As the night creeps in on a Wednesday, thousands of Hongkongers pass the Tsuen Wan Market Street, but only a few notice a six-year-old girl who sat at a store front alone for an hour.
However, most of those who paid attention to the child simply walked away, with fewer than 10 going to her help.
“I noticed the girl but I thought she was waiting for someone. I also saw others just walking past her, so I thought it would be fine, and left,” said a passer-by.
“There were many people on the street. I thought there would be someone who would heed her, I had other things to do and was in a hurry so I left,” another passer-by said.
This was a social experiment conducted by police with charity Against Child Abuse on September 28, as part of the force’s campaign this year themed “bystander intervention”, which began on Friday to promote the importance of early action in cases.
The force said the girl was invited to act as though she had been left alone on the street by her mother. About 180 out of a total of 3,588 passers-by noticed the girl, but only six of them asked her if she needed help, according to police clinical psychologist Fung Ho-kin, who led the experiment.
He said those who did not intervene gave reasons including fear of being mistaken for trying to attack her, not knowing how to help, as well as thinking others would come forward.
Fung attributed the findings to the “bystander effect”.
“When an emergency occurs, the more people present, the lower the chance those in need of help will receive it,” he said.
The psychologist also cited another police survey which asked residents if they noticed any cases of suspected child abuse in their neighbourhoods and whether they helped. The force found that of the 340 people who answered the questions, 123, or 36 per cent, said they were aware of such incidents, but 76 of them did not intervene for reasons including dismissing them as not serious or others’ business.
“Hongkongers have the awareness of child protection … but they sometimes do not know how to help or think that offering help could get them into trouble,” he said.
“Bystanders can make a difference and help stop child abuse,” he said, urging the public to break the social norm of not helping and play a bigger role in protecting children from harm.
Meanwhile, the number of child abuse cases reported to police reached 795 during the first eight months of this year, up by 1.9 per cent from 780 during the same period last year, according to the force.
Among this year’s cases, 427 involved physical harm, and 368 involved sexual abuse.
Lee King-hei, senior superintendent of the crime support group of the crime wing, said while police supported new legislation that would make it mandatory for childcare professionals to report suspected abuse of a minor, the force also emphasised the role bystanders could play, especially following a series of shocking abuse cases involving young children.
She suggested the public go to security guards of their buildings, NGOs or the Social Welfare Department for help if they suspected abuse, and call police in urgent cases.
Lee said the force would hold various activities during this year’s campaign including the tram mobile exhibition, enhancement of the child protection one-stop application, and a new series of animations to provide practical information on child protection.
She said the force’s work on child protection also included the establishment of the vulnerable witness support cadre in July, which involved police, psychologists and social workers to deal with cases involving abuse of minors and mentally incapacitated persons. The cadre records their interviews with witnesses and these videos can replace the examination-in-chief in court proceedings, sparing witnesses from reliving their ordeal.
Police statistics show that the team recorded more than 1,600 statements for vulnerable witnesses last year, and 600 in total during the first half of this year.
Lee said the group had more than 170 members, but she expected the number to reach at least 200 by the end of the year, with plans to recruit more later.
“Next we hope to enhance children’s welfare, rather than merely protecting them from beatings,” she said.