Teens may not know their legal rights: Teen death in Yishun raises issue

Teens may not know their legal rights: Teen death in Yishun raises issue
PHOTO: The New Paper

Should parents or guardians be present when the police question a young accused person?

The issue surfaced after a 14-year-old boy's death in Yishun on Tuesday.

The Secondary 3 boy was being investigated for molest before he fell from his 14th-storey window. He had been taken into police custody and released on bail on the same day of his death.

His mother said he had admitted to the crime during the police interview.

But when she later probed him, she said he told her: "I did not do it, but since everyone thinks that I did it, then I did it."

We are not identifying the boy, his family or his school as he was a minor. 

His parents want to know why he was questioned by the police without their presence.

Shouldn't parents or guardians be present when a young accused person is questioned by the police?

According to current practice, there is no need for it to be so.

Said ambassador for the National Crime Prevention Council, Mr Lionel de Souza: "A police investigation is about searching for the truth. Having a parent in the same room with the accused would hamper this search, because they will not be neutral parties."

Currently, there is no legal requirement for parents, guardians or legal counsel to be present in the interview room when a minor is involved.

"It is not like in American television, where suspects are shown to refuse to speak until their lawyer is there," he said.

If the minor is deemed by the investigation officer to be emotionally unstable, he can call for a counsellor to be present during the interview.

"But never the parents. If there is reason to doubt whether the accused was coerced or not, this can be brought up by lawyers in court," added the 73-year-old former policeman.

VIDEO

Starting this year, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will also pilot the video recording of interviews during investigation, the Ministry said previously.

This was in response to MPs and lawyers who have called for such video recordings of how law enforcement officers take statements.

"This will allow the courts to take the interviewee's demeanour into account in determining the admissibility or weight to be accorded to the interviewee's statement," MHA said.

Lawyers who spoke to The New Paper feel that more should be done in cases of accused minors.

Veteran lawyer Amolat Singh believes the "default position" should be to assume that a minor does not understand his situation properly because of his level of maturity.

Said Mr Singh: "Children are very vulnerable. If teachers and principals can terrify a child, how do you think they would react to a police officer?

"Being called up by the police is a terrifying situation for them. Kids will say whatever they think the police want to hear to get out of the situation."

Although a programme exists for young or vulnerable witnesses or victims of a crime, it does not apply to minors who are accused of a crime.

Known as the Witness Support Programme, volunteers will give emotional support to witnesses who are under 18 or have a mental capacity of a person under 18.

Something similar should be extended to a young accused person, suggested Mr Singh.

Lawyer Terence Seah of Virtus Law agreed: "Young persons might not know their rights and might be subject to unfair pressure from the police if they choose to do so. It would be helpful for the parents to be present."

In a case like this boy's, Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, believes there is a difference between young children and teenagers in such situations.

Dr Lim said: "Young children may be easily intimidated but for teenagers, it is difficult to say as there are many factors. Teenagers can be highly independent or dependent on adults."

It is also in the interest of the police to make the interview comfortable for children and teen witnesses as this allows them to record accurate statements, he said.

A better way to prevent a conflict of interest with investigators would be for an accused minor to know that their parents or guardians are in the vicinity, said child psychiatrist Brian Yeo.

Said Dr Yeo: "They do not specifically have to be in the same room as their child, but be nearby. At the very least, their proximity would help reassure their child.

"Of course, authorities should also be mindful of what they say to the child too."

The bedroom where the teenager jumped down from.

School: We were discreet, supportive

The boy's school had sought to minimise any embarrassment caused to him when he was taken away by the police, said its principal.

Speaking to his parents and the school, The New Paper pieced together what had happened before the incident.

On Jan 26, about five policemen in civilian clothes arrived at the principal's office during recess time and asked to speak to the boy.

The school principal said: "When the plainclothes police officers came to the school, we were discreet in bringing the student to the office to meet with the police."

He also ensured that the boy was able to finish his meal before he was taken to the police station.

It was at this time that the boy's mother received a call from a police officer using her son's mobile phone.

She told TNP: "I was shocked because I don't believe my son could do such a thing. He was such a filial and obedient boy."

The boy later left with the police in an unmarked car, at a time when the other students were in class, said the principal.

He added: "Throughout the process, we were mindful that as a young student, he would be frightened and we strove to give him as much emotional support as possible."

A police spokesman said the boy was not handcuffed throughout his time with the police.

They had visited the school "to establish the identify of a student who was captured on closed-circuit television footage at the lift lobby of an HDB block", said the spokesman.

The boy, an accomplished National Police Cadet Corps cadet, was also looking forward to attending a three-day school camp in Malaysia for his Secondary 3 cohort the next day.

STAY CLOSE

At around 3pm, his mother said she received a call from the school counsellor who advised that her son should stay close to his parents rather than be away at camp.

They agreed, and his mother later told the boy that he would not be attending the camp.

A while later, the boy quietly locked himself in his bedroom and fell to his death from the window.

The principal said: "The school is deeply saddened by our student's passing. He was a good student who was well-liked by staff and schoolmates.

"His well-being was always topmost in our minds."

The boy was cremated on Thursday afternoon.

Helplines

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS)

1800-221-4444

National Family Service Centre

1800-838-0100

Singapore Association for Mental Health

1800-283-7019

Care Corner Mandarin Counselling Centre

1800-353-5800

Touchline (Touch Youth Service)

1800-377-2252

Tinkle Friend: Children

1800-274-4788 on weekdays


This article was first published on Jan 30, 2016.
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