11-year-old girl traumatised by debt collectors
Primary school pupil has traumatic stress reactions after debt collectors plagued her family night after night
The angry banging and loud voices at the door would go on for hours.
"Open the door! Owe money pay money!" the men would shout, calling for her mother or father.
For 11-year-old Eileen (not her real name), the confrontations between the debt collectors and her family have turned her life upside down.
Close to tears, she tells The New Paper on Sunday: "I thought my life was going okay.
"I thought my family was doing okay until all this happened."
Licensed debt collectors had been going to the home from January to March this year to collect on a debt which the family is disputing.
They would go to the family's four-room Housing Board flat in the western part of Singapore.
Sometimes Eileen is alone, other times she is with her 67-year-old grandmother, who suffers from an anxiety disorder.
Cases like Eileen's are not new here. The Singapore Children's Society says it has noticed that more children are being affected by their parents' financial woes recently. (See report on facing page.)
Eileen, a Primary 5 pupil, says: "I am very scared because they shout very loud. Even though I know they can't come in, I am still scared.
"I find a place to hide, usually behind grandma. I hold her hand. She is very frightened too."
They often appear in the evening when she is doing her homework or resting after school. They stay for hours each time.
In one incident on March 29, her frustrated father, 44, opened the door and confronted the debt collectors, resulting in a vulgarity-laden shouting match.
Eileen used a mobile phone to record the incident. She broke down into loud sobs as she eventually ran away from the commotion.
She watched her grandfather, who is 69 and has a history of heart problems and stroke, kneel and beg the debt collectors to leave.
The debt collectors have since stopped going to the home after the family got a temporary court order against them over their use of vulgarities.
But the damage has been done.
In early April, Eileen was admitted to KK Women's and Children's Hospital for "traumatic stress reactions following harassment by debt collectors". She now has to see a school counsellor.
"I have to tell the counsellor all about my fears. I feel very sad because I love my family a lot. I try to forget all these things but I cannot," she says.
A schoolmate who lives above her flat asked her why there were debt collectors at her home.
She says: "I didn't know what to say. I couldn't deny it because (the debt collectors) were shouting my unit number."
Her performance in school has slipped, triggering a letter from her form teacher.
The teacher wrote that Eileen was a pleasant class monitor and added: "Recently, she seems withdrawn and easily distracted during lessons.
"Some of her teachers even noticed her being depressed...
"As for her CCA, she did not attend one of the tests although she was well prepared for it."
Eileen does not understand the difference between loan sharks and the licensed debt collectors who have been visiting her flat.
Her father, a chicken rice seller and a former general contractor, says the debt collectors were hired to collect about $38,000 from his wife, 34, for contracts he claims are invalid.
He could go to court but was advised that the legal fees would exceed the claimed amount.
When asked if he was willing to bite the bullet and pay off the debt collectors to stop them from further affecting his family, especially his daughter, he says no.
He insists they do not deserve the money.
Says Eileen's father: "They speak so aggressively to us. Why would I let them speak to my wife?"
The director of the debt collecting firm blames the father for involving his daughter and family.
He says: "His wife's name is on the contract, and we could have talked outside the home amicably as we have done in many other cases.
"But he does not cooperate and chose to involve his entire family."
The director says his firm has researched the contracts and is satisfied by their authenticity.
"If he thinks he can dispute the claims, he can always take us to court."
But no one can deny the detrimental effect the situation has had on Eileen.
Says her father: "We have been trying to find a new place for my daughter but it hasn't worked out."
Her grandfather adds: "I am worried that this will impact my granddaughter for a lifetime.
"It took me 20 years to build this home - our sanctuary and haven. The debt collectors have converted this into a living hell."
"I am very scared because they shout very loud. Even though I know they can’t come in, I am still scared. I find a place to hide, usually behind grandma. I hold her hand. She is very frightened too."
— Eileen, 11
"His wife’s name is on the contract, and we could have talked outside the home amicably as we have done in many other cases. But he does not cooperate and chose to involve his entire family."
— The director of the debt collecting firm
Stress may have long-term effects
When the economy slows down, more children are affected as problems at home increase.
Since last year, the staff at Singapore Children's Society (SCS) have been seeing more cases of troubled children coming to them due to financial problems in the family.
Says its chief executive officer Alfred Tan: "Financial hardship is a major concern that we have.
"As the economy slows down, people get retrenched and that financial hardship can impact the children in the family."
Mr Tan could not provide statistics on such cases as SCS does not track if the lack of money is the root cause.
He explains: "It is complicated to track such figures. Financial problems often cause other issues.
"Typically, these money problems can result in tension in the family and fights at home."
But one thing is sure. As the economy dips, we can expect to see more cases like Eileen's, say Mr Tan.
He says a case like hers could have lifelong effects.
"Even at that age, 11-year-olds know they are not living in a perfect world, this stress can aggravate their situation and create greater tension between them and other people.
"This is a crucial period in her life when she needs to communicate with others and develop friendships."
Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, agrees that the "traumatic stress reactions" experienced by Eileen could have long-term effects.
Says Dr Wang: "An 11-year-old does not have the emotional maturity of an adult to deal with debt collectors, and so they experience trauma."
In such cases, he believes the parents need to get their act right before they can help the child.
"When debt collectors are at the door, the parents are probably not okay too. There is no point making empty promises to the child that everything will be okay and all right," he says.
"It is best to bring someone outside in to help, such as a counsellor or a social worker."