MITO, IBARAKI PREF. – Although child welfare centers are increasingly sharing information on abuse cases with the police, the death of a neglected 5-year-old Shikoku girl in Tokyo shows such frameworks are not yet robust enough to prevent further tragedies from occurring.
Yua Funato died of sepsis brought on by pneumonia on March 2 after her mother and stepfather allegedly began abusing her in late January through violence and food deprivation. They were arrested last week on suspicion of neglect resulting in death.
Yudai Funato, 33, and his wife Yuri, 25, moved to Tokyo from Kagawa Prefecture in January and were living in an old apartment in Meguro Ward. Yudai Funato had been referred to prosecutors twice on suspicion of abusing the child several times in Kagawa, but both cases against him were dropped.
Information regarding the alleged child abuse was passed on to a Tokyo child welfare center, but the center never shared its information with the police.
The center did send an official to the family’s home on Feb. 9, but the mother would not give the official permission to see the child.
Yua Funato died after the child care welfare center determined that “the priority was to maintain a relationship of trust with the parents.”
Tokyo shares information on abuse cases received from child welfare centers with the Metropolitan Police Department.
Based on a guideline set in October 2016, such cases involve “physical abuse in which a child has been temporarily taken into protective custody and returned home” and those where “a child welfare center director determines it is necessary.”
In the Yua Funato case, however, neither guideline was applied even though she had been taken into temporary protective custody twice by the local child welfare center in Kagawa.
A survey released by Kyodo News on Thursday, found that 32 of the 69 municipalities that have child welfare centers have established no concrete guidelines on which cases to share with the police.
In Kochi Prefecture, adjacent to Kagawa, all information regarding abuse cases reported to child welfare centers is shared with the prefectural police as a result of a child abuse death that occurred in Nankoku in 2008. The idea was to take action to avoid overlooking serious cases by initiating quick responses.
Other prefectures, such as Ibaraki and Aichi, are making similar efforts to combat child abuse.
Since January, the police in Ibaraki Prefecture have been getting prompt notifications of emergency cases from child welfare centers. The cases involve those in which a child’s life is determined to be in danger. All information obtained is subsequently filed in a report released the following month.
According to the Ibaraki Prefectural Police, there were just 36 child abuse incidents last year that it received information about. This year, however, the number of cases skyrocketed to as many as 319 from January to April alone.
The police were notified promptly in about 10 percent of those cases, which were considered emergencies.
“We are seeing more examples of cases being built as they are recognized more readily,” said a top police official, adding that the staff at child welfare centers “find it easier to supply information because the guidelines are clearly stated.”
Even so, there are far more child welfare centers around the nation that are not in the habit of sharing their case loads with the police — mostly because of the possibility that family members will stop reporting child abuse incidents out of fear.
Furthermore, cases that require immediate attention from the police are often buried, they argue.
After the Yua Funato incident, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s committee on health and welfare reviewed a petition from the nonprofit organization Think Kids that urged the sharing of all child abuse cases with the police.
But a municipal official said that although efforts will be made to strengthen information sharing, the general view of child welfare centers is that there are “various degrees of abuse” and not all require cooperation with the police.
The committee on health and welfare has held discussions to find answers to questions regarding information sharing after the Funato family’s move and the involvement of the child welfare official who was denied access to the little girl.
After attending the committee hearing on Thursday, Keiji Goto, a lawyer and representative director of Think Kids, said that child welfare centers need to address reports of abuse more urgently.
“In this case as well as others, many of the child abuse deaths occur because child welfare centers do not take them seriously. If they continue down this road there will be other tragedies.”