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CNA Explains: How does Singapore screen adults who work with kids?


Around one preschool staff per 100,000 enrolled children has been convicted of child mismanagement each year between 2019 and 2022.

SINGAPORE: From molestation to rough handling of children, cases of adults in Singapore charged with such misconduct have surfaced in recent months.

In preschool, there were about 10 substantiated child mismanagement cases per 100,000 enrolled children each year between 2019 and 2022, according to the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), which regulates the sector.

Of these, about one resulted in a criminal conviction.

What checks do teachers, trainers go through?

ECDA said it checks the criminal history of preschool staff – both teaching and non-teaching – before they are allowed to start work.

Candidates have to declare whether they have been or are currently involved in investigations locally or overseas, or have received warnings from the police or ECDA.

Staff already employed and working may also have to go through checks.

ECDA previously said it conducts unannounced visits to preschools once a year on average, and will remove staff who are being investigated. Errant staff may also be barred from working in the sector.

Operators EtonHouse and Anglican Preschool Services told CNA that they conduct reference checks on job candidates.

Mrs Dianne Seet, senior director at Anglican Preschool Services, said human resources staff will call up references to ask about a candidate’s work ethic, relationship with peers, flexibility and more.

“This is done to vouch for the candidate’s ability and character,” she said.

An EtonHouse spokesperson said that on top of background checks, the school uses an online psychosocial health survey developed by the Manpower Ministry to better understand their staff’s mental well-being.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said it does not hire anyone who has committed criminal offences of a nature that would affect their suitability to be an educator.

In addition, prospective employees undergo a panel interview with experienced educators to assess their suitability and aptitude to be an educator,” said MOE.

In response to CNA's queries about activities for children at community centres, the People’s Association would only say that it has processes and due diligence in place when appointing volunteers and hiring course trainers.

For sports organisations, the Safe Sport Commission Singapore has a policy template. It includes suggestions to reduce one-on-one interactions between adults and athletes who are minors, and to conduct massages only in an “open and interruptible location with one other adult present”.

What other checks are recommended?

The human resource company Avvanz runs background checks for clients, several of which are education institutions.

According to its CEO and co-founder Kannan Chettiar, local schools usually only verify the educational background of an applicant.

But the majority of Avvanz’s international school clients in Singapore request for checks that could include global watch lists and sanctions; civil litigation records; employment history; and social media.

Social media checks can include screening for vulgarities, inappropriate sexual content, radicalism and violence. These can be red flags even if the applicant has no criminal history.

“Unfortunately, the 'hit rate' among schools – at least among the schools that we serve – is still about 30 to 35 per cent. There’s always something disturbing on social media,” said Mr Chettiar.

Ms Fiona Cher, director of government services at background screening company Veremark, said social media could help surface posts by concerned parents.

Checks on civil records could also detect cases where parents have pressed charges against a candidate.

What do parents think?

Those who spoke to CNA said background checks were the “bare minimum” before hiring adults to work with children.

Beyond pre-employment checks and spot checks on existing staff, a mother who declined to be named said parents should be able to view footage from closed-circuit television cameras in preschools.

“My friends’ feedback is that in almost all cases, they cannot get access to CCTV footage unless there is a police report,” she said.

An alleged abuse case at Kinderland Woodlands Mart, which her children previously attended, has left her more concerned about safety.

“I feel like I cannot just trust whatever that the school is telling me,” she said.

ECDA has announced that CCTVs will be mandatory in all preschools from July.

For others, the slew of recent court cases has made them think more about how to protect children from abusive adults.

“It’s a very real situation. Even from young, I keep telling my kids about it – a very open conversation,” said Madam Jacqueline Lim, who has two daughters.

She said a psychometric test could help determine if a candidate is suitable to work with children, noting that other jobs also require applicants to take such tests for different reasons.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask,” she said. “When it comes to this, it’s better to err on the side of safety.”

What else can be done?

In the United Kingdom, enhanced checks are required for those who want to look after children for a living. For home-based childcare services, adults who live or work in the home will also need to pass the checks, even if they do not work directly with the children. Those who pass these checks will get a certificate they can show to parents or employers.

In Australia, those who want to work or volunteer with children go through checks, though exact rules differ between states. New South Wales, for one, has an option for parents to request to verify whether a person has been cleared to work with children.

Singapore's police use a record of persons convicted of serious offences, to screen those who want to work in preschools and schools. But members of the public cannot access it.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has said it tries to strike a balance to keep children safe while avoiding stigmatisation for ex-offenders.

“We are considering whether more steps need to be taken, to make it mandatory that all persons employed in similar sectors working with children be screened,” MHA said then, during a 2021 response to a parliamentary question.

Beyond robust hiring practices, Singapore can also have clearer guidelines on how to create a “child-safe organisation”, said Ms Ang Boon Min, chief executive officer of the Singapore Children’s Society.

“It is about not being complacent, and ensuring that there is adequate support for staff, clear monitoring and reporting processes in place and clear communication among different stakeholders,” she said.

Nominated Member of Parliament Razwana Begum said it was important to develop a national framework that spells out how the government, social services and private sector can work together to protect children.

“We should also consider a dedicated Office for Children. This is a standalone agency with a focus on promoting and protecting the safety and well-being of children,” said the associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

“It is a myth that we can recruit with absolute certainty that an individual who (has) undergone certain education or tests is (a) ‘child safe’ individual,” she said.


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