Hong Kong children aged six to eight are the “the most vulnerable” to abuse, local NGO Against Children Abuse (ACA) has found, as the group said the suspension of schools during Covid-19 made mistreatment of children “harder to spot.”

The ACA received a total of 200 suspected cases of child abuse in the year 2020 to 2021, according to the annual statistics it released on Thursday. The figure accounted for 16 per cent of the 1,264 cases the organisation handled through their hotline and drop-in services over the past year.

Against child abuse
Donna Wong (left) and social worker Chu. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

A total of 248 children were involved in the suspected cases of abuse. Children aged six to eight were said to be “the most vulnerable group,” followed by those ranging from three to five years old.

Among the suspected cases of mistreatment, 48 per cent involved physical abuse, such as beating children with canes, hangers and belt, as well as slapping them. Some victims had visible red marks, whilst others had “hidden wounds” that could not be spotted easily, said ACA Director Donna Wong.

Other suspected abuse included sexual abuse (17 per cent), negligence (12 per cent) and psychological abuse (11 per cent). Close to 80 per cent of the alleged cases of abuse were carried out by the children’s family members.

Covid factor

Wong said schools were a “gatekeeper” in identifying instances of child abuse, but the intermittent suspension of classes during the coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for teachers to find these cases.

Photo: GovHK.

“Children have less contact with the outside world during Covid-19… the suspension of school made it harder to spot child abuse cases,” Wong said, adding more conflict arose between parents and children when they stayed home more together amid the pandemic.

The NGO found that, among the 1,264 hotline calls they received, 76 per cent were from family members, with a majority being the mothers. Only two per cent were reported by the children themselves, whom Wong said were often reluctant to file such reports as they “did not want to cause trouble” for their family.

Abused children are likely to suffer from long-term psychological trauma, such as as loss of trust in their family, fear, depression and becoming withdrawn.

“The most far-reaching impact is the lack of security, resulting in low self-esteem… doubts about their own values… even obstacles in interpersonal relationships,” the NGO said.

Abuse of a 22-month-old baby

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s High Court sentenced a man and a woman to five years and four months behind bars, after they pleaded guilty to abusing a 22-month-old baby in 2019.

According to local media, the couple – Or Ching-man and Shiu Kwok-wai – had hit the baby girl, whom they were entrusted to look after, with a cane and slapped her multiple times between January and June that year. They were also said to have tied a dog chain around the infant’s waist and left her at home alone.

High Court
High Court. Photo: GovHK.

The infant eventually died in late June 2019, and the autopsy showed she had 70 wounds and scars, while her head injury was ruled as the direct cause of death, local media reported. In meting out the prison terms, Judge Albert Wong said the growth and destiny of the infant were in the hands of Or and Shiu, but she was treated with “severe physical abuse.”

The baby’s health also degenerated on the defendant’s watch, the judge said, including being underweight, suffering malnutrition and impaired cerebral development, which the court considered as evidence of ill-treatment and negligence by the couple.

‘Not very deterrent’

Wong from ACA described the case as a “heart-breaking tragedy.” She said sentences for child abusers should be “proportional” to the level of violence imposed on the victims.

The jail terms handed down on Wednesday, however, did not seem to deliver much deterrence, she said: “…but this is what is [stipulated] in the current legislation. We respect the ruling.”

Perpetrators of child abuse are often charged under section 27 of the Offences Against the Person Ordinance. Offences related to ill-treatment or neglect by those in charge of a child or young person are punishable by up to 10 years behind bars.

The ACA urged the government to adopt recommendations of the Law Reform Commission to raise the maximum penalty for child abuse offences, and to legislate against the lack of protection of children.

The authorities should also establish a mandatory reporting mechanism for suspected child abuse cases, as well as set up a mandatory Sex Conviction Record Check System to prevent instances of child sexual abuse.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.