Hong Kong health workers could have done more to prevent deaths of 2 mentally disabled brothers, advocates say

Hong Kong hospital staff could have done more when assessing the self-care abilities of two mentally disabled brothers found dead at home after their mother was brought in for treatment, advocates have said.

Renee Lai Pui-mei, who chairs the Association of Parents of the Severely Mentally Handicapped, on Tuesday said the case involved a “high-risk” family, with the elderly mother looking after the two brothers.

“The frontline workers should have conducted a thorough assessment of the pair’s self-care abilities, including making home visits, instead of only listening to a third party,” she said.

The Hospital Authority on Monday night said the two brothers, aged 53 and 55, had been considered capable of going out alone, feeding themselves and taking care of their mother once she left hospital.

The statutory body, which manages the city’s public hospitals, had cited the brothers’ younger sibling, who did not live with the family, and said he was “in frequent contact” with staff.

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However, association spokesman Lee Chi-yung expressed concerns over how the authority had handled the case.

“Was it safe for two people with mental disabilities to take care of an elderly person who reportedly had dementia? Authorities should give some thought to this question,” he said.

“The condition of people with mental disabilities is very complicated, some may appear to be fine in their daily life, but only those living with them can truly understand their needs.”

The authority said the mother was admitted to Kowloon Hospital in May and the two older sons had visited without assistance in June and July.

The brothers’ case had also been immediately handed over to a medical social worker from the Social Welfare Department who was stationed there, it added.

Their younger sibling, who was not living with them, often spoke to the hospital and met doctors as recently as last Saturday. During the meeting, he said the pair had the ability to go out and shop for food.

The meeting occurred a day after officers entered the family’s flat at Sau Mau Ping estate on Friday following reports of a strong smell and discovered the bodies of the older brothers.

2 mentally disabled Hong Kong brothers found dead ‘were able to go out alone’

A source familiar with the case earlier told the Post that the younger sibling went to the flat on June 8, but the pair refused to open the door. He also tried to call them but was unsuccessful.

The duo could have died of starvation given that their refrigerator was empty, and autopsies would be conducted to determine the cause of death, the source said.

Authorities had said the family had not previously reached out to any NGOs or the Social Welfare Department for help.

District councillor Cheung Pui-kong had told local media that the mother on one occasion had asked for his help to apply for financial assistance from the government, but preferred to take care of the pair by herself.

The Association of Parents of the Severely Mentally Handicapped on Monday urged authorities to work with mutual support groups on reaching out to households supporting family members with mental disabilities.

“It’s not uncommon for these families to not seek help, or to reject help, because some are not aware of the services at all, some are not satisfied with them, and some still believe that one’s children should only be taken care of by family members,” its chairwoman said.

“That’s why more active follow-ups are needed by the government, instead of asking them to seek help only when crises happen … the mutual help groups are very useful when reaching out to hidden cases because we can truly understand each other.”

The Hospital Authority had said the brothers were considered to be capable of looking after themselves. Photo: Felix Wong

Lai also acknowledged that community care teams would be helpful, but stressed that they needed the knowledge and skills to communicate with such families. Such bodies could also work with mutual help groups to step up outreach efforts, she said.

Lai called for authorities to set up a high-level body, such as a commission for people with disabilities overseen by a top official, to coordinate cross-departmental efforts.

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, a patients’ rights advocate with the Society for Community Organisation, said it was hard to judge whether the brothers’ deaths had involved any negligence as many details were still unknown to the public.

But Pang said the situation indicated a clear need for stronger cooperation between health and welfare authorities.

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He said officials handling the family’s welfare application and staff at the public psychiatric clinic which had previously treated the two siblings could have followed up with them or referred the case to other departments.

Efforts should also be made to enhance the knowledge and assessment abilities of frontline staff, he added.

Hong Kong’s leader John Lee Ka-chiu on Tuesday reiterated the government’s commitment to supporting carers and said he believed the coroners’ court would quickly determine whether an inquest was necessary.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun Yuk-han said a 24-hour carers’ hotline launched on Tuesday midnight had already received 127 calls as of 2pm the same day, including requests for respite services and emotional support.

Asked if the medical social worker involved in the case had misjudged the situation, the minister only said he would look into the matter.

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