Family and Matrimonial Law Co- Head Koh Tien Hua was quoted in The Straits Times article titled "When home is where the sex abuse is"

Family and Matrimonial Law Co- Head Koh Tien Hua was quoted in The Straits Times article titled "When home is where the sex abuse is"
27 Aug 2018

Eversheds Harry Elias Family and Matrimonial Law Co- Head Koh Tien Hua was quoted in The Straits Times article titled "When home is where the sex abuse is". The article was first published on 27 August 2018.

When home is where the sex abuse is, for kids

Cases involving family members, and parents turning a blind eye, on the rise.

Allegations of sexual abuse of children by their family members have surged over the years.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development's Child Protective Service (CPS) investigated 181 allegations of sexual abuse involving children under 16 years old last year, the latest statistics show.

This is a 70 per cent jump from the 107 cases investigated in 2016.

In 2009, there were just 45 such cases investigated.

The CPS primarily handles cases involving family members, although it also looks into cases where relatives and family friends are alleged to have committed the abuse.

The ministry said the higher number of cases investigated in recent years is due to its efforts in uncovering more cases with serious child protection concerns and those were "rightly flagged to the ministry for intervention".

Statistics on the investigation outcomes are not available.In tandem, cases where the child's biological parents knew about sexual abuse happening in their homes, yet turned a blind eye to it or even abetted it, are also becoming more common, said lawyers interviewed by The Sunday Times.

Last Monday, a 34-year-old man was sentenced to 121/2 years' jail and 15 strokes of the cane for multiple incidents of sexual violations of his live-in girlfriend's eight-year-old daughter.

After the mother found out about it through a neighbour, she threw her boyfriend out, but later took him back after he begged for forgiveness. But no police report was made at that time.

In her letter to the court, the mother said she and the victim have accepted his apology and that her children are "looking forward to be reunited" with her lover, who is married to another woman.

Another case emerged in February, when a 47-year-old man was sentenced to 34 years in jail and 24 strokes of the cane for abusing the daughter of his mistress almost daily for seven years.

In the beginning, when she was seven to eight years old, the girl told her mother he was molesting her, but realised it was futile when the woman got angry with her instead. Years later, the man progressed to raping the girl and forcing her to perform oral sex on him - sometimes while others were at home. She became so conditioned by his abuse she automatically took off her clothes when he summoned her.

"Cases where parents know about the abuse and yet do nothing are common and rising in numbers," said Ms Gloria James, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta & Co. She has seen at least eight such cases so far this year, twice that of previous years.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan of Invictus Law said he has handled three such cases and been consulted on six others this year, compared with one or two per year a decade ago.

One reason for the increase in such cases surfacing is greater awareness that such behaviour cannot be condoned.

For instance, in the most recent case, the girl's grandmother reported the sexual abuse after discovering that the man had hit her granddaughter, leaving a bruise on her head. The grandmother was aware of the past sexual abuse when she made the police report and was concerned that such acts could be taking place again.

"Awareness and reporting have increased, for instance, through the education system," said Ms Michelle Woodworth, co-chairman of the family law practice committee at the Law Society, and a partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

In the past year, the Home Affairs Ministry had also announced steps - including a one-stop examination centre to reduce the stress of reporting rape - to improve the investigation and court process for sexual crimes.

Lawyers say some parents may have allowed the abuse of their children to continue, because they are trapped in a power dynamic that is entrenched by financial and emotional co-dependency.

"The biological parents may feel that they need the emotional support of their partners, and often, the mothers could be victims of abuse themselves," said veteran family lawyer Rajan Chettiar.

Added lawyer Lee Terk Yang: "Some of the parents have been conditioned to 'need the attention of the abuser' such that they are willing to forgive or hide the abuse and not report it." It is similar to why some women are willing victims of spousal violence - they accept it as normal or they are in a constant cycle of suffer-forgive without the courage to walk out, he added.

Some parents fear more severe reprisals against the child if they intervene or think that by aiding the perpetrator, they may ease the suffering of the children, said Mr Koh Tien Hua, partner at Eversheds Harry Elias law firm.

Traditionally, these families tend to be from the middle-to lower-income strata of society, and are not well-educated, said Mr Chetttiar.

The nature of dependency with the abuser has also shifted, he noted. "It used to be about physical and emotional manipulation but now, there is more financial dependency where the offender is the sole or major breadwinner in the family," he added.

Therefore, said Ms James and Mr Tan, there could be psychological denial when the parent does not believe the child's allegations, either because she thinks the child is jealous and making things up to get attention, or due to disbelief that someone responsible enough to support the family financially can also be sexually abusing the child at the same time.

On what more can be done to surface more of such abuse cases to the authorities, Mr Lee said the person who turns a blind eye to the abuse should be legally taken to task as well, so that it would be a deterrent for non-reporting.

The non-reporting parent can be charged with abetment of the crime committed, said Mr Lee, but he does not know of any such cases.

Mr Chettiar suggested that education about sexual abuse be conducted via community groups such as Chinese Development Assistance Council and Mendaki.

Parents also need to have honest conversations about sex with their children from an early age and be vigilant about the people who have access to their children, said Ms Woodworth.

Their loyalty and attachment to their partners should not override their protective duty as parents to their children, said the lawyers.

Said Ms James: "Mothers should be more forthcoming in reporting it and put aside their fear, as their duty is to the child."


Number of allegations of sexual abuse involving children under 16 the Ministry of Social and Family Development's Child Protective Service investigated last year.


Number of such cases investigated in 2016.


Number of such cases investigated in 2009.

Author: Janice Tai, The Straits Times

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Koh Tien Hua

Co-Head, Family and Matrimonial Law and Private Client Advisory
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