Hong Kong welfare officials to tighten scrutiny of children’s homes following alleged abuse of at least 26 toddlers at the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children

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  • Fourteen staff of Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children arrested so far over alleged abuse
  • Department chief says alleged abuse at Mong Kok home is ‘unacceptable’, pledges to improve services
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Fourteen staff of the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children have been arrested over the alleged abuse at its Children’s Residential Home in Mong Kok. Photo: SCMP / Edmond So

Hong Kong’s director of social welfare, Gordon Leung Chung-tai, has pledged to review and strengthen the supervision of child support institutions in the wake of a scandal over the alleged abuse of at least 26 toddlers at a residential home.

Fourteen staff of the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children have been arrested since news of the alleged abuse at its Children’s Residential Home in Mong Kok broke on December 24.

“These children are suspected to have been abused at the place where they should have been cared for. It is unacceptable, and we must find out the truth,” Leung said at a media briefing on January 6.

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He said a thorough probe was under way, involving his staff, police and the child protection group at the centre of the scandal, and his department was also consulting other professionals for their input.

“We will learn from this case and improve the quality of the services,” he added.

The Mong Kok home provides support for children aged up to three years who are abandoned, orphaned or lack care because of family problems. Some of its staff have been accused of yanking the toddlers’ hair, hitting their heads, slapping and throwing them onto the floor.

Director of social welfare Gordon Leung. Photo: SCMP / Xiaomei Chen

The Society for the Protection of Children, an established child welfare group, runs centres across Hong Kong, serving about 3,000 children up to 16 years old and their families.

On Friday, police arrested eight female employees of the society and identified six victims. Earlier, six female staff were arrested and charged on suspicion of abusing another 20 toddlers at the home.

The society, which handed over surveillance camera footage from the home to police for investigations, said on Tuesday that it had set up an independent review committee to look into the alleged offences and review its operations.

Leung said his department had asked the society to submit a report by January 25, and was also checking if it had violated regulations for registration and receiving government grants.

Child abuse cases on the rise in Hong Kong

A 20-member team from the department went to the home on December 27 to evaluate about 70 children staying there.

Leung said the department also held meetings involving social workers, doctors, police and teachers, to review the cases of the children believed to have been abused.

After the scandal broke, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said on his official blog that he had ordered the department to conduct a thorough investigation, taking into account the society’s report and follow-up actions.

Leung said his department had also reviewed its inspection of child welfare institutions.

Susan So Suk-yin, director of Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children said during a press conference in December there cannot be any tolerance for child abuse. Photo: SCMP / Edmond So

The department examines all aspects of their registration, including building structure, fire safety and hygiene, conducts inspections and requires them to provide reports of their service levels regularly.

It also handles individual child abuse cases that occur in any institution, protecting victims, evaluating their situation and making welfare arrangements for them.

Leung said his department would review and strengthen the scope of its inspections of centres for children, and improve training for staff of such centres.

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He added that the department had been inviting members of the public to join the inspections of some institutions, and he was considering having more people on such visits to make the services more transparent.

Leung said he did not believe the case reflected a wider problem, adding: “So far we do not see child abuse as a common phenomenon in the social welfare sector.”

Abuse cases in Hong Kong have crept up over the past two years. Social workers and police have warned that many incidents might have gone unreported, especially during the pandemic when children stayed at home amid school closures and had difficulty seeking help.

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The department’s Child Protection Registry recorded 1,023 child abuse cases in the first nine months of last year, most of which involved physical abuse (446), followed by sexual abuse (316), neglect (219), multiple abuse (34), and psychological abuse (eight).

It recorded a total of 940 child abuse cases in 2020.

Carol Szeto, chief executive of the non-profit Save the Children Hong Kong, urged child protection groups to form a transparent child-safeguarding policy and educate their staff on its principles.

Carol Szeto, chief executive of Save the Children Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP / Jonathan Wong

She said the groups should have their own monitoring mechanism, along with the Social Welfare Department’s inspections, and there should be an avenue for reporting violations.

Donna Wong Chui-ling, director of the charity Against Child Abuse, urged the government to take up recommendations by the Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong last September to introduce a new offence, making it a crime to fail to protect a child from an unlawful act or neglect both at home and in institutions.

She also urged the Social Welfare Department to review its inspection of these groups, especially in the areas of manpower allocation, staff training and work processes.

“We must reinforce both the legislation and prevention mechanism to plug the loopholes in child protection,” Wong said.

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