Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Doing justice by fixing broken young lives

Feb 23, 2014

A stint at the Juvenile Court proves sobering, humbling for this former district judge

By Lim Hui Min

I was posted to the Family and Juvenile Court as a young magistrate, more than 10 years ago. During this time, I used to cover the Juvenile Court now and again, when the regular Juvenile Court magistrate was on leave or engaged in other official duties.

This was something new for me. Juvenile law was not something I had studied in law school, and I did not handle any Juvenile Court cases when I was in private practice. Most lawyers would not have done a Juvenile Court case, as legal counsel are engaged to represent the child or his parents in relatively few of such cases.

Covering the Juvenile Court was a sobering and humbling experience.

Sobering, because I saw a lot of sad, difficult cases which were well beyond my own life experience. Humbling, because I was not certain whether what I was doing in the Juvenile Court added any value to the cases that came before me.

I kept a journal in those days. One entry was about a quiet evening spent reading the social reports of children whose cases I would be hearing the next day. These were children who were in need of care and protection, or who were beyond parental control.
Such a different world… bruises and old scars, grubby rooms where people sleep on the floor and share beds and don't have enough to eat for the day, void decks in the darkness, no school, friends who share morsels of food with you and then molest you...

I saw them all today. Most looked smaller than their age. Quite a number were educationally subnormal. They stared at me utterly blankly when I asked them simple questions like, "Do you have friends in the Home?" It was like being behind a window, waving and gesticulating and shouting to a person who is not looking in your direction.

I didn't realise how little parents could love their children until today…

How can an eight-year-old still be wearing diapers? A six-year-old tell stories about how he was forced to suck his father's penis? A 15-year-old be covered with bruise marks and burns and scars? How can you be a parent and not bother to visit your child who is in a home for months? How can you be a child and know that both your parents are in jail for drug offences?
I felt like I was looking at a sea of drowning people. I was standing on the shore… trying to shout to them a few instructions while they were choking on the water... Dec 26, 2003.

In another entry, I wrote:

I have come to feel that of all the things that can cause a juvenile to want to change for the better, the strongest is the desire not to shame or disappoint his parents. So it seems that the greatest protection any child has from the big bad world is the love he feels for his parents. And that love is inseparable from, and grows out of, the love that his parents have for him.

Without that, it is like sending someone into a war zone without a shield. March 19, 2003.

Many of the children I saw in the Juvenile Court, however, had indeed been sent, unprotected by love, out into the big bad world. Often, what determined whether they were a juvenile arrest case, a care and protection case or a beyond parental control case would be a question of timing - that is, whether they were caught for committing an offence before someone noticed that they seemed to be running wild, ill-fed or covered with non-accidental injuries, or someone only noticed these things after they were caught for committing an offence.

Because of this, I agreed with the rehabilitation philosophy of the Juvenile Court - that the mission was not to scold and punish juvenile offenders, but to spur, steer and support positive change in them.

I felt almost a sense of despair, however, when I first covered Juvenile Court and saw what a poor start in life many of the juvenile offenders had. I wondered how any child in such a situation could possibly rise above that and make something good of and for himself.

As time passed, however, and I did more cases, I began to understand how this might be possible, how every child that came before the Juvenile Court, even one suffering from a profound absence of love, even one who had been born into the most impoverished and chaotic family lives, still had a chance to make good.

The answer lay, and still lies, in the dedication and diligence of the hundreds of men and women who work with the Juvenile Court, and in the juvenile justice system. They work as probation officers, community social workers, counsellors, psychologists, panel advisers, volunteer mentors, and so on, helping parents and children to re-connect with each other, and inspiring, guiding and supporting the juvenile in his journey onto, and along, the right path.

The writer, a former district judge, is director of the Legal Services Unit of the Ministry of Social and Family Development and deputy senior state counsel at the Attorney-General's Chambers. 

Book throws light on workings of juvenile justice system

By K.C. Vijayan Senior Law Correspondent

By the time she turned 15, the girl had experienced sex, glue-sniffing and heroin. She looked set to be ruined for life if not for the day the Juvenile Court sent her to a girls' home.

That helped to transform the girl, whose success story is chronicled in a new book on the workings of Singapore's juvenile justice system.

Written by former family court district judge Lim Hui Min, it provides insights into the role of various stakeholders and the community in the treatment of child offenders. Juvenile Justice: Where Rehabilitation Takes Centre Stage is published by Academy Publishing, a division of the Singapore Academy of Law, and explains the workings of the juvenile justice system, its key players and how it can make a positive difference in the life of a juvenile offender.

Ms Lim, now director of the Legal Services Unit at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), told The Sunday Times: "The book is for everyone who is involved in the juvenile justice system and who works with young people, especially youth-at-risk, whether it is a lawyer, probation officer, counsellor, social worker, manager of a children's home, police officer, teacher and so on.

"Hopefully this will provide encouragement to all who are working with youth, and also inspire those who are keen to go into this area."

Her own encounters with young offenders began more than 10 years ago as a young magistrate in the Family and Juvenile Court, and in the preface of the book, she shares her recollection of that time and the children who appeared before her.

Not all cases end happily: One youth grew up with parents rocked by heavy debts and a poor relationship. That led him to dubious friends, bad habits and robbery. He was sent to the Singapore Boys' Home and responded well, but relapsed in the last leg of his term when he was allowed home leave. His was a case of two steps forward and one step back, Ms Lim notes.

But unlike him, another youth born out of wedlock to drug-addict parents overcame the odds of an exceptionally poor start in life to make good after three years at the Singapore Boys' Home. He was matched early with a volunteer counsellor who stayed the course with him beyond his discharge.

The book comes at a time when the authorities have pressed on with programmes to keep the figures on youth crime down.

Separately, although the total number of Beyond Parental Control cases was halved from 121 in 2008 to 60 in 2012, the number of cases rose to 83 last year according to MSF figures. These are cases involving children under 16 who cannot be managed by their parents or are at risk of turning delinquent.

The Juvenile Court can issue an order to place the child under compulsory supervision or in a residential facility for those who show very high-risk behaviours.

An MSF spokesman told The Sunday Times that early intervention measures are key in addressing pre-delinquency issues and preventing at-risk youth from offending. The ministry works closely with partners in various other agencies to address problems and issues related to juvenile delinquency in Singapore.

He pointed to various pre-court diversionary programmes such as the Guidance Programme and Streetwise Programme to deal with low-risk youth offenders and prevent re-offending, among other things.

In a foreword to Ms Lim's book, Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah praises the author as someone "who walks the talk".

"She reminds us all how it is evidently in society's interests to ensure that every individual, especially among our youth, is helped to achieve his or her full potential."

The book, priced at $64.20, is available at major bookstores and can also be bought online via the Singapore Academy of Law website at www.sal.org.sg

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