The heartbreaking news we had recently about an eight-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother falling victim to child abuse should prompt us to focus on a critical question: How to detect signs of distress involving the kids and what should we keep an eye on in order to raise red flags?
Well, here I’d like to talk about one particular alarm signal: chronic absenteeism from school.
If absenteeism is given greater scrutiny by schools and teachers, it is possible that some child abuse cases can be dealt with in a timely manner and help prevent the problem from escalating.
To ensure this, we need to address a key issue. Currently, there are serious loopholes in the guidelines for kindergartens over reporting to the government cases of continuous absence of students.
Under the existing official circular on “Upholding Students’ Right to Education” issued by the Education Bureau (EDB), school heads of primary and secondary schools should, according to the “Early Notification System”, report a case to the EDB immediately on the seventh day of a student’s continuous absence, regardless of the claimed reasons for the absence.
However, when it comes to kindergartens, they don’t have to report that kind of situation unless a student is absent from the school for 30 days or more. Worse still, the EDB doesn’t even have any regular personnel specifically responsible for following up on cases involving absent students aged between three and six.
That extra 23 days compared to primary and secondary schools would make early detection and immediate intervention in suspected child abuse cases by the authorities very difficult.
In the recent child abuse case involving the eight-year-old girl and her younger brother, the case came to light only after a social worker assigned by a welfare non-government organization visited their home.
A kindergarten head recently told me that since early childhood education is not mandatory in Hong Kong, the EDB has never taken cases of students’ continuous absence in kindergartens seriously.
Besides, the person said, local kindergartens aren’t entitled to have a social worker deployed at each institution with government subsidy, and only a very few of them can afford to hire their own ones.
In order to address the pressing issue, I strongly urge the government to drastically review its current policy on dealing with cases of school absenteeism of kindergarteners.
Initiatives could include shortening the duration of kindergarteners’ absence that would require reporting to authorities, and proactively following up on cases when detected. Also, more resources should be diverted into helping kindergarten operators hire their own school social workers.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 17
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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