The Backstory: Exposing the lies about a five-year-old girl’s death

Her principal said the school did not notice any injuries, but photos obtained by FactWire prove otherwise.

Society

On 6 January, a five-year-old girl Chan Sui-lam was found unconscious in her home in Tuen Mun and was confirmed dead upon arrival at the hospital. A medic who tried to save Sui-lam’s life mourned her death in a post on social media. Her body was covered in bruises of different degrees, indicating long-term abuse, he wrote.

The next day, the police informed the public that the girl was found to be covered in old and new wounds, some of them festered and could not be healed. A day later, Vivian Yu Mei-ying, Sui-lam’s principal at Fu Tai Lutheran Day Nursery in Tuen Mun, told reporters that the kindergarten did not find any injuries on the girl before she quit the school in late October.

The incident shocked the community. But how come no one did anything that could have prevented the tragedy? We began to investigate.

FactWire reporters were later introduced to an informed source. They learnt that the operator Hong Kong Lutheran Social Service had issued a guideline to the kindergarten on the procedures for children found with injuries. According to the guideline, even if the injuries appear to be bruises that occur after a fall or slight peeling skin, teachers have to call the parents to enquire about the wounds. If the injuries are serious, teachers have to document the wounds by taking photographs and submitting a report to the principal.

The source also learnt that the teachers at the kindergarten had taken photos for Sui-lam and written a report, but believed that such information could only be accessed by the principal, the kindergarten’s supervisor, Lutheran Social Service and the police, who took them away as evidence in court.

On 10 January, two days after the principal responded to the media, a kindergarten teacher expressed guilt and resentment in a post on her social media. ‘We made a mistake. Why couldn’t we admit it? I am sad, I am guilty, but I could not bury my conscience,’ the post reads. It further affirms the possibility that someone had tried to conceal the knowledge of Sui-lam’s injuries.

While the truth appears to be nearer, reporters had to extract key evidence to verify whether the kindergarten had indeed taken photos of Sui-lam’s wounds.

Since the exposure of the incident in the media, reporters spent several days at the kindergarten trying to confirm information provided by the informants and seek relevant people who are willing to talk. Reporters waited in the cold for days. They faced countless rejections, and often they were driven away. Yet FactWire believes that the matter is of grave public interest. We would therefore grasp onto any leads that could propel the story further, be it a small or big one.

It takes time and patience to gain trust from strangers. Reporters explained to multiple sources the motivation for the investigation in detail. We put ourselves in others’ shoes and tried to understand their difficulties and concerns while persuading them for help. In the hope of winning our sources’ trust with sincerity and reason, we took our course of action slow, one step at a time, each move carefully measured and thought-through. However, after contacting around 30 people in three-month’s time, the story remained stagnant.

Yu, the principal, returned to work on 21 March.  A whistleblower then told FactWire that the operator have not carried out any internal investigation during Yu’s leave of absence after the incident, contrary to the operator’s claim that a probe was underway. We went back to our original sources and told them about the operator’s lack of follow-up actions and Yu’s reinstatement, and pleaded with them to assist the case.

Reporters received a USB several days later. Inside were 26 photos of Sui-lam’s wounds, dating back to 5 and 25 September last year. We confirmed with sources who knew Sui-lam well that the girl in the photos was her, and the photos were taken at Fu Tai Lutheran Day Nursery. On 27 March, FactWire published the story ‘Photos reveal kindergarten’s knowledge of injuries four months before five-year-old’s death’.

We have had numerous struggles and much deliberations over how to deal with the publications of the photos. Would publicising the photos be disrespectful to Sui-lam? How would her family feel? How would each method of processing photos affect the credibility of our report? How to achieve a balance between ethical considerations, professional practice and the public’s right to know?

Moreover, the incident is intertwined with a pending criminal case. Yet it also concerns the interest of the operator’s some 20,000 students, their parents and the general public. After consulting several lawyers, we decided to publish the story in a way that balances the legal and ethical concerns.

Last but not least, FactWire wishes to express sincere gratitude to sources who have provided us with crucial leads and photos that let the truth come to light

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