A law to be introduced this year to protect vulnerable adults will cover not only those abused by family members, but also those who cannot care for themselves, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday.
"The new legislation being drawn up will go beyond cases of abuse and neglect by third parties to self-neglect cases in which people can't care for themselves or inflict harm on themselves," he said at a family violence conference.
Self-neglect cases could involve people who do not feed or clothe themselves, or seek medical help adequately. Such behaviour can be deliberate or unintentional, such as when a person loses his mental capacity.
Under the proposed Vulnerable Adults Act, social workers and other professionals will get powers to enter the house of a suspected victim to assess and take the person to safety if necessary.
It protects individuals aged 18 and above who are incapable of protecting themselves from harm, due to mental or physical incapacity or disability.
The proposed law will complement other key pieces of legislation used for family violence cases, such as the Children and Young Persons and the Mental Capacity acts.
While there are not many of such cases now, Mr Chan said it is crucial to develop the legal framework to tackle them as they are expected to rise significantly as the population ages.
By 2030, it is estimated that Singapore will have about 900,000 elderly people.
Singapore sees a few hundred cases of elder abuse every year, likely the tip of the iceberg, considering that more than 400,000 people here are aged 65 and above.
"Without such a law, social workers cannot do anything other than monitor these cases, especially if the person suspected of self-neglect refuses to let us in to help," said Grace Lin, centre director at Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities.
Alex Su, a senior consultant at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said vulnerable adults can be helped earlier with the new law.
For example, one case referred to IMH involved three single sisters in their 50s and 60s who live together in a one-room rental flat.
The oldest sister, who had swollen and infected legs, or elephantitis, was struggling to support her intellectually disabled sisters.
They hardly get visits from friends or neighbours, and became a concern as they were hoarding so many things that they had to sleep along the corridor.
After social workers spent months persuading them to get help, they were eventually treated for mental health issues.
Though social workers cleaned up their flat, they had to move into a nursing home as they could not care for themselves or the flat.
"Such cases can be detected and be given help earlier if there are legal powers and proper protocol on how the different agencies can work together to identify and handle such scenarios," said Dr Su.
Mr Chan said the challenge was to decide when to intervene - stepping in too early may cause the authorities to be accused of depriving the adult of his civil rights, while doing so too late may result in harm coming to him.
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