Be a better neighbour, don’t ignore signs of child abuse in Hong Kong
Alice Wu says the death of five-year-old Chan Sui-lam has rightly sparked criticism of the failure of the government’s mechanisms to protect children, but we could all do more to prevent child abuse
The tragic death of five-year-old Chan Sui-lam rocked Hong Kong to its core. The continued abuse she and her brother endured is unimaginable. “Lam Lam” died after being repeatedly thrown at the ceiling. She was poked in the chest with scissors, given very little food and slept on the floor with little cover in the cold. Her death is a clarion call against child abuse.
Within days of her death, numerous cases surfaced, including a three-year-old girl found unattended in her home, an eight-month-old boy living with a foster family found suffering from a blood clot in his brain and head and face injuries, a four year-old boy and his eight year-old sister found in a subdivided flat covered in faeces, and an eleven-year-old boy beaten and left with a 4cm-long wound on his cheek.
Before “Lam Lam”, there was a four-year-old who was found with multiple bruises, traces of burns all over her body and a haemorrhage on her brain after being left to the care of a nanny and a friend. Earlier, there was the shocking video of a Hong Kong man flinging his two-year-old daughter like a rag doll before he proceeded to punch, kick and elbow her.
How many more of these child abuse cases need to come to light before we face our collective failure to protect the most vulnerable in our society? These are not “statistics” but human lives.
There comes a point when we must hold ourselves to our repeated statements of outrage. It is time to admit to ourselves that, too often, we become numb and suffer from tragedy fatigue. How many times have we been resigned to accepting that “there’s little that can be done” when told that child abuse is complex and has been around since time immemorial?
The latest pledge by Secretary for Labour Dr Law Chi-kwong to look at ways to enhance training for social workers and educators, to help them identify possible child abuse cases, came after Chan Sui-Lam’s case shed light on the gaping holes in the existing mechanism of detection and support. Hours after her tragic death, schools and social services were preoccupied with clearing themselves of blame. By putting their systemic moral disengagement on full display for all to see, they sent a horrific message to society: those tasked with protecting children see justifying their inaction and responsibility transfer as more important than acknowledging they failed to save a life.
While related public policies in Hong Kong are far from ideal and the government has been dragging its feet for years when it comes to setting up something as fundamental as a Children’s Commission with actual statutory powers, we must also recognise that we, too, can break the curse of bystander inaction.
We must demand that the government stop merely paying lip service to the public and act on allocating resources, getting the crucial information and weeding out all the red-tape that has failed to provide vulnerable people with the protection they need and deserve. But we must also – as private citizens and members of the community – take steps to become more aware of the vulnerable people we may be in contact with, day in and day out.
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Have we been turning a blind eye to the plight of the helpless and voiceless? Have we, too, been passing the buck? Have we brushed off opportunities for intervention, made the excuse that “someone else will take care of it”? Are we willing to risk the charge of nosiness and interference ?
May the tears we have shed for the loss of “Lam Lam” inspire us to be better neighbours, members of our community and advocates for children.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA