Help for vulnerable suspects during probes

All criminal suspects deemed to be intellectually disabled will soon get access to trained volunteers to help them during police investigations.

The Appropriate Adult Scheme is set to be expanded to cover all police stations by this year, after a successful six-month trial, according to the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), which helps run the scheme.

The role of the Appropriate Adult "is critical", Ms Tina Hung, NCSS deputy chief executive officer and group director for service planning and development, told The Sunday Times.

"Persons with intellectual and mental capacity challenges may not fully comprehend the questions posed to them during a police interview," she said.

"The trained volunteers provide the vulnerable persons a calming influence and emotional support, as such settings can be overwhelming for them."

The pilot, which was carried out in the Bedok Police Division and ended last October, involved 60 volunteers from students to retirees. They assisted in more than 30 cases over the six months.

With 97 neighbourhood police centres and police posts island- wide - more than four times the 23 in the Bedok Police Division - there will be a need to recruit more volunteers, said a spokesman for the Law Society.

The Bedok trial got more than 120 applications, with 60 chosen and trained by the Law Society's pro bono services.

Training consultant Stephen Chee, one of the volunteers, was involved in six cases. The 60-year-old said most of the suspects he dealt with "did not seem to understand what they were being asked".

One case involved a man suspected of molestation.

"I could see rightaway that he didn't understand the term 'erect', but he said 'yes' when asked if he committed the crime. I had to break it down into simpler language so that he understood the charges in order to give an accurate statement."

Volunteers are on call around the clock.

Administrative manager Shareen Banu, who has three children, was once called into a police station at 1am and returned home only two hours later. But the 38-year-old is eager to continue volunteering.

"I want to help ensure that things are done right for these vulnerable people, and I'm glad that the agencies are doing the right thing by setting up this programme and making it available at all police stations," said Ms Banu.

There were 138 offenders with mental disabilities placed on probation in 2012, more than three times the 40 in 2005.

Said Ms Hung: "We encourage more people who have an interest to help persons with intellectual and mental capacity challenges to step forward to volunteer and be trained as Appropriate Adults when the scheme is rolled out to all police stations later this year."

This article was published on May 18 in The Straits Times.

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