The number of child abuse cases reported in Hong Kong in the first nine months of the year has jumped by two-thirds compared with the same period in 2020, police have said.
Authorities attributed the increase to societal changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, with a weaker economy creating more stress in local households, and children spending less time at school and in extracurricular activities, leaving them more exposed to danger both in and out of the home.
“Often, child abuse cases arise because of adults, such as conflicts between parents or if they are unable to control their own emotions and take it out on children,” said Superintendent Lee King-hei, of the police force’s crime wing.
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“The harm may not be intentional, but a momentary loss of control can cause children to become victims.”
Reported cases of child abuse were up 66 per cent, from 525 in the first nine months of 2020, to 871 in the same period this year.
Cases of physical abuse, such as beatings, jumped 70 per cent, from 262 to 444, with Lee saying the perpetrators were usually family members.
About 130 of the total cases involved children aged five and below.
The triggers were often complex, she added, but could involve more time spent at home and financial difficulties stemming from the pandemic.
“The pandemic is one of the main reasons for the increase, as work from home became the norm, kids did not have to go to school and there was an economic impact on families; parents’ moods might be affected too,” Lee said.
Reports of sexual abuse, meanwhile, saw a more than 60 per cent rise, from 263 to 427, with about a third taking place in public, including on mass transit, Lee said. Twenty-two of the victims were aged five or under, and all but one of them were girls.
“This year, with kids returning to school, but for just half a day, they have a lot more freedom to run about outside, especially as their parents work the whole day,” she said.
The second-largest category of such cases involved children being coerced into sex after getting to know someone through social media or online gaming, she added.
Last year, the number of sexual crimes against children actually decreased, a phenomenon Lee attributed to them spending less time out of the house.
Hong Kong has recently moved to improve protections for children, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announcing in the final policy address of her term that the government would push ahead with legislative work on a mandatory reporting mechanism for child abuse cases.
The government aims to introduce the relevant bill in the Legislative Council by 2023.
Fung Ho-kin, a clinical psychologist with the police force, said protecting children would require parents to think about whether they were bringing home stress and to be aware of any tension within their marriage.
“Parents should also ask themselves if they are using suitable methods to teach their children,” Fung added. “If they run into trouble, they should seek help as soon as possible.”
Cases of sexual abuse, however, were much harder to detect, he said. Bruises from physical harm could easily be seen, both he and Lee noted, but there was often a delay when it came to reporting of sexual abuse.
“Those cases involving strangers are much easier to report. But when it comes to family members or people children know, they find it much harder to speak up,” Lee said.
She recalled a case she had worked on nearly a decade ago in which a 12-year-old only reported sexual abuse by her father out of fear he would also start preying on her younger sister, who had just turned seven – the same age the older girl was when he started assaulting her.
However, after authorities intervened and institutionalised her and her two younger siblings, she began feeling guilty for breaking up her family and decided to drop the case, Lee said.
While her younger sister and brother returned home with her parents, and were apparently never harmed by her father, she stayed at an orphanage for another two years, at which point her carers suggested she start returning home on weekends.
“But she realised her father had been secretly filming her in the shower when she returned,” Lee said, prompting the girl to revive her old case against him and file new charges.
Police have since developed a new app that provides information on child abuse aimed at different age groups, along with instructions on what to do for both victims and witnesses.
Lee urged all of the city’s residents to be alert to any abuse that could be happening around them, calling on carers, teachers, parents and even neighbours to step in if the need arose.
“Protecting our children is everyone’s responsibility,” Lee said.
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