LCQ3: Protection of children from physical and sexual abuses

     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Elizabeth Quat and a reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Dr Law Chi-kwong, in the Legislative Council today (January 24):

     Recently, there has been an appalling case in which a young child died allegedly due to abuse. Also, a female athlete has disclosed publicly that she was sexually abused by a coach when she was young. There are comments that although school social workers and teachers are in frequent contacts with children, they often overlook signs of physical or sexual abuses of children due to heavy workload and the shortage of manpower. Furthermore, the existing Sexual Conviction Record Check (SCRC) Scheme is not comprehensive and thus unable to prevent persons with previous records of sexual conviction from engaging in child-related work. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether, for the purpose of early detection and prevention of child abuse cases, the Government will implement the following measures: (i) extending the existing policy under which primary and secondary schools are required to report to the Education Bureau all cases of student dropouts and departures to kindergartens, and reviewing the relevant mechanisms and procedures, (ii) stepping up the training for headmasters and teachers of kindergartens and primary schools to enhance their alertness to child abuse cases, (iii) providing additional resources to extend the measure of "one school social worker for each secondary school" to primary schools and increasing the manpower of social workers for each school, (iv) enhancing the case referral mechanism, including having the Social Welfare Department proactively follow up cases referred to it by kindergartens, (v) stepping up education and support for parents, such as the provision of online resources on parenting, management of emotions, etc. and the setting up of a parent counselling hotline, and (vi) stepping up publicity to call on members of the public to be more alert and, in the event of signs of child abuse having been noted, offer help immediately or take the initiative to report the case; if it will implement such measures, of the details and the implementation timetable; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) whether, for the purpose of preventing persons with previous records of sexual conviction from engaging in child-related work, the Government will review and improve the SCRC Scheme, such as (i) imposing a mandatory requirement for the relevant organisations and enterprises to conduct checks on all existing and prospective employees, and (ii) permitting parents hiring private tutors to conduct checks on the applicants; if so, of the details and the implementation timetable; if not, the reasons for that; and
(3) of the Government's measures to assist employers in drawing up codes of practice in respect of their employees engaging in duties that involve staying alone or physical contacts with children, providing training to such employees, and setting up a complaint mechanism, so as to prevent children from being sexually abused?
     The Government attaches great importance to the well-being of children and firmly believes that every child has a right to protection against harm and abuse.
     To make the co-operation amongst multi-disciplinary professionals more effective, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) has, in collaboration with the Labour and Welfare Bureau (LWB), Education Bureau (EDB), Department of Health (DH), Hong Kong Police Force (the Police), Hospital Authority (HA), the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and related professionals, drawn up the Procedural Guide for Handling Child Abuse Cases (Revised 2015) (the Procedural Guide) for reference by different professionals and those in close contact with children because of their job, to facilitate the carrying out of the necessary preliminary assessment, investigation, multi-disciplinary case conference and follow-up of welfare plans when encountering suspected cases of child abuse. 
     Having consulted EDB and Security Bureau (SB), my consolidated reply to the question is as follows:

(1) The key to early identification and early intervention of child abuse cases is the enhancement of awareness of the school personnel in identifying the abused children and their ability in crisis assessment and handling of the child abuse cases through multi-disciplinary collaboration. If the school personnel notices wounds in a student's body or identifies a student with emotional or behavioural problems, they should report the case to the related government departments such as SWD or EDB according to the Procedural Guide. On this, EDB will strengthen related training, review the contents of relevant circular and the sections of the "Operational Manual for Pre-primary Institutions" to make them more concrete and precise. 
     To uphold the right of school age children to universal basic education under the law, primary and secondary schools are required to report students' non-attendance to EDB on the 7th day of a student's continuous absence so as to help non-attendance students resume schooling at an earliest opportunity. In the course of following up the non-attendance cases by EDB or the schools, if the students or their families are found to have problems or needs other than non-attendance, the cases would be referred to SWD, relevant social services agencies or the Police for provision of appropriate professional support services. As for kindergartens, EDB agrees to explore how the follow-up arrangements for student non-attendance cases without reason or with doubt should be further enhanced. Irrespective of the number of consecutive days required for reporting students' non-attendance under the mechanism, the staff of schools should pay attention to students' condition regularly and make referral as early as possible without being subject to the number of days required for reporting cases of non-attendance, should there be any suspected cases of child abuse. EDB will maintain close communication with SWD to explore how to further enhance the case referral mechanism.
     EDB implements the Comprehensive Student Guidance Service where primary schools adopt the Whole School Approach. Teachers work in collaboration with student guidance personnel and professional staff to provide remedial, preventive and developmental guidance services for the establishment of a robust student guidance system. Currently, there are two types of funding modes for student guidance service through provision of manpower or grants, respectively. Schools may, based on their own needs, use their funding flexibly to employ guidance personnel or procure social work service from NGOs. The Government has provided a top-up Student Guidance Service Grant to public sector primary schools with five or more operating classes starting from the 2012/13 school year.
     The feedback received by EDB indicates that the vast majority of primary schools could make good use of the funding to arrange for one or more school-based student guidance personnel, and currently 90 per cent of the public sector primary schools in the territory have employed registered social workers as student guidance personnel. EDB is aware of the request in the community for "one school, one social worker" for primary schools. Taking into consideration the needs of schools with regard to guidance service, EDB will explore the future development with LWB with an open mind, and make suitable resource provision correspondingly.
     To raise the awareness of teachers of secondary, primary and kindergarten levels, EDB organises talks or seminars annually in collaboration with SWD, to advise them on early identification, intervention and support of suspected student victims of child abuse and domestic violence. Moreover, EDB commissions tertiary institutions every year to provide Certificate Courses on Student Guidance and Discipline for Teachers of Primary/Secondary Schools which cover various modules on "child abuse" and "domestic violence", etc. Besides, starting from this week, EDB will jointly organise four briefings with SWD and the Police for teachers of all kindergartens and primary schools in the territory. The briefings will introduce how to identify and make referrals of the suspected child abuse cases so as to strengthen teachers' ability to identify the symptoms of child abuse, raise their sensitivity as well as enhance their understanding of the handling procedures.
     To further enhance parent education, EDB will launch a new parent education mobile website shortly. The website enables parents to access information on supporting the physical and mental development of students.  The Government has also set up a Task Force on Home-school Co-operation and Parent Education under the Education Commission to review the existing approach in promoting parent education and home-school co-operation, and formulate the direction and strategy for further promoting parent education and home-school co-operation with the objective of assisting parents to help their children grow up happily and healthily.
     Moreover, the 65 Integrated Family Service Centres and two Integrated Services Centres operated by SWD or NGOs provide a spectrum of services to strengthen families' capability of taking care of children and to help parents to improve their care quality. The 21 Family Life Education Units over the territory also deliver a package of family life education services to strengthen parent-child relationship and communication, and help parents to better understand the developmental needs of their children for early identification of their children's problems so that assistance from the relevant service units may be sought when needed. Parents in need may dial the 24-hour SWD hotline to seek counselling or referral to appropriate service units.
     As regards public education and promotion, SWD has in recent years launched an animated short film on effective parenting and harmonious inter-generational family life, produced and launched a series of Announcements in the Public Interest (APIs) on television and radio, and promulgated through posters the messages of combating domestic violence and seeking timely and early assistance. In 2017-18, SWD will also launch a series of APIs as well as disseminate the messages of child protection and prevention of child abuse in public transportation systems and through posters and hyperlinks to social media.

(2) and (3) To better protect children and mentally incapacitated persons (MIPs) by allowing organisations or enterprises engaging persons to undertake work relating to the above two kinds of persons to check whether their prospective employees have any criminal convictions records against a specified list of sexual offences, the Government implemented in 2011 the Sexual Conviction Record Check (SCRC) Scheme through the Police in accordance with the advice of the Law Reform Commission (LRC).
     Currently, the SCRC Scheme covers prospective employees and contract renewal staff applying to organisations or enterprises for work relating to children or MIPs as well as staff assigned by outsourced service providers to other organisations or enterprises to undertake work relating to children or MIPs. These organisations include schools, residential care homes for disabled persons, private tutorial centres and private interest/activity institutions such as swimming clubs, sports associations and music centres.
     SB has from time to time reviewed the SCRC Scheme and taken active measures to gradually extend its coverage. Since April 1, 2015, the SCRC Scheme has been gradually extended to cover all eligible contract renewal staff. SB will continue with the gradual approach when considering further extending the scope of the SCRC Scheme on the basis that its handling capacity is ensured. Regarding whether it is necessary to make it mandatory for employers/staff to undertake checking, SB considers that a balance must be struck between the two major principles of protecting children and facilitating rehabilitation. Consensus in the community will also be required.
     Besides, the Review of Sexual Offences Sub-committee under LRC is conducting a thorough review of the laws concerning sexual offences, and published two related consultation papers in 2012 and 2016 respectively. The review by LRC is still in progress and when it is completed, SB will study the feasibility of introducing an all-round and legally binding checking regime, encourage discussion in the community and seek to achieve consensus through consultation. Thank you, Chairman.

Ends/Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Issued at HKT 16:00