Monday, 15 January 2018

Hong Kong Must Protect Children

A memorial for five-year-old Chan Sui-lam who suffered horrific child abuse
In recent days Hong Kong has been reeling from a shocking child abuse case that led to the death of a five-year-old girl.

Chan Sui-lam was allegedly thrown at the ceiling many times and poked in the chest with scissors at home. Her father, 26, is a transport worker, and stepmother, 27, a housewife, were both charged with murder last Monday.

But this was not the only incident -- four more cases of child abuse were reported in three days, and parents and foster parent were arrested.

The Social Welfare Department's Child Protection Registry has 2016 figures that show 107 of 892 incidents of child abuse against children under the age of 18 took place is the New Territories, followed by 102 in Kwun Tong, 85 in Tuen Mun and 77 in Kwai Tsing.

But social welfare workers believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. A study by the University of Hong Kong from 10 years ago estimated about 70,000 children were subjected to "severe violence", or corporal punishment by the parents each year and these cases were most always unreported.

Social workers say stress factors like financial hardship, estranged relationships, living in small quarters like sub-divided flats, and for new immigrants, the struggle to integrate in Hong Kong can lead to parents taking their frustrations out on their children.

Lee Yu-po, service manager at Against Child Abuse, said the districts with higher numbers of child abuse cases had more low-income families.

"Many live in cubicle apartments... they might not be able to rest properly and the tight living space could also result in more family conflicts."

Also, of the low-income families, some are immigrants, mostly from the mainland, who may be poorer and less educated.

"Some new immigrants tend to have a more traditional Chinese mindset, thinking that beating a child is part of their upbringing," says social worker Raymond Fung Hing-kau.

Other traits of abusers include drug addiction, mental health problems, teenage pregnancy and a history of being abused.

Guidance and counselling on issues such as home safety, managing emotions and taking are of children are being advocated, but there aren't enough resources for these services done by volunteers.

Child protection advocates also say the government isn't tough enough on abusers, and that other adults should be empowered to rescue children from these dangerous situations.

Then there is the problem of not enough social workers in schools to help identify cases -- they are underpaid and the turnover rate is high at 30 percent. Because of the heavy workload, the social workers end up prioritizing cases that seem more serious.

In addition teachers aren't equipped to deal with child abuse cases -- currently the guidebook is 300 pages long -- and advocates say there needs to be clearer guidelines.

And then strangely, because kindergarten education is not compulsory, there is no need for the bureau to follow up on cases where a child has been missing classes.

So it seems Hong Kong has many holes in the system that need patching up, but advocates say it's also just as important for neighbours, relatives and friends to step up if they see something wrong.

There has been talk for years of having a child advocate for the city and it's about time the government appoint someone to carefully look at this sad and horrific issue from top to bottom and put children's needs and safety first.

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