Would an Appropriate Adult have saved Benjamin Lim?

Jan 06, 2017 07.00PM |

by Bertha Henson

IS IT too far-fetched to say that it took the death of a 14-year-old for a whole community to move? Probably not, since a new scheme to have adults accompany minors who get into trouble with the law seems to have been the direct, and most tangible, result of the suicide of Benjamin Lim.

Remember him? He was interviewed by police for allegedly molesting a girl, went home and jumped out of his window. He was subject of a debate in Parliament last March and a coroner’s inquiry into his death was held in August. You can read more about the case from the links below.

His death had raised questions of whether young people know enough of their rights or are emotionally geared for unwanted police attention, however nice the men and women in blue are.

So now, after a multi-agency review of police procedures, we have the Appropriate Adults Scheme for Young Suspects, to be rolled out from April, with an initial 100 volunteers. This means that if your kid, aged below 16, gets arrested by the police, chances are there will be an adult with him or her when he or she is being interviewed by the police.

Is it too far-fetched to say that it took the death of a 14-year-old for a whole community to move?

And in case you’ve been weaned on too many American cops-and-robbers television shows, no, you, the parent, cannot be the “appropriate” adult. That makes the Singapore scheme somewhat different from that in Britain where “familiar” faces such as parents and guardians can be the “appropriate adult”.

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The reason, according to officials at a briefing today, is because you, the parent, wouldn’t be a neutral party to police proceedings; you’ll probably end up overly-protecting your kid or threatening him with even more trouble at home. It has to be a stranger, trained to spot signs of emotional distress in kids when they run up against the law.

And don’t start thinking that you can talk to the adult after Ah Boy or Ah Girl is done with the cops to find out what happened. There’s the investigating officer for that.

Parents may wish to be there for their kids, but it’s still comforting that another adult, possibly a parent too, is holding Ah Boy’s hand. In any case, parents were never allowed at police interviews in the past. This should therefore count as an improvement.

Now, this is quite a massive project given that more than 7,000 young suspects were arrested between 2011 and 2015, or about four or five students a day. Adults on the scheme have to be on 24/7 standby and can be activated at any time. Singapore already has some experience, because a similar scheme for those with mental disabilities started in 2015. Administered by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled, it has 240 volunteers so far.

The social service organisation has yet to be picked for the job, but the training regime is likely to be similar albeit geared to deal with the sensitivities of young people.

Would having the scheme in place have made a difference to Benjamin? According to the coroner, the conduct of both police and school staff were “commendable“. Coroner Marvin Bay didn’t go so far as to recommend such a scheme, but made suggestions on improving the communications between the young people and the police, like telling them exactly what sort of trouble they are in.


Not a liaison

What would the AA’s relationship be with the young people’s kin?

Benjamin’s parents went public about their distress at what they saw as unsympathetic treatment from the police and the school. Can the appropriate adult be the liaison between parents and officialdom?

That’s not the role, officials at a briefing today said. The end of the police interview marks the end of the AA’s job. And if there is another interview, another adult would be in place. So it’s more about being a calming presence for the young person during an important part of police procedures.

Officials wouldn’t give the breakdown of the 7,000 juvenile arrests by year, so we have no clue if the numbers are rising or falling and how many more “adults” would be needed. What was more assuring was the 15 per cent figure on the proportion of such young people who were actually charged in court.

It seems that for the most part, young people are let off with a ticking off or some kind of rehabilitation activity.

Some people may think this is mollycoddling the kids, or an acknowledgement of a lack of trust in police conduct and procedures. Maybe after two interviews, appropriate adults will even consider it time-wasting. After all, young people get up to all sorts of things.

Would having such an adult with Benjamin during the police interview be helpful? No one knows what went through his mind on the day of the suicide. But as a community, we can at least say we did the best we can.

So here’s the contact if you want to sign up: aays@ncss.gov.sg.


Read our articles to find out more about Benjamin Lim’s case:


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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