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Published: 00:35, January 14, 2022 | Updated: 10:44, January 14, 2022
Care home abuse allegations a wake-up call for government
By Grenville Cross
Published:00:35, January 14, 2022 Updated:10:44, January 14, 2022 By Grenville Cross

The former South African president Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than how it treats its children.” And, whenever the young are allowed to suffer, it is a huge blight on their communities. Growing up is already hard enough without children also having to face cruelty, violence and other types of abuse. Apart from anything else, it can cause incalculable harm, and blight their chances in life.

In recent times, dreadful instances of child abuse of all types have come to light globally, much of it systemic. To the world’s shame, much of the abuse has been associated with professional carers, religious institutions and educational facilities. It beggars belief that those responsible for looking after the most vulnerable have often betrayed that trust so egregiously, yet the evidence from, for example, Europe, is unequivocal.

On April 11, 2014, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the “evil” damage to children caused by sexual abusers in the clergy, saying he felt “compelled” to personally confront the crimes some priests had committed. Thereafter, on Oct 6, 2021, he expressed sorrow and shame after a commission of inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France revealed that some 330,000 children had been abused since 1950. This was after the inquiry’s president, Jean-Marc Sauve, described the scale of the abuse as overwhelming, and attributed it to “a series of neglects, failures, silence, an institutional cover-up, which were systemic in nature”.

This episode, even if convictions do not ultimately result, has, once again, highlighted the need to reform the city’s outdated child protection laws

On May 20, 2009, a commission of inquiry in Ireland, chaired by Justice Sean Ryan, reported that physical and sexual abuse was endemic in the country’s institutions for boys run by religious orders between the 1940s and 1970s. It found that a climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most child institutions, and all those for boys. Children, said the report, lived in daily fear of not knowing where the next beating was coming from. Apart from being hit, witnesses described other forms of abuse, such as being flogged, kicked, scalded, burned and even held under water. Witnesses reported being beaten in front of other staff, residents, patients and pupils, as well as in private, with physical punishment being used “as a means of engendering fear and ensuring control”.

Fast-forward to May 20, 2021, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, issued a “full personal apology” to survivors of sadistic abuse against schoolboys who attended Christian holiday camps in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. He said, “I am sorry this was done in the name of Jesus Christ,” adding that, as new details came to light, “my sorrow, shock and horror grows”. One victim Andrew Watson, now the bishop of Guildford, described having been subjected to “violent, excruciating and shocking” beatings, and he was but one of many.

By contrast, Hong Kong is fortunate not to have experienced institutionalized child abuse of this type, and there is no reason to suppose that children in care are not normally well looked after by decent people. Although perhaps not perfect, the city’s residential children’s homes are invariably run properly by those with a true sense of vocation. They are often people of faith, and the idea of harming the minors in their care would disgust most of them. It has, therefore, come as a huge shock that 14 members of the 40-strong staff at a children’s care home in Mong Kok, run by the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children (HKSPC), have been arrested for alleged child abuse.

According to reports, at least 26 children, on 91 occasions, have had their hair yanked, their heads beaten and their faces slapped, with some being thrown to the ground. What is so alarming is the age of the alleged victims, with the Mong Kok home catering for children aged up to 3 years who have either been abandoned or orphaned, or are otherwise in need of residential care. It is little wonder that the chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has said the episode “makes one’s hair stand up in great anger”.

If the evidence suffices, and there is a reasonable prospect of conviction, those arrested will need to be prosecuted to the hilt by the Department of Justice. If prosecutions are viable, the most obvious charge will be one of ill-treating a child in a way likely to cause “unnecessary suffering or injury to his health”, which is punishable, under the Offences Against the Person Ordinance, with up to 10 years’ imprisonment (Sect.27). The trials, moreover, will need to be heard in a higher court with a sentencing jurisdiction beyond the three years’ imprisonment available in the Magistrates’ Courts, not least because this will demonstrate public abhorrence of a peculiarly vile offense.

Anybody convicted of this offense in these circumstances would expect little mercy, given the age of the alleged victims, their inability to defend themselves, and the manifest breach of trust. It is, of course, one thing for a parent, in the heat of the moment, to hit a child at home when tempers flare, but quite another, if true, for trained professionals to beat up regularly on tiny tots. Condign punishment would be required not only to halt any such abuse in its tracks, but also to provide significant deterrence for the future.

It may, however, not be easy to establish guilt, given the ages of the children and their problems of recollection, and the accused will enjoy the presumption of innocence. Evidential hurdles, however, may be overcome if there are admissions, adult witnesses or implicatory video footage. As things stand, the alleged offenses are all believed to have occurred during the day at an outdoor playground, and the police say a neighbor saw what was going on and tipped them off. The police are studying over 40,000 hours of video recordings, and it is certainly possible that more offenses will come to light, with other suspects being identified.

But, however grave this episode may be, some perspective is still vital. The HKSPC operates 27 child care homes across Hong Kong, and they serve some 3,000 children aged up to 16, as well as their families. There is, at present, no reason to suppose that the abuses that allegedly occurred at the Mong Kok home have also occurred elsewhere, or that there is an abusive culture, although this will need to be checked. The director of social welfare, Gordon Leung Chung-tai, has announced a strengthening of supervision of child support centers, and he has requested a report from the HKSPC by Jan 25, which is clearly welcome. In the meantime, all 70 children at the Mong Kok home are being evaluated, and Leung’s department is working with professionals to review the situation of the alleged victims.

This episode, even if convictions do not ultimately result, has, once again, highlighted the need to reform the city’s outdated child protection laws. As a bare minimum, physical violence against a child must be criminalized in all situations; there must be mandatory reporting of child abuse; and the child cruelty law must be modernized to facilitate the prosecution of those who harm a child by whatever means, whether physical, sexual or psychological. After all, the Hong Kong Police Force, the Social Welfare Department and the NGOs have all flagged up their concerns over the escalating numbers of child abuse cases in recent times, although they will all have been shocked by the latest revelations. Like everybody else, they will undoubtedly have assumed that children in professional care are safe.

The secretary for labor and welfare, Law Chi-kwong, says the allegations have left him “angry and heartbroken”, and many others will feel the same. He has very properly ordered an internal investigation, but his focus must also be on legal reform. He doubles up as the vice-chairman of the Commission on Children, and he therefore bears a very heavy responsibility for strengthening the child protection regime across the board. The Mong Kok case is a wake-up call for him and his colleagues, and, although there have already been many such calls, he must ensure that this one is finally heeded.

The author is a senior counsel, an honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute of Against Child Abuse, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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