Voluntary Care Agreement for Children in Singapore
What is a Voluntary Care Agreement?
In Singapore, a Voluntary Care Agreement (VCA) refers to a care agreement to place a child or young person under the care of a “significant person”, such as a family member or a caregiver who:
- Is closely involved or has a close relationship with the child or young person;
- Plays a significant role in the child or young person’s life; or
- Is related to the child or young person and is willing to be involved in their welfare, where their parents cannot be located
Under the CYPA, a “child” is defined as a person who is below 14 years of age. On the other hand, a “young person” refers to someone who is between 14 and below 16 years of age, but this age range will be raised to below 18 years of age in the future.
VCAs are primarily targeted at families struggling to cope with raising their children, and are made for the purpose of securing the safety and welfare of a child or a young person.
VCAs in Singapore are governed under the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA). In September 2019, Parliament passed an Act to amend the CYPA, making important changes to the provisions relating to VCAs that will take effect on a future unannounced date.
This article will discuss:
- Who are the parties to a Voluntary Care Agreement?
- What must be included in a Voluntary Care Agreement and what matters can it cover?
- What is the duration of a Voluntary Care Agreement and how can it be extended?
- What happens if there is a breach of the Voluntary Care Agreement?
- How can a Voluntary Care Agreement be terminated?
- What Happens After the Termination of the Voluntary Care Agreement?
A VCA is entered into between the Director of Social Welfare of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), or any officer whom the director has authorised to sign the agreement on his behalf, and the parent or guardian of the child or young person.
In the future however, a VCA can be entered into between the Director-General of Social Welfare of the MSF and either both the parents, or all the guardians of the child or young person. In the event that any parent or guardian cannot be contacted, is incapable, or is unwilling to decide whether or not to enter into a VCA, the Director-General may enter into a VCA with the other parent or guardian alone.
According to section 48A of the CYPA, the Director has to initiate the process of entering into a VCA with the parent or guardian if he is of the view that a VCA will promote the welfare of the child or young person.
What Must be Included in a Voluntary Care Agreement and What Matters Can It Cover?
VCAs must state the following:
- The name of the parent or guardian;
- Why the VCA is required (i.e. what are the concerns regarding the welfare of the child or young person);
- Where or with whom the child or young person will stay for the VCA period;
- How long the VCA will last for; and
- When the VCA is to be reviewed.
As for the content of the VCA itself, the agreement can cover a few or all of the following matters, to be agreed upon between the Director and the parent or guardian:
- The nature of and the arrangements for contact between the child or young person and a significant person;
- The goals to be achieved by implementing the VCA;
- The support or services to be provided to the parent or guardian to meet the welfare and promote the well-being of the child or young person;
- The supervision plan for the child or young person and matters for which the parent or guardian will be responsible;
- The type of decisions relating to the child or young person for which the Director must be consulted;
- The type of decisions relating to the child or young person for which the parent or guardian must be consulted, in situations where the child or young person is to stay with someone else other than the parent or guardian.
For example, in 2016, a VCA was entered into after the child’s caregivers noticed scratches and bruises on him after visits by his mother and her boyfriend.
What is the Duration of a Voluntary Care Agreement and How Can It be Extended?
The duration of a VCA is subject to the agreement between the Director of Social Welfare and the parent or guardian, and must not exceed 12 months.
Before the VCA expires, the Director must review the VCA in consultation with the parent or guardian on whether to extend the VCA. The VCA can only be extended if both parties agree.
In deciding whether to extend the VCA, the Director must be satisfied that doing so would be in the best interest of the child or young person. The VCA may be extended more than once, but any agreement to extend the VCA must take place before the child or young person turns 16.
Upcoming changes to the CYPA retain the same process for extending VCAs mentioned above.
However, one difference is that when the changes come into effect, the Director-General may extend the validity of the VCA by up to 3 years, even if the child’s parents or guardians do not consent to this, provided that all of the following 3 conditions are met:
- The VCA is due to expire in less than one month unless it is extended;
- Both parents or all guardians are uncontactable, incapable, or unwilling to decide whether or not to extend the VCA; and
- The Director-General is of the view that it is in the best interest of the child or young person to extend the VCA.
What Happens If There is a Breach of the Voluntary Care Agreement?
Not abiding by the terms of the VCA will be considered a breach of the VCA. For example, in the 2016 case mentioned above, one of the terms was that all contact between the child and his mother would have to be supervised by his great-grandparents.
However, the child’s great-grandfather took him to his mother’s flat and left him there alone with the couple, which the court considered to be in breach of the VCA.
Currently, the CYPA does not specify what the consequences of a breach of a VCA are exactly. However, it is possible that the Director may decide to terminate the agreement.
Alternatively, if the Director thinks that the child or young person is in need of care or protection, he may apply to the Youth Court for an order under section 49 of the CYPA for alternative arrangements to be made in the child’s interests, e.g. for the child to be committed to a place of safety or temporary care.
How Can a Voluntary Care Agreement be Terminated?
There are 2 main ways by which a VCA may be terminated, namely when either party to the VCA initiates it, or if the conditions for the automatic termination of the agreement have been met.
The first way is simpler, and either party to the VCA may terminate the agreement by giving at least 2 days’ written notice to the other party.
Alternatively, the VCA terminates automatically in 3 situations:
- If it has been proved before the Youth Court that the child or young person has committed an offence;
- If the Youth Court is satisfied that the child or young person is in need of care or protection (and an order of protection is to be made accordingly); or
- If the parent or guardian proves to the Youth Court that he is unable to control the child or young person
When the amendments to the CYPA come into force, a VCA may be terminated in 3 situations:
- When the Director-General gives written notice to the parents or guardians who are party to the VCA;
- When any parent or guardian party to the VCA gives written notice to the Director-General; or
- When the parent or guardian who is not a party to the VCA gives notice to the Director-General and the other parent or guardian.
What Happens After the Termination of the Voluntary Care Agreement?
Upon the termination of the VCA, the child returns to the care of his/her parents or guardians.
However, if the situation at home worsens to the point where the child is in danger or is clearly in need of extra care or protection (e.g. if the child or young person has been, is being or is at risk of being ill-treated), the Director of Social Welfare can then make an application to the Youth Court for a formal care and protection order.
In the future, after the changes to the CYPA come into force, if you as the caregiver wish to continue caring for the child even after the VCA is terminated, you may request for the Director-General to apply to the Youth Court for an order that the child or young person is to remain in your care until the child or young person turns 21 years of age.
That said, the Youth Court must first be satisfied that both the parents or all the guardians are not fit to provide care for the child or young person, and that it would be inappropriate to return the child or young person to the care and custody of any of his/her parents.
VCAs are made with the child’s best interests at heart and represent the joint efforts of both the parents and Director/officers to collaborate on a voluntary basis to ensure the safety and well-being of the child.
If you suspect that a child belonging to your relatives is being abused, or if you think that a VCA would be appropriate for him/her, consider seeking legal advice from a lawyer on your options to protect the child.