More steps are needed to avert tragedies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am

The government's response to the rising trend of domestic violence has not always matched its rhetoric in either deed or speed. Each new case highlighted in the media - a tiny representation of the overall problem - underlines the urgency of more tangible steps to protect potential victims and deal with the root causes.

Today we report the circumstances in which a 34-year-old man killed his six-year-old daughter at the weekend by throwing her from their 19th floor Sha Tin home before jumping to his death. Sadly, tragedies of this nature are not unfamiliar. The father apparently had a history of mental illness. His wife and child had suffered abuse in the past. Follow-up action by a social worker is said to have stopped after the father's condition appeared to have stabilised. Police said the murder-suicide followed an argument between the father and the girl's mother. That suggests the family may have been acutely stressed and raises issues that should be addressed by the inquiry now under way. Did the father get all the professional help he needed from overstretched public psychiatric services? Should the family have been identified by social workers as being at risk?

It is now more than three years since a family murder-suicide at Tin Shui Wai put domestic violence firmly on the political agenda. Then a man killed his wife and two daughters before committing suicide, hours after they left a government-run shelter and sought police help. The government's efforts to deal with the issues at the core of such violence, however, remain piecemeal. Meanwhile, cases of domestic violence reported to police rose almost 80 per cent to 4,704 last year from a year earlier, and by 120 per cent in the first three months this year.

A number of deep-seated social issues lie at the root of the problem, including unemployment, poverty, lack of community support services and isolation - particularly in the new towns of the troubled northwest of the New Territories. They have been compounded by overwhelming case loads on social workers, lack of co-ordination between police and social welfare authorities and a severe shortage of public psychiatric services. There is no shortage of money to tackle the problems of stressed, low-income families, as evidenced by the government's fiscal surplus of tens of billions of dollars. The problem is directing it where it is needed.

The government has at least introduced overdue reform of the Domestic Violence Ordinance to give victims more protection. Proposed amendments would allow the victims of abuse by all relatives, not just spouses, to seek court-ordered injunctions and allow courts to issue orders for abusers to receive counselling.

Police have also responded by addressing outdated attitudes that did nothing to curb the rising tide of family violence. Police tended not to treat violence in the home as a crime. Now, however, all domestic incidents are fed into a central database and officers have training in handling abuse cases.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has proposed worthwhile initiatives, among them a summit on fighting poverty and setting up social enterprises in communities with high concentrations of low-income families to create employment opportunities. They should be fast-tracked.

Meanwhile, our thoughts must be with the grieving mother who witnessed the weekend's horrific event. The question of whether it could have been prevented by intervention or averted by more family support must be answered.