One good thing that has come out of my old book Unholy Trinity being reprinted and getting back in bookstores now is that PAVE, the remarkable family violence agency that does tremendous work quietly, has received some well deserved publicity. The royalties from the book will go to PAVE, so we held a press conference on Feb 20 to announced new developments at the agency and launch the new edition, complete with a lion dance that came courtesy of a donor who felt it was in keeping with the Chinese New Year spirit. There were reports in several papers, including on Page One, and publicity always leads people who need help to gather the courage it takes to come to seek it. I arrived at PAVE in a roundabout way several years ago. I was a volunteer with HIV and AIDS patients in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I went back to school to get a diploma in social work. One of my teachers at the National University of Singapore was Dr Myrna Blake, a lovely woman and gifted teacher who got us talking about our families before she would show how varied families and family life can be, that the storybook happy family really doesn’t exist and yet, most of us survive the big and small dysfunctions of our families.
Before Alzheimer’s Disease took hold of her, Myrna brought me into PAVE as a management committee member and this has been her enduring gift to me. Being part of the management team is a small, small thing compared to the hard work the social work team does with battered women and children scarred by years of witnessing violence in the home. PAVE also helps men who abuse and are ordered to undergo counselling after their wives obtain personal protection orders. PAVE has been doing this work since 1999 and is led by Dr Sudha Nair, easily Singapore’s pre-eminent social work professional and educator. But PAVE has an identity problem. People do not know what PAVE is, what it does, why its work is so critical. It was originally named Promoting Alternatives to Violence, which was such a mouthful we shortened it to just PAVE. But, what’s that? Sudha says the agency couldn’t be plainer because hollering FAMILY VIOLENCE on its signboard would have discouraged those needing help from coming forward. Like HIV and AIDS, there is so much secrecy and shame attached to domestic violence. Victims suffer in silence. Perpetrators get away for years and continue terrorising their homes. Those who know the truth choose to look away. There are also misconceptions about who the wife batterers are. Ask around in Singapore and you’re likely to be told this is mostly an Indian problem because Indian men drink alcohol, get drunk and beat their wives. After 17 years as the pioneer agency dealing with family violence, PAVE’s data shows quite a different picture. Family violence cutes across all ethnic and socio-economic lines in Singapore, most clients are Chinese, and the stereotypes don’t always hold true.
In 2017 PAVE will open a new specialist agency for children who have grown up in violent homes – those who have been eyewitnesses to violence between their parents and those who have been victims of abuse themselves. Helping children can be so much harder than helping adult victims and perpetrators. The wounds go deeper and cannot be seen, and it takes a lot to get a child who has locked up his bad experiences to open up about what he has seen and felt before his healing can start. The things children say during counselling at PAVE are just heartbreaking. This is not an issue that will be going away anytime soon, and we need to raise awareness of so many aspects of domestic violence. Dating violence is one area, and I’m always confounded by the data that shows so many women marry the men who beat them up regularly before marriage. Many hope that love, marriage and the arrival of children may make their men change for the better. Sadly, that rarely happens. Elder abuse is going to be an issue we’ll be hearing a lot more about given Singapore’s rapidly ageing society. We’re already hearing accounts of physical abuse, neglect and financial abuse of old people and here too, it’s so hard for victims to come forward because how do you take that first step and tell someone: “My son has stolen my money.” Or, “My daughter hits me.”
It’s a nasty business. But we have to tell these stories, raise awareness and stop telling ourselves it’s not our business. In Singapore of all places, where people live so close to one another, neighbours know. Relatives know. Friends, colleagues, teachers know. The victims need protection and help. The perpetrators can be helped too and PAVE has chalked up numerous success stories with men who learnt to put violence behind them. I always find it amazing when the social work team reports that the majority of couples they deal with continue to stay together – because family remains important, the children need both parents, and yes, because love has not died. My old teacher and dear friend Myrna Blake lives with Alzheimer’s Disease now. While I am at PAVE, any little good I can do is a way to honour Myrna and thank her for leading me to this agency and the work it does. I’m grateful to all the media that sent representatives to the PAVE press conference and ran stories, or promised follow ups and more in future. Please spread the word about PAVE, please don’t look away from family violence.
I’m sharing two recent case studies from Pave’s files. The names of the people involved have been changed, but these are true stories.
Case 1: Brenda, Joseph and their three children.
This is a single-parent family comprising of Brenda, 46, a customer service officer, and her three children, Anna, 14, Ben, 12, and Claris, 7. In 2000, Brenda married Joseph, a foreign national working as a restaurant manager. Now 44, he has become a Singapore citizen. Joseph started using violence towards Brenda one year after they were married. In 2014, Brenda discovered that Joseph had been having an extra-marital affair and that led her to attempt suicide twice. She was sent to the Institute of Mental Health, which referred her to PAVE to deal with the ongoing family violence. After working with PAVE for a year, Brenda decided to take a personal protection order against her husband as the violence at home was getting worse. She also referred her three children for counselling in May 2015 as she was worried about changes in their behavior.
Joseph began abusing his wife a year after marriage and began abusing the children when Anna was 7, Ben was 5 and Claris was a baby. His emotional and physical violence towards Brenda and the children escalated in 2014 after his affair was found out. During this period, he would come home drunk almost every day and harass Brenda in the middle of the night by quarrelling with her and hitting her. As the children slept with Brenda in the same bedroom, they witnessed the violence. This included continual verbal abuse, physical fights, and threats to hurt Brenda and the children. On several occasions when Anna tried to stop her father from hitting her mother, Joseph would move towards the younger children to hit them instead. Brenda would then rush to shield Ben and Claris and end up being assaulted. On numerous occasions, Adrian punched Brenda’ in the face, pushed her onto the bed, slapped her, grabbed her shoulders and threatened to throw the children on the bed and hit them. On a few occasions, he slapped the children for no reason and threw objects at them. One object hit Ben, resulting in a cut on his forehead. This went on for a year. Brenda said that period felt like she and her children were living in a war zone where there was only chaos.
One day after a particularly violent episode during which Joseph pinned Brenda against the wall and strangled her, Brenda decided that was the last straw. She took her three children and left home in search of a safe place, leaving most of their valuables and belongings behind. She asked PAVE for help to apply for a personal protection order against Joseph and sought counselling for her children. Fortunately for Brenda, she had strong family support and could move with her children into her brother’s home where they were safe.
How the children were affected:
Anna: Even after settling in a safe new environment, Anna experienced frequent flashbacks which affected her ability to concentrate in school. She had frequent outbursts of anger towards her siblings and mother, and difficulty sleeping at night. Her grades slid and she did poorly in her examinations.
Ben: Ben became very withdrawn as he tried hard to forget the past. But he showed signs of fear and would break down whenever the adults in the family talked about his father. Ben’s school performance suffered and that affected his PSLE results.
Claris: Claris felt the most confused by the violence as well as the changes in the family’s living environment. She was so afraid of her father that she would become very anxious whenever the bus she was on passed near their old home. She would hide when the bus passed their old bus-stop, fearing that her father would see them and hurt them again. She sleep-talked at night, and would blame herself for the violence. She had frequent temper tantrums and started hitting her mother when she did not get what she wanted.
All three children were deeply hurt by their father’s actions and angry at him for using violence. They were also angry when they learnt that he had stolen all of Brenda’s jewellery and used up all the children’s savings which they had left at home.
How Pave helped
All three children were placed in a programme where they were taught skills to relax and cope with strong, unpleasant feelings as well as signs of anxiety. They were also taught how to better regulate their feelings and express their feelings in an appropriate, healthy manner without using violence towards their mother or siblings.
The frequency of Anna’s flashbacks decreased, and she became aware of whom she could approach and talk to about her feelings. Ben was able to learn appropriate ways of expressing his anger and gradually opened up to talk about the violence. Claris is still receiving help to come to terms with what happened and to accept that she was not to blame.
The three children have been receiving help for the past 10 months. As a family, they now appear to share a greater sense of understanding of one another’s struggles and there appears to be a stronger relationship among the siblings and between them and their mother.
Brenda divorced Joseph in December 2015, and is currently living in a one-room rental flat with her elderly mother and three children. Although Brenda and Joseph have joint custody of the children, Brenda has sole care and control over the children. Joseph has not got in touch with the family since the divorce and they do not know where he is. The children remain very fearful of their father.
Case 2: When the victim chooses to marry her abuser
Nellie is 21 and has been in an abusive relationship with Philip for two years. She was brought to PAVE by concerned friends. Although Nellie wanted help, she could not attend counselling regularly as Philip forbade her from coming to PAVE and would beat her up if he found out that she did. She was assaulted frequently. Once, Philip attacked her in public. He pushed her and she hit her head on the edge of the wall, suffering a serious cut which required stitches. She was taken for treatment but did not reveal that Philip had assaulted her because he waiting for her outside the treatment room.
Philip is physically, verbally, psychologically and emotionally abusive. She disclosed multiple physical assaults over a short span of three months. Every few days, she would receive what she called a “present” from him. He would strangle her, kick her, pull her hair, slam her head against the wall, and once, he slapped her in front of her male friend. Another time, he punched her until she fell unconscious. She had scratch marks, bruises and cuts on her body. Philip would accuse Nellie of cheating on him and use vulgarities and demeaning words to insult her. Once he harrassed her so unrelentingly about being unfaithful that, to make him stop, she said she had been unfaithful even though that was not true. Then he said he was justified in abusing her because she was unfaithful.
To control Nellie, Philip restricts her contacts with friends and family. Her mobile phone is bugged so he can monitor her. He installed a device in her phone to let him view her screen at all times. As soon as she returns home from work, she has to switch on her laptop so he can check on her. He has a list of rules for her, including sending pictures of herself to him consistently throughout the day, picking up his phone calls within a certain number of rings, and promising not to share her problems with anyone other than him. Philip also takes money from Nellie to pay his bills, go shopping and repay his debts. purchase items for him, and repay his debts.
Nellie is preparing to marry Philip. Although she fears him, she says she really loves him and believes that marriage will make things better. Although PAVE remains available to Nellie as a safe place to talk about her problems, she is not ready to act to stop the violence.