Help for suspects with special needs

Help for suspects with special needs
Training officer Mohammed Saibi and pharmaceutical technician Zaridah Hon are among 60 volunteers trained as appropriate adults to help people with developmental disabilities communicate better with police investigators.

PEOPLE with developmental disabilities such as autism will no longer be left unaccompanied when they are taken to police stations to help with investigations.

Trained volunteers, known as appropriate adults, will help them in their interaction with investigation officers under a scheme launched yesterday.

The scheme will address concerns that people with special needs would, among other things, admit to offences they did not commit, provide inaccurate information to police or incriminate themselves due to a lack of communication skills.

The launch of the Appropriate Adult Scheme comes after a pilot run was successfully conducted at Bedok Police Division in 2013. The trial helped more than 50 people with developmental disabilities.

During the trial, volunteers facilitated interviews and enabled those with special needs to understand officers' queries and communicate more effectively.

The Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office, which administers the scheme, aims to grow the pool of volunteers to more than 300, from 60 currently.

This is in line with the scheme's expansion to all the six police land divisions.

To do so, it is working with the Central Singapore Community Development Council (CDC) and the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) to recruit more volunteers. These volunteers must be willing to be activated at all hours of the day.

Speaking at an event to launch the scheme, Central Singapore District Mayor Denise Phua said: "Persons with special needs, especially those who are more vulnerable, deserve fair and dignified treatment under the law."

She added: "This is not doing charity, it is a small and significant way to change the complexion of a system to ensure equal access to a citizen's rights to fully understand and express his or her views during police proceedings."

Ms Phua noted that the scheme is "very significant" and widely adopted by criminal justice systems in many developed and progressive countries.

The CDC will support the scheme by inviting its community partners to refer interested persons to sign up as volunteers.

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said appropriate adults play a "key and unprecedented role towards greater impartiality and fairness" in Singapore's criminal justice system for those with developmental disabilities.

"These special needs individuals should not be prejudiced by reason of their inability to communicate effectively," he added.

Volunteers must be aged above 21, and have a passion for helping persons with developmental disabilities. Applicants have to attend a one-day selection process and a training session. They will also be screened by the police.

Ms Zaridah Hon, 46, a pharmaceutical technician with a 21-year-old son who has Down syndrome, said she found out about the scheme through the NCSS.

"My son is a special needs person, so I know the difficulties they face in communicating in public and decided to close the barriers faced by them," she said.

She signed up as a volunteer this year. "We use (words of) positive assurance, so that they feel relaxed and not under pressure," she said.

Mr Mohammed Saibi, 50, a training officer, said volunteers try to break up questions asked by a police officer so that it is easier for a special needs person to understand them. They may also use drawings to get a person to better describe an incident.

Those interested in becoming an appropriate adult can register with the Law Society.

This article was first published on Apr 1, 2015.
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