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Safeguarding vulnerable youths in their interactions with law enforcement authorities: Commentary

Safeguarding vulnerable youths in their interactions with law enforcement authorities: Commentary

Source: TODAY
Article Date: 10 Nov 2021
Author: Adrian Kwek

The author says that with respect to interviews of youths by law enforcement authorities, a holistic interview protocol that safeguards the mental well-being of vulnerable suspects should have three features.

In 2016, Benjamin Lim took his own life after being interviewed by the police for alleged outrage of modesty. He was 14 years old.

Recently, Justin Lee committed suicide nearly three months after being charged with drug offences. He was 17 years old.

The cases cast a spotlight on interactions between law enforcement authorities and youths, where the latter are in a vulnerable position.

In response to the earlier case, the Appropriate Adults Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS) was set up.

The presence of a trusted adult could ameliorate the distress of being interviewed by the authorities.

However, allowing a parent or other caregiver to accompany the youth during a law enforcement interview could result in unwarranted interference to the interview process.

Instead, an “appropriate adult” is activated to accompany the youth during the interview.

Their roles are to detect signs of distress, facilitate communication and provide emotional support if required.


The mental well-being of an individual is not well indicated by observable signs.

For Justin, the Central Narcotics Bureau reported that he was “composed and coherent during the interviews and was able to logically articulate the flow of events, including sharing about his research on drugs and his trafficking modus operandi”.

He had also “sought clarifications when he wanted to make amendments. He was observed not to show signs of distress during the interviews”.

Furthermore, a medical report stated that Justin was “stable with no acute issues”, “not experiencing any hallucinations”, “did not have any self-harm or suicidal thoughts” and “did not report feeling unwell”.

In an October 2018 report titled The Assessment of Clinical Risk in Mental Health Services, the University of Manchester’s National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health studied a phenomenon termed the “low risk paradox”, wherein at the last point of contact, “immediate suicide risk was judged by clinicians as low or not present in the majority of patients who died by suicide”.

The report cited suggestions from clinicians, patients and carers, which are instructive.

From clinicians: “To allow collaboration with patients and their family/carers for ongoing safety management.”

From patients: “Involve carers/families, including sharing crisis/safety plans with them.”

From carers: “Better and more consistent information sharing with the family (where consent has been given by the patient).”

These suggestions converge on the importance of taking the views of carers into consideration in risk assessment.


The AAYS currently covers individuals who are below 16 years old.

The Ministry of Home Affairs is studying whether it’s feasible to extend the scheme to cover individuals until the age of 18.

Major research ethics guidelines like the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences Guidelines and the United States’ Code of Federal Regulations 45 Part 46 include children and prisoners as vulnerable groups.

These guidelines give practitioners a handy way of identifying a vulnerable person.

Merely by being a member of a vulnerable group, a person deserves extra attention that they are not harmed or wronged both on the policy level and on the level of personal interactions.

However, identifying a vulnerable person through membership in a vulnerable group has its drawbacks.

First, the group itself is not easily defined. Our Children and Young Persons Act distinguishes between a child (below 14 years old), a juvenile (aged seven or above and below 16) and a young person (14 or above and below 18).

Our Women’s Charter defines a child as a person who is a “child of the marriage” and below 21 years old.

Our Human and Biomedical Research Act defines a minor as someone who is below 21 years old and never been married.

Second, many ethicists hold that vulnerability is context-independent.

Someone in a vulnerable group may be less vulnerable than others in the group, for example, an intelligent and literate elderly person who is in full possession of her mental capacity.

Someone in a vulnerable group may be more vulnerable than others in the group when involved in a stressful police investigation.


Risk assessment checklist items are subject to the “low risk” paradox.

One’s type and degree of vulnerability is sensitive to context.

With respect to interviews of youths by law enforcement authorities, a holistic interview protocol that safeguards the mental well-being of vulnerable suspects should have these three features:

First, carers’ inputs about the mental well-being of the interviewee should be taken into consideration as part of the mental health assessment as they can illuminate layers of vulnerability that are not visible to in situ observation.

Second, there should be a post-interview mental health management protocol that is triggered by the disclosure of relevant information, for example, a previous clinical diagnosis of depression or a carer’s sharing about self-harming behaviour.

Third, since there are appropriate adults for young suspects and for mentally vulnerable persons, some volunteers should be cross-trained and activated for young suspects who are mentally vulnerable.

This would allow for the possibility of suitably trained appropriate adults to be activated for individuals who fall just outside of the legally specified upper age limit for “young person”, but who may still bear many of the vulnerabilities of youth.

Managing youths’ mental health can benefit from a whole-of-community approach.

Taking the views of carers into mental health assessments can work in tandem with schemes like the AAYS for safeguarding the mental vulnerability of youth in interactions with law enforcement authorities.


Adrian Kwek is an associate professor at the Centre for University Core, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) and chair of the SUSS research ethics board. His research interests include vulnerability in ethics and critical thinking.

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