Editorial:Mandatory reporting of child abuse should be implemented

【明報專訊】The father and stepmother of a five-year-old girl who was abused to death have been convicted of murder, while the mother of the stepmother has also been found guilty of two counts of child cruelty. The victim and her elder brother were abused for some time, but no one offered a helping hand. The case came to light three years ago and sparked public outrage. The Office of the Ombudsman once suggested that the government explore the feasibility of the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse cases. The Law Reform Commission (LRC) also recommended that a ''failure to protect'' offence should be created to prevent child abuse. However, it remains a question when such recommendations will be implemented. Countries around the world have mechanisms for reporting child abuse, and Hong Kong can learn from their experience. The government must muster the determination to enact such laws as soon as possible.

The abused brother and sister were eight and five years old respectively at the time of the incident. Over the five months before she died, the victim had been living an inhuman life with her brother and suffering physical and mental torture of all kinds. Dr Ho Pak-leung, director of the Carol Yu Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong, testified as an expert witness that the child would not have died of septicaemia if she had not been abused and wounded. There are some organisations that have been concerned about child abuse for more than 40 years. The Social Welfare Department has also set up a helpline. However, the fact that the young brother and sister suffered from maltreatment for at least five months with no one lending a helping hand has highlighted major loopholes in the laws and the mechanisms for child abuse prevention.

During the trial, it was revealed that the young siblings were helpless and on their own. At home, their step-grandmother stood by and watched as the two children were abused. At school, teachers at the elementary school and kindergarten where they studied respectively noticed something peculiar. For instance, the elder brother had a swollen face and bruises on his thighs and walked with a limp, while the younger sister had red and swollen elbows and was absent from school for many days later. The death of the little girl cannot be simply blamed on the school or teachers. However, if the school had intervened earlier and more actively, there might have been a different outcome.

A decade ago, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child suggested that governments around the world establish a reporting mechanism for violence against children. Nevertheless, for so long Hong Kong has not had mechanisms or administrative measures to require professionals who have direct contact with children, such as teachers, social workers, doctors and nurses, to report to the Social Welfare Department or the police when suspecting or noticing a case of child abuse.

At the end of the year before last, the Office of the Ombudsman released an investigation report, suggesting that the government explore the possibility of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse cases. In addition, the LRC suggested the creation of a ''failure to protect'' offence. If a caregiver fails to report a case of child abuse that he or she knows and fails to take steps to protect children from abuse, he or she can be held criminally liable. However, there has been no apparent progress in implementing both recommendations.

A mandatory reporting mechanism can increase the sensitivity of the related professionals towards child abuse cases. Some are worried that they might be easily involved in trouble because of a moment of inattention or a mistake. The government could draw on the experience of foreign countries to specify that if the relevant person reports in good faith, regardless of the outcome, he or she will be exempted from legal prosecution. The mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse has been implemented in dozens of countries. If it can be done in other places, there is no reason why it cannot be in Hong Kong.

明報社評 2021.04.15:虐兒致死駭人聽聞 盡早落實強制通報







■/ Glossary 生字 /

outrage /ˈaʊtreɪdʒ/:a strong feeling of shock and anger

muster /ˈmʌstə(r)/:to find as much support, courage, etc. as you can

in good faith:believing that what you are doing is right; believing that sth is correct


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