Someone to watch over me
The day Wing's mother started work as a part-time waitress was his first experience of being left home alone. It was winter last year; he was eight years old, and his brother, Han, was just three.
'I was scared and stayed in bed. I was afraid someone would call the police and catch me for staying home alone,' Wing recalls. 'I waited for a long time and kept wondering when my mother would return.'
The two brothers must fend for themselves whenever their mother is at work. If they are hungry, Wing cooks instant noodles on the electric stove in the tiny cubicle that his family rents in Sham Shui Po. They go to bed on their own.
Hong Kong's home-alone children are a growing, although largely hidden, problem. They often come to light when the absence of adult supervision results in an accident in the home or a tragedy, for instance, when curious youngsters fall out of a window.
The number of cases in which police were brought in has doubled from 35 in 2007 to 60 last year. The number of new child neglect cases filed with the Social Welfare Department has also risen to 113 last year from 22 in 1996.
However, such reported cases are probably just the tip of the iceberg, social workers say.
'The problem is hidden. Most parents will not disclose that they leave their children alone at home for fear of arrest,' says Susan So Suk-yin, director of the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children (HKSPC).
Without a territory-wide survey, no one is certain how many children are left home alone, but welfare groups say the situation has worsened in the past couple of years.
The home-alone problem has become more serious in the wake of the financial crisis, says Sze Lai-shan, a community organiser for the Society of Community Organisation (Soco). 'Many mothers need to go to work to support their families and leave their children alone at home.'
The Sham Shui Po-based NGO provides tutorial services and supervision for children from more than 100 families who would otherwise have to be left home alone.
Although a lack of risk awareness and capricious parenting are factors, social workers say the root of the problem is a severe shortage of childcare services for low-income families.
The Hong Kong Council of Social Service estimates there are 56,000 children below age five and 147,000 children aged between six and 14 living in poverty. (The council defines families 'living in poverty' as those whose household incomes are less than half the median for a family of the same size.)
Yet the government subsidises just 13 day cr?ches for toddlers under age two, each of which provides between 40 and 80 places.
'The waiting list is very long for each cr?che. Some new towns don't even have any,' says So of the HKSPC, which runs five cr?ches.
Occasional childcare, designed to help parents requiring help in emergencies, is also severely inadequate, with between one to three places available at each cr?che, So adds.
Community groups in the After-School Care programme look after children aged six to 12, but they say demand far outstrips capacity. At one Tseung Kwan O centre, there are nearly 100 children on the waiting list for 30 spots.
Parents pay between HK$1,100 and HK$1,300 a month for the after-school service, which can cater for 5,600 children across the city. Of the total, 1,540 are full-fee waiver places that are paid for by the government, but welfare groups reckon that is far from sufficient.
'Some parents say they cannot afford the after-school childcare fees and are forced to leave their children at home,' says Jessica Ho Oi-chu, director of Against Child Abuse.
At the Shau Kei Wan Children's Centre run by the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association of Hong Kong, acting head Leung Lap-wing says that 16 fee-waiving places in its after-school childcare service are always filled. Moreover, the 48 places that his centre provides are 'severely inadequate' for Shau Kei Wan, which has a high proportion of poor families, but the government has declined to subsidise an expansion of the service.
'The Housing Society estate, where our centre is located, also refused to let us rent an empty unit next door to expand our childcare service,' Leung says.
Earlier, the Social Welfare Department announced the adoption of a pilot fee-charging babysitter service for children aged below six as one of its regular programmes. This means its Neighbourhood Support Child Care Project will be extended to all 18 districts in Hong Kong from the current 11 by the end of this year.
Under the scheme, an NGO will match families with a suitable babysitter who charges them between HK$18 and HK$20 per hour to keep an eye on their child. But social workers say the scheme cannot help working parents because it's limited to children under six and the conditions for fee waivers are unrealistic.
'Parents must have a full-time job in order to have the full fee waived. But how can they get a full-time job while still looking after a child?' asks Soco's Sze. 'These people usually earn just HK$28 an hour; how can they afford the HK$18 hourly rate?'
Many people leave children alone in the home often have little choice; they are usually single parents and low-income workers who can't afford childcare.
Wing's mother, known as Ah Man, 34, says her husband works as a decorator and earns just HK$8,000 a month, so her part-time waitress job supplements their income.
'We have no money left each month. I dare not even see a doctor when I am sick,' she says.
Even if there were a place for her son at an after-school care centre in Sham Shui Po, there was no spare cash for it. 'A centre told me there were no fee-waived places left and asked me to queue up,' says Ah Man, who makes sure the only window in their cubicle home is locked when she leaves to prevent her sons from clambering out.
Left without company or supervision, curious youngsters' chances of getting into trouble escalate. Some children play with fire or poke into electric sockets; others get on chairs to look out from their windows and lose their balance as they lean out, Sze says.
Last August, a six-year-old girl fell to her death from a 37th-floor flat while her mother popped out to buy groceries. Three months later, there was a similar death involving a four-year-old boy in Tin Shui Wai. In June this year, a 10-year-old boy also fell to his death from a window.
Dangers abound at street level, too, Sze says. One eight-year-old boy got lost after he wandered out on his own; another little girl was almost assaulted after being followed home from school. 'The man tried to molest her on a staircase. Luckily, someone passed by and stopped him,' Sze says.
While some unattended children learn to cook for themselves, others have to wait for their parents to return to eat. Older children must look after their younger siblings, but it's a burden for youngsters such as Wing. 'A few times, my brother turned on the tap to play and got his whole body wet. I told him not to, but he did not listen to me. I had to change his clothes,' Wing says.
And whenever his little brother throws a tantrum, he must persuade the toddler to hush up in case their situation is discovered.
Wing is sometimes tempted to go out when he gets bored. 'There is no one to talk to, and I only watch television,' he says. 'I want to go out to the street to play, but I'm afraid I might not know the way home.'
After a year, he's no longer afraid to be on his own and has been taking a bus home from school in Lai Chi Kok by himself each day. But as independent as Wing is, an emergency can be very scary at his age. Once he returned after school to find himself unable to open the door to their cubicle and burst into tears.
'A neighbour let him stay in their cubicle to wait for me. I was heartbroken,' Ah Man says.
Sze worries that this deepening problem of home-alone children will exacerbate cross-generational poverty. Because there is no one to help them with schoolwork, such youngsters often do poorly in their studies, which means they are likely to wind up in low-end jobs when they grow up, she says.
Community groups struggle to alleviate the situation. Soco has held many meetings with Social Welfare Department officials to little avail. Frustrated by what they view as government inertia, the pressure group Forthright Caucus and Against Child Abuse joined forces in 2005 to call for the criminal prosecution of parents for leaving their children home alone - as a strategy to goad the government into boosting childcare services.
Simply leaving a child alone at home isn't an offence. But parents forced to do so are increasingly being prosecuted under Section 27 of the Offences Against the Person Ordinance when injury or tragedy occurs. This sets a maximum penalty of 10 years' jail for any person having the care of a child under of 16, who intentionally causes the child unnecessary suffering or injury to his/her health.
'I'm sad that although Hong Kong is an affluent city, with HK$2 trillion in its foreign currency reserves, it cannot provide the poor with basic childcare, says Forthright Caucus founder and former legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung.
However, a spokeswoman for the Social Welfare Department insists that government support for childcare services is adequate.
'We have not received any report of families unable to receive fee waiving because of fund shortage,' she said in a written reply, noting that that there were still 140 unused fee-waived places for after-school care service, and vacancies in childcare centres.
But social workers say the overall numbers are deceptive because vacancies occur mainly in centres located in ageing public housing estates, while those in new towns such as Tin Shui Wai and Tseung Kwan O are desperately in need of more childcare.
Without access to affordable childcare, women in low-income households either stay jobless and rely entirely on welfare or leave their children at home if they get jobs.
Single mother Ah Ping, a mainland migrant with an eight-year-old son who earns HK$2,000 monthly as a part-time cleaner, says the government 'seems not to care about our problems'.
Ho of Against Child Abuse and other groups urge the government to conduct a territory-wide review of all childcare facilities, and increase places in areas where the services are inadequate. Until then, these children are on their own.
Society for the Protection of Children: http://www.hkspc.org/php/webcms_en/public/mainpage/main.php3?mode=published
Against Child Abuse: www.aca.org.hk
Society for Community Organisation: www.soco.org.hk/index_e.htm
- The number of available places in NGO-run after-school care services
- The number of children (in thousands) aged between six and 14 living in poverty in Hong Kong