Ever since Oliver Twist made its debut in 1837, the scene of young Oliver asking for more food has come to symbolise the worst of occurrences in a poor house.
Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor stressed that the eight children's homes run by the Social Welfare Department were nowhere as bad as the dreadful accommodation for paupers in 19th century England. But it could not help citing Charles Dickens' famous work when revealing that at some of the local institutions, even the staff, let alone the inmates, complained of a lack of food.
That this had happened in an affluent society like Hong Kong in the 21st century is downright shameful. And poor food was just one of many deficiencies the non-governmental organisation (NGO) managed to uncover in a series of visits to the facilities.
While the homes are supposed to adopt social work methods in helping their inmates, they were found to be run more like prisons, even though some children had committed no offences and were sent there for their own protection. Indeed, discipline seemed all that mattered, with most inmates locked inside their cells most of the time and not given adequate education or recreation, which was what the hapless juveniles should have expected from institutions that sought to rehabilitate or protect them.
Nor was there sufficient attention to the problems caused by putting juvenile illegal immigrants, some of whom were believed to be adults who lied about their age, together with local children. In fact, it was the death by suicide of a mainland illegal immigrant in one of the homes in 1997 that prompted the NGO to initiate this project.
It did not appear staff in the homes were perfunctory in discharging their duties. Rather, they were simply not sure of their mission and were too preoccupied with maintaining order. Like many civil servants, they tried to get the job done but lacked the imagination and initiative to go one better.
The Social Welfare Department last night rejected the main criticism, saying there was 'no question of an inadequate supply of food'. The department did, commendably, adopt an open attitude in co-operating with the watchdog, allowing it access to the homes, although it said it could not verify claims about military-style regimes as the visits were unannounced. It said it had addressed some of the problems observed by the visitors, pledging to strengthen education in all homes from September by providing more teachers. Let us hope this positive approach continues.