Hong Kong court social workers minister to miscreants
Staff working with the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention walk those facing a criminal offence through the complexities of court proceedings
Being charged with a criminal offence can be a terrifying experience as suspects are suddenly thrown into a labyrinth of legal procedures and decisions that may bring life-changing consequences.
But court social worker Rowena Pang Siu-mui looks at it rather differently. “Where there is crisis, there is an opportunity,” she said.
She sees formal courtrooms as a “big window” for her to reach out to people from all ages and backgrounds in conflict with the law to offer guidance and solve issues arising from legal proceedings.
Such problems range from handling personal psychological pressure as they face trials to helping family members find a place to stay or work when their breadwinners are suddenly locked up.
More importantly, her job is to help offenders understand the root causes that have driven them to crime in the first place and help them find solutions to prevent future brushes with the law.
The demand for such services is seen from her long list of clients that have exceeded 3,000 people a year over the past three years.
But there are only three others like her working full-time with 30 volunteers through a 30-year-old government-subsidised service unit at the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention.
Their typical day is torn between visits to nine court buildings, six correctional facilities and homes in cases where their clients might have difficulties travelling.
Unlike other social workers, they cannot pick or choose their clients as a suspect or defendant of any age or background could walk into their offices at any one of the magistrates’ courts with a different criminal offence.
Their job is also unique as their duties go beyond caring for their clients’ social welfare, requiring them to follow their court cases every step of the way.
Depending on the stage of criminal proceedings at which their clients reach out to them, some require only weeks of attention. Others may require a year or more when they are tried in higher courts like the Court of First Instance.
Basic legal knowledge is therefore a prerequisite for court social workers to guide clients through the legal proceedings and prepare them for what to expect and what decisions to make as their cases progress.
The job calls for flexibility, maturity, patience and prompt action as unexpected court outcomes such as bail refusal may bring urgent needs like securing accommodation for children when their single parent is put behind bars.
“We have to be very careful in what we say as giving the wrong information could seriously affect our client’s case, and there’s no going back in criminal procedures,” said Pang, who is currently supervising the team.
But despite the challenge and resulting pressure, Pang found herself increasingly enjoying her job.
Her satisfaction comes from being able to reach out and offer concrete support to people when they are at their most vulnerable stage in life.
“According to our past study, the kind of psychological pressure [people face under prosecution] is equivalent to the sense of crisis people experienced during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. It threatens their sense of security in life,” Pang said, referring to the virus that claimed 299 lives in the city in 2003.
Her most memorable cases included helping a 17-year-old boy and his mentally impaired mother find a new life by identifying issues behind his offence of indecent assault and subsequently arranging shelter and supported employment according to their needs.
Pang said their work also contributed to crime prevention as they helped clients assess their problems and find solutions that may involve transfer to other welfare or mental health service units.
“Often people are more motivated to seek help in times of crisis. If we could establish a relationship with them at this time and reinforce that motivation to solve their problems ... we could minimise their chances of re-offending,” she said.
The service is currently sharing the Social Welfare Department’s annual lump sum grant of close to HK$120 million with the 40-odd service units which work under the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention.
But Anthea Lee Shuk-wai, the society’s deputy chief executive who oversees the service, is looking forward to receiving more financial support in the future to hire more registered social workers and clinical psychologists as they seek to expand their services through support groups that will help clients reintegrate into the community.
“Our vision is to provide a safe and inclusive society,” she said.