If child abuse is properly addressed, it will also be a positive investment in the future. Photo: Shutterstock
Grenville Cross
Grenville Cross

Overdue child abuse law reforms a good place to start for Hong Kong’s policy address

  • Changes should include a requirement to report suspected child abuse, while psychological and online abuse must also be covered, and corporal punishment banned in all situations
If there was any doubt over what to prioritise in the forthcoming policy address, the latest child abuse statistics from the Social Welfare Department should provide a valuable focus.

In the first quarter of this year, 279 cases were recorded, up from 166 in the same period last year, with girls the primary victims. Physical abuse accounted for 113 cases, sexual assault for 86 cases, neglect for 67 cases, psychological abuse for three cases, while 10 cases involved multiple abuse.

Indeed, between 1999 and 2019, the Social Welfare Department reported a 75 per cent rise in child abuse cases, with an average of six deaths a year. Last year, it received 940 new reports of child abuse, with 57 per cent involving girls.

Whereas 41.4 per cent of the cases last year concerned physical abuse, 33.3 per cent involved sexual abuse, 21.4 per cent were neglect-related, 1.1 per cent involved psychological abuse, and 2.9 per cent were multiple abuse cases.

But, however instructive, the department’s statistics are incomplete, and most child abuse cases never appear on the radar. There is, of course, no statutory duty to report suspected cases, and this hinders early intervention to protect vulnerable children.


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Even professionals have sometimes failed to follow up on warning signs, while others have simply treated a child’s suffering as “none of my business”. The case, therefore, for mandatory reporting is now irrefutable.

If the public, including professionals, relatives and neighbours, have reasonable grounds to believe that a child is being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, or is being neglected, and is or may be, in need of protection, they must be required to report it.

This reform would bring Hong Kong into compliance with international norms, and it was specifically recommended in 2013 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which supervises the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

If, moreover, somebody makes a report in good faith, the law should also protect them, by stipulating that they will not be liable to civil, criminal or administrative proceedings.


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The child cruelty law itself – Section 27 of the Offences Against the Person Ordinance – works well enough when children are physically abused, but it falls down when it comes to psychological abuse.

If the abuse is emotional in nature, causing mental damage but unsupported by hard evidence, prosecutions are almost unheard of, and the culprit invariably avoids justice.

In Britain, this problem was resolved in 2016 by the so-called Cinderella law, which makes child cruelty prosecutable irrespective of “whether the suffering or injury is of a physical or a psychological nature”, and the Hong Kong law, based as it is on the English model, should now be updated accordingly.
As root-and-branch reform of the child protection laws cannot be delayed, the government must, as proposed by the Law Reform Commission, also bring forward proposals to create a new offence of failing to protect a child or vulnerable person where the victim’s death or serious harm results from an unlawful act or neglect.

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This will help avoid the type of tragedy which befell five-year-old Yeung Chi-wai, who died in 2013 after imbibing narcotics left lying around by adults at his home.

It can be no defence that a carer turned a blind eye, or did not bother to check on a child’s situation. This reform was first passed to the commission for consideration in 2006, and, after 15 years, it’s time for action.

In 2019, the Law Reform Commission also highlighted the dangers children face on the internet, and called for them to be protected from sexual predators by means of a new offence of “ sexual grooming”, and this should now be implemented.


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Also requiring criminalisation are the sending of sexual messages to a child, and the exposure of children to child pornography online. These reforms should not be hard to enact, and they can be properly expedited, ahead of other cyber law reforms now under consideration.

The UNCRC, which has applied to Hong Kong since 1994, requires the elimination of all forms of physical and mental abuse against children (Article 19), and corporal punishment is now banned in schools and correctional institutions in Hong Kong.

It persists, however, in the home, and is often irrational and excessive, and, as recognised elsewhere, causes great harm to many of its victims.

After Nepal banned corporal punishment in all situations in 2018, Japan followed suit in 2020, and South Korea last year, and it is now proscribed in 63 countries altogether.

Child abuse laws must be updated as a matter of urgency

In 2021, therefore, Hong Kong must catch up, as domestic violence, apart from damaging a child’s development, is also counterproductive, engendering negative reactions, including hatred and resentment, and even turning some children into tomorrow’s bullies, or worse.

The policy address, therefore, provides a golden opportunity to strike a decisive blow for the city’s children. If child abuse is properly addressed, it will also be a positive investment in the future. Few things are more important than adequate child protection, and the chief executive will hopefully step up to the plate on October 6.

Grenville Cross SC is Honorary Consultant to the Child Protection Institute of Against Child Abuse