Last week, a two-year-old girl in Sapporo died after suffering from alleged abuse and neglect from her mother and the mother’s boyfriend The Japan Times reported.
The victim, whose body had multiple bruises, weighed just 6kg — half the average of a girl her age — when she was found dead at her home. It is suspected that the girl had been subjected to habitual abuse by the mother and her boyfriend, who have been arrested for alleged assault, and was not adequately fed over a long period of time.
Following the fatal abuse of a five-year-old girl in Tokyo last year and a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture in January — both in the hands of their parents — the government has taken measures to step up the fight against child abuse, such as beefing up the functions of child welfare centers nationwide and boosting the number of child welfare officers stationed at such facilities.
Government-proposed amendments to the law to prevent child abuse and another on child welfare, which are soon expected to clear the Diet, explicitly prohibit corporal punishment of children by their parents — after many child abusers have argued that they were just trying to discipline their own children. The government also plans to review a Civil Code provision stating that people with parental authority can discipline their children ‘to the extent necessary’ for their custody and education — deemed a factor behind a public attitude that tends to be tolerant of parents physically punishing their children — in two years after the amendments take effect next year. It is unclear, however, whether the sheer ban on corporal punishment — which carries no penalties against offenders — will have more than symbolic effect to stop child abuse.
In the Sapporo case, meanwhile, it appeared that lessons learned from past fatal abuses of children were not sufficiently followed. Welfare officials did not observe a rule set by the government in the wake of the death of the five-year-old girl in Tokyo to make sure that safety of a suspected victim of abuse is confirmed within 48 hours after they have been alerted to the possibility of abuse.
The government is also pushing for the police to play greater roles in intervening in suspected cases of child abuse. Last month, the local police, acting on an emergency call alerting them to possible abuse, visited the house and found a bruise on the girl. But after the mother told them that the girl had gotten the bruise when she tripped over something, the police told the child welfare office that the bruise was not something that raised suspicions of abuse — an account that the welfare officials accepted without checking on the girl themselves. The gap in the accounts that the police and the child welfare officials gave after the girl’s death about their handling of the case raises doubts as to whether they had been properly communicating with each other.
According to media reports of the case, a neighbor alerted the municipal child welfare center in early April that she was hearing loud noises and a child’s cries daily from the home. It was the second time — the first being last September — that the center had been alerted that child abuse may be taking place in the household. Officials of the center tried in vain to contact the mother, Rina Ikeda, and visit their home — and later got a call from the mother saying that she and her daughter, Kotori, were staying in the boyfriend’s home. After that they had no further communication with the mother.
The 48-hour rule set last year mandates that welfare officials hold an on-site inspection of the home if they cannot confirm the safety of the suspected child-abuse victim. Following the death of the girl, however, the officials explained that they did not take the step because when they interviewed the mother last September following the first alert of suspected abuse, they determined that no abuse was taking place. An official of the municipal child welfare center also said that it is difficult to observe the 48-hour rule given the facility’s limited manpower and the fact that each welfare worker has to deal with more than 100 cases of suspected child abuse.
In fiscal 2017, child welfare centers nationwide handled a record 133,778 cases of suspected child abuse — double the number in 2012. Meanwhile, there were some 3,400 child welfare officers — experts tasked to deal with both parents and children in suspected child-abuse cases — stationed at child welfare centers nationwide as of April 2018. Their numbers rose by some 800 from 2012, but the increase has apparently not caught up with the spike in the number of cases. The government plans to boost their numbers by 2,000 by fiscal 2022. Welfare officers, however, reportedly need at least several years of work experience to build up the expertise to be able to deal with difficult cases and 44 percent of the officers as of April last year had less than three years on the job. The manpower problem will not end just by increasing the number of child welfare officers.