As children’s well-being is a broad and complex issue, Hong Kong must not only have a comprehensive and down-to-earth child policy, but also allocate sufficient resources and resolve the situation of divided authority across multiple government departments.
This year, two horrendous cases of child abuse came before the Hong Kong court, which again caused widespread concern in the community about the inadequacy of policies for child protection. In one of the cases, a five-year-old girl was suspected to have been abused to death and in the other, an abused seven-year-old girl was reduced to a vegetative state. Although the government has done a lot of work on children’s rights and regularly reports to the United Nations on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Hong Kong, it is obvious that Hong Kong still has a lot of room for improvement in the protection of children’s rights. At the very least, it must not tolerate the tragedies of child abuse to happen again and again. Against this backdrop, the Legislative Council’s Subcommittee on Children’s Rights submitted a report to the Council in early July to propose improvements in eight areas of child rights, including abuse, disability, poverty, examinations and homework stress. All in all, these suggestions are worth considering, but the problem is that they are not really new. It is just that the government in the past has not been resolute enough to impose effective measures and allocate sufficient resources to solve these old problems.
Never-ending child abuse cases get attention
For example, to protect children from abuse, the authorities have raised the need for relevant agencies to remain vigilant and said the frontline staff should be properly trained to ensure that child abuse or high-risk cases can receive “early identification and intervention”. However, the Subcommittee’s report still recommends the authorities to “explore measures to ensure that families at risk can receive early identification and intervention”, “encourage schools ... to take prompt action for tackling and following up those cases” and “providing more training for frontline staff”. It is self-evident that the current child protection mechanism is inadequate, which could make the last line of defense against child abuse ineffective. Unfortunately, the two child abuse cases mentioned at the beginning of this article are cases in point.
Lack of effective measures to protect children
According to information disclosed so far, the girl who unfortunately died of abuse had attended classes with abusive scars, and the social worker of the school the girl’s brother attended had even reported to the Social Welfare Department (SWD) about suspicious scars on the boy. However, the SWD explained that it only received a case “inquiry” rather than “referral”. In the end, the case was not properly followed up during the critical period, giving the public an impression that the SWD was manipulating the procedures to shirk its responsibility. In the other case, before the tragedy was brought to light, the kindergarten the abused girl attended had discovered her injury and a social worker was following up. However, the abuser’s lies had for a long time succeeded in concealing the truth about the abuse against the girl. Describing it as “the worst case of its kind”, the judge pointed out that the maximum penalty of 10 years’ jail for child abuse is not enough to reflect the seriousness of the case and urged the authorities to conduct a review.
Needless to say, the most important thing now is to take remedial measures to prevent recurrence of such tragedies. The response from the authorities so far has been to tighten the mechanism for absentee notification to require all kindergartens to report pupils who have missed class for seven days, as well as to provide social work services for subsidized child care centers and kindergartens in phases in the next three years. Although the details of these improvement measures are necessary, what the public most wants to know is not such details, but whether the Government’s new measures can provide children with adequate and timely protection. For example, to address the problems concerning the procedures for case follow-up and related powers and responsibilities that have been exposed by the tragedies, do the authorities have any targeted measures to ensure that all suspected child abuse cases will be properly followed up? I hope the authorities have clear and positive answers.
Incomplete data hinder in-depth study
In addition, the report strongly urges the government to set up a central database for children, which is what the public has been demanding for many years. At present, as the government departments and public bodies each have an incomplete set of data on children, it is difficult for them to understand the problems faced by the children and formulate improvement measures accordingly. For example, according to a study, the Hospital Authority’s records showed that there have been over 7,000 abused children since 2001, which is over 2,700 more than the SWD’s figure for the same period. Pointing out that this difference may reflect loopholes in the procedures for case referral and handling, the scholar in charge of the study had urged the authorities to review and consolidate the data. Another example is that while the public wants more assistance for children with rare genetic diseases, the government still has no official definition of “rare diseases”, let alone detailed information on sick children.
Relying on Commission on Children
More importantly, children’s well-being is wide-ranging and complicated, involving issues such as family situation, legal protection, education system, disparity between rich and poor, and social security. Therefore, to ensure that our children grow up happily, Hong Kong must not only have a comprehensive and down-to-earth child policy, but also allocate sufficient resources and resolve the situation of divided authority across multiple government departments. All relevant government departments must also properly coordinate and implement the appropriate measures. Recently, delivering on one of the pledges in her Election Manifesto, the Chief Executive has set up a Commission on Children, which pools together the efforts of various government bureaus and departments, along with children concern groups, to improve children’s well-being. I believe the general public, like me, hope that the Commission can pay close attention to these pressing issues and produce results as soon as possible, and look forward to Hong Kong formulating a comprehensive and thorough child protection policy as soon as possible.
This is a free translation. For the exact meaning of the article, please refer to the Chinese version.
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