Social worker Pauline Chan Mei-ying says her greatest fear is reading in the newspaper that one of her pupils or their parents has been involved in a tragedy. Her concerns are not unwarranted. In her first two years as a social worker in kindergartens, Chan had to handle a case of a father beating his wife and child, and another of a pupil’s mother committing suicide, both at the same school. Despite being in her seventh year working with kindergartens and having more than 20 years of experience with clients from different age groups, Chan admitted things did not get easier with time. Schools waiting too long to identify special needs pupils Just this school year, she said, about five pupils were not attending classes regularly at a Tuen Mun kindergarten she was based in two days a week. The children were present only one or two days a month. “I am most worried for these five, as it is not normal for them to be absent for so many days,” Chan added. One pupil in particular was a high-risk case, with the child’s mother having suicidal tendencies, she said. “The mother had already told the Social Welfare Department to take her children to a shelter if anything happened to her, and she left a message with her next of kin that seemed like a suicide note.” Chan was also worried the mother’s unstable mental state might put her two children in danger. With such complicated family cases and a growing number of special-needs children in the city, the social welfare sector has long called for government funding for social work services for kindergartens. While subsidised primary and secondary schools have for years been receiving funding from the government to hire social workers, with a ratio of at least one per school since last year, kindergartens wanting social work services have had to tap into their own funds. Abused girl, 5, hit ceiling after being hurled in air and was poked with scissors But after a spate of suspected abuse cases last year, including the tragic death of Chan Sui-lam, a five-year-old girl who was repeatedly thrown at the ceiling and poked in the chest with scissors, the government announced a pilot scheme to provide social work services in more than 700 subsidised childcare centres and kindergartens. The three-year scheme will be launched in phases this month to provide social work services for about 150,000 pre-primary children and their families. The government initially set the social-worker-to-child ratio at 1 to 600, but that drew a public outcry, with officials eventually lowering the ratio to a team of eight social workers serving 16 schools, with 3,200 pupils in total. Flora Mok Wai-har, regional manager of Heep Hong Society, who will be supervising one of the teams for this year’s pilot project, noted that the social workers would be handling about 300 to 600 children each, depending on the size of their schools. Critics complained that the number of pupils was still on the high side, adding that this would mean social workers would have to shuttle between two schools. Moreover, cases could be complicated, taking up more time. A third of Hong Kong children have special educational needs – and the city is failing them For Chan, while the kindergarten in Tuen Mun has only about 100 pupils, she noted that there could be as many as 100 cases there, with many serious. She said she currently had two cases facing immediate risk, and 60 to 70 per cent of the children at the school had special needs. “Sometimes, I will be at one school but need to handle a case from the other school on the phone,” she said. “If it is a life or death situation, I might have to leave the school I was rostered at for that day.” Kindergarten children cannot express themselves as well and might not voice their feelings so much Flora Mok, social worker Mok noted some challenges in communicating with kindergarten children. “Unlike primary and secondary pupils, kindergarten children cannot express themselves as well and might not voice their feelings so much,” she said. “They are loyal to their parents, no matter how badly their parents treat them.” Hence, social workers needed to observe those children more, picking up on signs such as them not eating or hitting other children, Mok said. Li Feiyan, whose husband died about two years ago when her daughter was only four years old, said she was at a loss when the tragedy struck. Having no family in Hong Kong, she was glad that her child’s school social worker helped with her husband’s funeral and with counselling her daughter through play. Lo Oi-lan, principal of Oi Kwan Road Baptist Church Lui Kwok Pat Fong Kindergarten in Wan Chai, is a trailblazer, having hired a part-time social worker as early as 18 years ago. Despite school staff being dedicated to helping children and parents, they understood that they were not experts in the field, so Lo and the school’s management decided to have a part-time social worker based in the kindergarten. The principal said having a social worker on site also helped with preventive work, such as teaching parents how to control their emotions. Kindergarten pupils absent more than seven days must be reported, officials say Social worker Chan said she hoped the relevant government departments could do more to prevent pupils missing classes for long periods without a valid reason and parents not taking children thought to have special education needs for assessment. Kindergarten education is not compulsory in Hong Kong. While the Education Bureau now requires all kindergartens to report pupils who have missed class for seven days in a row without a valid reason, Chan said social workers still had their hands tied when it came to visiting their homes if parents did not give permission and the cases were not severe enough to warrant a police report. Hong Kong’s social workers are overworked and mentally spent She added that more needed to be done to ensure young children with special needs were assessed, with six being the critical age. While there will always be insufficient manpower, Mok said, she was glad that this administration had taken the initiative to start the pilot scheme. “It is a good beginning, and we hope to do our best not just to help children with problems, but also in prevention,” she said.