[Cover Story] Most parents blind to psychological abuse
Legislator Mr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung suggests introducing Britain's ‘Cinderella Law' in Hong Kong
Seven-year-old Ricky (not his real name) was heavily beaten with a hanger by his mother. Despite his learning difficulty and reading disorder, she forced him to study and demanded good grades from him.
"No matter what I do, my mother still scolds me," said Ricky. Feeling fearful and inferior, he was angry at the same time. He hid his negative emotions at home but later exploded at school by yelling at classmates and behaving rudely, according to Ms Suki Chui Shuk-yee, his primary school counsellor.
Ricky's is only one of many cases of child abuse in Hong Kong, where people are more aware of physical and sexual abuse, but not psychological abuse.
Statistics showed that psychological abuse only accounted for around two per cent of child abuse cases, according to the Social Welfare Department.
"Hong Kong has over 100,000 children but only about 16 cases were reported annually as psychological abuse," said Ms Jessica Ho Oi-chu, Director of Against Child Abuse. "This is impossible."
Dr Chan Yuk-chung, a professor at the Department of Applied Social Sciences of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, also doubted if such a small number of cases reflected the reality.
According to a 2005 study by the Department of Social Work and Social Administration of The University of Hong Kong, about 58 per cent of child respondents encountered psychological aggression by their parents.
The study also found that about 61 per cent of adult respondents admitted that they had engaged in acts of psychological aggressions on their children.
Mr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, legislator who represents the social welfare functional constituency, said many cases of psychological aggression went unreported.
There might have been cases in which the police and the social workers were conservative and reluctant in defining a case as psychological abuse due to insufficient evidence and invisible harm.
Britain recently introduced a law that aims at protecting children's intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural well-being. It is first brought to discussion in the country as the criminal law does not protect children from emotional sufferings. Lawmakers said some children might have experienced psychological abuse, like Cinderella, but the "wicked stepmother" could have got away scot-free.
Under this law, "wicked stepmothers" who starve their children of love and care may face jail. It is widely understood as "Cinderella Law" in Britain.
Mr Cheung said Hong Kong should consider introducing such a law.
He said many children in Hong Kong were deprived of basic living requirements, love, respect and freedom. They were mentally injured, but the current child protection laws were not enough to protect and safeguard their psychological health, he said.
The Social Welfare Department defines psychological abuse as a repeated pattern of behaviour and attitudes towards a child or an extreme incident that endangers or impairs the child's emotional or intellectual development.
"‘Cinderella' is not solely a fairy tale; it is happening in Hong Kong," said Ms Chui.
A recent report on child abuse by Caritas Youth and Community Service and City University of Hong Kong found that six in ten children aged between 8 and 13 interviewed said that they had been abused psychologically, such as being yelled at or described as "stupid" or "slob".
In Hong Kong, the Protection of Children and Juveniles Ordinance and Offences Against the Person Ordinance contain provisions that protect children from abuse.
Dr Chan said these ordinances already protected children from psychological abuse in respect of their growth, health and development.
However, Mr Cheung disagreed. He said Hong Kong had no law specifically protecting children from emotional cruelty. "The current law should be updated. The government should consult the ‘Cinderella Law' in Britain."
Social workers believe that the new law would offer a clearer framework enabling the police to collect evidence against any suspected acts of child cruelty.
"The effect of psychological abuse cannot be seen immediately; it can only be seen over the long term," said Ms Ho. "We should look at the act itself but not he effect on the child."
She said enacting a Cinderella Law would be good, but the most pressing task would be to review the current law.
She has once raised the problem with the government but officials did not seem to be listening.
To ensure effectiveness in tackling psychological abuse, it would be best if legislative amendment went side by side with education to raise public awareness of the issue, Ms Ho said.
"This problem does not only affect children, but also the future of society."
Reported by Joanna Wong
Edited by Karen Leung
Let down by integrated education
The Young Reporter Vol. 47