Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 22/2019)
Sir, I stand in support of the Bill. I would like to applaud the MSF for the thorough and thoughtful consultation process in drafting the Bill.
MSF consulted over 300 stakeholders in the children and youth services sector and considered over 40 written responses during the public consultation.
Sir, I support the move towards a more rehabilitative regime by raising the maximum age of a “young person” from below 16 years to below 18 years. This is a step in the right direction.
I also applaud the extension of childcare leave to foster parents and urge parents to step forward as foster parents. While our VWOs do their best in providing children who come through their doors with the best care possible, there is no substitute for a stable family environment.
Foster parents give children the stability, individual care, and personal affection that they need and I hope more people will step forward to become foster parents.
Sir, I would like to cover two areas in my speech. I will focus on our children homes, which have been designated as a “place of safety” and our Boys Home and Girls Home.
Place of safety
Unfortunately, I have residents who have placed in a “place of safety”, some of whom are only in primary school.
My resident Allie (not her real name) has spent the last 3 years in a “place of safety”. I’ve visited her there and I have to be honest that it was heartbreaking seeing her there.
When I visited, a little boy was scaling the walls and the barb wires, trying to escape from the “place of safety”. The VWO was doing their absolute best in very difficult circumstances.
I used to take Allie out and she was bubbly little girl, always running around and always with a big heart. I used to take her out with my daughter and I remember seeing her giving my daughter her black toy car.
They say those with the least give the most and this is so true. Allie lived in a rental flat and didn’t have much but she gave a lot. Not just material gifts. She is someone who is so caring. I remember my daughter coughing once and almost instinctively, Allie would pat my daughter’s back to make her feel better.
A few months after Allie was sent to a “place of safety”, the Allie I knew vanished and was replaced with a quiet reserved girl who barely spoke a word. This was despite all the hard work the social workers and case manager had put in to help her.
She changed completely and I could see why. She was taken away from her house, her siblings, her family and even her school. Everything she knew off and was used to, was removed from her.
I know we do this to protect her, to help her but we need to start questioning whether this works.
Again, let me put on record that I commend the VWOs for doing a very admirable job of caring for the children with limited resources. At the same time, I believe we can do more for children like Allie and her siblings who just need a nurturing environment to grow and blossom.
In this spirit of protecting and rehabilitating our vulnerable children, I have the following questions and recommendations on helping VWOs who run “places of safety”.
Reducing staff to children ratio
I believe one of the problems of the “place of safety” is the group setting with too few staff members. We place all the children together, all of whom are angry, sad, lost, frustrated, disappointed and I don’t think it helps when they are placed together with insufficient support.
I understand that staff and resource constraints are a perpetual problem that VWOs have to grapple with. I had the same problem too when running my own VWO.
In the best interest of our children, we should ensure that our VWOs are adequately staffed and have the resources they need to do their work.
Can the Minister share what the current staff to children ratio is at the “place of safety? What was it in the past? Has it improved?
Can the Minister share if MSF has studied the optimum staff to children ratio? Are there plans to further reduce the current ratio to ensure that each child has sufficient individualised care and attention?
Does MSF have plans to provide more funding to VWOs running a “place of safety”?
Avoiding separating siblings in Places of Safety
Next, Allie and her two siblings were housed in Places of Safety. They were sent there on the same day but were separated as the place of safety Allie was sent to, didn’t have a place for her 2 brothers.
While I understand the logistical constraints, it brings about acute distress for a child to be separated from siblings, especially when they have already lost their parents. Children in crisis are at their most vulnerable. They feel fear, confusion, abandonment, worry and sadness. It is essential that they receive quick support and care, in stable conditions they can feel comfortable in.
Keeping Allie and her siblings together is the least we could do to create stability under such turbulent circumstances. This will help the VWOs running our “places of safety” as well.
In determining custody, and care and control of the children in divorce cases, the Court has stated that siblings should not be separated as far as possible. The Court considers this to be a factor in considering the welfare of the children.
Will the Minister consider adopting the policy position that siblings should not be separated where possible when making decisions about where children go when sent to a “place of safety”?
Avoiding a change of school
Allie was also removed from her school as they wanted to send her to a school nearer to the “place of safety”. Again, I understand the logistical constraints but I hope that we can allow a child to remain in his or her school after they have been sent to a “place of safety”.
I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Allie to go to a new primary school, try to make new friends, maybe even answer questions by her classmates on why she is there and I hope not but maybe even be laughed at.
I hope that MSF will consider this recommendation positively.
Breaking the intergenerational offending cycle
Next, intergenerational patterns of incarceration is a recognised phenomenon. Breaking this vicious cycle has been included as a goal in many efforts to support inmates and ex-offenders in Singapore. For example, addressing the intergenerational offending cycle is a key objective of Family Resource Centres, which support inmates’ families.
This pattern of incarceration can start at an early age. Whilst children homes are intended to be safe places for the protection of vulnerable children, the roots of intergenerational incarceration may also begin here. We will not know until we have studied the problem.
Can the Ministry share if it collects data on how many children who enter a “place of safety” later enter the boys’ or girls’ homes, and later on even prisons?
I started my speech with Allie’s story and I wish to end this part of the speech with her story too. In putting Allie in a “place of safety”, we took her away from her home, her siblings, and everything that she was used to. We put her in a dormitory and expect her to be rehabilitated in the process.
Do we know whether doing this will lead to better outcomes for the children? I have seen how Allie has changed from her time at the “place of safety”, and it breaks my heart.
And I know this has not worked for her brother. While in a “place of safety”, he was caught housebreaking and was sent to a Boys’ Home.
I urge the Ministry to track and study the effectiveness of our “place of safety”. We need data to measure the effectiveness of our programmes and ensure that our policies work and work well. We need to provide more help to the VWOs who run our “places of safety”.
Allowing persons-in-charge of homes to use mechanical restraints
Lastly, the new section 68A allows persons-in-charge of homes for children and young persons to use mechanical restraints such as handcuffs. This is intended to prevent children in the homes from escaping custody or from inflicting bodily injury on themselves.
This seems incompatible with our shift to a more rehabilitative approach. I understand that there might be circumstances where there is a genuine need to physically restrain the children. Our children’s homes are already staffed by auxiliary officers. They are in a better position to step in if necessary.
There should be a clear distinction between the roles of the staff and auxiliary officers. Staff of the children’s homes should be nurturing figures who are there to protect, not restraint the children.
Imagine the psychology effect on children to see the staff using handcuffs on them and their friends. Can we maintain this separation by increasing the number of auxiliary officers if necessary so that the staff do not have to take on this role?
It is often said that our children are our hope for the future. Children who are put in Places of Safety because of circumstances beyond their control have the same potential as any other child, and are no less deserving of care and attention. Let’s make sure that we can give them the safe environment to break free of their unfortunate circumstances and to grow into their full potential. Let’s make sure we help the children and also improve support and resources provided to the VWOs running our “places of safety”
Notwithstanding the above queries, I stand in support of this Bill.
Watch the speech here
Watch response by MSF here