[THE INFANT CARE SCALDING INCIDENT]
Last Nov, on Fri the 16th, just a couple of hours before my exam, I found 3 missed calls on my mobile phone. There were from my husband and unusual. I called back and heard news which no parent of a 4.5 month old wishes to hear.
“Sunflower Baby House called and said that she was scalded during bathtime.”
A million thoughts rushed through my being. I can still feel the tingling sensation running along my spine.
How could an immobile 4.5 month old, who cannot even roll over without help, be scalded at an infant care centre? Was it even an accident?
The apathetic silence is deafening.
At KKH, the owner of the centre said she was not present during the incident and would find out more about it and let us have an answer later.
Meanwhile, we were told by the pediatrician, whom the centre had initially brought our baby to, that she had suffered first degree burns on her right shin. The wound was angry-red, and blisters had formed on it.
On Monday, we went to the centre to speak with the care-taker-in-charge of our baby, who was giving her the bath during the incident. She said she couldn’t remember what had happened. We stood at the bath-sink, where the incident had supposedly taken place. The sinks were wide and deep, and the taps were only a few centimeters away from the wall. Meanwhile, the operator had the cheek to tell us that the infant care centre was expanding.
On Tuesday, my husband went to the centre to speak with the same care-taker again, and she said the same thing. She could not remember what had happened.
On Thursday, the owner told my husband that they had an explanation. That was, our baby had kicked the tap, turning on the hot water, and stuck her leg under the running hot water, resulting in the first-degree burns. She also told my husband that she had lodged a report to MSF. As such my husband requested for a copy of the report. The owner refused to share it with us and said that she would think about which portions of the report she could share with us.
On Friday, 23 Nov 2012, a week from the incident, we went to the centre and demanded to see the report which the owner had claimed to have made to Ministry of Social and Family Development “MSF” (former MCYS). She then showed us some printouts and contradicted herself. She now said that she had NOT submitted the report to MSF and had wanted to check with us if we were happy with the report before she would send it to MSF.
At that point, I lost it.
It was clear that the centre was hiding something. We withdrew our baby from the centre. The director of the infant care centre (owner’s husband) held the lift door to stop us from leaving. He kept exclaiming, “Can you just hear me out? I can explain! You haven’t given us a chance to explain!”
On the same day, I made a report to MSF and the Police. That’s when it got even more ridiculous.
Calling up MSF, I was directed to the officer-in-charge of this infant care centre “Officer A”. She told me the following:
(i) While the infant care centre owner had informed her of the incident, no report/details have been provided.
(ii) That if I had made a police report, MSF would rely on the Police for investigation. If had not made a police report, then MSF would carry out the investigation on its own.
(iii) MSF could not confirm how long it would take to investigate the matter.
(iv) She offered to find an infant care placement for my baby.
The next time I heard from MSF was 2 weeks later on Fri, 7 Dec 2012. This time, another officer “Officer B” called me up. She told me that this case had been handed over to her and asked me if I still required infant care placement. I informed her of the Police Investigation Officer-in-charge of the case, and highlighted to her that there were 2 key issues, of which the Police could only investigate the 1st issue of criminal liability (e.g. causing hurt due to negligent/rash act), and not the 2nd issue of the infant care centre owner's attempt to cover up the matter/mismanagement of safety of infant.
On Mon, 10 Dec 2012, Officer B called again to inform me of a vacancy. She also confirmed that MSF had NOT commenced investigation of the incident. What the fuck was MSF waiting for?! What if something similar happens to another baby in the same infant care centre during MSF’s delay? No answer.
I then wrote to Minister Chan Chun Sing on 11 Dec 2012, highlighting that it was unacceptable that it was:
(i) Neither a standard protocol for MSF to issue a stop work order when the safety of an infant has been compromised at an infant care,
(ii) Nor a standard protocol for MSF to inform the other parents of such incidents immediately, to let the parents decide whether they would wish to take the risk of leaving their babies at the infant care centre whilst MSF/Police investigate the matter.
When foreign workers get injured or killed at work sites, MOM immediately goes down to the scene and issues stop work orders. Why isn’t MSF doing the same for infants? Is the safety of infants less important than that of foreign workers?
By delaying investigation and avoiding to inform the other parents, MSF is exposing the other infants to unnecessary risks. It would be tragic if during this period of delay, another infant is scalded while under the care of this infant care centre.
2 days later, I got a phonecall from a Deputy Director from MSF, clarifying that:
(i) MSF did not do nothing about this case, but there was still no conclusion either.
(ii) This case had changed hands amongst officers not twice, but thrice, i.e. Officer B was in fact the 3rd officer ‘handling’ the case.
(iii) All infant/child care centres are required by MSF rules to report to MSF about such incidents within 24 hours.
(iv) A penalty for not reporting the incident in time could include reduction of centre licence renewal period. In other words, if a centre has been naughty, MSF would punish it by either not extending its licence, or reducing the renewed licence period from the usual 24 months to lower.
This means it is up to parents to learn to decipher such information, if they even knew that they had to and where to look for it on the MSF website.
Another 4 days later, I got an email from Officer B stating that:
(i) MSF had been investigating the case and had visited the centre, but were waiting for Police’s findings before MSF conclude on the matter.
(ii) As children’s welfare and safety are of utmost concern, the Ministry had worked with the centre to ensure that additional safety measures are put in place to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, and will continue to guide and monitor the centre to ensure that the environment is safe for all enrolled children.
(iii) MSF had reminded the centre to ensure that all centre-parent communication are to be carried out in a prompt and transparent manner.
(iv) XXX infant care centre had a vacancy.
Then on 9 Jan 2013, almost 8 weeks after the incident, MSF sends an ‘interm reply’ to me, stating that MSF was still waiting for Police’s inputs.
To date (24 Jan 2013), I have not heard from MSF since its interim reply.
We still do not know why/how our then 4.5 month old baby was scalded and suffered first degree burns on her right shin at an upscale infant care centre in Singapore.
Are more infant care subsidies going to help this situation or going to make it worse?
This incident, together with the announcement of multi-million-dollar infant/childcare subsidies, illustrates the following points to me about the government’s effort to help its people:
(A) Good Governance is not about writing big cheques to its people
The recent announcements of more infant/child care subsidies are pitched by the mainstream media as great help to the families, especially those of middle-income and below. This means more families will be able to send their babies and kids to infant/child care centres.
More subsidies would also attract more infant/child care providers to the market. Operators are happy too. This will solve citizens’ complaints to the government about shortage of such help.
But having gone through the experience of my 4.5 month old getting scalded at an upscale infant care in Singapore, I cannot help but to wonder how many scalding/injury incidents have taken place at infant/child care centres islandwide.
Infant/child care is not a service which quality of care can be ignored. Who is playing the role of referee? Market forces? Or should the Government be playing this role?
How do parents know whether an infant/child care centre has had a history of such incidents?
If MSF knows about such incidents, why doesn't MSF make it clear and known to parents?
Do parents know how to read and decipher the nebulous signs of ‘bad/good centres’ as listed on the MSF website?
In the event of a scalding incident, do the parents know what to do?
Why is there such reluctance to take these centres to task?
Just because the market is already unable to provide enough of such facilities, so let’s go easy on existing operators?
The owners of these centres make super normal profits. They take from the parents AND taxpayers. Shouldn’t they be taken to task when such incidents take place?
Why are they given the leeway to decide whether they ought to be informing other parents of such incidents?
If you were sending your child to infant/child care, wouldn’t you want to know about such incidents?
Isn’t the safety of an infant of the utmost importance?
If so, why is MSF dragging its feet to react to such an incident?
The Government cannot only see its responsibility as “give money/subsidies so that free market will create supply and solve the problems”.
While the Government adopts the hand-off approach, i.e. for the free market to iron out quantity and quality issues, someone has to bear the risks. In this infant/child care system, it is at the expense of citizens’ own flesh and blood.
(B) Governance vs Resilience of Its People
“Sue them,” exclaimed my American classmate, when he heard of the scalding incident. Bringing a tort action against the operators in Singapore will probably only result in damages based on medical claims. It doesn’t prevent this problem from surfacing again. This doesn’t ensure that parents whose children are placed at infant care will be informed of such incidents.
This is an issue that rests solely upon the discretion of the Government.
Words cannot describe how disappointed I am with MSF’s reaction (or lack thereof) to this incident. I am livid. Screaming out silently and impotently, whenever I think of hot water scalding my 4.5 month old’s tiny right shin, and that I still do not know why/how it happened.
As a citizen and a former public servant, I cannot begin to fathom how fellow citizens and public servants involved in this chain of events can be apathetic about the incident. To add ridicule to the situation, they attempt to blame another public agency for holding up the investigation process. There is no decency in this chain of events and the individuals’ attendant reactions.
On Facebook, a friend recently uploaded a pic of an extremely crowded MRT station platform with the following question:
“Does the system work because of good governance or the resilience of the people in spite of bad governance?”
This is a question everyone, including public servants, politicians, leaders etc, have to think about honestly.
But I am afraid the reality is that no one really gives a damn.