Hong Kong’s next leader Carrie Lam offers ray of hope to tackling child abuse
Lobbyists hope that future leader will create a truly independent body years after a United Nations panel urged the government to take action
Many Britons still remember vividly the tragic death of Victoria Climbié in 2000. The eight-year-old girl died following months of abuse and neglect by her great aunt and the woman’s boyfriend.
But what’s more appalling was during a statutory inquiry into Climbié’s death it was revealed care workers had missed at least 12 chances to save the girl , who endured 128 horrific injuries after suffering from starvation, cigarette burns and repeated beatings with bike chains and belt buckles.
Her death led to a public inquiry and prompted an overhaul of the British child protection system, paving the way for the introduction of the Children Act 2004, which eventually led to the creation of a children’s commission.
There are parallel cases in Hong Kong. In 2013, a five-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome died after mistakenly swallowing a piece of crystal methamphetamine – also known as Ice – left lying around the home of his drug-dependent mother and her boyfriend.
But the unfortunate death of Yeung Chi-wai has yet to bring any changes to the city’s child protection policy, and his carers were not prosecuted for child neglect.
The Hong Kong government has refused to set up an independent children’s commission despite constant lobbying by child rights groups for more than two decades and criticism by a United Nations panel.
It was only recently that campaigners finally saw a ray of hope with the incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor making a commitment in her manifesto to set up a commission during her five-year term.
The activists, however, are now more anxious than ever. They fear the proposed commission they’ve been seeking for years will end up as another wishy-washy body that has no power to tackle real problems.
“We cannot afford to see the commission becoming another advisory body like the Commission on Poverty and the Commission on Youth, which only allocate funds and conduct research. We hope Carrie Lam can clarify that,” said Billy Wong Wai-yuk, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Committee on Children’s Rights.
“It is important for the children’s commission to be a statutory body,” she said, suggesting the proposed body should be on a par with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which was formed to oversee discrimination ordinances on sex, family status, disability and race.
The spokesman for the chief executive-elect’s office did not say how the pledge in Lam’s election platform would be realised, merely saying the leader-in-waiting would “ask the relevant bureau to study the setting up of this commission and consult the views of relevant child concern groups.”
Some 246,000 of those aged under 18 live below the poverty line, according to official statistics, and 50,000 are thought to be living in inadequate conditions such as cage homes and partitioned flats.
Shelters taking in abused children are constantly full – with homes for mentally disabled children at 98.4 per cent capacity, meaning that children cannot be moved to a safe place in time when they face abuse at home.
The spate of youth suicides in Hong Kong – 71 students took their lives between 2013 and last year – is another problem exacerbated by the competitive education system which critics say has encouraged intensive drilling and deprived students of valuable play and rest time.
There is also a problem that is unique to Hong Kong – thousands of children born to mainland mothers who have lost their Hong Kong husband either to death or divorce and live in the city on temporary permits, which must be renewed on the mainland every three months. As the sole caregivers, they must therefore take their children out of school for a period of time to travel to the mainland.
These children include nine-year-old Kelly Lee Wai-yi. “This is really troubling. Sometimes I need to take a week’s leave from school,” she told the Post.
“I feel like the government has never heard of our plight ... Our voices never get through.”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, a UN treaty which was ratified for Hong Kong in 1994, requires all state parties to undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of child rights.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child further encouraged state parties in its General Comment No 2 in 2002 to establish an independent institution for the promotion and monitoring of the convention’s implementation.
But the Hong Kong administration only set up the Family Council, which aims to provide a cross-bureau platform to study family-related problems, and the Children’s Rights Forum, which serves as a platform for the exchange of views among groups, children and the government on relevant matters.
Hong Kong’s reluctance to set up an independent institution with legal standing on children’s rights has not gone unnoticed by the UN panel.
“The Committee [on the Rights of the Child] is further concerned that, contrary to its previous recommendations and despite the motion by the Legislative Council in June 2007 to establish an independent children’s commission, Hong Kong has not taken any steps to set up such a commission,” the UN panel wrote in its concluding observations made in 2013.
Some 79 countries and 200-plus jurisdictions have appointed an independent commissioner for children, who in some places is called the ombudsman for children.
Reidar Hjermann, who served as the ombudsman in Norway from 2004 to 2012, said it was important for the proposed Hong Kong children’s commission to be free and independent in order to play its role – and that status could only be established through law.
“The law must explicitly state the political independence of the institution. If it is established without a clear legal mandate, it will end up as being just another advisory body, which Hong Kong already has,” Hjermann, a specialist in child and adolescent psychology, told the Post.
Norway, which topped the global happiness rankings this year, became the first country to set up an independent children’s commission in 1981.
He said the ombudsman should serve as an active lobbyist for children in the corridors of power, focus on structural issues in society and complaints from children and their caregivers and propose new legislation and changes to existing laws if needed.
Indeed, the children’s commissions in various countries have played an active role in putting the issue of child protection under the spotlight.
Just last Thursday, the children’s commissioner in England, Anne Longfield, called for urgent policy changes after her office found that child sexual abuse victims within families were being let down by the country’s system.
British child sex abuse victims had to wait 100 days longer than adults for their cases to go to court, according to the office.
If Hong Kong had an independent body, Billy Wong said her group could have pursued Yeung’s case through the commission and the city would have been forced to face the problem of parental substance abuse.
“Over 10 children were seriously injured, dropped from a height or even killed as a result of parental substance abuse over the past three years,” she said.
Azan Marwah, a Hong Kong-based barrister and an expert on family and child law, said child abuse cases in the city were not isolated but systemic failures that “cannot be remedied by piecemeal analysis” by a particular government bureau or department.
The legal community had long called for the codification of child laws into a single ordinance and the establishment of a specialist court to handle child-related cases, he said, given that children’s interests were now under-represented in magistrates’ courts which had limited jurisdiction and experience in dealing with child protection.
Children’s rights groups also hope the promised children’s commission can carry out two fundamental tasks – hold child-friendly consultations aimed at developing channels to consult and communicate directly with children and carry out child impact assessments to evaluate the impact of proposed policies.
Cheung Ka-long, a 15-year-old member of the city’s first child-centred organisation, Kids’ Dream, is disappointed that children’s voices have always been ignored in the government policy- formulation process.
“Take the Territory-wide System Assessment [TSA] as an example. The government has failed to evaluate how the TSA would affect children,” Cheung said, referring to the compulsory tests that are said to have imposed too much pressure on pupils.
Billy Wong hopes the government will start preparatory work on an ordinance on child protection – similar to the Children Act in Britain– and foster a dialogue with civil society on how the commission should be formed.
SORRY TALES OF CHILD ABUSE
Victoria Climbié (2000): The eight-year-old girl was killed in the UK following months of abuse and neglect by her great aunt and the woman’s boyfriend, which left her with 128 injuries
Kwok Ah-nui (1986): The five-year-old Hong Kong girl was forcibly separated from her mother after neighbours complained to the Social Welfare Department that she had been left at home alone and chained to the door every day. Department officers forced their way into the house and rescued Ah-nui. The case prompted a media campaign against leaving children alone at home.
Yeung Chi-wai (2013): The five-year-old Hong Kong boy with Down’s syndrome died after he ingested seven times the lethal amount of methamphetamine or Ice. His mother and her boyfriend were drug abusers who took Ice.
Not named (2015): A seven-year-old girl was taken unconscious to Yan Chai Hospital by her mother who claimed the girl slipped and fell in the bath. But it was revealed that the malnourished and brain-damaged girl had injuries all over her body and weighed just 15kg – 5kg to 8kg less than normal for a girl of her age. The girl’s parents and her twin half-sisters were arrested on suspicion of ill treatment or neglect.