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Focus HK: Learning the cost of a loaf of bread
By Li Yao
Aug 30 2013 9:38
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The Correctional Services Department says there are 7,593 inmates in Hong Kong prisons. Many have left behind families that have lost their principal breadwinner. In all of Hong Kong only one agency has undertaken the mission to try to ease the pain. Li Yao writes.

Wong Hing-fai and his wife, Lai Man-sun, were summoning the courage to break the bad news to their son and daughter that Lai, 34, was in trouble with the law. She was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, the fourth time she’d been arrested for petty theft. Lai was looking at the prospect of a lengthy jail term. The couple was utterly lost about how to break the news to their kids.

Their 10-year-old son already knew something was wrong. He’d heard all the fights that happened late at night — Lai crying inconsolably, talking about suicide. The boy said nothing — kept everything bottled up inside. But Lai knew there was something going on with the boy. She found him sleep walking. He’d go into the kitchen, turn on the light and go back to bed.

The couple took the kids to the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention’s family support service center. This is the place where families in trouble with the law get help. Children, naturally, are a big part of the focus at the center. There’s a playroom for kids, 3 to 11. They can read, draw, play with dolls, toy cars, or plastic animals. There is a mat on the floor, a couch and lots of colored chairs for them to go around.

There’s also a social worker — a sort of big sister or big brother who watches them play. “Children at this age, experiencing stress because one of their parents is gone, or because both parents are in jail, may not even understand what they are feeling. They probably don’t have the verbal skills to express what they are feeling,” said Angela Chan, supervisor of the center.

“But if they don’t get help, they start to feel unloved and become insecure. Then they get angry,” Chan added.

After two or three visits to the center, the kids usually start to feel at home and start expressing themselves, not always in ways most of us think of as reflective of healthy social adjustment. They attack the dolls, whaling away at the lifeless surrogates with kicks and punches and shooting them with toy guns. The quieter kids have other outlets, like arranging a toy dish set for a family meal. Either way the pain comes out — the empathetic observer can read the sorrow that tears kids apart: a little girl laying out plates for dinner, sets the “father figure” at a distance. The social worker asks the girl if she’s angry with Dad. The question strikes a chord with the little girl. Kids aren’t supposed to be angry with their parents or hate them — so they don’t deal with their feelings or even recognize them. Yeah, she is angry and somebody understands how she feels.

In the future, the child will come back to the social worker when she wants to be close to someone who will give her understanding and guidance.

Volunteers come once a week to help with the kids’ school work. “We want these children to have an adult they can talk to as a friend, or look up to as a role model. Some parents are in jail for selling drugs. Kids need to learn right from wrong, and break away from the bad influences of their parents,” Chan said.

Benefits of play therapy

Shi Wai-lim, a psychotherapist who’s practiced for 10 years, says children suffer real damage when their parents get into trouble with the law. The kids usually turn the family calamity back on themselves. They start to experience low self-esteem. Parents aren’t there to pay attention, to give guidance or encouragement. The kids come to the point where they think they don’t have much value to anyone.

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