Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adult offenders: When does the parenting end?

Aug 13, 2010

With more offenders on probation, the burden on families has risen

By K. C. Vijayan

GARY Huang Kunjie has a sexual disorder called paraphilia. He likes to film what is now known as 'upskirt' videos of women. In fact, he had 90 such recordings stored on his mobile phone.

Huang did not go to jail on conviction, but was placed on probation.

The case raised eyebrows recently, because Huang is not a youth. He is aged 25.

Increasingly, the courts are relying on probation terms to deal with adult offenders with mental problems.

In 2005, only nine offenders aged above 21 were placed on probation. The figure soared to 51 last year, according to the Probation Service's latest annual report.

The higher numbers are to be welcomed, as probation spares the offender the stigma of a prison record.

Huang's case is special: Although he is 25 years old, he suffers from a disorder and the conditions for his two-year probation require him to be supervised by his parents whenever he uses the Internet.

Among other things, Community Court Judge Soh Tze Bian banned Huang from using any camera phone. His parents also have to supervise his use of other camera and video equipment.

The couple put up a $5,000 bond to ensure his good behaviour, and stand to lose it if he breaches the probation order.

Huang and his parents agreed to this, but the conditions raise the question of whether parents should be held responsible and punished monetarily if an adult offender defaults.

The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) points out that the requirement in Huang's case is not new in principle.

'Having a family supervision plan is not unique to this specific case. The family supervision plan is an approach that we generally use with other probationers such as those with mental disabilities,' said an MCYS spokesman.

Among other things, Huang is also required to go for psychiatric treatment, and report to and receive regular visits from the probation officer during the period of supervised probation.

The spokesman said the bond put up by parents is not required in all cases but is at the discretion of the court.

Lawyers like Mr T. U. Naidu believe that the bond encourages parents to take their supervisory responsibilities seriously.

'It comes as part of a treatment plan and the parents' job is more to ensure he sticks to the treatment, in which case, the breaches would not arise.

'It also provides an opportunity for Huang to show his responsibility in fulfilling his obligations and avoid difficulties for his parents.'

But others think the bond exacts an emotional toll on parents and their adult children. Parents might feel obliged to say yes to a bond and risk its forfeit, though they probably realise it would be tough to police adult children.

Private practice psychologist Daniel Koh said having to shoulder such responsibilities 24/7 can generate a lot of stress, fear and anxiety in parents.

'Some parents may even feel or think that they are being punished for not bringing up their children properly.'

The bigger question, therefore, is: When does parents' responsibility for their children's behaviour end?

National University of Singapore law don Michael Hor points out the Probation of Offenders Act allows the court to impose conditions on only the probationer, and not anyone else.

'The parents are likely to have agreed to supervise, but no sanctions can be visited upon them if they do not,' he said.

It is the probationer who is obliged to subject himself to the supervision of his parents. If he does not, he would have breached the probation terms.

Professor Hor does not think that forfeiting the bond is a punishment like a criminal penalty, as the parents were free to disagree if they wanted to. He points out that anyone else, such as a family friend, could have agreed to it.

In any case, an MCYS spokesman said it is rare for bonds to be forfeited.

Mr Naidu likened the process to the bail-default scheme. 'It is like a show-cause action and the courts will listen first to what the parents have to say about the steps they took to ensure their ward's conduct,' he said.

Some clue about the difficulties involved in dealing with cases like Huang's can be gleaned from the way the courts have handled offenders bearing other kinds of chronic mental disorders.

In the case of Goh Lee Yin, who had a kleptomania disorder, then Chief Justice Yong Pung How said neither probation nor imprisonment was a truly satisfactory solution for her problem with repeated stealing.

Justice V. K. Rajah noted on the same case in 2007 that in Britain, there was a healthy debate over the proper response to offenders with mental disorders.

He suggested that prosecutors should 'exercise mature reflection and measured consideration before bringing kleptomaniacs to court'.

The Community Court is a recent establishment, allowing judges to experiment with various sentencing options for those who do not deserve incarceration. In a sense, it is still on probation.

It is likely that some issues will still need thrashing out - like whether parents should be bonded for the behaviour of their adult children who are offenders.

Or, as in the pending case of S. Muthammah, whether grown-up children should be bonded to vouch for a parent's behaviour.

Last month, the 58-year-old, who suffers from a disorder, breached her probation terms and relapsed into shoplifting.

She had served jail terms on previous occasions. She was placed on 24 months' probation from 2008 and had served it without incident until the recent theft.

Muthammah is now remanded in the Institute of Mental Heath for observation before attending court later this month for breach of her probation order.

Her two sons, a teacher and an army employee, had put down a $10,000 bond to ensure her conduct.

The court's ruling in Muthammah's case will be of interest to many. It can help shed light on the question of whether or to what extent a family member should be penalised for the behaviour of an adult member of the household.

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