‘Child abuse cases are being missed because of Covid’

The head of a child protection NGO on Sunday said calls to the organisation’s child helpline have doubled during the pandemic yet the number of reported cases has decreased. Dr Patrick Cheung, the chairperson of Against Child Abuse, said anti-epidemic measures have kept children at home where some are vulnerable to abuse. He was speaking on RTHK’s Hashtag Hong Kong programme.

“Covid-19 has kept people apart and socially isolated. Children are particularly vulnerable at home where conflicts easily arise. The calls to our Child Helpline have doubled. However, official child abuse cases have decreased because of the reduction of contacts of children by professionals in the education, social support, health systems, etc, where problems could be spotted early. Sadly, many abuse cases are hidden and not identified” Cheung said.

He added that the setting up of a new offence “Failure to Protect” has been deliberated by the Law Reform Commission since 2006. It addresses the circumstances in which a person taking care of a child, or is a member of the same household, and being aware of the serious situation of the child, should take steps to protect the child from serious harm or death. This new offence addresses the loopholes in the existing law, renders a higher degree of protection for children and should be legislated soon.

Cheung also referred to the life imprisonment of a couple in April after the High Court found them guilty of murdering a five-year-old girl in 2018, saying that such incidents are a reminder of “gaps in the current system”. Some of these gaps, he said, include the way the Child Fatality Review Panel works, and also shortfalls in dealing with cases of serious abuse.

“The Panel of the Child Fatality Review in Hong Kong is only able to examine cases after all legal proceedings are completed. It is over three years since the death of the girl. With such a lapse in time, there must be missed opportunities. More so, the Review Panel is not a statutory body and therefore has limited power to enforce its recommendations. Beside child deaths, a review mechanism is much needed for Serious Abuse Cases, for instance, a child ending up in a vegetative state. Shortfalls in these existing mechanisms are what Hong Kong should work to improve’ Cheung said.