Child Abuse in Singapore: What Can Parents Do?

child scared of father holding belt

Child abuse cases in Singapore have been on the rise. According to statistics from the Ministry of Family and Social Development, cases have more than doubled from 551 in 2015 to 1,163 in 2018.

Unfortunately, it is likely that there still remain many unreported cases. Many abused children are too scared to speak up about the abuse because they are worried that no one will believe them, or because they blame themselves for the abuse.

Children may also find it hard to come forward with the abuse, as most victims are abused by someone they know. Statistics from the United States show that the most common relationships between a child abuse victim and their abuser include:

  • A parent
  • A relative
  • An unmarried partner of a parent
  • A friend or neighbour
  • A day-care provider.

This article seeks to specifically help parents who suspect their children have been abused (including cases where the abuse is committed by the other parent) and want to know what they can do in this situation to protect their child from abusers.

Note that the age range to be considered a victim of child abuse depends on the offence the suspected abuser has allegedly committed and will be covered in the relevant sections below.

What is Child Abuse?

The Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) defines child abuse as “ill-treatment”.

A person is said to have ill-treated a child if he/she ill-treats or allows a child in their care to be ill-treated, through the following acts:

  • Physically hitting or sexually abusing the child
  • Wilfully or unreasonably causing the child to do something dangerous
  • Wilfully or unreasonably causing the child to do something that would likely harm the child’s physical or emotional wellbeing or health
  • Abandoning the child
  • Neglecting, abandoning, or exposing the child to a situation that would likely harm the child’s physical or emotional wellbeing or health

A person can still be liable for child abuse even if the child did not actually suffer injury because someone had intervened in the situation.

The age limit for a child to be considered ill-treated under the CYPA is currently 16 years old. It will be raised to 18 years old once the proposed changes under the CYPA (Amendment) Bill come into effect.

What are the Signs of Child Abuse?

Child abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, or neglect. More details on each of these types of abuse are described in the table below:

Type of abuse Possible signs of abuse displayed by the child
Physical abuse

Purposely hurting a child physically such as by beating, burning, cutting, or shaking the child.

  • Unexplainable injuries on the child
  • Signs of aggression
Emotional abuse

Harming a child psychologically such as by belittling or threatening the child excessively.

  • Low self-esteem
  • Headaches or stomach-aches with no medical cause, underlying depression or anxiety
  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating problems
Sexual abuse

Taking advantage of a child sexually. This even includes acts such as showing the child pornography.

  • Torn or bloody underwear
  • Pain in the abdominal area
  • Pain or itching in the genital area
  • Unusual interest in sexual matters inappropriate for the child’s age

When a child is not given enough necessities such as supervision, food, clothing, medical aid, and lodging.

  • Poor hygiene
  • Unattended medical needs
  • Stealing food
  • Desperately affectionate behaviour

What Should You Do If You Suspect Your Child has been Abused?

1) Ask your child for more information on what has happened

Try to find out when and where the alleged abuse happened. If they are unwilling to speak up, try to prompt your child to share what happened by talking about your child’s feelings, or emphasising that it is not their fault. This is especially important in the case of sexual abuse.

Note that if you wish to confront the alleged abuser at this stage, it is advised that you do so only after you have gathered evidence pointing to the alleged abuser and reported your child’s alleged abuse (see the steps below). This is because it is possible for the alleged abuser to destroy evidence or get violent.

2) Gather evidence of the abuse 

To do this, you can:

  • Get written testimonies from your child and other eyewitnesses (if any) of the abuse. If your child cannot read or write yet, write down or record what they have said.
  • Take photos of any injuries.
  • Get a medical report detailing your child’s injuries (if any) and how they may have been caused.

If required, a medical examination should be sought as soon as possible. This is because the signs of some forms of abuse such as sexual abuse may be only temporary.

3) Make a report 

If you find that your child might have been abused, you should report this to the police and/or the relevant child protection agencies.

Making a police report

A police report should be made immediately if you believe that the child’s life is in danger. For example, where the alleged abuser lives in the same house as the child.

How do I make a police report?

To make a police report, go down to any nearby police station and give a statement of the alleged abuse to the police. It would be helpful to bring any evidence you have collected to aid the police in their investigations.

For cases of emergency (such as the one mentioned above), it is advised that you dial 999 immediately.

Upon which, the police will carry out investigations. The prosecution will then decide if it has sufficient evidence to bring a charge(s) against the alleged abuser in court.

Making a report to the relevant child protection agencies

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) website provides a list of the relevant child protection agencies and their hotlines which you may contact.

Once a report is received, MSF will launch an inquiry to first determine if the child is a victim of the abuse and if needed, provide medical attention to the child. Should the inquiry reveal that an offence (relating to the abuse) has been committed, MSF will contact the police to conduct a criminal investigation.

An assessment will also be conducted by MSF to determine the level of protection for the child and if necessary, make alternative care arrangements for the child and family.

4. (If required) File a Magistrate’s Complaint

If the police do not take action, you may make a Magistrate’s Complaint. A Magistrate’s Complaint will allow you to take on a private prosecution against the alleged abuser, rather than have the criminal proceeding initiated through the state (which requires the police to take action).

After receiving the Magistrate’s Complaint, the Magistrate will decide if the case is worth pursuing. If it is worth pursuing, the Magistrate may order the case to continue through state prosecution, mediation or private prosecution.

Read our other article for more information on filing a Magistrate’s Complaint in Singapore.

What are the Relevant Offences for Child Abuse and Their Penalties?

An alleged abuser may be charged with the following offences, and receive the following penalties if convicted:

Child Abuse Offence Case example / elaboration Penalty (for each charge)
Ill-treatment of a child under the Children and Young Persons Act

The victim’s age limit for this offence is 16.

More information on what constitutes “ill-treatment” can be found above.

A physical education teacher was sentenced to 3 months’ jail and fined $3,000 for throwing a volleyball at a 9-year-old’s head, and locking the boy in an equipment room. He faced 1 charge for child abuse and 1 charge for wrongful confinement. Fine of up to $8,000 or a maximum jail term of 8 years, or both.

On top of or instead of this sentence, the offender may be ordered to execute a bond that may require him to exhibit good behaviour for a certain time period, or attend counselling, psychotherapy or other rehabilitative programmes.

If the offender has caused death to the child:

Fine of up to $40,000 or to a maximum jail term of 14 years, or both.

Voluntarily causing hurt/grievous hurt under the Penal Code

Grievous hurt refers to more serious injuries such as fractures, permanent facial disfiguration, loss of sight or hearing, and death.

There is no victim age limit for this offence.

A woman was sentenced to jail for 6½ years for 2 charges of causing grievous hurt and 1 charge of child abuse to her 23-month-old son. She had slapped him so severely that he hit his head against a metal table leg and developed cerebral palsy. For voluntarily causing hurt:

Fine of up to $5,000, jail term of up to 3 years, or both.

For voluntarily causing grievous hurt:

Jail term of up to 10 years, and either fined or caned.

Sexual assault involving penetration under the Penal Code

There is no victim age limit for this offence.

A man was sentenced to 23 years in jail for making 2 young girls perform sex acts on him. The girls were daughters of a friend whose house he had been living in. He had pleaded guilty to 3 charges of aggravated sexual assault by penetration. Jail term of up to 20 years, and either fined or caned.

In cases of aggravated sexual assault by penetration where the offender;

  • Hurts any person in order to commit the offence;
  • Threatens another person with death or with hurt to any person in order to commit the offence;
  • Commits the offence against a child under 14 without the child’s consent; or
  • Commits the offence against a child under 14 with whom he is in an exploitative relationship with:

Jail term of at least 8 years and up to 20 years, and caning of at least 12 strokes.

Sexual penetration of a minor under 16 under the Penal Code

Sexual penetration of a girl or boy under 16, even if consensual, is an offence in Singapore.

A man was jailed for 16 months for having consensual sex with a 14-year-old girl in his house when his parents were not home.

He had been sentenced twice before for underage sex – once with a 12-year-old girl and once with a 14-year-old girl.

Jail term of up to 10 years, or a fine, or both.

If the offender is in a relationship that is exploitative of the victim, or if the victim is below 14 years of age:

Jail term of up to 20 years, and either fined or caned.

Rape under the Penal Code

If a man rapes a girl or boy under 14, it is an offence in Singapore even if the act was consensual.

A man was jailed 46 months after he pleaded guilty to 3 charges of penetration of a minor under 14.

The man had asked a 12-year-old girl, whose parents were in jail, to be his “girlfriend”. He would cook for her, pick her up from school, help her with her homework and gave her money. Although she was reluctant, he also had unprotected sex with her repeatedly with her consent. The girl sought help from her teacher only when the man started forcing her to have unnatural sex with him.

Same as the penalties for sexual assault involving penetration above

Will Your Child be Removed From You? 

The Director of Social Welfare, a person appointed by the Director, or police officer may remove an abused child to a temporary place of care and protection or the care of a fit person, if they think the child is in need of care or protection.

This means that your child may be removed from you if your child lives with you and there is someone in your household that may be abusing your child. During this time, the child may also undergo a medical or psychological assessment, as necessary.

Within generally 3 working days of the child’s removal, he/she will be brought before a Youth Court for his care arrangements to be decided on.

What is a Personal Protection Order and How Do I File One?

A personal protection order (PPO) is a court order preventing your child’s alleged abuser from committing family violence against your child.

You may take out a PPO for your child against their alleged abuser if:

  1. An act of family violence has been committed/is likely to be committed against your child; and
  2. A PPO is necessary for the protection of your child.

On top of a PPO, you may also apply for other protection orders to enhance your child’s protection against their alleged abuser. For example, a Domestic Exclusion Order (DEO) will ban the alleged abuser from entering the house your child has been living in (or only certain parts of the house).

If the PPO is breached, the alleged abuser can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed for up to 6 months, or both. Repeat offenders can be fined up to $5,000, jailed for up to 12 months or both.

Read our other article to find out more about personal protection orders in Singapore.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer?

While hiring a lawyer is not compulsory, you may want to do so in order to get expert advice on and assistance with protecting your child from further abuse. For example, a lawyer may help you apply for a personal protection order on your child’s behalf to protect your child from further abuse.

If you decide to make a Magistrate’s Complaint, the lawyer may also assist with gathering evidence and drafting the criminal charge(s) against the alleged abuser.

You can get in touch with experienced criminal lawyers here.