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Why we need to protect victims who refuse to report abusers, even when lives are in danger

Why we need to protect victims who refuse to report abusers, even when lives are in danger

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 11 May 2023
Author: Theresa Tan & Syarafana Shafeeq

Bonds of love – coupled with fear and shame – stop them from seeking help against an abusive family member. Proposed moves under the Women’s Charter (Family Violence and Other Matters) (Amendment) Bill will boost their protection and enhance rehabilitation of perpetrators.

A mother in her 70s has been repeatedly hit, choked and threatened with death by her son when she does not give him money or give in to his other demands.

Her neighbours called the police out of concern, and social workers found bruises all over her body. But she refuses to apply for a personal protection order (PPO) – a court order restraining her son from committing violence against her.

Neither does she want to move out of her flat or chase her son out for her own safety. Her son is in his 30s and earns about $2,000 a month.

Ms Kristine Lam, principal social worker at Care Corner Project StART, which specialises in tackling family violence, said of this case that she handled: “She feels that applying for a PPO would make the son more stressed instead of helping him.”

She said the woman told her that if her son beats her to death, then so be it as she is “so old already”. Such fatalistic views are not uncommon, Ms Lam added.

Social workers say that many seniors, like this elderly woman, are reluctant to take out a PPO and risk getting their abusive children in trouble with the law.

There are also wives who fear what their husbands would do to their children or other family members for revenge, if they go to the authorities about the violence, among the multitude of reasons why women remain in abusive relationships.

And so the bonds of love – coupled with feelings of fear, guilt and shame – often keep victims trapped in the cycle of violence.

Ms Zaharah Ariff, executive director of Casa Raudha, which runs a shelter for survivors of family violence, said: “Many people say, why can’t these women leave the relationship or take a PPO? It’s very complex. They can be so afraid that they may not be able to do what is logical to protect themselves.”

And so their abusers continue their violent ways, as long as they think they can get away with it, Ms Lam said. They feel their loved ones would not report them, or no one would believe them even if they did sound the alarm. She added: “We have seen incidents where the victim was in danger of dying, yet they still did not want to apply for a PPO.”

Breaking cycle of violence

This is why the proposed measures under the Women’s Charter (Family Violence and Other Matters) (Amendment) Bill are needed to break the cycle of violence and keep victims safe. They aim to boost protection for victims and enhance the rehabilitation of perpetrators.

Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling introduced the proposed measures in Parliament on Tuesday.

The measures shake up the existing power dynamics, where the victim is often totally under the abuser’s control, social workers say.  The proposed moves will empower the authorities to intervene in high-risk cases, even if the abused person is reluctant or refuses to seek help. 

For example, those authorised by the director-general of social welfare, known as protectors, can apply for a PPO on behalf of those who are at high risk of being harmed again but refuse to apply for protection.

Protectors can apply for the abuser to be monitored electronically, if the abused person is unwilling to report the breach of a PPO and his or her safety is in question. 

Overseas research in countries such as Australia and Britain have found that electronic monitoring improves victims’ safety and ensures compliance with PPOs, among other benefits.

As a last resort, protectors will be able to apply to the court to remove the abused person from his home to keep him safe when all other interventions, such as electronic monitoring, have failed.

While there may be concerns these measures may go against an individual’s agency to make decisions or take action, there is also the need to balance that against the abused person’s safety.

According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), the protector has to present the court with sufficient evidence and expert assessments when they apply for a PPO on behalf of another person. 

The court has to consider the facts of the case and the views of all affected parties before deciding if there are reasonable grounds for a PPO to be made on behalf of the abused person.

Strengthening rehabilitation

When tackling family violence, the first part of the battle involves breaking the silence on the abuse and ensuring the survivor’s safety.

The second half involves the effective rehabilitation of perpetrators to ensure the abuse stops for good.

Under the proposed measures, the scope of rehabilitative interventions will be expanded, fines can be imposed if perpetrators fail to attend rehabilitation programmes ordered by the court, and penalties for breaches of family violence-related court orders will be increased.

Imposing fines is one way to ensure that offenders at least show up for their rehabilitation programme, social workers say.

This comes as about 10 per cent of perpetrators ordered to attend counselling fail to show up, and current laws do not have “enough teeth” to compel them to do so, Dr Sudha Nair, executive director at Pave, a charity that specialises in tackling issues relating to family violence, had said previously.

She is a member of the Taskforce on Family Violence, whose recommendations, released in 2021, are behind the proposed amendments to the Bill.

An MSF spokesman said that under the current laws, the victim has to apply for an order of committal – an order to comply within a certain time – against the abuser if he does not comply with the counselling order.

“As there are several court procedures involved in this process, survivors may be deterred from making such applications,” the spokesman said.

Domestic violence is not just a family matter but a serious social scourge that warrants external intervention in high-risk cases. It is literally a matter of life and death.

Hopefully, the stiffer penalties will send a strong deterrent message that there is a price to pay for violence, and that family violence cannot be tolerated or swept under the carpet.

As Ms Lam cautioned, overseas research has found that if nothing is done to address the violence at home, it increases in intensity and frequency over time.

So if the victim is unable or reluctant to act for whatever reason, it is key that the measures, if passed, will empower designated protectors to take action to prevent yet another tragedy.

Proposed changes to boost protection for family violence victims, rehab for abusers

Victims of family violence will have better protection against their abusers if proposed changes to the law are passed under the Women’s Charter (Family Violence and Other Matters) Amendment Bill.

The Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on Tuesday, will add three new provisions to personal protection orders (PPO), which are court orders restraining a person from committing violence against a family member.

The stay-away provision will prevent the perpetrators from being outside the survivors’ home or places that they frequent, while the no-contact provision prevents them from visiting or communicating with the survivors.

Currently, abusers with a protection order against them can still gain access to victims outside their home, such as in public areas.

A mandatory treatment provision may be issued by the court, if the perpetrators are suffering from a psychiatric condition that contributes to their behaviour which warranted the protection order.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) investigated 2,254 new family violence-related cases in 2022, and 2,346 cases in 2021. The National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline received 10,800 calls in 2022, up from 8,400 calls in 2021.

The Bill will also lower the minimum age to apply for a PPO to 18, from 21. Currently, those between the ages of 18 to 20 who are unmarried need to rely on others like their guardians to apply for a PPO on their behalf.

This amendment will allow younger survivors of abuse to seek protection and represent themselves in PPO proceedings.

The recommendations were first released in 2021 by the Taskforce on Family Violence, co-chaired by the Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling and Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim.

MSF sought public feedback on the proposed amendments in April 2022, and received strong support for them.

The current definition of family violence, which some organisations such as gender advocacy group Aware have argued should be broadened, will also be updated with the Bill.

Currently, family violence is defined as causing hurt, placing a family member in fear of hurt and wrongfully confining a family member against his will.

The updated definition will include a wider range of violence, like sexual, emotional and psychological abuse. It also makes clear that abuse can be both a single instance or a course of behaviour.

The upcoming changes also include protecting survivors’ identities. Unless the director-general of social welfare’s approval and the survivor’s consent have been obtained, the Bill prohibits any publication or broadcast that identifies, or is likely to identify, the survivor.

For example, the court can order a social media post that identifies the survivor to be taken down.

Rehabilitation for perpetrators, as well as penalties for those who breach family violence-related court orders, will also be ramped up under the Bill.

The scope of counselling provisions will be expanded to include more programmes, treatments and interventions, like parenting programmes or caregiving training, to strengthen rehabilitation.

The court will also consider if counselling will help to rehabilitate the perpetrator, and reduce the risk of violence in their other or future relationships.

Currently, the court does not issue counselling in certain instances, such as if there is a low likelihood of future contact between the survivor and the perpetrator.

The rehabilitative provisions will continue even if the PPO or expedited order is varied, suspended or revoked subsequently, so that the needed interventions can be completed adequately. 

The penalties for those who breach family violence-related protection orders will be made heavier. Those on a first conviction may be handed a fine of up to $10,000 and/or jail up to 12 months, up from the current penalty of up to $2,000 fine and/or jail up to six months.

In addition, to ensure that perpetrators take their rehabilitative provisions seriously, any breach of a counselling provision, assessment order for the purpose of mandatory treatment, and a mandatory treatment provision will be punishable with a fine not exceeding $2,000.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.


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