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Keep Our Children Safe, Never Leave Them Unattended

23 August 2018

As discussed in previous articles, child abuse is not only limited to those acts that deliberately cause physical harm or involve the sexual violation of children but it also includes the physical and psychological threats and damage caused as a result of neglect. Because children generally lack the ability, knowledge and maturity to look after themselves and make the best decisions to keep themselves safe from harm, legislation is in place to protect them from being neglected and/ or left unattended.  Since neglect as a form of child abuse is a relatively broad topic, we will cover this in two separate issues. This article will focus primarily on the legal boundaries and advice related to children being left unattended.

As parents or child caregivers, most of us understand the importance of ensuring that our children are supervised at all times. However, what if we are really struggling to juggle work, chores and childcare? What if our children are independent or seem old enough to take care of themselves? What if our children are fast asleep at home safely? Surely, there is no harm in leaving them unattended for a short while? We believe many parents and child caregivers have encountered this dilemma, especially during long school holidays when their time is stretched to the limit with additional childcare responsibilities. 

In Hong Kong, the "Offences Against the Person Ordinance" (Cap. 212, clause 26-27) stipulates that 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 a child is or is likely to be permanently injured; or any person who willfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes such a child or young person under the age of 16 years under his custody, charge or care in a manner likely to cause such a child or young person unnecessary suffering or injury to his health shall be guilty of a criminal offence. The maximum penalties are 10-year and 3-year imprisonments for conviction on indictment and summary conviction, respectively.

Readers may be aware that leaving a child under the age of two is dangerous and illegal, many of them may be surprised to read that leaving a young person as old as 15-years old unattended may also violate the law. Under the current legislation, whether a parent/ caregiver will be prosecuted for leaving child under 16-year old unattended depends on different factors such as the child's age and self-care abilities, whether the act has caused harm to the child, etc. 

In 2017 a mother took her 15-year old daughter to a local eatery for breakfast and subsequently left her there alone for five hours. The girl was unharmed but the mother was arrested for violation of Cap 212 after the staff of the eatery reported the case to the Police. 

According to the Social Welfare Department (SWD), 477 cases of child abuse were reported during the first half of 2017, amongst these, 102 (21.4%) were cases of child neglect. The report indicated that amongst all abuse cases, the majority of the abusers were the child’s parents (59.3%), followed by unrelated parties (10.9%) and family friends/ friends (9.4%). The 3 districts where most of the child abuse cases took place were in districts which have the lowest average household income, Yuen Long (12.4%), Kwun Tong (9.4%) and Tuen Mun (9.2%).  

The above report explained two points that we feel are worth sharing with our readers:
1. parents need to understand that ‘Parenting’ is not a private matter but may involve legal consequences
2. parents should be careful trusting someone to be a caregiver for their child, even if he/ she is a family friend

It is not easy for parents to juggle work commitments with their childcare responsibilities and it is more difficult for low-income or ethnic-minority families who are unfamiliar with or who do not qualify for local subsidized child care services and/or parenting workshops. Parents are advised to prioritize the safety of their child when making decisions about work and personal appointments. If in need of support, parents should consider contacting the Social Welfare Department (SWD), local authorities or NGOs including PathFinders to seek advice and support.

It is very common that parents, especially those from disadvantaged families seek childcare support from family friends. However, as indicated by the above figures, parents are reminded to ensure the selected caregivers are reliable, responsible and will not leave the child in danger or unattended.  

In November 2017, a mother trusted her friend and the friend’s partner to care for her 4-year old twin daughters. The mother picked up one of the twins after two days and left the other daughter to be cared for by her friend for another 10 days. During this time, the daughter was physically abused and fell into a coma as a result of brain injury after the mother picked her up. The caregiver and her partner were subsequently arrested for child abuse.   This could have been avoided if the mother had not assumed that her friends could be trusted to babysit her child.

As parents and caregivers, we are the people that our children look up to and trust with their health and safety. Although current legislation offers certain flexibility for authorities in the handling of child abuse cases under Cap 212 in relation to leaving children unattended, readers are advised to always make decisions in the best interests of their child(ren) in order to provide the best care and ensure their safety.

PathFinders provides counselling and education workshops to pregnant Foreign Domestic Workers in distress and their Hong Kong-born children about childcare and parenting, and equips them with knowledge and practical advice about children’s developmental needs, and advice on how to protect them from abuse, be that virtual, physical or verbal. For information about PathFinders’ workshops, please visit our website at or call our client hotline.

If you suspect child abuse, please call the Hong Kong Police at 999. If you need other general advice and support, please contact the Social Welfare Department at 2343 2255.

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