Singapore

Horror at home: Most child abuse cases here involve caretakers

In almost all child sexual abuse cases here, the attacker was someone who was supposed to protect the minor 
 | Reports by SEOW YUN RONG and CHAI HUNG YIN

For 10 years, Mary was sexually assaulted by her father.

He may be in prison but she is locked up in her own personal hell coping with the trauma.

Two recent cases of sexual assault against children highlight a worrying statistic.

In 2014, the State Courts' figures show that 272 sexual crimes were filed.

Of the cases dealt with by the criminal courts, 76 involved a minor.

In 90 per cent of the cases, the attacker was someone who was supposed to protect the child, say counsellors and lawyers.

There is another worrying trend - an upsurge in the number of alleged attacks.

The highest number of child sexual abuse cases between 2008 to 2014 was 50, according to figures by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

That was in 2012.

There were 64 cases of alleged sexual abuse investigated between January to September this year, MSF told The New Paper on Sunday.

This time, in every single case, the alleged perpetrator was a family member or someone residing in the same household as the victim.

"Cases like these always involve trust, and when it comes to a caretaker, the child will be more inclined to listen to him or her," says Dr Carol Balhetchet, clinical psychologist and senior director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.

Why does it keep happening?

"Usually the cause comes from the opportunity the perpetrator has," says Dr Lim Boon Leng, consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital.

"The perpetrator will always find easy targets who can be easily manipulated, such as a child who is always alone or lives in the same house."

He says sexual abuse or assaults occur across all groups, be they ethnic, racial, socio-economic or religious.

Clinical psychologist Matilda Chew says it is a myth that abuse is more likely to happen in low-income families.

She says: "There is an equal chance of child sexual abuse occurring in any group and in fact, lower socio-economic families tend to be more authentic in recognising the need for help."

She adds that these families prioritise their children's safety and feel that it will not affect their families' reputation.

In conservative Asian families, there is a lower chance of parents speaking to their children about sex.

Ms Chew says: "Usually it wouldn't occur to Asian families to educate their children about sex at such a young age.

"And this, in turn, causes the children to be very unaware about the difference between good touch and bad touch."

This leads to victims being unaware and letting the abuse go on for years without telling anyone as they have no knowledge that what is happening to them is wrong.

Another cultural factor involves males being the breadwinners of their families.

Dr Lim says that almost 100 per cent of child sexual abuse cases involve male abusers and about 80 per cent of the victims are female.

He says: "In Asian culture, the husband is usually the breadwinner and pillar of the family… Children are taught to respect him as a father figure."

"So when the wife finds out he has been sexually abusing a child in the family, in most cases, she will try to protect the husband to avoid breaking up the family.

"And the child will obey as he or she will not question authority."

He adds that if the wife depends on the husband as the main source of income, there is a "greater motivation to stay in denial and even disbelieve the child to protect him".

He says that nine out of 10 young victims try to seek help, but the adults do not believe them.

IMPACT

Dr Balhetchet says there are three main impacts on the children: guilt, self-blame and betrayal.

For guilt and self-blame, it will involve the children thinking about why such a thing happened to them and what they did to cause it.

For cases that involve a caretaker being the abuser, the child will feel betrayed as he or she would have trusted the caretaker. Dr Balhetchet says: "When the wife tries to protect the perpetrator husband, it is even worse because it is double betrayal for the child."

She adds that the child will be scarred mentally, and he or she will have self-esteem issues and also distrust adults, even his or her future partner.

In the cases reported in the media, the men were jailed between 10 to 20 years.

But like Mary, the victims' punishment lasts a lifetime.

Educate children, rehabilitate offenders

Sex education should start with parents and caregivers.

Clinical psychologist Matilda Chew says children need to be told what is wrong contact at an early age.

"It is important for parents and caregivers to educate children about good touch and bad touch as early as possible because the younger the child, the more vulnerable the child is to sexual abuse."

Due to the conservative nature of Asians, some parents may not be inclined to speak to their children about sex, and this causes the children to be unaware of sexual abuse.

A Ministry of Social and Family Development spokesman says parents can do the following to keep their children safe:

  • Talk to them about sexuality and sexual abuse in age-appropriate terms. "Parents are the best people to educate their child so that the information is aligned with the family's religious, cultural and moral values," she says.
  • Be involved in their lives - know where they are and communicate openly and frequently with them.
  • Be available by creating a safe space and empowering them to talk about child sexual abuse.

"Research and clinical practice find that it is not helpful to avoid the issue as it may worsen the child's emotional state. A child's recovery is highly dependent on the caregiver's support," she says.

Children are often reluctant to talk about sexual abuse as they may be afraid of the perpetrators' threats, that they will be blamed or not believed, that their families will get upset or break up, or that they will be removed from their families.

"It is therefore important for parents to remain calm if their child reveals that he or she has been sexually abused," she says.

If the child raises this, parents should:

  • Communicate that they believe the child and emphasise that he or she is not to blame.
  • Praise the child for being brave and for reporting the abuse.
  • Protect the child by reporting it to the authorities and ensure that the child does not have unsupervised contact with the perpetrator.
  • Get professional help especially if there are concerns about the child's functioning.
  • Reassure the child and update on what will happen next, especially with regard to legal action.

Report the case and seek help from counsellors or psychologists

Ms Chew says this will greatly increase the chances of the child being able to trust people again and having a better social life.

Rehabilitate offenders

Criminal lawyer Nadia Moynihan says offenders who show signs of mental illnesses or psychosexual conditions should undergo rehabilitation before being allowed to return to society.

"If rehabilitation for the offender is done well, the chances of repeating the crime is slim."

Implement sex education in schools at an earlier age

Child sexual abuse survivor Erin Merryn, 30, who has a law named after her, has been lobbying for the law to be passed in all the states in the US.

The law, dubbed Erin's Law in January 2010, requires all public schools to implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse programme where children of preschool age and above are educated on safe and unsafe touch, safe and unsafe secrets, and how to get away and tell today if they are being sexually abused.

Value consent and respect children's rights

Aware's programmes and communications senior manager Jolene Tan says: "We need to build a culture that values consent and respects the rights of children to make decisions about their bodies." 

Sex education in schools can play a big role in promoting a culture of consent, she notes.

Moreover, young people should be taught that they do not always need to defer to older people and authority figures, especially when it comes to their own bodies, she adds.

"We should also listen to and support young people who speak up about their experiences. 

"Sometimes, young people who tell family members or friends about abuse encounter judgment and shaming instead of support, making it harder for them to seek help or to hold perpetrators accountable."

Dealing with abuse

Clinical psychologist Matilda Chew has treated 13 child sexual abuse victims in the past three years.

She describes the ordeal suffered by three of the victims. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

ABUSED FOR 10 YEARS

Mary was sexually abused even before she was in primary school.

By the time the assaults were reported, she was already a teenager and had been sexually abused by her father for over 10 years.

To get through the pain, Mary often cut herself and took up smoking. She also developed an eating disorder.

Ms Chew says: "She could not regulate her emotions well and would always run away as she could not trust anyone."

Even after two years of treatment, her condition could not improve significantly because of the long-term abuse.

BETRAYED BY STEPDAD

John was only nine years old when his primary school teacher noticed he was drawing pictures of genitals.

He was sent to see Ms Chew and she learnt that his stepfather had been sexually abusing him for over two years.

Ms Chew says John looked up to his stepfather and never imagined the man would do anything to harm him.

She says: "He didn't even know he was sexually abused until he came to me after over two years.

"Boys tend to hide their feelings more because they are nurtured to be strong and brave since young."

TOLD TO KEEP QUIET

Jane was seven and came from a middle- to high-income family.

Although she was sexually abused by her uncle, her grandparents told her parents not to make a police report to protect the familial ties and reputation of the family.

The case went unreported but the young girl was sent to Ms Chew.

Ms Chew says: "In a situation like this, the child would not question authority because he or she has been brought up to listen to the parents and be afraid of the police.

"With such a young mind under such circumstances, it is very hard for the child to string a timeline of events and articulate the words for the police."

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