to adopt. If the child is a foreigner, and I think this is a point the Member raised in the case, the prospective adopter would have to apply for a Dependant's Pass, so that the child can reside in Singapore while undergoing the adoption process.

 After the Dependant's Pass is granted, the prospective adopter can apply to the Family Justice Courts (FJC) to adopt. That would then be the MSF’s Guardian-in-Adoption, which is appointed by the FJC who will conduct social investigations. And by that, I mean checking in with the prospective adopters, family members, character referees, professionals and so on.

 So, as you can see, there is a process in place. Whether it is overly onerous, at the onset, I think we have to agree in principle that we have to make sure the child's interest, welfare and well-being – whether or not a Singaporean or a foreign child – has to be front and centre. That is why we have all these processes in place, to make sure that we are able to assess and screen the prospective adopter, to make sure that they have the basic requirements and have the best situation to be able to care for such a child.

 So, like I said, I guess the Member has a specific case in mind. If the Member does not mind, we could take this offline after this.

Mr Speaker: The last supplementary question on this, Mr Dennis Tan. Please keep it succinct; and likewise, the response.

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong (Hougang): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would just like to ask the Minister of State, whether she is able to share with the House what specific attributes MSF look for from the prospective adoptive parents of children, specifically where they may have a traumatic past.

Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for his question. At the stage of pre-adoption requirements, I had mentioned that the prospective adopter has to undergo a comprehensive Adoption Suitability Assessment and prospective adopters who wish to adopt a child with a traumatic history, will need to be assessed if they are able to meet the child's complex care needs. So, it is one layer above what I shared earlier.

 I had also shared that we have a specialised Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service team. They have the expertise, given that they have dealt with children with a traumatic history before. So, their input will also be taken in. We will then see whether the prospective adopters have the capabilities to properly care for such a child, given the fact that the child has had this unfortunate experience of having a traumatic past previously.