April 26, 2009
Lifting shroud of shame over child sex abuse
Number of child sexual abuse cases reported has shot up, and actual figures could be much higher
By Radha Basu
In the dead of night, ever so often, 13-year-old Michelle's stepfather would come into her room to squeeze her breasts. He even tried to rape her, saying it was payment for the 'care' she received in his home.
The girl was also caned and slapped repeatedly by her stepfather for no reason, until bruises on her arms prompted her maternal grandparents to take her to a doctor.
Gentle prompting by the doctor revealed not just the extent of her physical battery but also the appalling secret she had harboured for eight long months - that she was a victim of sexual abuse.
Michelle, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, now lives with her aunt and, thanks to therapy and her caring grandparents and teachers, is on the road to recovery.
The shroud of shame that surrounds child sex abuse - particularly where a child is abused at home or by family members - is slowly being lifted.
Last year, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) found evidence of abuse in about 50 cases, up from 15 in 2000.
The figures from MCYS, made available to The Sunday Times, also show that the proportion of sexual abuse cases has risen sharply, accounting for nearly 45 per cent of all abuse cases detected last year, up from 25 per cent in 2000.
These figures, however, pertain only to cases where the child is abused by a family member at home, faces the risk of prolonged abuse, and may even need to be removed from home.
The overall data on how many child sex abuse cases are registered here is kept by the police, who declined to disclose the numbers given the 'sensitive nature of the information'.
A Children's Society report, quoting Ministry of Home Affairs figures, indicated an average of 240 cases of child sexual abuse were registered every year between 1999 and 2002, including the 'intra-familial abuse cases' that are followed up by MCYS.
While more sexual abuse cases are coming to light, family violence counsellors such as Mr Benny Bong feel the MCYS numbers are the 'tip of the iceberg'.
The president of advocacy group Society Against Family Violence believes that the real number of cases could be three to four times higher than the numbers reported to the police.
He cited a 2003 MCYS study in which eight in 10 respondents said they felt most people here would be reluctant to report family violence to the police.
A study in Malaysia, added Mr Bong, showed that 8 per cent of women and 2 per cent of men surveyed reported having been sexually abused as a child. He believes that Singapore needs a similar 'prevalence' study to shed light on what the numbers could be like.
'It is the responsibility of the authorities to want to know what the situation really is on the ground,' he said.
'If this were a disease outbreak, do you think we could plan intervention without even knowing for sure what the real numbers are?'
No in-depth studies are currently under way to determine the true extent of the problem. An MCYS spokesman said that in the absence of a formal study, it is hard to pinpoint why the number of cases - particularly those involving sexual abuse - has shot up.
But 'evidence on the ground' suggests that it could be because of increased public awareness and more avenues for help.
MCYS holds seminars, talks and training programmes regularly for teachers on child abuse, including courses for school counsellors and pre-school and trainee teachers.
About 70 per cent of the sexual abuse reports made to MCYS last year came throughschools, up from 35 per cent in 2004.
An alert school counsellor, Madam Juliana Johari, 40, has detected and reported eight sexual abuse victims over the past three years.
The most recent case late last year involved a 13-year-old girl who refused to go home after school every day.
She told teachers that she preferred to do her homework in school as there was no one at home.
But seeing how she would dawdle in school well into the evening, her teacher sought Madam Juliana's help to find out what was wrong.
After gentle yet persistent questioning, the girl revealed she was being molested by an acquaintance living with the family.
Madam Juliana informed the principal, who called the MCYS hotline for reporting child abuse, setting in motion a process that led to an investigation and the arrest and sentencing of the offender.
Regular talks and roadshows on child abuse and sex education also help, said Madam Juliana.
Two days after a talk by the Singapore Children's Society last year on what constitutes child abuse and how to stay safe, a student left a handwritten note to a teacher claiming that she had been 'touched in a bad way' by her divorced mother's boyfriend. That case has been resolved, with the offender serving out a jail sentence.
But she notes that because of a paucity of physical, tell-tale signs, sex abuse can be hard to detect.
Consultant psychiatrist Parvathy Pathy from the Institute of Mental Health, who has assessed more than 200 abused children over the past 15 years, agrees.
'Sexual abuse is a private, secret crime with disclosure delayed by months or even years,' she said.
The shame and stigma associated with sexual abuse are often deeper than for other forms of abuse. The result: Children feel embarrassed, damaged and guilty that they had somehow brought the crime upon themselves.
The scars are difficult to heal and some victims may behave in a 'highly sexualised' manner, dressing provocatively and appearing sexually precocious.
While greater awareness of the problem is leading to more reporting, Dr Parvathy believes that the actual number of cases may also be on the rise.
'There is a more casual attitude towards sex today, which may be giving predators more chances to attack,' she said. The easy availability of Internet porn is also aggravating the problem.
Finally, the proliferation of Internet chatrooms allows children to meet and befriend virtual strangers who may then go on to abuse them in person.
A recent trend, said Dr Parvathy, is abuse resulting from romantic relationships. It is not uncommon for a 13- or 14-year-old to have a boyfriend.
'There have been cases when the girls wanted to stop at cuddles and kisses but were coerced into sex and remain very angry about it.'
Ms Karen Sik, a senior psychologist with MCYS, says grooming of children by sex predators - a term used to describe behaviours to target and prepare children for abuse - is also common.
Tactics used include showing pornography to the child and talking about sexual topics.
So what can be done to improve the situation, both in preventing sex abuse and ensuring that if such crimes occur, the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice?
Dr Parvathy suggests an age-old approach. 'Parents need to be more alert and aware of what is happening in their children's lives,' she said.
Counsellor Bong wishes that it be made mandatory for frontline professionals, such as doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, social workers and counsellors, to report every case of suspected child abuse to the police or the child protection authorities.
Such laws, already in force in the United States, Canada and Australia, could help bring more sex fiends to justice and lower abuse rates.
VARIOUS FORMS OF CHILD ABUSE
What is child abuse?
According to the legal definition in Singapore, cruelty to children below 16 years of age, involving acts of maltreatment by an adult, resulting in unnecessary suffering or injury to health or well-being of the victim, would be construed as child abuse.
This can take several forms:
§ Physical abuse: involves physical injury to a child that is non-accidental and includes violence.
§ Sexual abuse: involves sexual activity with a child by an adult, including suggestive or inappropriate behaviour or comments directed towards a child's private parts.
§ Emotional abuse: any behaviour by a parent of caregiver that destroys a child's confidence in himself or herself.
§ Physical neglect: when a child does not receive adequate food, shelter, medical care or supervision.
§ Emotional neglect: when a child is subjected to wilful cruelty or unjustifiable punishment such as being ignored.
Source: Singapore Children's Society
Abused as a child, he turned abuser
Ask property consultant Sam about his earliest memories and he shocks with his answer.
'It's about my father - half drunk, beating the daylights out of me and my brother,' said the burly man.
'It happened nearly every day.'
His mother, a 'traditional Indian housewife', rarely interfered in the violence, for fear of being walloped herself.
Another of Sam's early memories: his mother's limp body lying in a pool of blood after she was beaten up by his father, as his neighbour frantically called for an ambulance.
Sam, 42, who wanted to be known only by his first name, finally snapped when he was around 16. When his father threatened him with a knife, he kicked him hard and sent him flying across the room. 'I realised suddenly that I could fight back,' he said.
Sadly, that incident marked the beginning of a chapter when the abused turned abuser.
After he got his degree, met his accountant wife, now 37, in church and settled down to fatherhood, he frequently screamed at her.
Four times over a span of nine years, he hit her. But he refused to recognise that this was abuse as 'none of her bones were broken', he said. 'Now I know that whatever the extent, abuse is abuse.'
Finally, after he hit her on the head with a pair of sandals in early 2007 after an argument about who would take their six-year-old son to school, she applied for a personal protection order.
The mandatory counselling sessions that followed helped Sam. Today, he is not only reformed but also serves as a counsellor to abusive men.
Physical abuse continues to be the most common form of child abuse in Singapore - there were 56 cases detected by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) last year, up from 34 in 2000.
Overall, the number of child abuse cases is on the rise - from 61 in 2000 to 114 last year.
MCYS figures reflect only cases where children are below 16. But a growing trend, said senior social worker Seah Kheng Yeow, is that more children in their late teens are coming in to report physical abuse by their parents.
These teenagers are above 16 and therefore outside the purview of the Children and Young Person's Act or CYPA, which metes out stiff penalties for all types of child abuse here.
Some want personal protection orders against their parents, but being below 21, they cannot apply for PPOs by themselves.
'Our social workers usually call in the parents for counselling and, if need be, help the child to apply for a PPO,' said Ms Seah, who heads the family development department at the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Family Violence (Pave).
With Singapore in the throes of recession, counsellors are worried that cases of physical neglect - which fell from 11 in 2000 to seven cases last year - may be on the rise.
Last October, school counsellor Judy Lie, 54, was referred to an eight-year-old girl who turned up at school looking tired, sleepy and unkempt.
'Her hair was not brushed, her uniform was unwashed and crumpled,' remembered Ms Lie. When the child could not explain what was wrong, Ms Lie and a colleague visited her home.
They learnt that her father, the sole breadwinner who worked in a hardware shop, had recently lost his job. He could not afford to give her $1 a day to buy food in school.
Ms Lie helped her receive an allowance from The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund and arranged for subsidised tuition to help her cope with her studies. The family, who lives in a two-room rental flat, was also referred to the Southeast Community Development Council for financial assistance.
Things are looking up now, with the girl's father having found a part-time job.
Said Ms Lie: 'With the economy worsening, we need to look out for more such cases.'
How to spot abuse and what to do
Warning signs that a child may be suffering sexual abuse
§ Sudden refusal to go home after school or sudden refusal to communicate with a caregiver.
§ Bruises, abrasions and burns, which could be a sign of physical abuse.
§ Sudden absenteeism from school.
§ Gradual regression from social and class activities.
§ Dip in academic performance.
§ Any sudden change in behaviour - like a child who had previously been happy and active suddenly becoming quiet, depressed or unduly angry.
§ Loss of appetite or difficulty sleeping or performing routine chores.
§ Behaviour that is inappropriate to the child's age - like if she suddenly starts narrating 'sex stories' to peers.
How to react if you suspect abuse
§ Do not appear shocked or incredulous, or scold the child.
§ Reassure the child that he or she is safe with you and can talk to you.
§ Do not ask leading questions.
Suspect potential child abuse? Call the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports Child Protection Service Helpline 1800-258-6378 during office hours, or a Neighbourhood Police Post after office hours.