SINGAPORE, Dec 4 — In the case of a teen girl who was sexually abused by her caregiver, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said the caregiver, his wife and the girl had undergone regular therapy sessions, check-ins and home visits by professionals, both before and during the girl’s home leave and stay with them, but none of the professionals raised any concerns of sexual abuse.

Nor did the girl, who was 16 at the time, disclose the abuse to them, MSF said in response to TODAY’s queries, adding that the sexual abuse was only discovered when she told her school teacher what had happened in November 2020.

The man had also undergone background reference checks and suitability assessments by social service agencies, the ministry said, and trained professionals had assessed him and his wife to be “caring and capable” of supporting the girl’s needs.

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TODAY had asked MSF why it had assessed the man and his wife to be suitable caregivers for the girl and why they had been allowed to embark on a process to legally adopt her.

The man pled guilty to four charges of engaging in a sexually exploitative relationship with someone between the ages of 16 and 18 and was sentenced to 10 years’ jail and nine strokes of the cane last month.

The court heard that the man was a youth development trainer and met the victim while facilitating a youth camp at the trauma-focused treatment centre where she was placed.

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He then expressed an interest in “(offering) a family” to the girl and he and his wife started the process to legally adopt her as their daughter, but he abused her instead.

Kith caregivers are adults who are not related to a child, who meet the child through family or community connections, and are not registered as foster parents, MSF said.

This allowed the girl to have “phased contact” with the couple, ranging from supervised visitation at the treatment centre to outings, before progressing to home leave and being placed full-time in the couple’s care.

Before the Covid-19 circuit breaker, the teen began spending home leave with the couple that started from a day-long visit to multiple times a week from December 2019 to early April 2020, MSF said.

Home leave was suspended from April to May 2020 during the circuit breaker, and resumed gradually in June that year. From Sept 15, she began living with the couple full-time.

It was in the man’s home that the teen faced regular inappropriate touch from the man and was later forced to engage in sex acts with him almost daily, sometimes while in the same bed as his wife, the prosecution told the court.

‘No risk factors’ during assessment

MSF said that all volunteers in MSF-funded programmes involving contact with clients undergo background reference checks and suitability assessments by social service agencies.

When the couple was being assessed on their suitability to be the teen’s kith caregivers, “no risk factors emerged” and they were found to have no prior criminal record or adverse history.

MSF said that trained professionals assessed the couple to be “caring and capable” of supporting the girl’s needs.

The teen also received support from a team of professionals including psychologists and case workers from the treatment centre, psychiatrists and psychologists from the Institute of Mental Health and a Child Protection Officer.

Regular therapy sessions, check-ins and home visits by professionals were conducted prior to and during the teen’s home leave at the couple’s house. On average, these check-ins and sessions would occur weekly.

The couple also regularly met with the professionals and were observed to be capable of providing supportive care, said MSF.

No sexual abuse concerns were detected during this period or disclosed by the victim. While it was noted that she had signs of self-harm, MSF said that this would not indicate that she was being sexually abused as she had a history of past trauma and ongoing self-harm behaviour predating her entering the couple’s care.

MSF said that the couple did not eventually follow through with the adoption process.

The teen is currently staying with her relatives and receives support from a social worker from a Family Service Centre and a hospital psychologist.

“Child abuse is often hard to detect, particularly when a caregiver actively hides it. This case highlights how detection can be difficult even with close and constant support provided by professionals,” said MSF.

“It also shows the critical role of having trusted individuals in one’s life. In this case, if not for the teacher whom the young person trusted and confided in, the abuse might have remained hidden much longer.” — TODAY