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HomesingaporeDifficult to identify child abuse when parents 'actively choose to conceal' signs:...

Difficult to identify child abuse when parents 'actively choose to conceal' signs: Social workers

SINGAPORE: Despite the best efforts of the Child Protective Service (CPS) to ensure a child’s safety after they return from foster care to their biological family, it is “not possible to guarantee” that a parent will never harm their child again.

Some parents might “actively choose to conceal” signs of abuse when CPS officers or social workers visit them at home, senior principal social worker at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) Yogeswari Munisamy told CNA on Wednesday (Oct 4).

The foster care system has come under the spotlight after a recent spate of child abuse cases came before the courts.

The most recent high-profile case involved a two-year-old victim known as Umaisyah, whose charred remains were found in a metal pot. Her father, a 35-year-old Singaporean, was sentenced last month to 21-and-a-half years in jail and 18 strokes of the cane for killing her.

Umaisyah was placed in foster care in November 2011 when she was three to four months old, as her father had been detained in a drug rehabilitation centre and her mother was deemed unable to take care of her.

She was returned to her parents’ custody in June 2013, and the girl was abused until her death in March 2014. Her killing went undiscovered for more than five years.

Questions were raised online about how she may have fallen through the cracks. MSF said it is unable to provide more information on the specific case as her mother’s case is pending before the courts.

Ms Yogeswari said that child protection work is “very complex” and detecting child abuse can be difficult if parents are not upfront.

“Even though we do everything that is needed, and we make visits, we try to engage the parents and all, but when there’s intentional concealing, then it does make it a challenge to actually see the child or support the child,” she said.

REGULAR VISITS AT LEAST ONCE A MONTH

After a foster child returns to live with their family of origin, regular safety checks and monitoring are carried out for at least 12 months, with the exact duration of this support depending on the needs of the family in each case, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said in a written parliamentary reply on Tuesday.

Related:

Commentary: Killed by her father – remember Umaisyah’s name as we learn lessons from her tragic death

Timeline: Killing of 2-year-old girl that went undiscovered for years, her remains left in a pot

Mother, stepfather admit abusing 11-year-old daughter, who died from head injuries

These regular visits, usually conducted by social workers from family service centres (FSC), must happen at least once a month, said Ms C Amutha, deputy head of Punggol FSC.

Social workers must be able to “sight the child” during these visits – and there are detailed ways of doing so under tightened protocols that now require them to physically see the child, added Ms Yogeswari.

For instance, where physical abuse is concerned, social workers will ask a child to roll up their sleeves or remove their hoodie.

In a court hearing in February, a mother and a stepfather admitted to abusing their 11-year-old daughter, who died from head injuries.

The girl suffered various forms of abuse, including being struck repeatedly with an exercise bar and being forced to eat chilli until she vomited.

Before her death, a CPS officer had requested to speak to the girl but was rejected. When the officer finally got to speak to the girl in a video-call, she was wearing long-sleeved pyjamas and was told by her parents to sit in a dark location.

The girl died about a month later. At the time, she weighed only 20kg and an autopsy found multiple injuries, including fractures of her skull, bruises all over her body, broken ribs, bite marks and blunt force injuries.

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Ms Amutha said FSC social workers usually go for home visits in pairs, and they interview the child and parents separately. Social workers sometimes make “surprise home visits”, she added.

“Because when you schedule visits, (parents) can also prepare. We mix that up with unscheduled visits,” she explained.

If social workers face challenges in sighting a child or are blocked from seeing a child, the case is surfaced to the CPS.

They also approach other parties such as the school, a family friend or a relative to ask whether anyone has seen the child and to provide feedback.

“I think we learn from every case … there’s no way I think we can say 100 per cent we can be assured that nothing is going to go wrong,” said Ms Amutha.

“But what’s important is there are processes and systems in place to minimise, as much as possible, such occurrences, and the reporting back and close networking with CPS remains.

“Of course with every case, unfortunate as it is, then it’s also for us to then learn from that and see what else we need to do to close up the gaps.”

WHEN CPS IS ALERTED TO A CASE

Anyone can anonymously tip off the authorities to a possible child abuse case by calling the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline.

In 2021, CPS investigated 2,141 cases of child abuse – 63 per cent more than the 1,313 cases in 2020.

When the CPS is alerted to a case, its officers first gather information from the FSC and from other avenues to get a “full picture” of what is happening. They also look for any signs of immediate danger and safety concerns.

In some cases, CPS may find that the family can continue with a community agency, for example, a child protection specialist agency or an FSC.

When CPS takes on a case, it will meet with family members.

“We will also engage a professional network and do a detailed safety plan (that can) address all these concerns (about) why the child came to us,” said Ms Yogeswari.

Following the safety plan and building the family’s support network is “very critical”. If the safety plan is breached, it becomes a concern and CPS might have to exercise its powers to remove a child.

“We look at severity. For example, the recurrence of the harm is very serious. If it’s a sexual abuse case (and) we already set the safety plan, the person who perpetrated cannot come into the house. But the person came into the house and even had access to the child. Those are very critical points,” she said.

Ms Yogeswari noted that the safety plan is “a very collaborative process”, and may involve people outside the family, such as a relative, neighbours or the school.

If the family is able to work together – such as having a “protective parent” care for the child while the other parent moves out or a grandparent steps in – CPS can still preserve the child’s relationship with their family. In some instances, parents voluntarily step forward to ask for help with caring for a child.

But if such avenues are unavailable or there are breaches of the safety plan, a child may be placed under alternative care, such as foster care.

RESIDENTIAL CARE “THE LAST RESORT”

If there are no suitable foster parents, out-of-home or residential care is “really the last resort”, said Ms Soh Ying Si, deputy manager of the social care team at Melrose Home.

The residential home, which is run by the Children’s Aid Society, is for vulnerable children and youths from seven to 21 years old. Its youngest resident is currently eight years old.

“I think the adjustment and grief and adapting (to) why they have to be in a residential care setting, for the kids … it’s actually the most difficult part. Because often times they will blame themselves for reporting the harm that (took them) out of their home,” explained Ms Soh.

“And sometimes they may also struggle: ‘I’m not the one who did something wrong. So why do I have to leave home and lose freedom in that sense?’

“But I think working with kids with traumatised backgrounds, we also know that they do need a more structured and consistent setting to help them in their healing journey.”

To help children in residential homes understand their situation, social workers may engage in “life story work”, said Ms Yogeswari, referring to social work intervention designed to help individuals with their past, present and future. 

“But it is very hard emotionally, that’s why you see behaviours. But we try to attempt to talk to the child about this narrative.”

“VERY CLEAR EVIDENCE” NEEDED TO REMOVE CHILD

Umaisyah’s case also raised questions about the enforcement powers that the CPS has when a child is absent from school.

When the Ministry of Education contacted Umaisyah’s biological parents in December 2017 to check why the girl had not registered for Primary 1, her mother lied that her estranged husband had taken the child away, while her father lied that the girl was being cared for in Malaysia.

During a parliamentary sitting in March, MSF had said that a student’s absence from school alone is not “sufficient grounds” for CPS to invoke its powers under the Children and Young Persons Act. This is because non-attendance could be due to “many other reasons”.

Ms Soh, who spent five years in the CPS, said there are circumstances when a child protection officer has “very clear evidence and suspicion”, as well as corroboration with other professionals on what’s happening. The child protection officer can make a case to remove the child from their family.

This is presented to a supervisor and a decision is made by the CPS whether to remove a child from their parents’ care.

“And of course, if there are, for example, issues with the removal process, then that’s when we will also call police for assistance,” said Ms Soh.

With children below seven, Ms Yogeswari said that childcare teachers have been trained to spot signs of possible abuse or notice when a child has gone missing.

If a family is in the system for any reason and they have a child below the age of seven who is not in preschool, FSCs will encourage and support preschool placement to “help and increase safety”, added Ms Amutha.

“If they’re not known to anyone at all, then that might be a dangerous situation.”

Related:

Advice from experts on how to spot signs of child abuse that go beyond physical marks and bruises

Commentary: Why child sexual abuse can often be a sustained, hushed up ordeal over many years

REUNITING PARENT AND CHILD

When a child is removed from their family of origin, the goal is to reunite them.

Some families are reunited within 12 months, while others may take on average up to three years. The process “doesn’t happen overnight”, said Ms Soh.

It usually starts with supervised home visits by child protection officers or home social workers to ensure that “basic safety” is established. It then progresses to supervised outings with parent and child, before moving on to unsupervised outings.

If things go well, it may progress to home leave – where a child is allowed to return home for one night a week at the start.

During this period, neighbours, relatives and family friends may come in as “safe adults” to ensure nothing happens during the home leave, added Ms Soh. The number of days at home is increased until the family is reunited.

“So at any point of time, if anything happens, then the case has to be reviewed – whether it’s suitable to proceed, or it has to backtrack all the way to ground zero.”

Throughout the process, the child’s opinions are important – CPS officers will ask them about their wishes, Ms Yogeswari added.

Foster care workers also meet with the foster parents and the child. These visits serve as “very important checkpoints”, said an MSF spokesperson.

They will ask if the foster parents have noticed any impact on the child and if they are happy after coming back from time with their family of origin.

“Especially when they move to unsupervised access, there are even more check-ins that foster care workers can do with the foster parents,” added the spokesperson.

Ultimately, whether a child is allowed to return to live with their parents depends on the parents.

When reunification cannot happen, a “large part is really because (parents) are unable” to show progress, noted an MSF spokesperson.

“How parents respond to the plans that we place is actually very important and critical, because a large part of this depends on how they (are) participating. Are they actually understanding the safety concerns, the child protection concerns that we have for them?” she said.

“And how willing are they as well to work with the professionals? Is it that they are attending counselling, or they have to go for their mental health appointments, or any other services that are very targeted at improving their own capacity and ability to provide safe care for the child?

“If they are willing and (are) able to do that very consistently, that’s demonstrated over time, and progress will be noted. And that’s where things can progress to the reunification.”

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