Right balance vital to safeguard our children

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2010, 12:00am

Striking a balance between protection of children and the rights of sex offenders who have paid their debt to society can be a difficult task. Yet Hong Kong's current system provides hardly any safeguards to shield children from sexual predators in child-related occupations. The Law Reform Commission makes the point that societies which have introduced comprehensive defensive mechanisms would find this unthinkable. It is hard to argue with the commission's view that Hong Kong children - and their parents - are entitled to at least a minimum level of protection.

This is what the commission has set out to achieve in proposals for interim safeguards that can be introduced quickly. They follow concerns raised in the courts and the wider community about cases involving sex offences against children by people appointed to positions of trust who had previous convictions for similar crimes. The government and the chief justice asked the commission to consider the need for a sex offenders' register to help screen applicants for jobs that involve working with children.

The commission's response, which follows a public consultation, may seem tame compared with the approach adopted in some overseas jurisdictions. However, it does address a huge gap in safeguards for our children. At present, the law allows criminal record checks - and refusal of employment or registration in the event of a previous conviction - only for registered school managers and teachers, social workers and childcare workers.

That leaves a wide range of people who have close contact with children in their work who cannot be checked, and whose word that they have no criminal record must be taken on trust. They include, for example, laboratory and computer technicians, school support staff, tutors, music teachers, sports coaches, staff in children's wards, and volunteer workers at youth centres and religious and other organisations. Recent disturbing cases of sexual abuse by people in positions of trust include a private music teacher, a tutorial school teacher and a school technician, all with previous offences.

The commission proposes that employers should be able to have checks made on these people for convictions for a specified list of sexual offences. But, to safeguard the human rights and privacy of applicants and their families, they must be initiated by the prospective employee, who must consent to results being disclosed. This measure could be introduced quickly without the need for legislation. It represents a measure of protection for the community where there is presently none. The government should consider adopting it swiftly, while a commission sub-committee considers the need for a law to force disclosure of sexual offences records.

Some respondents to the consultation argued that only mandatory checks could ensure the safety of children, otherwise employers would be tempted by convenience to dispense with checks. Their concerns should not be dismissed. A mandatory scheme would require legislation. But lawmakers would be more likely to give it calm and rational consideration with experience of the voluntary approach. The commission is right to reject a public register of sex offenders along the lines of those found in some American states. Experience elsewhere has shown that public disclosure could jeopardise their rights. Striking the right balance between rehabilitation and preventing reoffending is a delicate issue with paedophiles. The proposals make a start on finding it, and equally importantly, give our children more protection.