When facing cops, young suspects can have adult present

From April, suspects under the age of 16 will be accompanied by independent trained volunteers during police interviews, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said yesterday.

This follows a multi-agency review on investigation processes for young people after schoolboy Benjamin Lim, 14, committed suicide soon after the police questioned him about an alleged molest early last year.

The MHA said these volunteers will come under the new Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS) and will be trained to spot signs of distress, aid communication between the suspect and the police "when necessary", and provide emotional support.

At the press conference, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the existing processes are sound, but adjustments are needed to further improve coordination among agencies.

Commenting on the need for an Appropriate Adult to accompany a young suspect, Mr Shanmugam said: "Regardless of how the police treats him, he's still in uniform."

Bringing in an independent party would bring comfort to the young person, he added.

The Ministry of Education (MOE), which took part in the review, said it will also introduce more measures to support students under investigation.

A staff member familiar to the student will generally accompany him or her in the police vehicle, said an MOE spokesman last evening. Besides informing parents of the arrest as soon as possible, schools will keep in touch "to work out follow-up steps" such as monitoring the child's well-being and making counselling support available, MOE added.

Mr Azhar Wahab, 35, who has a young son, wondered whether it would be better for a parent to be present during police interviews.

"Parents should be involved if the kids are under 16. A volunteer might not know head or tail about the child," he told The New Paper.

But experts told TNP that third-party volunteers would be more objective and preferable to having parents involved in investigations.

Said lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam: "Parents can be overprotective and not allow the child to answer, which will hinder investigations."

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital agreed, adding that parental instincts might impede investigations. "Parents can be emotional about their children and can interrupt the investigations. I think the AAYS is a good compromise," said Dr Lim.

He also felt a teacher who is familiar with the child would be inappropriate.

"The temptation to protect the child is problematic, and the teacher's familiarity to the child will hurt the objectivity of the investigations," he added.

An AAYS implementation committee, led by the Attorney-General's Chamber, has been set up and the National Council of Social Service is in the process of selecting and appointing a suitable service provider to administer the scheme.

It builds on the success of the Appropriate Adult Scheme for persons with mental disabilities, introduced in 2015.

Singapore is not alone in adopting such a scheme for young suspects.

In Britain, volunteers are "responsible for safeguarding the rights and welfare of a child or 'mentally vulnerable' adult who is either detained by police or is interviewed under caution voluntarily."

The volunteers can help to explain documents to suspects, communicate with authorities to help suspects understand questions and intervene if the line of questioning is repetitive or oppressive.

But the MHA said volunteers under the AAYS must remain neutral and not advocate for the young suspect, provide legal advice or disrupt the course of justice in any way.

The AAYS will be introduced in Bedok Police Division, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Central Narcotics Bureau in April, before being fully implemented by mid-2019.

The scheme is expected to cost around $400,000 in the first phase and will start with about 100 volunteers. Those interested to be an Appropriate Adult for the AAYS can sign up at aays@ncss.gov.sg.


This article was first published on Jan 7, 2017.
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