A Hong Kong husband and wife have been jailed for five years and four months each for abusing a friend’s young daughter, who died malnourished and covered with more than 70 bruises, abrasions and scars while in their care.
Housewife Or Ching-man and construction worker Shiu Kwok-wai returned to the High Court on Wednesday for sentencing in one of the city’s most shocking cases of child cruelty in recent years.
The court previously heard that 22-month-old Heiley Or, who was not related to the defendants, weighed just 8kg and had 70 injuries over her body when she was rushed to hospital in the early hours of June 20, 2019, after purportedly choking on a piece of pork cartilage.
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She was certified dead about 30 minutes later.
Or, 36, later admitted she had tied her friend’s daughter up with a metal dog leash when she was left home alone, and beat her with rattan sticks to the point they broke when the girl was “naughty”.
Shiu, 33, similarly admitted to slapping Heiley on multiple occasions from January 2019, but claimed to have used only “moderate force”, as he knew he would have killed her if he used all his strength.
It remains unclear what caused the head injuries directly to blame for Heiley’s death, but a paediatric neurologist suggested they had to have occurred after the child’s last dinner with the defendants, just hours before her death.
The pair, who have four daughters of their own, none of whom are in their care, pleaded guilty last month to one count of wilful assault, ill-treatment or neglect by those in charge of a child between January and June of 2019, an offence punishable by 10 years in prison.
What had been caused to Heiley would not go easily unnoticed. Both defendants must have been … aware of what happened to Heiley, even if they [had not performed] any illegal act
Mr Justice Albert Wong
In his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Albert Wong Shung-hau said the couple had escaped a potential murder charge because prosecutors had insufficient evidence to prove they contributed to the child’s fatal head wound.
Wong stressed he was confined to imposing sentence based only on the child cruelty charges.
“Heiley lost her life,” Wong said. “I remind myself it is not the allegation of the prosecution that either of the defendants had caused this tragic incident.
“The fact remains that a substantial degree of harm was done to Heiley because of the conduct of the defendants. My judgment is that this is a very serious case of ill-treatment and neglect.
“What had happened to Heiley would not go easily unnoticed. Both defendants must have been … aware of what had happened to Heiley even if they [had not performed] any illegal act.”
Wong further took Heiley’s mother to task for rarely visiting or making any financial contribution to her daughter’s well-being.
He also expressed concern about the failure of authorities to intervene after the mother left Heiley, her youngest child, in the defendants’ custody despite having sent her three other children to foster home settings.
Three of the defendants’ own children were already being cared for by foster families, the court heard, while their eldest daughter was sent to a children’s home by the Social Welfare Department due to a kidney problem.
In handing down his sentence, Wong began from a starting point of eight years’ imprisonment, then reduced that by 32 months to reflect the duo’s timely guilty pleas.
But Donna Wong Chui-ling, director of the charity Against Child Abuse, described the jail term handed down on Wednesday as “relatively light”, arguing the severity of the case demanded a sentence that would have a deterrent effect.
She added that the government should also raise the maximum penalty for child abuse-related offences from 10 years to 20.
Heiley Or’s case was reminiscent of one in 2018 that involved the abuse of a five-year-old girl who died of blood poisoning following months of cruelty that weakened her immunity.
Her father and stepmother are now appealing against their murder convictions, which resulted in life sentences.
In another 2015 incident, a seven-year-old girl was left in a vegetative state following prolonged starvation and neglect. Her mother was jailed for more than 15 years on charges of child neglect and perverting the course of justice.
A government-appointed panel in September recommended a new offence to penalise bystanders for failing to report the abuse of children and other vulnerable people. The proposed offence would carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail, and is aimed at preventing cases of abuse from falling through the cracks.
Hong Kong authorities reported a surge in child abuse over the first nine months of the year compared with the same period in 2020, possibly linked to societal changes and a weakened economy brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Reported cases of child cruelty were up 66 per cent, from 525 in the first nine months of 2020 to 871 in the same period this year.
Cases of physical abuse, meanwhile, jumped 70 per cent, from 262 to 444. About 130 of the total cases involved children aged five and below.
Additional reporting by William Yiu