When kids have to relieve their nightmares…
THE 13-year-old girl stood in the empty courtroom and burst into tears.
Lynn (not her real name) was in court because she had been molested by her own father. The girl was physically and sexually assaulted seven times over three months, while her mother was working the night shift.
Her father was finally arrested when the girl confided in her school counsellor.
Her trauma didn’t end there.
Lynn had to relive her nightmare in court, where she had to tell the judge exactly what happened.
But one woman was there to be a friend and hold her hand throughout her court ordeal.
Madam Jasbinder Kaur, 47, is a volunteer with the Vulnerable Witness Support Programme (VWSP), run by the Singapore Children’s Society (SCS).
The VWSP was set up in 1998 to help victims or witnesses below the age of 16 who have to give evidence in court. (See report on facing page.)
As part of the programme, children like Lynn are taken on a visit to the Subordinate Court building before the trial, where they are told how things work and what is expected of them.
Lynn was one of Madam Kaur’s most memorable and heart-rending cases. Said Madam Kaur, a housewife: ‘During one of the visits to court, Lynn and her mother just suddenly burst into tears. They had already gone through so much.
‘The thought of having to recall what happened in front of so many people in a courtroom can be very intimidating for a young person.’ Lynn had been forced at knifepoint by her father to masturbate him.
He had brutally punched her when she refused to perform oral sex on him.
And when she keeled over in pain, he forced her to lie on the floor and molested her.
He also exposed himself to her on four different occasions.
The assaults happened in 2002.
Said Madam Kaur: ‘It was an emotional case. The girl was fraught with guilt for having reported her father. The incident tore the family apart.
‘She was very close to her mother, and she felt bad about making her mother cry.’
The case was one of more than 20 that Madam Kaur has seen since she started as a volunteer with the programme in 1998.
Most of the cases she has seen involved sexual abuse. Almost all the perpetrators were known to the victims.
The number of rape cases went up from 103 in 2004 to 124 last year.
And the culprits were known to the victims in all but one case.
As expected, it’s always difficult for the victims to face their attackers in court.
Said Madam Kaur: ‘There was this 13-year-old girl who had been raped three times in four months by her stepfather. He had started molesting her when she was only 8 years old.
‘During his testimony, he attacked the girl, saying that she was even having sex with someone else.
‘After that session, she was in tears and had to be comforted.’
In another rape case, Madam Kaur recalled that the girl became stiff when she caught a glimpse of her attacker behind the dock, in handcuffs.
‘She was this intellectually disabled teenager who had been raped by her stepfather. There was a brief moment before the trial when she saw her stepfather at the dock. Her grip on my hand tightened.
‘I quickly took her out of the courtroom to calm her down.’
For volunteers like Madam Kaur, breaking the ice and getting the young victims to trust them is never easy.
The first meeting is held at the SCS’ student service hub at Henderson Road.
Said Madam Kaur: ‘I try to bring toys or sweets to help connect with the child. For teenagers, sometimes, I try to talk about school or even crack jokes to make the atmosphere less tense and create rapport with the victim.’
There are subsequent home visits when the volunteer goes through a guidebook with the child.
The guidebook tells the child, in simple terms, what happens in court.
Said Madam Kaur: ‘I tell the child to tell the truth at all times. I tell them that if they don’t remember, it’s okay. Don’t make things up.
‘Even little things like going to the toilet. I tell them that if they need to go, just tell the judge. It’s okay.’
Volunteers also prepare the victims for potentially embarrassing questions.
‘We tell them that it’s okay to use terms like penis’ and vagina’ in court.’
The pre-trial visit to court helps to familiarise the child with a foreign and potentially intimidating environment.
During the trial, the volunteer sits with the child while he or she gives evidence via video link.
But volunteers are not allowed to give their personal contact details to the families.
They do not counsel them and both sides are not allowed to meet up again in any way after the case is closed.
Said Madam Kaur: ‘We do not keep in touch because the child may associate us with this traumatic period in their lives. Our hope is really for them to forget and move on.’
Volunteers are also not given details of the case.
‘I usually only find out what really happened to the child when the case goes to court and the details are published in the newspapers. For example, for Lynn, my heart bled when I read about it in the paper.’
Over the years, Madam Kaur has seen a string of sexual assault cases, ranging from teens falling victim to predators on the Internet, to young children being raped or molested by their fathers, stepfathers or uncles.
Said the mother of two girls, aged 17 and 20: ‘I feel terrible that these children have to go through such ordeals. As a parent, my heart goes out to them.
‘Although I cannot counsel them, I just want to do my part to help ease their pain in whatever little way I can.’
We do not keep in touch because the child may associate us with this traumatic period in their lives. Our hope is really for them to forget and move on.
– Madam Jasbinder Kaur