Be an Active Bystander – How to Spot and Respond to Family Violence
In 2015, two-year-old Mohamad Daniel Mohamad Nasser died from injuries sustained from horrific abuse by his mother and her boyfriend. Daniel’s little body had endured unbearable torture – he was slapped, stomped on and pinched for 25 days, before succumbing to his heavy injuries. No one informed the authorities until it was too late.
If only someone had sounded the alarm earlier…
In a Facebook post, then Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin had also penned a heartfelt plea to the public about the heartbreaking case: “It pains me to know that things could have turned out very differently, if only someone had sounded the alarm earlier. This ‘someone’ can be a housemate, neighbour, relative, friend, passer-by…in fact, anyone in the community who knows or suspects there could be family violence or child abuse happening – it is everyone’s responsibility to do something about it.”
His call for action remains just as pertinent today. A local survey released in 2019 which polled 300 Singaporeans revealed that 40% of respondents were ignorant about the reality of domestic abuse, indicating that they thought it was not prevalent. While 82% of respondents agree that it is their responsibility to act if they ever encounter cases of abuse, 41% are unclear on what exactly to do if they or someone close to them experience abuse.
The inertia to intervene may boil down to certain misconceptions about family violence, such as the belief that family violence is a private affair. The survey above revealed, for instance, that 1 in 5 believe that domestic abuse should not be reported by others, as it is more important to preserve the sanctity of marriage.
There is also the worry of not having complete information or enough confidence to step in. But Anvis Sim, Social Worker at HEART @ Fei Yue (Child Protection Specialist Centre) assures that bystanders need not be “experts”. “While it is true that family matters are private, once a person’s safety is concerned, it becomes a community matter. If you feel you don’t have the capacity to intervene, you can direct the family to other resources, such as a social service agency. When these cases are flagged up, [effective] early intervention can take place.”
Here are some tell-tale signs of family violence that you can look out for, as well as possible actions to take, as shared by Fei Yue’s counsellors and social workers.
Loud, disturbing noises from your neighbour’s unit
If you constantly hear loud shouting, arguments, or sounds of objects thrown around and broken, family violence may be occurring in your neighbour’s house. If you suspect violence, call the police. Refrain from physically intervening in the conflict.
Physical injuries such as bruises or busted lips
Victims of physical violence may display injuries ranging from bruises to broken bones. If you suspect abuse, encourage the victim to visit a medical professional or lodge a police report if necessary.
Victims of family violence may become unusually silent and come across as attempting to hide something. In other instances, they may also appear hypervigilant or turn unusually aggressive.
If you suspect abuse, do approach him/ her in an understanding manner, in private. Express your concerns and encourage him/her to share his/her feelings. Inform him/her about sources of help, such as a Family Service Centre or a Family Violence Specialist Centre.
Changes in lifestyle pattern
The occurrence of family violence may deter some victims from going home. For example, youth affected by family violence tend to stay out and loiter in public places for extended periods of time. Elderly victims of family violence, on the other hand, may become withdrawn and stop attending regular activities.
If you suspect abuse, approach the suspected victim in an understanding manner and give him/her space to talk without feeling judged. Find out how he/she is coping and inform him/her about sources of help, such as a Family Service Centre or a Family Violence Specialist Centre. If someone you know has abruptly retreated from usual activities, check in with him/her to see if there is anything amiss.
Written by: Lim Zhan Ting
With inputs from: Anvis Sim, Rachel Loh, Julia Ao, Shirley Teen-Lim, Joanne Hee