November is Child Abuse Prevention Month, an annual government campaign to promote programs that protect children from violence. Most people will say that they know child abuse when they see it, but what characterizes almost all the recent child abuse incidents in the news is lack of intervention on the part of child welfare authorities even when they’ve been following a case for years.

Last month a 14-year-old boy named Masaki Hattori died in Nagoya, allegedly beaten to death by his mother’s 37-year-old boyfriend. Masaki’s case had been in the local child welfare consultation office files since 2008, when officials investigated reports that Masaki’s mother was neglecting him. A year later, case workers took him out of his home for his own protection, but only temporarily.

Last June, the office received a note from Masaki’s junior high school reporting that the boy had bruises on his face. Case workers visited his home and talked to the boyfriend, who admitted that he sometimes struck Masaki to discipline him. Because he expressed remorse, they thought the problem was solved.

In the following months, reports of abuse continued to come in from neighbors and the school, but the office did nothing because Masaki’s guardians always cooperated. On Oct. 14, case workers followed up another report from neighbors but didn’t see any bruises. Eight days later, Masaki was dead.

Guidelines formulated by the welfare ministry define four levels of abuse, with Level 4 being the most severe. Case workers are advised to remove a child from the home if they determine the child is the victim of Level 3 abuse, which constitutes bruises on the head, face or abdomen and “no improvement” in the guardian’s attitude.

A representative of the Nagoya child welfare office told the Asahi Shimbun that it is their job to “form a relationship of trust” with parents, so the tendency is “to want to believe them.” In principle, children’s welfare is based on their remaining in the home, since once children are taken out of the home “it is difficult for them to adjust.” The authorities’ main task in cases of abuse is to change the behavior of the parents or guardians.

This rehabilitative policy was the theme of a recent NHK special about child abuse. Several mothers who admitted to abusing their children discussed their situations in a studio setting. Some were from broken homes, others were not. Some were single, some were married. In all cases, there was a certain degree of financial stress and little or no help from male partners. But the most significant commonality was a profound feeling of loneliness brought on by their perceived failure as mothers. These women knew that what they were doing was bad, and in the accompanying dramatization, a distillation of many women’s stories, the mother who was portrayed contemplated suicide.

In the end, rehabilitation hinged on communication. Mothers were encouraged to reach out to friends and family, but mainly to the authorities; and people who suspected neighbors of abuse were told to speak up as well.

Such a prescription will help a lot of mothers (maybe fathers, too, but they weren’t the target audience), but it takes for granted the notion that these women understand that what they are doing is wrong and want help. In that regard it doesn’t sound as if it would have saved Masaki Hattori, or, for that matter the 16-year-old Hokkaido girl who is now in a juvenile detention center being weaned off methamphetamine administered to her by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.

This case has received a great deal of media attention because of the squalid details — mother forced daughter into prostitution to pay for her own drug habit, mother’s boyfriend was probably sexually involved with daughter — and as with the Hattori case, the authorities in this one, who knew about the girl’s circumstances since 2008, continued to leave her in the hands of two people who were probably abusing her. When asked how that could happen, the local child welfare office said it had no provisions for determining “sexual abuse,” only “abuse.” In the meantime, the girl had reportedly given the police statements indicating she was being abused but the police never passed this intelligence on to the child welfare office. Even in this exceptional case the authorities were reluctant to intervene.

To understand why this sensibility is so strong, it’s helpful to read an interview the Asahi conducted in September with Yukiko Tajiri, the head nurse at Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto. In 2007, Jikei installed a “baby hatch” where women could deposit unwanted infants anonymously. The hospital has received a great deal of criticism from people who say that the facility promotes child abandonment and parental irresponsibility. Tajiri insists that the hatch has saved lives, which is its fundamental purpose.

She also says the mere presence of the hatch makes it easier for the hospital to talk to women who are thinking of abandoning their children. About 500 such women call Jikei every year and in most cases the hospital changes these women’s minds. Also, in the four years since the hatch was opened, about 100 mothers have chosen to give their babies up for adoption.

However, of the dozen or so children who were deposited anonymously and whose parentage could not be determined, only one was given up for adoption. When the parent of a baby isn’t known, child welfare authorities become the provisional guardian, and they find adoption “undesirable” since there is always the possibility that someday the biological parent will come to claim the child. If no parent shows up, then the child lives in an orphanage or a foster home.

Tajiri’s story illustrates the primacy of blood ties in Japanese family law and policy, a primacy that undermines the effectiveness of child abuse prevention in this country. Fate trumps logic when the biological relationship is the overriding consideration. If children are born into abusive households, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com