Operation sets out to end 'home alone' habit
By a STAFF REPORTER
HOME alone. The phrase may conjure up images of children playfully having the run of their home, as in the Macauley Culkin movie of the same name, but in Hong Kong it often means tragedy.
Four children burning to death in a Ho Man Tin flat after their mother locked them in while she went shopping; a brother and sister burning to death while their parents worked; a toddler falling to his death while his parents visited neighbours.
This year's Operation Santa Claus, the annual fund-raising drive by RTHK Radio 3 and the South China Morning Post, is hoping to avert these tragedies by raising money for the Society for the Protection of Children, which provides day care and creche services for children aged six and under. The need for these services is much greater than just preventing the handful of deaths described above.
Eighty unattended children died between 1988 and 1990, according to the most recent Social Welfare Department statistics. Some 212 unattended children had to be rescued by firemen in 1990 after they were locked in their flats.
About 3,000 children faced being home alone every day because they were on a waiting list to get into day-care centres, according to a department spokesman. About 26,000 child-care places were already provided in the funded sector and 11,000 places in the private sector.
Thousands more were left alone for shorter periods as their parents tended to shopping and other chores.
A survey by the Hong Kong Council of Social Services found 67,000 children were left alone regularly, including 42,000 who were left for longer than two hours.
The pressure on parents to work was one of the causes of children being left home alone, contended Elisabeth Boss, who chairs the society's fund-raising committee.
'There is a very strong work ethic in Hong Kong and that, with the labour shortage, often demands both parents go to work. Children are intended to be the beneficiaries of their parents' hard work but often they are the victims,' she said.
The children die or are injured by fire, falls, electric shocks, they drown in the bath, or even get caught in collapsible tables, she said.
The society already looked after 2,450 children up to age six but had a waiting list of 500, particularly in the new towns where many young families were concentrated.
Mrs Boss said they needed money to open new centres in Tai Wo and Fanling and repair existing centres, as well as set up a free medical clinic for babies, introduce an after-school care programme for children aged six to 12, and open a country play centre so the mostly city children could learn about nature.
The society's director, Ada Kwan Wai-yin, said the after-school care programme was of particular concern because this group of children often had nothing to do outside school hours except wander the streets and hang around games centres, where triads operated, until their parents returned home from work.
'We're trying to expand our scope because these children's needs aren't being taken care of. Their mother might tell them to go home after school, but often they don't,' she said.
The society gets some funding from the Government, but relies on outside donations to expand or upgrade its services.
Mrs Boss said: 'Christmas is a time when we think of families and children. The society helps to provide a safe and healthy environment for children who ought to be safe. I can't think of a better cause to support over a festive season like this.'