NMP Anthea Ong calls for an end to mechanical restraints, encourages more preemptive support programmes for troubled families and increase kinship care in foster system

On Tuesday (3 September), Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee presented the Children and Young Persons (Amendment) Bill for debate.

The proposed changes in the Act, which was last amended in 2011, include increasing the age limit to protect children below 18, instead of the current age of 16. This means authorities are given the rights to intervene and protect children under 18, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children.

If that is not all, the proposed amendment to section 68A of the Act, also allows the use of mechanical restraint on children and young persons by a person-in-charge of any home run by the Government.

On top of that, another change to the Act is the new Enhanced Care and Protection Order which permits the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and caregivers to children who are not in a home care to make day-to-day and substantive decisions – just like what a parent would do in a regular family setting, Mr Lee said.

MSF is also looking at changing the term of “Beyond Parental Control” to “Family Guidance Order”, as it wants to avoid blaming children for their troubled behaviour and follow the role of and dynamics that exist within a family.

Upon hearing his speech, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong said that she commends the Bill for increasing support for children and young persons up to 18 years old.

If that is not all, Ms Ong is also delighted that the Bill now includes emotional harm as a form of ill-treatment as it allows affected kids to be protected by the Bill and permits older youth offenders to have more rehabilitative options.

Despite the praises, Ms Only also raised a few concerns regarding the Bill which include removing the use of mechanical restraints on children, provide preemptive support programmes for troubled families, and pushes for kinship care in the foster care system.

Remove the use of mechanical restraints

Although the Bill includes emotional harm as a form of ill-treatment, but it also proposes the use of “mechanical restraints” like handcuffs, leg braces, flexi cuffs and other types of restraints on children and young persons.

The Bill proposed that officers from MSF who are working in youth homes to be allowed to use these restraints to double up the safety and security, as well as to avoid these youths from escaping, self-injuring or injuring others.

Ms Ong calls this “disturbing, especially given the psychological risks and effects on the use of physical restraints”.

She also asked if there will be any guidelines on the use of the mechanical restraints. If that’s not all, she also questioned if the restraints will be used after “less instructive methods have been applied and deemed ineffective” since there are other “therapeutic and trauma-informed alternatives as well as environmental interventions available”.

Replying to this, Mr Lee said in his closing speech that the restraints is necessary to “prevent escalation, escape or harm”.

He explained that the MSF Youth Homes will first use a “range of approaches to de-escalate, and manage the youth’s aggressive or violent behaviour”.

Some of the measure they will take include verbally de-escalate tensions, calm down their behaviour and persuade them to stop behaving aggressively.

“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),” he said.

“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. 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.”

Preemptive supports to be given to troubled families

In her argument, Ms Ong also pointed out the need to invest in families with difficulties in order to protect and support the children.

As an example, she highlighted a story of a single mother named Farhana who is struggling to raise her five children. Ms Ong said that the exhausted single mother sometimes resorts to physical methods on her children. This caused her eldest child to skip school regularly which resulted to the state intervening after they found out about the abuse.

As such, Farhana was asked to attend counselling and therapy session, which ended up causing more emotional distress and affected the psychosocial wellbeing of her children, Ms Ong explained.

“I would like to urge the Ministry to strongly consider providing preemptive support programmes for at-risk families before we get to the vicious trap that Farhana faced. Family service centres when working with families could suggest counselling or parenting courses if the staff are also trained to assess parenting capacity,” suggested Ms Ong.

In response to this, Mr Lee said that he agrees with Ms Ong’s suggestion as “vulnerable individuals and families sometimes face complex challenges and require the support of multiple agencies and community organisations to help them regain stability.”

As such, MSF has been working with its partners to change the country’s “social services, integrate service delivery and strengthen last-mile support”, he said.

Ms Ong also pointed out that “retention of relationship with extended family or significant people is critical” for a child or young persons’ identity to be preserved when they’re in a care placement outside the family.

This is because she said that research on family reunification found out that maintaining parent/family-child contact in the first six months of placement outside of family improves the chances of family reunification.

“I would like to propose that concerted effort be made to ensure contact time between siblings placed in different care placements – such as if one is in foster care and the other in residential care? In addition, we should extend family work intervention to the other sibling who is in the household to prevent further family separation and risk being referred to the care system in the future too,” Ms Ong added.

In reply to this, Mr Lee stressed that MSF tries its best to place siblings together as it helps to preserve their “relationship and allows them to support each other through difficult times”. However, he noted that at times they have to split the siblings 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,” he said.

He added, “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.”

Encourages kinship care in the country’s foster care system

Ms Ong mentioned in her speech that she applauds the extension of childcare and infant leave to foster parents in the proposed amendment in order to make fostering more accessible and recognised.

In fact, she noted that the demand for foster parents are higher now as more kids are placed in the foster care system.

However, Ms Ong calls for the need to include kinship care as nothing can replace “therapeutic elements” found in a family.

“First, we could reframe foster care to also include kinship care and incentivise keeping children within their families by extending the amendments to Section 27C to enable grandparents and next of kin, such as uncles and aunts, to childcare leave and unpaid infant care leave,” she recommended.

She added, “Second, I urge the Ministry to consider a tiered foster care system with tiered allowances based on the complexities. The amount a foster carer would receive then takes into account both the ‘placement type’, for example, care for children with special needs/disabilities alongside their ‘competence’ to provide care for the children.”

Lastly, Ms Ong also proposed “tax relief for foster carers as means of recognition and retention as well as an incentive for more potential families to apply to the fostering scheme as how the Australian government has incorporated tax exemptions into their fostering provisions.”

In response to this, Mr Lee said that the Ministry’s primary focus is to ensure the family stays intact, with safety plans in plans.

“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. 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,” he explained.

He added, “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.”

Prevention measures

Despite proposing different methods to protect children and young persons, Ms Ong highlighted that it’s equally important to “prevent delinquency and offending behaviours” among this young group of people.

She said that one of the main reasons for delinquency is the increase of mental health disorders among the younger generation. In fact, quoting a global study, Ms Ong said that it is revealed that young persons diagnosed with major depression are more inclined towards violence.

“Currently, the programmes and interactions for children and young persons by SSAs, schools and grassroots are designed based on offending behaviours and not on the risk factors such as mental health conditions. Can we create an inclusive environment by training community workers to identify and respond to these mental health risk factors as well?” she said.

In addition, she also said the community in which the child is raised is another contributing factor. “Community workers at Beyond Social Services facilitate competent communities in rental housing neighbourhoods across Singapore. They believe in engaging children and young persons in the longer term, and nurture family and community support around them,” Ms Ong noted.

Apart from Beyond Social Services, Ms Ong also mentioned Project Hearts in Nee Soon East as it encourages active citizenry among its residents. This projects allows children to feel like they’re part of the community, and their academic and play needs are met in a holistic way.

As such, she stressed that it takes a community to raise a child, and questioned “how can we enable more of such efforts that empower the community and therefore, our children and youths?”