A seven-year-old girl living in a Kwai Chung small group home was purportedly sexually assaulted at least twice by a nine-year-old boy, who forced her to take off her clothes and perform oral sex on him.
The case raises questions on whether the Social Welfare Department is adequately monitoring the city’s small group homes, which are run by NGOs as a domestic environment for children aged four to 18 who cannot receive adequate family care.
“Why would such an incident happen in such a safe place?” the girl’s mother, who was given the fake name Ms Fan, asked on Thursday.
Fan’s daughter and a seven-year-old boy are believed to have been asked by a nine-year-old boy, who stayed at the same home, to perform oral sex on him on December 20 last year.
Two days later, the girl was asked by a 14-year-old girl to enter the boys’ room. The same older boy then told her and the seven-year-old boy to take off their clothes.
The care home staff did not directly inform Fan about the incidents, instead asking the girl to tell her mother what occurred. But the girl was too upset to say what happened after she took off her clothes.
“The incident has brought great harm to my daughter. Why didn’t the staff tell me directly if they knew, but [instead] sprinkle salt on my daughter’s wound?” Fan asked, adding that she was asked by the care home not to pursue the matter any further.
The alarms that were supposed to alert staff when children entered rooms for residents of the opposite sex had been switched off, as the husband of a staff member, who also stayed at the home, wanted to rest.
Fan made a police report at the New Territories South regional headquarters, but was told that children under 10 could not be charged.
“Police said several sexual assault cases had been reported in small group homes in the past,” Fan said, adding that she was asked to accept what had happened, “walk with my daughter” and not mention it any more.
Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan Siu-kin, who has been assisting Fan and her daughter, said the department intervened in January and confirmed the case to be one of children being sexually assaulted. Counselling was arranged for the girl.
Wan did not reveal the name of the small group home, but indicated its operator was a “sizeable” agency.
“Was there any negligence by anyone? Was there a problem if the warden was not there? The Social Welfare Department has guidelines and procedures on regulation, but were they fully complied with?” he asked.
Responding to inquiries from the Post, a department spokesman said that a social worker had found a spot in another small group home for the girl and would arrange her for her to move in shortly.
The operator of the home concerned was asked to submit a report and enhance measures protecting the children.
The operator has also formed a designated investigation panel and assigned extra manpower to take care of the children and conduct checks on rooms.
A police spokesman said they received a referral from a government department on December 29 for a case involving a nine-year-old boy suspected of sexually assaulting a seven-year-old girl in a care home in Kwai Chung. The case was considered an indecent assault and was followed up by the crime squad from the New Territories South regional headquarters.
While a charge could not be made against the boy, who was under 10, he was given a verbal warning.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a legal scholar from the University of Hong Kong, said the age of criminal responsibility in Hong Kong was seven before 2003. It was raised as it was believed that children under 10 should not face criminal prosecution.
“Many research [studies] showed they could not differentiate [between] the rights and wrongs in criminal offences,” Cheung said.
“There are other ways to stop the children from offending again, rather than asking them to stand for criminal trial,” he added.
Lawmaker Fernando Cheung, a registered social worker, said regulation for small group homes was rather loose, and sudden visits by officers were rare.
“As the small group home is supposed to create a homey environment, there will not be many monitoring facilities such as CCTV,” Cheung added.
He said that in the long run, there should be proper training of staff at these homes to teach them how to identify similar problems earlier.
In 2009, at least two sexual assault cases took place at a small group home in Tsing Yi operated by Sheng Kung Hui St. Christopher’s Home. In January that year, a 15-year-old girl was said to have removed a 10-year-old boy’s trousers and indecently assaulted him. In a separate incident in October, an 11-year-old boy forced a six-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him. Both cases were reported to police.