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Mon, Feb 17, 2014
The Straits Times
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Parents get help to avoid child abuse
by Theresa Tan

For the past two weeks, social worker Siti Noor Adilla has been waking up early to be at the flat of a single-parent father by 6am.

Once there, she shows him how to wake his five children for school. Switch on the lights. Call their names. Call them again. Shake the ones who don't move, she says.

When it comes to parenting, the man, an odd-job worker in his 30s, appears clueless.

His wife, who wants a divorce, left him and the children, aged between five and 13.

So when he went to work, he would leave the children at home and if they did not wake up for school, they didn't go.

Money was tight, food was short, and the father and children landed in a shelter for homeless families.

The children's schools, concerned by their poor attendance and lack of supervision at home, alerted a family service centre and the Ministry of Social and Family Development was told it could be a case of child abuse.

The family was referred to Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre, one of two groups the ministry has asked to handle child abuse cases. It has taken on about 100 cases since June last year.

Ms Adilla, a social worker at the centre, said the father had to be taught how to guide and supervise his children. "If his children said they were tired, he would say they could sleep and not go to school," she said.

While child abuse is usually associated with physical or sexual violence, neglect is also a form of abuse, Big Love centre director Theresa Wee said.

A quarter of the cases referred to Big Love involved neglect, though about two in three involved parents who hit, kicked, punched or used belts and canes on their children.

Ms Wee said a child is neglected when his basic needs for food, shelter or guidance are not met. "Neglect usually involves a lack of supervision, like when the kids play truant and their parents don't care. They lose out to their peers by not going to school and this affects their well-being in the long run," she said.

Last year the ministry began using two social service agencies to help with less serious cases of child abuse, such as those involving neglect or inappropriate discipline like excessive caning. Besides Big Love, Fei Yue Family Service Centre is the other child protection specialist centre. The ministry still manages the more serious cases.

Social workers said that having two specialist centres to work on these cases meant more resources and manpower to protect children, and hopefully, fewer cases would fall through the cracks.

Mr Alfred Tan, executive director of the Singapore Children's Society, said people may be more willing to work with a charity to report and stop the abuse, than go directly to the authorities.

The latest data on the ministry's website showed that it investigated 247 cases of child abuse in 2012, up from 176 in 2008. Most involved either physical or sexual abuse.

At Big Love, eight in 10 alleged perpetrators are the children's birth parents. The rest are step-parents, the parents' partners and other relatives.

Most are from poor families, almost half are single-parent homes, and many face financial, marital and other problems.

For the cases Big Love handles, the parents are usually not taken to court unless they continue abusing their children, said Ms Wee.

Instead, social workers work with parents to identify and deal with the problems or stresses that might have led to the abuse. This often means counselling and teaching them various skills, including anger management and good parenting. The children are also counselled and given the help that they need.

As for the homeless father of five, he has learnt to wake his children himself and they are also showing up in school regularly, Ms Adilla said.

She is working with the children's teachers to get them more school support, on top of finding financial and other help for the family.

Ms Wee said: "Most of the parents we see stop the abuse when we intervene, as many have no intention to hurt their child."

From hostility to trust

A relative caught the woman punching her three-year-old daughter, and found what looked like cigarette burn marks on the girl's body.

She reported the abuse to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, and the case was referred to Big Love (Child Protection Specialist Centre), a social service agency under the Montfort Care group.

Social workers contemplated removing the child from her parents' care, at least temporarily. Madam Han Yah Yee, group director of social services at Montfort Care, said: "The mum was ranting and yelling at us at first. She would question us, asking who we were to intervene.

"But our social worker took the time to build a relationship with her, to build trust, by spending a lot of time talking, cajoling and checking on her until she was willing to work with us, so we didn't remove the girl. We have to be very patient with parents."

The woman, in her 30s with two older children, had an explosive temper. She suspected her odd-job worker husband of cheating on her, and they had money problems too.

She was helped through counselling to cope with her mood swings and was taught some parenting skills, including how to discipline her children appropriately. She also accepted advice to place her daughter in a childcare centre.

Madam Han said there has been no further sign of abuse, though the woman is still sorting out her marital problems.

Mum's disappearing acts

The woman would disappear for days on end, sometimes for up to a week, leaving her 14-year-old son to care for his 12-year-old brother.

Their father, believed to be working abroad, was largely absent from their lives.

The mother, in her 40s, said she went to work for short stints in Malaysia but was tight-lipped about her job.

In her absence, the older boy would cook for his brother and do their laundry. The boys attended school regularly, but the younger one struggled to keep his temper in check and fought with his classmates.

They were also fearful that their mother would abandon them.

When their mother went to a family service centre to ask for financial aid, social workers found out about her disappearing acts and made a report to the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

The case was referred to Big Love (Child Protection Specialist Centre).

Big Love social worker Jean Lim said: "She would hurt and reject the boys emotionally by calling them degrading names, and say things like, 'you shouldn't have been born' and 'you are not my son'. Our concern was that she was neglecting her sons and psychologically abusing them."

She is now helping the mother deal with her emotional problems, which stemmed from marital conflicts with her estranged husband and the stresses of being a single mother.

The younger boy is receiving help for his anger problems too.

New charity set up

A new charity, Montfort Care, has been set up to oversee all the agencies and programmes that have grown out of the Marine Parade Family Service Centre (FSC).

The FSC started in 2000 to serve families in need, and expanded its range of services and programmes over the years.

It added another FSC in Telok Blangah, known as @27 Family Service Centre; Goodlife!, a centre running programmes for seniors to promote their well-being; and YAH! Community College, which runs gerontology and other courses for seniors.

It started the Big Love (Child Protection Specialist Centre) last year, to help abused children and their families.

Now all the centres and programmes connected with the Catholic-run group will come under Montfort Care, which was launched yesterday.

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