Joint proposal on child-abuse bill scheduled for current Diet session

The ruling coalition and the opposition camp agreed Wednesday to jointly propose new legislation aimed at combating the growing incidents of child abuse, lawmakers said Wednesday.

The bill, to be submitted to the Diet in early May so that it can clear the legislature during the current 150-day regular session, will empower prefectural governors to order an investigation into families suspected of child abuse.

It will also allow heads of local child counseling centers to temporarily take victims of abuse into protective custody if alerted by relevant bodies such as medical or welfare institutions, they added.

The outline of the bill, presented to a meeting of key members of a Lower House special committee on youth problems by panel chairman Tomita Shigeyuki, of New Komeito, says that child abuse will be defined as:

* violence that may result in bodily injury;

* molestation;

* neglecting to provide meals or care to children that could prevent their healthy physical and psychological development;

* and verbal abuse that could cause serious psychological damage.

Parents or guardians accused of abusing children can be banned from contacting or communicating with the victims for a certain period, according to the outline.

The proposed law calls for closer cooperation between relevant government bodies and private-sector institutions to promptly take abused children into protective custody.

Medical and welfare institutions will be obliged to alert public authorities when they find evidence of child abuse, the outline says.

An official of the Health and Welfare Ministry’s Children and Families Bureau said it is significant that it will become mandatory for institutions to report suspected cases of child abuse. Currently, the ministry can only encourage this through nonbinding administrative guidance.

According to the ministry, the number of cases of child abuse by parents handled by counseling centers nationwide reached 6,932 in fiscal 1998, up by 30 percent from the previous year and more than six times larger than in fiscal 1990.

Actions by public authorities have tended to be too late and too weak.

In fiscal 1998, at least eight children died due to parental abuse after counseling centers had commenced investigating their cases. In the same year, 28 children died before authorities were alerted to the abuse, according to the ministry.