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LCQ16: Child left unattended at home

    Following is a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, to a question by the Hon James Tien on child left unattended at home in the Legislative Council today (February 20):


    As young children often encounter accidents while they were alone at home, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of a breakdown, by the type of accident, of the number of accidents concerned which occurred in the past three years;

(b) whether it has looked deeply into the reasons for parents leaving their young children alone at home; if so, of the outcome, and any plans in place to enhance assistance to parents in need in taking care of their young children; and

(c) whether it has studied if it should be legislated to expressly prohibit the leaving of young children alone at home; if so, of the outcome?


Madam President,

(a) According to information provided by the Police, in the three years from 2005 to 2007, the Police handled a total of 49 child neglect cases involving children being left unattended at home.  In seven of these cases, accidents and casualties resulted from parents' or carers' negligence.  Of the nine children involved in these seven cases, five inhaled excessive smoke or sustained burns during fire, three were injured due to falls at home and one fell from height and died.

(b) As revealed in the above cases handled by the Police, children were left unattended at home by their parents for different reasons.  It is the responsibility of parents to take care of their young children.  It is extremely dangerous to leave young children at home alone.  Apart from the danger of harm being caused to the children, the safety of neighbours could be put at risk.  Parents and carers may also face criminal liability arising from their negligence in caring for the children.

    If, for various reasons, parents are unable to take care of their young children temporarily, it is incumbent upon them to arrange for their relatives, neighbours or child minders to assist, or make use of the various child care services available.  The Administration and service organisations will endeavour to assist families in need, including providing them with fee assistance.

    At present, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) subsidised by the Administration provide a wide range of day child care services, including standalone child care centres, kindergarten-cum-child care centres and the more flexible Mutual Help Child Care Centre (MHCCC) services.

    To support parents who are unable to take care of their young children because of unforeseen circumstances or long working hours, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) also subsidises some of the above centres to operate extended hours service and occasional child care service.  To further promote different and more flexible forms of child care services, SWD has been subsidising MHCCCs to strengthen their operation in the evenings, at weekends and on holidays since January 2008.  SWD has also started subsidising foster homes and some small group homes to provide non-residential day care service since October and December 2007 respectively.

    NGOs also operate After School Care Programmes that offer half-day support for children aged six to 12 on a self-financing and fee-charging basis, so that parents can be released for work or employment training.  Parents in need may apply for half fee reduction or full fee-waiving subsidies.

    Moreover, the Administration also assists the community in establishing mutual help networks through the Community Investment and Inclusion Fund (CIIF).  Over the past five years, the CIIF has provided over $110 million to fund more than 140 projects.  About one-third of these projects have a child care or after-school care element.

(c) There is existing legislation to deal with the problem of children being left unattended at home.  In accordance with the Offences against the Person Ordinance (Cap 212), any person who unlawfully abandons or exposes any child, being under the age of two years, whereby the life of such child is endangered, or the health of such child is or is likely to be permanently injured; or any person over the age of 16 years who wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes any child or young person under the age of 16 years under his custody, charge or care in a manner likely to cause such child or young person unnecessary suffering or injury to his health, shall be guilty of an offence.  If convicted, the maximum penalty is imprisonment for 10 years.

    Between 2005 and the first half of 2007, the Police made use of the above provision to prosecute a total of 10 parents who left their children unattended at home.  Six of them were convicted, and the remaining four were given bind-over orders.

    There are suggestions that the Administration should consider making leaving children unattended at home a criminal offence.  We are of the view that such a proposal, though well-intended to protect children from harm, may not achieve its desired objective.  For instance, some parents may seek to circumvent the legal responsibility by asking their children to wait outside their homes or wander in shopping centres and on the streets.  These situations cannot be prevented by making it a criminal offence to leave children unattended at home.  On the contrary, the existing legislation on child neglect focuses on whether a certain conduct has caused harm to the child, whether the person involved has a duty of care, whether he/she has an intent to neglect the child and is aware of the possible harm done to the child due to such conduct, etc., irrespective of where the child is located.  We believe that such an approach can offer more effective protection for children, and there have also been successful prosecutions.

    We have made reference to the practice in some overseas jurisdictions.  As we understand it, the criminal provisions for handling child neglect under the relevant legislation in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Singapore are similar to the provisions in the Offences against the Person Ordinance mentioned above.  Moreover, these jurisdictions do not have separate provisions which make leaving children unattended at home a criminal offence.  Having regard to the above considerations, the Administration has no plan at this stage to make leaving children unattended at home a criminal offence. 

    Apart from legislation, it is more important to step up public education and remind parents of their responsibilities in looking after their children and the danger of leaving young children unattended at home. The Administration and NGOs will also provide assistance and support to families in need to minimise the incidence of children being left unattended at home.

Ends/Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Issued at HKT 12:12


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