The following statement was issued by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) in response to some press reports on criticisms by the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor (the Monitor) on the management of the eight children's homes run by SWD.
SWD's children's homes are serving a variety of purposes. Some provide residential care to children with family or behavioural problems or whose parents are unable to take care of them due to various reasons. Others are residential homes for offenders, such as juveniles under probation. Others serve as remand home or place of refuge for children and juveniles requiring short-term care or custody, including minor illegal immigrants intercepted or juveniles pending court trials.
The duration of stay of children and juveniles in these homes varies significantly, from a few days to a continuous period of 18 months. The fluctuations in the enrolment of this service with a total capacity of 560 places and an annual budget of $123.6 million (and public concerns about under-utilisation at times) are also a relevant factor to consider.
The physical environment of these homes also vary considerably with a few operating from purpose-built homes while others are accommodated in old non-purpose built premises.
Nonetheless, to meet the varied needs of these children, the Department has put in place different kinds of educational, developmental and therapeutic activities in these homes to keep the residents meaningfully occupied during their stay.
It is therefore more meaningful to assess the service based on the individual programmes and the nature of the stay of the children and juveniles in the homes.
The Monitor's study has tended to adopt a broadbrush approach, probably due to the resource limitations for this Study that the Monitor itself has acknowledged.
The Monitor obtained its findings from unannounced visits conducted in the early part of 2000 during which interviews were held with staff and residents. The Department has no way to verify the claims or the representativeness of those findings.
The Monitor alleged that little has been done to improve the service since a study in the early 1980s. Nothing is further from the truth. Various improvements have been introduced as outlined in the Department's response to the Monitor.
Moreover, with an objective to strive for continuous improvement, studies had been conducted into these homes over the recent years.
These include an independent research conducted by a local academic on the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes for young offenders and a study by the Government's Management Services Agency into the operation and management of the homes completed in 1997 and 1998/99 respectively. The Department has vigorously followed up on the recommendations in these studies.
In its latest progress report to the Standing Committee on Young Offenders under the Fight Crime Committee, the Committee noted that the Department had invited discharged residents and their parents to give feedback on the offenders' behavioural changes upon discharge.
Data collected for the period April to September 2000 showed that 80% of parents and 70% of discharged residents commented that the residential service received had had positive changes on their behaviour.
Looking ahead, on two areas which the Monitor has commented, i.e. education service for residents and training for staff, the Department has planned further improvement measures.
From September this year, education service will be strengthened in all homes, including those for short-term stay. The Department will upgrade some of the teacher posts to graduate level and provide additional teacher posts to short-term homes.
The Department has also extended an invitation to an overseas expert to visit Hong Kong later this year to conduct training for staff to better equip them with skills to support children with behavioural problems.
In running this service for children and juveniles, the Department has to strike a balance between helping them to lead a more regular and meaningful life for subsequent re-integration into society and respecting the needs and wishes of the child.
We believe that a full and fair evaluation could only be done by acknowledging the objectives of this service and recognising the constraints under which it has to operate. Against this, the Department has reservations on a number of findings/observations of the Monitor -
(a) there is no question of an inadequate supply of food to residents. More food is always available to meet the request of residents;
(b) there is no limitation or restriction on the number of letters sent by residents to the family. As a matter of fact, the Department encourages family/child interaction and over the past years, increasing number of family programmes has been organised to promote family-child relationship; and
(c) the Department has taken measures to ascertain the real age of illegal immigrants so that over-aged cases are referred to the appropriate Correctional Services Department institutions for custody or care. However, legal advice has confirmed that biological tests can only be conducted with the consent of the "child" in recognition of the rights of children. It is therefore not a question of the Department being unduly lax in assessing the age of the illegal immigrants.
The Department has adopted an open mind in facilitating the Monitor's study. We will take into account some of the Monitor's observations and recommendations where appropriate in our continuous improvement to the service.
End/Wednesday, May 23, 2001