OSAKA (Kyodo) A 34-year-old woman in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, is collecting signatures to call for the creation of a new crime category to stem the soaring number of child abuse cases in Japan — abuse resulting in death or injury.

After being frustrated that many parents, whose abuse led to the death of their children, have still evaded murder charges due to investigators’ recognition that they lacked murderous intent, Hiroko Narita, a company employee, said she hopes her campaign will help raise public awareness that child abuse is a felony.

She and her supporters, mainly mothers of young children, have so far collected signatures in Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures and on the Internet from more than 60,000 people, and aim to raise the figure to more than 200,000.

Narita came up with the idea of creating a new crime category to specifically punish the act of child abuse after she learned about the case of 9-year-old Seika Matsumoto of Osaka’s Nishiyodogawa Ward. Matsumoto died in April 2009 after her mother and her common-law husband allegedly used harsh physical violence on her and neglected to provide her with sufficient food.

The two claimed that their act was intended to be discipline. While the crime of murder carries the maximum penalty of the death sentence, they were charged with “negligence as guardians resulting in death,” a crime that can be punished with an imprisonment of up to 20 years, with the mother later sentenced by the court to eight years and six months in prison and the man 12 years in prison.

“Abuse by parents, who are supposed to love and care for their children, can thoroughly damage the children’s bodies and minds,” said Narita.

She said she herself was victimized by her mother’s abusive behaviors when she was in elementary school. Her mother would become angry at small things she did, and drag her around in a room of their house by pulling her hair. One snowy night, Narita had to lie down on a bench in a park after her mother locked her out of the house.

Narita still remembers the pain of feeling, “I am an unwanted child.”

But she said harsher punishments alone are not an answer for reducing child abuse cases, as she believes the distribution of pamphlets bearing contact numbers for reporting suspected cases is important, as well as making it easier for authorities to forcibly enter houses where parents are suspected to be abusing their children.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, child abuse cases handled by consultation offices in Japan hit a record 44,210 in fiscal 2009, rising for 19 straight years since statistics were first compiled in fiscal 1990.

But there was only one case in which counselors made a compulsory visit to a household, where child abuse was suspected after the family had rejected the investigation, during the reporting year that ended in March.

In a recent high-profile case in Osaka’s Nishi Ward in which two toddlers were found dead in an apartment after their mother abandoned them, a resident reported to counselors three times about the children’s crying but the counselors did not attempt to enter the apartment.

“I hope our activities will lead to rising awareness about the issue and the creation of a better safety net protecting children,” Narita said.

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