Authorities in Hong Kong are seeking to take two children from their families for participating in the city’s pro-democracy demonstrations, in a heavy-handed move that could become a new rallying point for protesters.
One, a 14-year-old girl, was on Monday sent to a children’s home for three weeks while social-welfare investigators review an application brought by the Hong Kong police to remove the child from her father’s care. She was released from the juvenile home on bail on Wednesday night, her lawyer, Jonathan Man, tells TIME.
The girl was arrested in the early hours of Dec. 23 for drawing chalk flowers on the Lennon Wall, a curving swath of concrete leading to the city’s Central Government Offices that was covered with messages and slogans during the so-called Umbrella Revolution.
The other child, also 14, was arrested in November, during the dismantling of a street occupation. He has been allowed to stay with his parents while awaiting another hearing on Jan. 12.
Neither child has been charged with a crime.
Hong Kong media published images of what were said to be the girl’s chalk drawings, which were widely shared on social media.
Patricia Ho, a lawyer who has represented both children, says that the effort to remove the children from their homes is “disproportionate” to their circumstances. Such a drastic measure, she said, is usually reserved for cases where a child’s parents abandon them or when the child is engaging in serious self-harm, including prostitution or selling or using drugs.
“That is not the case here,” says Ho. “There is no severe issue that would affect their right to be with their families.”
“So all I can think of then is that police are using whatever mechanism they can think of to stop teenagers from participating in any protest,” she says.
Hong Kong police said in an emailed statement that an application to transfer a child from his or her home is filed based on numerous factors, including academic background and prior arrest records. Such an application is submitted in “the best interest of the subject child/juvenile without any political consideration,” the statement said.
The Hong Kong democracy movement is primarily student driven, and many teenagers were arrested for participating in street occupations that began on Sept. 28 and lasted until mid-December. High school students in uniform were a common sight on the barricades and in the study areas built at protest sites so that students fighting for free elections would not fall behind on homework.
Though the streets have been cleared, demonstrators have returned nightly to Mong Kok — a blue-collar district on the teeming Kowloon peninsula — under the guise of doing holiday shopping or caroling. Hong Kong police said in a statement Tuesday that children as young as 13 years old were among the 49 people arrested in Mong Kok over the Christmas holiday weekend for offenses including disorderly conduct.
Meanwhile, two democratic legislators on Wednesday visited the children’s home where the girl — referred to on Twitter as Chalk Girl, or the Chalktivist — is being detained, and posed for photographs with copies of her chalk drawing. Scholarism, the high-school-student group that has jointly helmed the protests with its undergraduate counterpart, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, also organized a group of supporters to color the pavement outside the children’s home in chalk flowers.
Ho says the girl has had one prior encounter with police, in which she was the victim of a bullying incident at school, and lives with her father, who suffers from serious hearing loss. The boy is a good student from a “really lovely family,” Ho says.
The lawyer also says that the girl cried in court on learning she would be sent to a children’s home to await the court’s decision and that the father has promised “to go to great lengths” to ensure that his daughter can remain with him, including making a desperate pledge to follow her everywhere.
“She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t go home with her father,” says Ho. “She was very worried she would spent New Year’s Eve in custody.”
The girl, released Wednesday evening, must abide by bail conditions including a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, says Man, who is currently representing the teenager. She and her father “were quite relieved to go home for New Year’s Eve as a family,” he says.