24 April 2019
Teachers and school social workers spend a lot of time with schoolchildren, and can play a decisive role in preventing child abuse. Photo: Xinhua
Teachers and school social workers spend a lot of time with schoolchildren, and can play a decisive role in preventing child abuse. Photo: Xinhua

School-government cooperation key to preventing child abuse

The sad news about a 5-year-old girl who died from suspected child abuse by her parents is an indictment of our existing child protection policy.

The tragedy has raised widespread public concern about the inadequacy of our schools, social workers and various government agencies in protecting our vulnerable children from harm.

The non-governmental organization Against Child Abuse (ACA) said that in the year 2016/17 alone, it received a total of 198 suspected child abuse cases involving 225 victims. Among them, over half were aged between 3 and 8, with toddlers aged under 2 accounting for 10 percent.

According to ACA figures, about 60 percent of the suspected cases were committed by members of the victims’ families such as their parents and grandparents.

The prevalence of child abuse cases in our community is not just the problem of victims and their families but also, more importantly, a direct reflection of the inadequacy of our government’s efforts in preventing child abuse.

The 5-year-old girl’s tragic death could have been avoided and her case could have been detected much earlier if her school and the Social Welfare Department had been more attentive to telltale signs such as suspicious-looking scars and bruises found on her body.

In fact, the authorities didn’t bother to follow up on the girl’s case even after she had been absent from school for two straight months.

With regard to her 8-year-old brother, the Social Welfare Department only suggested that his school keep monitoring and pay home visits if necessary even after the school had reported unexplained cuts found on the boy’s body to the school social worker.

Apparently, the schools of the two kids and the Social Welfare Department had seriously underestimated the gravity of the situation. The tragedy could have been prevented if both the schools and the government department had taken one step further to follow up on the case in a timely manner.

Apart from their parents and family members, teachers and school social workers are probably the people with whom children spend most of their time on a daily basis.

Given that, teachers and school social workers can play a decisive role in preventing child abuse by being more vigilant about small details and warning signs such as unusual mood changes and unexplained physical symptoms demonstrated by students.

Once they have recognized suspected child abuse cases, they should at least follow up immediately by paying home visits, sending the kids in question to hospital for injury examination and seeking help from non-governmental organizations even if they prefer not to report to the Social Welfare Department right away.

The Social Welfare Department also has a key role to play in preventing child abuse, and should have been more proactive in doing so.

Some frontline social workers have told me that under the current practice, unless injuries such as lacerations sustained by a child are so severe that they might endanger critical organs such as the eyes, ears and the head, the Social Welfare Department would only give advice to schools rather than accept referrals.

Under most circumstances, the department would ask schools to take care of the cases on their own.

I find this rigid and bureaucratic approach adopted by the Social Welfare Department highly unsatisfactory. I strongly urge the department to drastically review its policy on child abuse prevention and to provide immediate support as well as carry out thorough investigation once it has received any request for help from schools.

The policy of assigning one social worker to each school is not fully enforced in our primary schools. Worse, the Kindergarten Administration Guide published by the Education Bureau doesn’t even touch on the fundamental issue of how to deal with suspected child abuse cases involving kindergarteners.

As such, I strongly recommend that the authorities fully implement the “one-school-one-social-worker” policy and introduce the “one-school-one-nurse” measure to all kindergartens and primary schools as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the government should also review its current reporting mechanism with regard to the continuous and unexplained absences of kindergarteners, under which kindergarten operators don’t have to report it to the authorities unless the student is absent for more than 30 days.

The Education Bureau should seriously consider shortening that duration to seven days, same as the duration that requires immediate reporting currently enforced in our primary and secondary schools.

Last but not least, the administration should also seriously consider the recommendation made by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and introduce a mandatory reporting mechanism on suspected child abuse cases into our schools and kindergartens.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 22

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong

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