OSAKA – The mother of a 12-year-old boy, along with a woman who was tasked with looking after him, have been arrested and indicted on charges of starving him to death, police said Friday.
The suspects were identified as nursing-caregiver Tomoe Osako, 36, and Michiko Kawaguchi, 38, both residents of Osaka.
They allegedly caused the 2002 death of Osako’s son, Yuki, an elementary school sixth-grader, by confining him and not giving him enough food.
Yuki was confined in his home for about a year and seven months. He weighed just 19 kg at the time of his death, police said, adding that this is about the weight of an average 5-year-old.
The crime is the latest in a series of serious child-abuse cases here, including one case in which a 15-year-old in Osaka Prefecture was found nearly starved to death by his father and a woman.
According to the indictment, Osako and Kawaguchi locked Yuki in a room in Osako’s apartment from around January 2001.
The confinement was made on the pretext of giving Yuki “treatment” following his alleged attempts to run away from home and his attempts to harm himself, such as by hitting his head against a wall.
As part of this regime, they began locking the boy up in a 4 1/2-mat room in the Osakos’ apartment from around January 2001.
From April 2002, they started giving him just soft food such as porridge once a day. On the evening of Aug. 12, 2002, the boy died of acute pulmonary edema and malnutrition.
Osako and Kawaguchi were neighbors who lived separately from their husbands. Their children were both sixth-graders.
From around February 1997, Kawaguchi, who was unemployed, began looking after Yuki while Osako was away at work during the day and night.
According to investigators, Yuki weighed about 35 kg when he was a third-grader.
Osako was quoted as telling police that she thought her son had mental problems after hearing a schoolmate tell him that he spoke too slowly.
She added that the boy was given two meals a day, but that he would throw up what he ate and wrap it in cloth and hide it, police said.
“I thought he would eat everything if he was only given one meal a day,” she was quoted as saying.
Osako allegedly sought Kawaguchi’s advice on how to deal with the boy. Kawaguchi was quoted as telling investigators she believed Yuki had mental problems and that the measures were taken for his own sake.
In the early hours of the day after Yuki died, Osako and Kawaguchi went to the police to report that they had found him dead when they arrived home. The two suspects were only arrested last Jan. 15.
Police said that the investigation was time-consuming as they had to carefully probe whether there was intent to kill.
Yuki did not go to school during the time he was confined, but according to the local children’s consultation center, staff at the school did not call the center to report his absence.
School officials said Friday that they had believed the suspects’ claims that the boy was sick.
Akio Uotani, the former principal of Nagai Elementary School, the municipal school that the child attended, said he thought the boy had died of illness until he was contacted by the media earlier in the day.
“As principal at the time, I am very sorry that we were unable to recognize the abuse,” he said.
Meanwhile, the current principal, Yasukatsu Matsumoto, told a news conference that he had heard that the child was sick.
“If there had been abuse, the homeroom teacher would have reported it to the principal and vice principal at the time, and they would have brought it to the attention of child welfare officials,” he said. “Since there was no such process, I still believe that there had been no abuse.”
According to Uotani, Yuki stopped coming to school from around October 2000, when he was in the fourth grade.
Upon hearing from Osako that the child “was seriously ill,” his homeroom teacher visited his home.
Osako told the teacher that Yuki had a tendency to harm himself, and that doctors said he needed long-term treatment at home, according to Uotani.
Although school officials made repeated visits to the house, Osako and Kawaguchi refused to let them see the child, saying that his condition would worsen if he met people, he added.
“Kawaguchi had also been taking care of other students and was on good terms with the school, and we believed her,” Uotani said.
Welfare officials meanwhile said it was regrettable the school did not bring the case to the attention of the local child consultation center.