MPs concerned about use of handcuffs, leg braces as restraints in youth homes
SINGAPORE — The move to use handcuffs, leg braces and flexi-cuffs on teens in youth homes at risk of escaping, causing self-injury or injury to others has raised the eyebrows of some Members of Parliament (MP).
SINGAPORE — Parliament on Wednesday (Sept 4) passed changes to a law that safeguards the welfare, care, protection and rehabilitation of children under 16, but not before several Members of Parliament (MP) had voiced their concerns about one particular aspect of it.
The point of contention: A proposal to use handcuffs, leg braces and flexi-cuffs on teens in youth homes at risk of escaping, causing self-injury or injury to others.
Five MPs expressed concerns about the psychological impact of using such measures on teens and questioned whether there will be procedures to prevent the abuse of power.
A total of 14 MPs engaged in the debate on the Bill to amend the Children and Young Persons Act, which was later passed with all changes intact.
The Act also supports children who have committed offences, as well as those who have been abused or neglected by their parents or caregivers.
The proposed changes to the Act — first introduced in 1949 and last amended in 2011 — include raising the age limit to cover children below 18, instead of the current age of 16.
This would allow the authorities to intervene and protect the safety of older children, with the change aligned with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Singapore is a signatory.
Although MPs supported the majority of the changes, some were troubled by the proposed change to use restraints against teens in youth homes displaying hostile behaviour.
The proposed amendment to section 68A of the Act, which refers to the use of restraint, would enable a person-in-charge of any home for children and young persons run by the Government to use a mechanical restraint on a person detained in the home.
Kicking off the debate on Tuesday evening, Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said in his speech that such a measure is needed to further enhance the safety and security in youth homes managed by his ministry.
The use of such restraints, he noted, would apply in situations where “youths continue to create a disturbance or taunt other residents”. He added that “such hostile behaviour, if not put to an end, can escalate quickly and compromise safety”.
Mr Lee pointed out that similar measures have been used in other countries such as Britain and some states in Australia for the same purpose of preventing escape, violence, self-injury or other incidents.
Nevertheless, the minister assured the House that there will be strict guidelines pertaining to the use of such restraints. Officers from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), he said, must be trained before they can be authorised to use the restraints.
He also stressed that the restraints will not be used as punitive measures but to ensure the safety and security of both the youth and those around the individual.
“Our officers are also trained to de-escalate conflicts among residents and prevent incidences of escape, self-harm or injury to others using other safe intervention methods where possible,” he added.
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF USING RESTRAINTS
Expressing discomfort, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, MP for Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said she was a “little bothered” by the possible scenarios and the impact such action would have on those restrained.
“Such circumstances could add to the trauma faced by the children, and such actions seem antithesis to the spirit of rehabilitation,” she added.
Though the measure would be used only in very specific circumstances, Ms Rahayu questioned the considerations behind having such a provision. She also asked whether there would be standard operating procedures to guide the use of this power and what processes and checks would be put in place to prevent its abuse.
Similarly, Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said that the measure “seems incompatible with our shift to a more rehabilitative approach”.
Youth homes, which typically house youths who are at risk or have broken the law, are already staffed by auxiliary officers who are in a better position to deal with hostile situations, he said.
Saying there should be a clear distinction between the roles of the staff and auxiliary officers, he added: “Staff of the children’s homes should be nurturing figures who are there to protect, not restrain the children.”
Mr Ng continued: “Imagine the psychological effect on children to see the staff using handcuffs on them and their friends. Can we maintain this separation by increasing the number of auxiliary officers if necessary so that the staff do not have to take on this role?”
Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura Mokhtar and Nominated MP Anthea Ong also questioned the intent behind such a measure, to what extent it would be used and whether the Government had consulted the affected youths.
Ms Ong questioned whether restraints should be used only after less intrusive methods have been applied and deemed ineffective.
She pointed out that there are other alternatives available such as a padded room to prevent self-harm or a calming room to manage aggressive or violent behaviour.
Dr Intan asked: “And what if the mechanical restraints used inflict even more injury on the detainee than that it was first meant to prevent in the first place?”
Reassuring the MPs once again, Mr Lee said in his wrap-up speech on Wednesday that restraints will be used “only when absolutely necessary” to manage an individual so as to minimise the risk of injuries to other residents or employees.
Stringent procedures and processes in the use of restraints will be implemented, he said. This includes recording each use of the restraints and removing the restraints once the need has passed.
Mr Lee stressed that rehabilitation is key. After the restraints are removed, an MSF officer will help the resident to process his feelings.
“Where necessary, a multi-disciplinary team comprising the caseworker, psychologist and psychiatrist will also support the youth through this process,” he added.
SUPPORTING FOSTER FAMILIES
Another proposed change to the Act is to grant child-care leave benefits to foster parents, with Mr Lee saying that it would help with caregiving challenges that the group faces.
Currently, there are 510 foster families in Singapore, he noted.
The move is also aimed at encouraging more families to step forward to foster children, which Mr Lee said is a better approach than placing them in residential facilities such as children’s homes.
Ms Ng proposed that tax relief be given to foster parents as a means of recognition and retention. This could also incentivise more potential families to come onboard. Such an initiative, she added, has been introduced in countries such as Australia.
She also suggested the introduction of a tiered foster care system with allowances based on the complexities of the individual cases.
Illustrating this, she said that the amount a foster family would receive should take into account both the “placement type”, for example, care for children with special needs and disabilities, as well as their “competence” to provide care for the children.
This has been implemented in several independent, for-profit agencies and charities in the UK, she pointed out.
Other MPs also suggested that the Government find a way to reframe foster care such that children are kept within the care of other next of kin such as uncles and aunts as well as grandparents.
Extending childcare leave and unpaid infant care leave could act as an incentive, they said.
Nee Soon GRC MP Henry Kwek suggested that the Government streamline the adoption process to reduce the costs — such as legal fees — involved, which could deter families to foster the children.
“Adoption costs several thousands, and this is a big cost to those from the sandwich class who are trying to adopt,” he said.
Mr Lee responded that foster parents do receive allowances to defray expenses for the children. The quantum is higher if the children have special needs and they also get childcare and medical subsidies.