Doing justice by fixing broken young lives

Whether a child was a juvenile arrest case, a care and protection case or a beyond parental control case depended on when someone saw his problems.

SINGAPORE - 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.

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