Investigators looking into Hong Kong's children's homes have found that while conditions may not be Dickensian, some of the residents - like Oliver Twist - want more.
Some children, and even staff, said they weren't given enough food, the investigators from Human Rights Monitor found. The concern group's investigation into conditions in juvenile homes followed the suicide of 14-year-old mainland boy Tseung Siu-ming, who hanged himself after being kept in isolation for six days at the former Pui Yin Boy's Home, in Kowloon City.
Paul Harris, founding chairman of the group, said of the findings: 'I am afraid that we've drawn some negative conclusions. Our society doesn't care much about these children.
'The conditions are not as bad as in Oliver Twist, but it is surprising that in the Pui Chi Boys' Home [in Quarry Bay], not only the boys but also the staff said that they didn't get enough food. That really surprises me in the year 2001.'
All the eight Hong Kong juvenile homes, which house a total of about 300 youngsters between the ages of seven and 21, were covered by the group's report.
While the O Pui Shan Reformatory School and the Kwun Tong Hostel were found to be operating well, the report was highly critical of the Begonia Road Juvenile Home, Ma Tau Wai Girls' Home and Pui Chi Boys' Home.
The report said military-style control was exercised in these homes despite many children being sent there for their own protection under Care and Protection Orders or under the Matrimonial Causes Ordinance, and not because they had committed any offence.
The boys were not allowed to talk to each other while eating. They were also always required to keep their hands behind their back while standing and made to sleep on their backs, the report said.
Raymond Tsui, deputy chairman of the group, said: 'These controls are more rigid than those in adults prisons, even though most of the inmates are not criminal offenders. The Social Welfare Department is certainly not doing its job'.
The report also criticised the homes' educational programme for merely keeping the boys busy, rather than attempting positive rehabilitation. Law Yuk-kai, director of the group, said the Begonia Road Juvenile Home had no provision for education in the girls' section and only one teacher in the boys'.
Mr Law was also seriously concerned about homes for illegal immigrants. 'Many of the immigrants do not have any certification, claiming to be juveniles when they are often almost certainly adults. They lie about their true age in order to avoid a prison sentence,' he said. He warned the detention of juveniles with adults breached the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Hong Kong's Bill of Rights.
The group noted many of the shortcomings mentioned had been identified in a 1981 British report.
'However, no action appeared to have been taken on most of the recommendations while lots of work should have been done over the intervening 19 years,' Mr Law said.
He said the root of the problem lay not with the Government, but with ignorant and callous attitudes in society towards these children. 'These are vividly shown in comments made by visiting Justices of the Peace. While their task is to check if the homes are being properly run and if the children are properly cared for, most of their comments are that these houses are built on prime real estate and should be sold for redevelopment,' he said.
The Social Welfare Department said it had an open mind about the group's recommendations. Some improvements had been made, such as more freedom and flexibility in the reward and punishment systems, a spokeswoman said.