Hong Kong’s welfare chief has pledged to seek improvements to the system for flagging child abuse in light of a spate of high-profile cases that has raised alarm across the city.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong conceded in his weekly blog on Sunday that the death of five-year-old Chan Siu-lam on January 6 had caused a public outcry and raised questions over whether there were inadequacies in the system.
The girl died after being repeatedly thrown at the ceiling and poked in the chest with scissors at home. Her father, 26, a transport worker, and stepmother, 27, were charged with murder on Monday.
Subsequently, four incidents of abuse were reported to police in three days.
Law promised to look at ways of enhancing training for social workers and educators to help them keep watch for possible cases.
His pledge came after official statistics from the government’s Social Welfare Department suggested ill-treatment of children had been on the rise in the last three years.
The latest available full-year figures showed 892 cases were reported to the Child Protection Registry in 2016, compared with 874 in 2015 and 856 in 2014.
Abused girl, 5, hit ceiling after being hurled in air and was poked with scissors, Hong Kong court told in murder case
Between January and September last year, 704 cases – an average of 78 a month – were flagged to the authority, more than the monthly average of between 71 and 74 in the three preceding years. The registry’s figures date back to 2005. The highest number of cases reported was in 2010, with 1,001.
The abuser was a parent in more than half of these cases, but other common perpetrators were friends of the family and other unrelated people.
Law said the Social Welfare Department had long made efforts to ensure children suspected of abuse were protected through its Procedural Guide For Handling Child Abuse Cases, but many government departments, schools and organisations also had to work with “countless” other guidelines which made the job difficult.
“To ensure frontline workers have a grasp of and apply these guidelines in a timely manner, proper training, support and supervision are necessary,” he wrote.
The Labour and Welfare Bureau would examine how to improve the existing system and strengthen the services provided, Law said, while the Education Bureau would explore how to enhance awareness among principals and teachers.
Options open for consideration included the possibility of making it mandatory for schools, social workers and medical staff to report cases of suspected abuse as well as requiring the stationing of at least one social worker in each school, Law added.
Lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who chairs the Hong Kong legislature’s Subcommittee on Children’s Rights, said a mandatory reporting system was long overdue.
“It would make it clear as to who, how and when these abuse cases should be reported to authorities,” he said on RTHK television show City Forum.
Hong Kong Kindergarten Association president Mary Tong Siu-fun said most staff did not have the requisite professional training to deal with such cases and rarely knew the right points of contact in the event of suspected abuse.
Social Workers’ General Union president Yip Kin-chung called for longer contracts for social workers stationed at schools to enable them to follow up on cases closely. Under the current mechanism, schools are required to issue new tenders every year.
The government figures, which detail reports of physical, sexual and psychological abuse against children, also showed that abuse continued to be most rampant in districts with higher poverty rates and new immigrant populations.
As in previous years, Yuen Long had the highest number of reported cases among the city’s 18 districts last year, with 77 – or 10.9 per cent of the cases citywide. It was followed by Kwun Tong with 69 cases, Tuen Mun with 65, Kwai Tsing with 53 and North district with 52.
Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights, said these parents might have a lower educational background, which could lead to them not knowing where to get support such as childcare services, which could in turn lead to neglect or them taking out their frustrations on their children.