The Fukuoka District Court in January sentenced a 34-year-old mother to six years in prison for causing bodily injury resulting in her daughter’s death, casting the spotlight anew on child abuse.
The 5-year-old was the target of incessant abuse, including confinement in a washing machine and being tied to a bookshelf in what the mother called “child discipline.”
“The pain of having her life taken at the age of 5 due to outrageous abuse by the mother — who was in a position to protect her and raise her — is unimaginable,” the district court judge said when handing down the ruling. The mother told the court she was “filled with regret” over her actions.
The following questions and answers give an overview of child abuse issues and how the government is trying to curb this disturbing trend.
How many cases of child abuse are reported in Japan each year?
Child abuse cases at public consultation offices shot to 44,210 in fiscal 2009, the government said last July. That was a record high and the 19th annual increase in a row since the government began gathering similar data in 1990, when only 1,101 cases of child abuse were reported.
Meanwhile a government research panel studying child abuse in fiscal 2008 revealed last July that there were 128 abuse-related deaths that year, including 61 children slain by suicidal elders. Most of the other 67 deaths were the result of physical violence.
Causes of death also included “neglect” or the failure by the guardian to provide for a child’s needs, such as leaving an infant inside a car or leaving a newborn unattended.
The panel highlighted that of those killed by either abuse or neglect, nearly 60 percent were under 1 year old.
“It’s been a trend that (children under 1) make up a large part of the victims” of child abuse, the panel said, adding that the government must introduce special measures.
In contrast, the U.S. National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reported an estimated 1,740 child deaths in 2008. But since each country’s definition of child abuse differs, it is difficult to compare U.S. numbers with Japan’s.
Who are the major abusers?
National Police Agency statistics indicate 354 child abuse cases were processed in 2010 involving children younger than 18. Males accounted for 70 percent of the abusers, including 109 fathers. But 150, or nearly 40 percent of the total, were male nonblood relatives of the victim, including stepfathers and boyfriends of the mother.
What causes a parent to become abusive?
A government panel studying child-abuse deaths in 2008 said financial hardship, a complex combination of one’s capability as a parent, mother-father relations, child-rearing difficulties and level of engagement with the community can all be potential seeds for a guardian to become abusive.
Their study found that about one out of every four abusive mothers claimed they had anxiety raising children, and over 65 percent said they had no or only very rare opportunities to engage with their community.
The report also said the percentage of abusive parents living on welfare was high compared with families that did not suffer child-abuse problems.
Why are reports of child abuse increasing?
Although some quarters say the government has failed to take measures to curb violence against children and thus abuses are increasing, others attribute the increased reporting partially to the rise in consultation offices and call centers, as well as growing public awareness of the types of problems going on behind closed doors.
“People have become more conscious about child abuse in Japan. They have their antennas up and are attentive,” said a woman who works at the Center for Child Abuse Prevention in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, who asked to remain anonymous.
The CCAP, which was designated as a social welfare service corporation in 1997, has received between 4,000 and 5,000 calls per year over the past decade. In fiscal 2009, it received 4,309 calls, the fewest since 1999.
“I believe there are more options today in terms of where someone can call to report child abuse,” she said.
How does a child abuse prevention call center operate?
Assistance and advice over the phone are a major part of the job. For example, CCAP operates between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Of the 4,309 calls the group received in fiscal 2009, 563 were from first-time callers, including parents, at 71 percent, who were worried about mistreating a child, and abused kids, at 9 percent, calling directly for help.
“The difficult part of our job is that a single phone call can become crucial,” the worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said, explaining staff undergo special training in order to understand a caller’s mindset. It is a key task to put the caller’s emotions into perspective and substantiate what it was that prompted the call, she said.
CCAP will then tell the caller to contact a public consultation office if necessary, or operate as a go-between between the two so the caller can feel at ease.
Where can non-Japanese speakers turn to for advice about child-abuse issues?
Usually public consultation offices do not have full-time translators. Those who do not speak Japanese should visit a local office together with a Japanese speaker, the health ministry said.
Are public consultation offices effective in preventing child abuse?
To some extent, yes, but they have failed on some occasions, especially since it is sometimes not easy to differentiate an act of discipline from abuse or to take kids from parents.
One case that highlighted the powerlessness of consultation offices occurred last July in which two toddlers were abandoned by their mother and left to die in an Osaka apartment. Neighbors heard the 3-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy crying before the two starved to death.
Calls were made to the local public consultation office in the case, but visits to the apartment by an officer netted no results since no one answered the door. The worker could not locate or determine who the registered resident of the apartment was and hence could not obtain court permission to enter the apartment.
In perceived extraordinary circumstances, a consultation office can skip the court procedures and enter a dwelling, but it is seldom done.
What laws are there against child abuse?
Violence against children is illegal, particularly under the Child Abuse Prevention Law, which stipulates the types of abuse and makes it an obligation for a third party to report any signs of such acts.
The Cabinet recently approved an update to the law that allows the court to deprive one’s right to exercise paternal authority for up to two years.
But some say that while it is easy to put the blame on a parent who beats a child, there is much more than meets the eye.
“In some cases, abusers turn out to be those who were abused during their own childhood,” the worker at CCAP said, adding that “all mothers wish to become good mothers, without exception.”
Treating the social malady will be much more complicated than tightening up laws against abusive parents, the worker added.
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