Child safety comes first

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 March, 1995, 12:00am

A PLANNED relaxation of the registration requirements for child day-care centres shows that at least part of the health and welfare bureaucracy has understood the need to provide a greater choice of places for parents to have their children minded, rather than leave them alone. The accidental death yesterday of home-alone four-year-old Lung Fei-cheung might have been avoided if her mother had had a wider choice. It might also have spared the toddler tortured with a safety-pin by sadistic child-minder Wong Chi-choi, although it is not clear from the court proceedings that the child's mother was concerned enough about his welfare to look for safer care.

There are risks involved in allowing unregistered centres to operate, even though they will be run under the auspices of mutual help groups and not left to individuals. Leaving up to 14 children at a time in the hands of unqualified and unsupervised carers could easily lead to a lowering of standards. Social workers are right to ask that the Government set guidelines for centres exempted from registration and ensure regular inspection.

But even while it tries to improve child-care provision overall, the Social Welfare Department remains dangerously cavalier in its approach to protecting children from known abusive parents. And the law does not encourage a sterner attitude. Wong Chi-choi was sentenced to just 61/2 years for wounding with intent. The child's mother, who knowingly put the toddler in the care of an abuser, was given the maximum sentence for cruelty of 21 months. That the law prevented a tougher sentence was bad enough.

But that the Social Welfare Department plans to place the child with its mother as soon as she comes out of prison is highly questionable. The argument that every mentally stable mother has the right to her own child (even if she is guilty of abuse) makes little sense when she has already shown disregard for his well-being. She will be counselled - but it is hard to imagine mere good advice will be enough.

In the past, the department was the subject of public criticism for being too quick to separate a child from its mother: it is understandably sensitive. But the recent case of the mother who was allowed to take her daughter out of care and then drowned her should be enough to warrant serious reassessment of guidelines based on the woman's mental condition rather than her fitness as a mother.