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Hard to spot child abuse 'red flags' when parents lie, kids fear speaking out: Social workers

Social workers said they look out for signs of children in distress during visits to homesThey try to build rapport with the family and attempt to engage in activities with the childrenHowever, it is not always possible for social workers and volunteers to spot a child at risk, especially when it comes to bigger families, or if parents are not forthcomingHealthcare workers, and society at large, can also play a role in looking out for at-risk childrenThe everyday person can be more observant of children around them and raise the alarm when they spot something amiss

By Deborah Lau & Loraine Lee Published September 28, 2023 Updated September 28, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

SINGAPORE — Although the man seemed polite and gentle, what made social worker Benny Thiam suspicious was the home environment. It was too quiet, even though there were three young children playing.

They hardly made a sound, unlike children their age, except once when they dropped something and there was a loud bang.

Mr Thiam, an assistant senior social worker at a family service centre, then saw the father staring at the children in an intimidating manner as they froze.

Mr Thiam later found out that the man had been using “harsh physical punishments” on his children.

While social workers like him do look out for signs of children in distress when engaging families, these may be difficult to spot because some parents lie or the young ones refuse to speak.

“When there are concerns of safety issues, we use a Child Abuse Reporting Guide to determine the next steps of actions, such as escalating it to protective services. Hence, having a clear assessment is important. This can be done collaboratively with the other professionals involved in the children’s lives, such as schools,” Mr Thiam said.

TODAY spoke to social workers and social service agencies about their challenges in reaching out to at-risk children following the case involving Umaisyah, a two-year-old girl whose remains were found in a pot.

Her father was on Sept 19 sentenced to 21-and-a-half years in jail and 18 strokes of the cane for abusing her to death.

The 35-year-old man and his then-wife had hidden Umaisyah’s death for five years by making up excuses whenever the authorities asked about her.

The case has raised questions among many people, the main one being: How could her disappearance have gone undetected by the authorities and social service agencies for so long? 

Social workers said that while they try their best to spot red flags during visits to households that they are helping, their powers are limited.


Social workers said that home visits are key for them to get a glimpse of a family’s life and spot red flags.

For a start, social workers assess available information about their clients before a home visit, to understand the family’s background.

Mr Marcus Lim, lead social worker at Touch Community Services and head of its family support, said that they do this is by looking at past documents gathered by previous social workers or other community partners.

“Social workers are guided by formal assessment frameworks and tools in their engagement of the family, which cover areas like their safety, well-being and any signs of risks,” he added.

“They will also look out for the vulnerable members of the family such as seniors or children. Some signs that social workers look out for include malnourishment, noticeable bruises, or absenteeism in the case of school-going children.”

In Umaisyah’s case, the Ministry of Education had contacted her family in 2017 to check why the girl had not registered for Primary 1. The mother lied that her estranged husband had taken the child away, while the father lied that his relatives were caring for the girl in Malaysia.

The ministry said in response to TODAY’s queries that when children are not registered for Primary 1, it tries to locate and reach out to their parents, providing guidance and helping to place the child in a school.


Social workers and volunteers try to build rapport with the family during their home visits.

Ms Fion Phua, founder of community group Keeping Hope Alive, said that they attempt to engage in activities with the children so that they can hear from the children themselves if something is amiss.

Ms Dorcas Chua, who works with families and young children, said that if the children are slow to warm up to the social workers, it can be difficult to engage them.

Ms Pamela Tan, another social worker, tries to break the ice by playing with them.

With play being children’s natural language, this could help them better express themselves, enabling social workers to look into how the children perceive themselves and others and the world they live in, she added.

However, it is not always possible for social workers to spot a child at risk, especially when it comes to bigger families, or if parents are not entirely forthcoming, said social workers.

“Many times, we can’t control what parents tell us. But we will usually prompt and put emphasis on the concerns of children when certain information appears to be a red flag,” Ms Chua said.

“When workers assess that there are concerning factors but we have no evidence to suggest children are at immediate risk, we will corroborate more information from partners or even insist on seeing the children to assess the situation ourselves.”

Social workers said that preschools can help ensure a young child’s well-being while providing accountability. Currently, it is not compulsory for a child to attend preschool.

“A major cause of child abuse might be spurred by the stress from caregiving, so placing the child in preschool can serve as a form of respite for the parents,” Mr Lim from Touch Community Services said.


Healthcare workers, and society at large, can also play a role in looking out for at-risk children.

Mr Thiam the senior social worker said: “Immunisation schedules are another way to monitor the well-being of the child. When children go for immunisation vaccinations, medical staff would be able to sight the child and pick up any safety issues. Height and weight could also give some hint. Similarly, missing vaccinations could also be a red flag.”

The everyday person can be more observant of children around them and not fear being seen as busybodies, Ms Phua from Keeping Hope Alive said, for instance when they “spot a child who is dirty, unkempt or with bruises”.

“Having love and care for the people around, and just checking up on them, can save a life… being observant can also mean raising an alarm when something is out of the norm for a child.”

If you suspect a case of child abuse, call the National Anti-Violence Helpline at 1800-777-000. If the child’s life is in imminent danger, call the police at 999. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NICOLE LAM

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