Care for Hong Kong’s vulnerable children must go beyond government services
Rainbow Ho and Paul Yip say while the government must lead and provide resources, it relies on cooperation from the community to fully support the families and social workers involved
The problem of child maltreatment, including physical, sexual and psychological abuse as well as neglect, has become an important public health issue. Every year, between 4 per cent and 16 per cent of children are physically abused and about 10 per cent are neglected or psychologically abused in high-income countries. Given the well-documented effects of such abuse on a child’s health, social and behavioural development, society will pay a very high cost if it is not dealt with timely and effectively.
Hence, child protection is important. According to the latest figures from Hong Kong’s Social Work Department, there is a critical shortage of residential places for children in need, especially for those with a mental disability. There are 3,427 residential places for children with no disability, and 174 for those with a disability. Occupancy rates are 87 per cent and 98 per cent respectively.
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The situation is worse for children with intellectual disabilities. It takes, on average, 9.7 months to get a long-term place and they must leave when they reach 18. An emergency place can be arranged if there is a court protection order for desperate cases. However, only government social workers and law enforcement agencies can apply for one.
The well-being of the youngsters and families concerned is our primary concern. Sometimes, a tragedy such as suicide or a murder-suicide occurs when things become too much to bear for these families.
So, there is an urgent need to increase the number of shelter spaces. At the same time, it is also vital to provide support to those families on the waiting list, to try to ease their pressure.
Providing shelter is not only about finding a place; it also involves caretakers. Social workers and “house parents”, who take care of children in foster homes, need training to care for mentally disabled children and their families. Hence, it is important to try to increase the number of shelters and employees, as well as the resources needed to provide holistic support for the children and their families.
More specifically, children from problematic families or those with a mental disability usually need special care. They may have been neglected during their early developmental years and may have special emotional or behavioural needs.
Meanwhile, social workers may have insufficient time and resources to deal in-depth with each individual case, given that they need to look after all the welfare issues of the children and their families.
House parents, too, have their share of challenges. Working in foster homes is very demanding, as behavioural and emotional problems are common among the children. House parents who take care of their daily routine may not be equipped to deal with complicated psychological or behavioural issues.
The parents of the child also need support after their child leaves the family home. Long-term support is required, whether or not their child eventually returns to the family. Of course, ideally, the child would be reunited with his/her parents when the situation improves.
Meanwhile, we are working with the Keswick Foundation on a pilot project in which a counsellor is employed in foster homes. We will evaluate the effects of having such a professional on the growth of the children as well as the organisation, to improve best practice and determine how best to help relieve the chronic situation.
With the increase in the number of divorces in Hong Kong and the weakening of the family support system, our children are under threat. The development of many young children has been put at risk due to parental problems and the children being exposed to challenging conditions. For intellectually disabled children, it can be very demanding for the carers as well. But we have also seen many devoted parents who show great love and care for their children.
A community response would be more effective with government support. Residential homes should be properly staffed and well supported for those who need to go into care. House parents should be better supported and appreciated. Also, training should be provided for older children so they could eventually find work.
There are many malfunctioning families who need support to function properly again. If we can leverage resources at a local level, the community can help: with training and support, more foster homes can be set up to help alleviate the acute shortage of government-run residential homes.
Our centre has been running mentorship programmes in schools with disadvantaged children. The experiences have been very encouraging. Parents’ attitudes have changed and they have started to pay more attention to their children.
The demands on foster parents are very great, too. With proper support and training for volunteers, the community can become another source of support for parents and families in need. Sometimes, parents might simply need a much deserved time out, especially those caring for children with disabilities, to prevent burnout.
Certainly, the government needs to invest more. At the same time, we can all contribute, to improve the situation.
Helping these unfortunate children is the best investment we can make; they are our future, and they can achieve much with a little help.
Right now, these unfortunate children don’t have a choice – but we can create a choice for them, to make a difference to their lives.
Rainbow Ho is director of the Centre on Behavioural Health, and Paul Yip is the director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, at the University of Hong Kong