• Kyodo

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The death of a 3-year-old girl, thrown into a river by her mother in November, underscores shortcomings in the nation’s child protection system, 10 years after amendments to the child welfare law purported to fix it.

Ayumi Sato, of Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture, had sought help with raising her daughter, complaining of the toddler’s demands.

Weeks later, on Nov. 19, Miyu Sato’s body was found floating in the river. Ayumi said she had dropped the girl from a bridge.

Two days later, one of the city’s counselors told a news conference that social workers had paid too little attention to the Sato case as they were busy supporting other families at the time.

“At that time we were handling the cases of many children who needed care,” the counselor said. “We managed somehow to provide them support.”

Ayumi Sato had reportedly sought advice at the city’s social welfare office in September.

“I can’t find time for myself because my daughter keeps crying all night long,” she was quoted as saying. Tsubame officials said Sato signaled she might abandon the child, on the grounds that she was “annoying.”

The welfare office decided that the child was probably being neglected, and so it appointed a staff member to begin giving Sato counseling.

In October, a further incident led the city to consider taking the girl into temporary protective custody. This was when Sato failed to collect her from a nursery despite being told by phone that she had a fever. But the decision was shelved when the child’s grandmother turned up instead.

A social worker assigned to the family visited their home the following day, the last such visit before the girl died.

At the time of the incident, the city of Tsubame had only two full-time counselors and one part-timer. Together, they handled as many as 75 children’s cases.

Tsubame Mayor Tsutomu Suzuki admitted that the number was insufficient, and after the incident the city appointed three more social workers to child-rearing support .

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says the current welfare system is based on one adopted in 1964.

Around 2,500 counselors worked at municipalities across the country as of April 2014, but 70 percent of them were part-timers. Some municipalities had none.

In response to increasing numbers of reported instances of child abuse, revisions to the Child Welfare Act in April 2005 enabled municipal governments to provide counseling services, which until then had been handled only by prefectural child consultation centers.

The number of child abuse cases handed by municipalities rose to 73,000 in fiscal 2012, from 40,000 in fiscal 2005.

Hiroshi Yoshida, who heads the national council of public social workers, said that social workers have complained of understaffing and overstretch. The social workers also face constant fear of dismissal, Yoshida said.

“Even though most of them work part time, they deal with serious cases and are exhausted,” he said.

Kazuhiko Abe, a professor of child welfare at the Fukuoka-based Seinan Gakuin University, says there is an urgent need to hire highly qualified full-time counselors, and provide social workers with more training.

“This kind of job strongly affects children’s lives and we need to create a system where staff can devote full attention to their work,” Abe said.

Meanwhile, Ayumi Sato is awaiting trial for murder.