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When parents are monsters: Survivor of child sexual abuse recounts trauma, supports review of Maintenance of Parents Act

SINGAPORE — Four decades might have gone by since Daniel (not his real name) was sexually abused as a child by his father, but the trauma caused by the heinous act has had a lasting impact on his daily life.

When parents are monsters: Survivor of child sexual abuse recounts trauma, supports review of Maintenance of Parents Act
  • A man in his 40s said he is filled with rage whenever he thinks of his father who used to sexually abuse him
  • Forgiveness is not easy when a parent betrays a child’s trust, he added
  • The thought of ever meeting his estranged father again is distressing
  • That is why he would like the Maintenance of Parents Act to be changed to reduce distress to survivors of abuse 
  • A workgroup led by Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng is reviewing the law and it is expected to table changes end of 2022

SINGAPORE — Four decades might have gone by since Daniel (not his real name) was sexually abused as a child by his father, but the trauma caused by the heinous act has had a lasting impact on his daily life.

Though he had repressed the negative memories, he recounted how there were occasions when, while brushing his teeth, he would get flashbacks and experience “unwelcome textures, smells or taste” that make him want to clean his mouth as much as possible in an effort to mask these sensations. 

It got so bad that he had the enamel of his teeth treated many times due to over-vigorous brushing.

Now in his 40s, Daniel said that he is filled with rage whenever he thinks of the man who tarnished his childhood.

His father left the family when Daniel was five years old and sexually assaulted him before that in the early years of his childhood. 

Daniel has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I have struggled my whole life with images of violence in my head, particularly towards men whom I perceive as abusing their authority,” he said. He is now pursuing postgraduate studies while working as a consultant, but did not want to say more about the fields of study and work.

He believes that the sexual abuse he suffered has led him to be "always hyper-vigilant" against strangers. "I would scan the room (when I'm outside of home) and be ready to spring into action to defend myself or those I love.

“Thankfully, I have never become physically violent or got into trouble with the law.”

The interview with Daniel, who requested anonymity, was facilitated by the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships. The Alliance is a collaboration between the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and community partners that aims to support families at different life stages with the issues they face.

Daniel is among the many Singaporeans who are giving feedback on the Maintenance of Parents Act (MPA), which is undergoing a review.

Last amended in 2010, the law provides for elders who are unable to financially maintain themselves adequately, so that they may have a legal channel to seek maintenance from their children.

In January this year, a workgroup led by Member of Parliament (MP) Seah Kian Peng and eight other MPs was set up to review the law, which included looking at how to prevent its wrongful use by parents who have a history of abusing their child.

PREVENTING WRONGFUL USE OF LAW

Giving an update on the review, Mr Seah told TODAY on Tuesday (May 31) that the workgroup hopes to get to the drafting stage of the proposed amendments in the coming months and to table them in Parliament “sometime end of this year”.

“We have received and are appreciative of the feedback from the public… (to) ensure that we have considered as wide a ground as possible, as we finalise our recommendations,” Mr Seah added.

To get feedback, the workgroup and the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships arranged 13 focus group discussions. They took place between January and February this year.

About 200 people took part in the discussions that included members of the public — parents as well as those who had been through the proceedings when the law was enacted – social workers and panel members of the Tribunal for the Maintenance of Parents. 

The tribunal allows parents to file for a maintenance order against their children who are not supporting them financially, if conciliation does not work out. 

Mr Seah said that a survey involving 1,000 respondents was also held over the same period,.

In general, the findings from the survey and the discussions highlighted the need for safeguards to prevent wrongful use of the legal provisions by parents against their children whom they had abused.

“One of the issues discussed extensively was the unintended effects of the Act on respondents who suffered abuse by their parents,” Mr Seah added.

DANIEL’S TRAUMA

Daniel’s father ought to be in his 70s now and he has yet to make a claim against his son, but Daniel said that he will likely be filled with rage if the older man does.

“Allowing such parents to file against survivors like me can cause high levels of distress and even retrigger our trauma again.”

Daniel said that the sexual abuse began before he entered primary school and no one knew about it.

“I survived the sexual abuse experiences because, somehow, my mind disconnected with reality during the experience and then I repressed my memories after that.”

These painful memories started resurfacing when a close family member, who was linked to his father in “various ways”, died when Daniel was in his 40s.

“It was like a jigsaw puzzle and my memories emerged in fragments, accompanied by overwhelming emotions that included rage, self-hate, anxiety and depression,” Daniel said.

He added that he once came close to taking his own life, but a close friend brought him back from the brink after reminding him of his self-worth.

The memories of the abuse would still surface and there were days he would sit in a corner and cry.

As a coping mechanism, Daniel kept his mind busy with work and exercise — he wanted to get fit because he feared that someone would harm him or his loved ones.

He admitted that he became self-destructive at times, such as drinking excessively and recklessly riding his motorcycle because he wanted to live on the “edge between life and death”, when he felt that life had little value for him.

Mr Praveen Nair, a psychologist at Raven Counselling and Consultancy, said that it is normal for a victim to suppress memories of sexual abuse — partly due to an adaptive function of the mind where it puts up what may be termed as a “defence mechanism”, which is what the mind uses to control the experience of anxiety.

“Suppression may be a specific defence mechanism where unwanted thoughts or impulses are subconsciously pushed out of awareness so that the individual is able to function in their day-to-day lives without feeling the full burden of past pain,” the psychologist said.

Research suggests that the long-term effects of child sexual abuse is highly significant for an adult because it can lead to a myriad of psycho-social and behavioural or mental health issues, or both.

“There have been known cases of child sexual abuse leading to a wide range of issues such as eating disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even promiscuous behaviour,” Mr Nair added.

FACING HIS PAST DEMONS

It was only about five years ago — when he ran into trouble with his marriage — that Daniel began to understand the extent and consequences of the physical and emotional abuse.

“When I shared my issues with my wife… she not only understood my problems and reasons for doing so, but she also accepted my mistakes and stayed committed to me,” he said.

Daniel said that his journey of self-healing began when he started seeing a psychotherapist, and he eventually accepted that the memories of his abuse were real.

“Until today, my wife continues to be supportive as I work with my psychotherapist to put together the jigsaw pieces of my memories, which are essential to my healing.”

He does not object to the view that a child should support his or her parents, Daniel said, but he himself has yet to forgive his father.

“We have to remember the magnitude of harm done when a parent, who is supposed to be the nurturing and trusted guardian of a child, betrays that trust and abuses the child.”

Forgiveness is a "beautiful concept", Daniel added, but it has to be done at the survivor’s pace.

“Asking a survivor of serious child abuse to just forgive and forget can come across as insensitive and callous, and undermines the years of pain and suffering he or she has gone through.

“I am also afraid that it might create a culture of victim-blaming.”

Mr Nair the psychologist agreed that invalidating a victim’s experiences such as making them out as being unimportant or trivial will not help his or her recovery.

It is Daniel’s hope that the Maintenance of Parents Act will be amended to prevent abusive parents from taking advantage of it.

“Apart from causing unnecessary distress to survivors of abuse, it will help to not drag the survivor back into a dysfunctional relationship with their abusive parent,” he added.

Ms Hazlina Abdul Halim, a leader in the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, told TODAY that it welcomed the workgroup’s move to spearhead discussions for the review of the law.

“(We) are heartened to see participants discuss how to show support with a more sensitive approach to cases where there is abuse, neglect or abandonment.”

One of the areas of focus for the Alliance will be to continue to work with the workgroup to raise awareness and prevent family violence among early-risk marriages, she said.

MSF has enhanced the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline as a one-stop helpline for the reporting of violence, including sexual violence and sexual harassment.

If you or someone you know is encountering violence or abuse, call the hotline at 1800 777 0000.

WHERE TO GET HELP

  • National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868
  • Fei Yue's Online Counselling Service: eC2.sg website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
  • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) / 1-767 (24 hours)
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
  • Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928 / 6509-0271 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
  • Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)
  • Touchline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

Related topics

child sexual abuse trauma MSF Maintenance of Parents Act law family

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