Sex offender checks on teachers too lax, putting children at risk, say campaigners

Voluntary declarations of convictions for child sex abuse, and failure to keep records of offenders, must change, say activists, academics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 5:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 6:38am

Inadequate checks on teachers' convictions for sex offences mean children are at risk, say academics and campaigners against child sexual abuse.

They say the system for such checks needs reforming.

"The government doesn't have a holistic approach to protecting children … It's just ridiculous. It is the state's responsibility to protect children from being harmed," Against Child Abuse (ACA) director Jessica Ho Oi-chu said.

Making checks of teachers' records mandatory was a must, she said - a demand backed by the End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation (ECSAF) and a number of academics.

In 2011, the police introduced the Sexual Conviction Record Check  scheme for teachers to "help reduce the risk of sexual abuse to children".

Under the scheme, schools can verify whether prospective employees have any convictions for sexual offences.

However, the policy is a voluntary, administrative measure and candidates for jobs can decline to be checked. Private tutors are also exempted from it. 

"It is not a comprehensive measure," Ho said. "The government says it doesn't have the resources, but that is not an excuse. One case of child abuse is more than enough."

No single agency holds comprehensive figures for child sexual abuse cases in Hong Kong. However, the number of new cases reported to the Social Welfare Department each year has been increasing steadily - from 179 in 2002 to 336 last year.

"The effectiveness of the existing administrative measure is a big doubt," said Edward Chan Ko-ling, a associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.

About 20 per cent of child sex abuse cases happen in schools and private study venues, according to figures from ECSAF's Hugline - a telephone service set up for the public to report abuse. 

In the year following the implementation of the Sexual Conviction Record Check scheme, the number of child sex cases in schools rose by about 60 per cent, the figures showed.

In a 2010 report that formed the basis of the scheme, the Law Reform Commission advised against a mandatory measure.

According to the report, a voluntary scheme gives the "employer a choice and the means to ascertain whether an employee has any previous convictions for sexual convictions".

Opponents of teacher checks have said they are not conducive to the rehabilitation of offenders and can lead to discrimination.

The  scheme was originally considered an interim measure, aimed at overcoming what the Law Reform Commission report called a "long legislative process".

However, last week the chairman of its  Review of Sexual Offences Subcommittee  told the Post that the commission had no immediate plans to further develop the scheme.

"The  … scheme has now been operating for some time and I am not aware of any need for urgency [in] regard to further consideration of any mandatory proposal," Peter Duncan said. "Thus it is not the intention of the subcommittee to address this issue in the near future."

The subcommittee had more pressing projects to attend to, said its secretary, Thomas Leung.

In Britain, schools  must carry out background checks on prospective employees. People who have committed "the most serious crimes" are automatically barred, a UK Department of Education spokesman said.

Most other European countries and some US states also have "mandated reporters" - a policy that requires anybody in close contact with children to report suspected cases of abuse.

Ho criticised Hong Kong's Education Bureau for being too passive and for failing to keep statistics on abuse cases in schools.

"The Education Bureau relies on the schools [to report] and each school has its own policy," she said. "The Education Bureau doesn't have the statistics. If an [offending] teacher is laid off, the teacher just goes to another school and that school has no system to check."

The bureau keeps figures only for sexual harassment in schools. In the past five years, there have been 20 complaints.

The bureau had not responded to Post inquiries about why it does not keep records of sexual abuse in schools as of last night.