Review committee says staff ‘overworked and burdened with huge pressure’ and lacked support.
An independent review of a Hong Kong charity hit by child abuse allegations has found a serious shortage of staff at its residential care centre.
The review committee, set up in October in the wake of child abuse allegations at Po Leung Kuk to look at residential childcare services, on Saturday released the first phase of its findings.
The review found that the Po Leung Kuk’s babies section, where the abuse is alleged to have happened, had a staffing of 28.5 childcare workers in October, 13 below the level set by the charity.
The staffing level for senior childcare staff was down to three from its quota of 6.5.
Both the figures were under the staffing requirements set by the Social Welfare Department, at 37.2 for care workers and 4.8 for senior staff.
Po Leung Kuk’s independent review committee chairman Melissa Kaye Pang.
“Childcare workers were often overworked and burdened with huge pressure, but unfortunately, they did not receive sufficient support,” Melissa Kaye Pang, the committee’s chairwoman said. “All these factors increased the risk of making mistakes among employees.”
But Pang, a former president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, highlighted that the review found allegations of mistreatment involving three employees were isolated incidents.
“There was no evidence indicating abuse or even brutality against children was a common phenomenon at Po Leung Kuk,” she said.
Three employees of the 144-year-old charitable organisation were charged last month with between one and five counts of assault on six toddlers at the charity’s Causeway Bay residential care centre.
A 33-year-old female employee was arrested on September 20 on suspicion of mistreatment of six children aged between one and three.
She was accused of pushing the youngsters onto play mats with excessive force after a random check by the charity and the Social Welfare Department.
A second employee, a 28-year-old woman, was arrested on September 30 and a 25-year-old woman was arrested last month.
The review found that the home, for children aged up to three who lack proper care because of family problems, had an increased number of youngsters beyond the age range, as well as more children with special educational needs.
Statistics showed that there were 12 overaged children at the care home at the end of October 2020. The number rose to 15 last year, and to 22 this year.
Out of 49 youngsters at the centre in October, 29 of them had special educational needs.
Pang said the increase in the number of overaged children and those with special needs made work more challenging at the home and led to problems as the centre was not designed for those groups and was unable to meet their needs.
The review also found insufficient training for employees and also highlighted the unclear legal definition of child abuse, which could cause anxiety among childcare workers who lacked legal knowledge and were afraid of breaking the law unwittingly.
Pang said that the charity had a wave of resignation among staff members after the arrest of the three employees.
“This may lead to a vicious cycle, leading to fewer people to join care homes, and the deterioration in the quality of staff and the services,” she said.
The review committee made several recommendations for Po Leung Kuk, including improvements to its recruitment strategies and staffing arrangements to enhance efficiency.
It also recommended a review of the service needs of children with special educational needs and increased expenditure on training for staff working with them.
The committee appealed to the Social Welfare Department to arrange for the overaged children to be transferred to more suitable centres and to allow Po Leung Kuk to make such arrangements inside the organisation.
The recommendations also included the setting up of a training mechanism for all frontline workers, and the organisation of regular mandatory training sessions for employees on the prevention and handling of suspected cases of abuse.
The charity thanked the independent review committee, and said it accepted its recommendations.
“Po Leung Kuk will actively follow up on the suggestions, adhere to the purpose of protecting the young and the innocent, and continue to optimise the organisation’s residential childcare services,” Daniel Chan Ching-yan, the charity’s chairman, said.
The department on Saturday said it had noted the committee’s proposals.
The department added the government attached great importance to the well-being of children and understood the sector’s concerns about the long-term development and staffing in residential childcare services.
Po Leung Kuk’s babies section is one of the only two such centres in the city. The other one is the Children’s Residential Home, where allegations of abuse emerged last December.
Police arrested 34 staff members for alleged abuse of 40 toddlers at the home, run by the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children.
The employees were accused of pulling children’s’ hair, hitting them on the head, slapping their faces and throwing them to the floor.