Hong Kong to fast track bill on failure to report suspected child abuse, leader John Lee says, after tragic murder case

  • Hong Kong leader John Lee expresses concern and sadness over death of five-year-old boy found covered with bruises and abrasions in subdivided flat
  • He says incident reflects urgent need to complete legislative work on mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse cases

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A mother, 33, has been charged with the murder of her boy, five. Photo: Facebook

Hong Kong’s leader has pledged to speed up work on a bill that will punish child care professionals who fail to report suspected abuse of a minor, after a woman was charged with the murder of her five-year-old son over the weekend.

A consultation paper released by the government on Tuesday offered new details about the proposed law, including how authorities intended to categorise abuse cases and the maximum penalty offenders would face, which was currently suggested as three months in jail and a HK$50,000 fine.

The government previously said it hoped to introduce the bill in the Legislative Council next year, but Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said the boy’s death highlighted the urgent need to complete the consultation process more quickly.

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“To solve child abuse cases, we need interdisciplinary and cross-departmental collaboration,” he said ahead of his weekly meeting with his advisers in the Executive Council. “Appropriate training and guidelines are also needed, so people can understand the practice and their responsibilities.”

Secretary for Welfare and Labour Chris Sun Yuk-han chaired an online meeting in the morning to gather feedback from 200 stakeholders in the social welfare sector about amendments to the bill.

According to the consultation paper released at the meeting, the proposed law will hold professionals who have direct contact with children, including social workers, teachers, doctors and nurses, accountable if they fail to report suspected abuse of minors within a “reasonable time”. But foster parents, domestic helpers, home-based child carers and private tutors are not covered by the proposed legislation.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has pledged to fast track the implementation of the legislative work on mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse cases. Photo: Sam Tsang

The harm can take the form of negligence or physical, sexual or psychological abuse, and the government is proposing three categories of seriousness. The first concerns serious harm to a child or imminent crisis of serious injury, and professionals are required to make a report to police or the Family and Child Protective Services Units under the Social Welfare Department.

The second category involves situations where the child is at risk of harm or may have been harmed while his or her parents or carers are reluctant to cooperate with the professionals, who should report the case to the department or police.

The third level covers cases where ill-treatment may not have been established, but a need exists to follow up with the child or family involved. The case should be referred to a “suitable” service unit.

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Authorities will keep the identity of those filing reports of suspected abuse confidential and they are entitled to immunity from civil or criminal proceedings and other negative consequences should their reports be made in “good faith”.

In an RTHK interview following the online session, the welfare secretary said he hoped to complete the consultation in one or two months, and have the bill tabled for lawmakers’ scrutiny in the first half of next year.

Sun said: “The reporting system will be something like a traffic signal system. For serious cases with imminent danger [to the children], it is a red signal and reporting by relevant persons is mandatory, otherwise they could face legal liability. “In less serious cases, like an amber signal or near-green signal, that could also raise concern, we encourage the relevant persons to report.”

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Sun said training would be given to frontline staff and there would also be guidelines for them.

Sun added that although it was usually the frontline staff who would have contact with children more often, their supervisors were also required to report serious suspected abuse cases if they were aware of any.

“The law will also state clearly that the [frontline staff’s] employers or organisations cannot obstruct them reporting a serious case or else [the employers] may also be subject to legal liability.”

Sun added that it was also important to increase the number of places at shelters for child abuse victims.

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Social welfare lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen, who attended the Tuesday session, said some attendees argued the proposed bill should cover the actions of managers and staff members at social welfare organisations, rather than only their frontline workers. “If a supervisor deliberately obstructs or delays reporting, he or she should also bear legal consequences,” he said.

Priscilla Lui Tsang Sun-kai, a non-official member of the Commission on Children, agreed. “It is inappropriate if the supervisors neglect the suspected child abuse cases reported by their colleagues. They should help them instead,” she said. “Even if the staff were obstructed from doing their job, they should also [bypass their supervisors and] report it to the authorities.”

Under the existing system, both family members of victims and professionals do not have a statutory duty to report suspected abuse, which the government has said hinders early identification and intervention.

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The five-year-old boy was found dead on Saturday in a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po with bruises and abrasions covering his body. His 33-year-old mother, who is five months’ pregnant, called police saying her son was unconscious, and when officers arrived she threatened to jump off the building.

The mother, who has two other young children, was charged with murder on Sunday, while the boy’s aunt, 40, was arrested on suspicion of child neglect.

The Social Welfare Department confirmed that an integrated family service centre run by a non-governmental organisation had been dealing with the family’s case.

According to the latest official statistics, there were 1,367 cases of child maltreatment registered in 2021, up from 940 in 2020. Some 43 per cent of last year’s cases were about “physical harm/abuse”, another 32 per cent were about “sexual abuse”.

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