Why did 15-year-old living in a wet market stall in Singapore go unreported?

SUNDAY, MAY 19, 2024

Child neglect and other family affairs are often seen as private, and members of the public may feel they should mind their own business, said social workers.

This could be a key reason why a recent case of a teenage girl living in a wet market stall went unreported for close to a year, they said.

The 15-year-old girl, who lived in a 2m by 3m stall at Circuit Road Market and Food Centre, was referred to the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) Child Protective Service (CPS) only after officers from the National Environment Agency spotted her in April.

Asked why they did not alert the authorities, some stallholders said they did not want to create trouble and the girl’s father said he did not need any help.

Nawal Adam Koay, assistant director and head of reunification service at the Singapore Children’s Society, told The Straits Times it is natural to think that family affairs should be left to the family. However, it takes a village to raise a child, she added.

She said: “It is important to understand that supporting is not meddling.”

Marcus Lim, head of family support at Touch Community Services, said: “It would have helped a lot if the neighbouring stall owners – who smelled the pee in pails, saw her pleas for food, and glimpsed her living conditions – acted upon their suspicions.”

He added: “When someone’s well-being and safety is compromised, and it becomes apparent to others, even if subtly so, it is well within the public’s right and responsibility to step up and do something.”

Nawal said the setting of the market stall may have also influenced people to be bystanders.

Why did 15-year-old living in a wet market stall in Singapore go unreported?

“Just like other child abuse cases, neglect is typically associated with occurrences within the home, leading bystanders to overlook signs of maltreatment in public settings.”

The open display of the family’s living conditions may have led bystanders to normalise or rationalise the girl’s living conditions as an unfortunate but acceptable part of her circumstances, she said.

This is especially if they are unfamiliar or unsure about the signs of neglect, she added.

Neighbours might also be aware of the challenges the father may be facing, especially if he is a single parent. This could have made them empathise with his situation, and hesitate to intervene or report the circumstances, said Nawal.

“They may believe that the father is doing his best to navigate a difficult situation on his own.”

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling, under whose constituency the wet market belongs, said in a Facebook video on May 3 that the arrangement is not conducive for the girl and is quite appalling.

“But based on what I have, what I know, perhaps the father was just doing what he thought was best for her, given their circumstances,” she said.

Deborah Amanda Goh, clinical psychologist and volunteer at Blue. Psychological Services said that another complicating factor is poverty, which makes it more challenging for parents to meet their children’s physical needs.

She said: “Dealing with poverty can also create stress that affects their ability to be emotionally responsive to the child... Sometimes, they can be seen as wilfully or intentionally neglecting the child, when this is not really the case.”

It is likely the girl, who is understood to be a permanent resident, may not be enrolled in school.

Touch’s Lim said this further limits the number of people who could be looking out for her well-being and safety on a daily basis.

“The signs of neglect would have been a little more obvious in the school setting as well – like smell, unclean uniform, being excessively underweight or small-sized relative to her peers, which is more obvious when she’s alongside them.”

School systems also have reporting protocols and structures which make it easier to raise alarm bells, unlike with the neighbouring stall owners who unfortunately may not know how to report cases, Lim added.

However, Nawal said that just being in school does not mean that cases of neglect are always detected, and could depend on other factors such as the child’s ability to conceal their situation out of fear or shame.

Lim said the public may not be aware that neglect – which is when a child’s basic needs are not met – is one of the four main forms of child abuse. The other three forms are physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, and sexual abuse.

Self-reporting is difficult because many victims are vulnerable by virtue of their age or size, and would fear being further harmed if they spoke up, he added.

He said: “Many times, they also worry that their actions would break up the family. There are those who are desensitised to their abuse because their living situation is all that they’ve known since birth.”

Lin Shiyun, founder of community organisation 3Pumpkins, said MSF’s CPS and National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline could educate the public more on things like what is needed of a person making the report, what he or she can do next after calling, and CPS’ general processes for safety checks.

She said her organisation has experience making reports and working with the CPS.

“We have made reports to the National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline and worked with CPS. Some reporting processes require quite a lot of input from us, which I’m not sure if a regular member of the public will be able to follow up with.”

What is neglect and how does it affect children?

Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, told ST that child neglect refers to the failure to meet a child’s basic needs, and can take different forms.

Physical neglect involves the inadequate provision of things like food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. It can range from mild instances like sporadic meal skipping to prolonged exposure to unsafe living conditions and severe cases of abandonment.

Emotional neglect can involve a lack of attention to a child’s emotional needs, such as consistent disregard for their feelings or emotional well-being, not supporting a child through their developmental milestones, or not providing appropriate guidance and nurturing.

This can range from the occasional failure to comfort a distressed child to severe cases of prolonged emotional abuse such as humiliation, verbal abuse or absent parenting.

A parent failing to ensure their child attends school regularly or failing to provide necessary resources for learning is also counted as being guilty of educational neglect.

Latest data from MSF shows that CPS investigated 910 cases of neglect in 2021, more than double that of 2020, at 375 cases. Cases of neglect in 2021 made up the majority of the 2,141 overall child abuse cases that year.

The effects of neglect differ based on the life stage during which it occurs, said Blue. Psychological Services’ Ms Goh.

During infancy or early childhood, a child’s developing brain relies on caregiver responsiveness so that the infant or child can learn and form foundations of how to think, feel and act, she said.

Without a responsive caregiver, their body’s stress response system is activated, and they can experience changes in their brain structure and functioning. This can lead to longer-term difficulties with issues such as attention, learning, problem-solving and regulating their emotions, she added.

Goh said: “Childhood neglect in the early stages can also hinder the abilities of these kids to form stable and supportive relationships with their own caregivers, potentially impacting their other relationships later in life.”

Dr Chow said neglected children face many socio-emotional challenges. They may have had poor or limited social interactions, with few opportunities to experience many emotions or social dynamics.

With severe neglect, there is a higher chance of them feeling numb, having difficulty controlling impulses, and having low self-confidence or assertiveness, she added.

Syarafana Shafeeq

The Straits Times

Asia News Network