SCMP Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Family crisis


When Ming Suk-fan walked into a government-run family-services centre to talk about her troubles at home, she hoped to find a caring person with whom she could share her problems and receive some help. Instead, Ms Ming, who came to Hong Kong six years ago, claims she was insulted by a social worker who branded her a ''lazy mainlander looking for a free lunch''.
''I felt so bad. It seems many people in Hong Kong and even government social workers look down on us, the new arrivals,'' the 47-year-old said, referring to the incident two years ago.
Migrants from the mainland often face family problems as they seek to adjust to life in Hong Kong lack of decent accommodation, trouble finding work, marital strife. Sociologists and social workers warn that the influx of new migrants creates an extra burden on those providing family services.
But this is only part of a wider concern affecting Hong Kong: the breakdown of the family unit. This has been characterised by an increasing number of divorces, rising levels of domestic violence and more extra-marital affairs.
The Government is seeking to address these problems by setting up a working group next month to reform its provision of family services. It will aim to be more proactive in its approach to social services, ensuring people seeking help receive a sympathetic response and that swift action is taken if there is a danger family stress could lead to suicide or domestic violence.
Economic woes are partly to blame for the breakdown of families, with unemployment and financial hardship being major causes of pressure. Infidelity and the stress of caring for elderly relatives add to the problem. In some cases, the pressure has led to tragedy. Only last week, a man was arrested for allegedly chopping his wife to death because he believed she was having an affair.
The Social Welfare Department runs 42 family-services centres and subsidises another 23 managed by voluntary agencies. As at the end of March this year, the 65 centres were handling a total of 50,949 cases, compared with 48,129 cases at the same time a year before. Most cases involved marital disputes, poor relations among family members and emotional problems.
The move to set up the working group followed a review conducted by a team of consultants from the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. The team, which published a report in June, expressed concern about the increasing vulnerability of local families.
The report said: ''Family problems are further exacerbated by a growing number of socio-economic issues, including rising divorce rates, people having extra-marital affairs, continuous family-reunion migration from mainland China, emotional and financial costs of caring for the elderly, and the changing economy, which has pushed more families into financial hardship. In effect, more and more families are now vulnerable to risk.''
According to the Social Welfare Department, the number of reported battered-spouse cases almost doubled to 2,370 last year from 1,200 in 1997. The number of reported child-abuse cases jumped to 500 from 381 over the same period.
Single-parent families have become a by-product of failed marriages. In Hong Kong, for every two couples getting married, another gets divorced. Census and Statistics Department figures show 39,474 people were married for the first time in 1990. That figure dropped to 27,040 in 1999. During the same period, the number of divorces increased significantly, to 13,408 from 5,551.
For Ms Ming, the housewife from the mainland, her marriage soured when she came to Hong Kong and found her husband, who was already living here, had been jobless for years. ''I always argue with my husband, sometimes we have fights, he gambles a lot, my son is ill and my daughter never talks to me,'' she said.
About two years ago, she turned to the Social Welfare Department's family-services centre in Mongkok for help. ''The people there discriminated against new arrivals; they thought we were lazy and useless people,'' she claims. ''One officer said to me: why are there so many new arrivals like you who always want welfare in Hong Kong?''
Ms Ming insisted she had tried her best to stand on her own two feet. At that time, she had two cleaning jobs and was working 18 hours a day. The entire family of four, including her two children, now 16 and 15, relied on her monthly income of about $6,000. But she later had to quit the low-paid jobs to take care of her epileptic son. Ms Ming is now living on public payouts and looking for work as a domestic helper.
Her ''extremely bad'' experience with the Social Welfare Department was not an isolated case, according to Sze Lai-san, a social worker at the non-governmental Society for Community Organisation. ''Rarely do government social workers reach out to people in need,'' she said. ''Once social workers find that a couple are not willing to come forward for counselling, they close the files. But the irony is that people who are reluctant to seek help are the ones who need it most.''
Deputy Director of Social Welfare Eliza Leung Wong Kwok-shing said some clients who approached social-service agencies for assistance expected their problems could all be resolved immediately by others rather than by themselves. ''Help seekers are normally not happy with, or proud of, their status, hence they are often quite sensitive to messages which they interpret as accusing them of not having tried their best,'' she said, adding that this could lead to misunderstandings. She said social workers and those seeking help should learn to be better listeners.
Mrs Leung said the economic downturn had forced many families into unprecedented hardship. ''Many people work long hours every day, and they have less and less time to spend with their families. It affects their relationships.''
The number of people receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) increased to 232,456 in July this year from 211,008 in July 1998. But Mrs Leung stressed that family problems were not limited to the poor. ''Some better-off couples do not know how to be good parents. Family crisis is not directly related to poverty or poor education. It is more about one's ability to cope.''
The Social Welfare Department will spend $1.7 billion on family- and child-welfare services in this financial year.
Mrs Leung admitted family-services providers should be more alert to the needs of families, even if those families simply come forward for financial help.
In May, the department was accused of acting too slowly to help an impoverished family in Tsing Yi. Mentally ill Cheung Man-sum jumped to his death at Cheung Hong Estate on April 30, leaving behind his wife, his cancer-striken mother and two young sons. The family of five was so poor they could only afford to spend $10 on each meal $2 a head.
The day of Cheung's death was a public holiday, and no one from the department visited the family to offer them emergency assistance until two days later, when the family was already receiving donations from members of the public. The department has admitted it made a bad judgment in this case. Mrs Leung said workers processing CSSA claims were reminded after the incident to be more sensitive.
Nelson Chow Wing-sun, a chair professor of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong and leader of the consultancy team, said traditional family values were fading. ''It is now difficult to define what a family is. We have many single-parent families, cohabitations and also children living with step parents.''
Professor Chow said the influx of new arrivals reuniting with their Hong Kong families was putting an extra burden on local family services. He said his team had proposed the Government set up integrated-family-services centres in each district which would offer one-stop services, including counselling, family education, child care, youth and elderly services.
''The concept is to put all services under one room in each district. At the moment, there are so many different organisations providing different services, but they are not co-ordinating.''
A new shelter providing temporary accommodation for people suffering from problems such as domestic violence will begin to operate by early next year.
Professor Chow said the drop in the percentage of people who were faithful to their spouses was also a worrying trend. Paulina Kwok Chi-ying, the head of Caritas Family Services' extra-marital affairs project, said more people were now prepared to have affairs. The Caritas hotline receives more than 1,000 calls each month. ''Many people work under great stress, and they want some excitement. Long working hours mean people spend more time in the office than at home. It affects marital relations.''
Ms Kwok said family problems could not be solved by social workers alone. ''It is about the whole atmosphere in our society and also the economic policies on how to help people out of poverty. What bothers us is there is still stigmatisation about seeking help from social workers. Not only do families need help, but social workers also need support from society.''
Ella Lee ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's Editorial Pages.