Reference | FYI

Two girls' deaths after alleged abuse expose shortcomings in Japan's child-protection services

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

The January death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara in Chiba Prefecture, allegedly at the hands of her abusive father, shocked Japan after coming on the heels of a similar case involving a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward last year.

In both cases, the children sought protection by authorities and were even placed in protective custody by child welfare centers. Yet, the centers ultimately failed them.

This raises the question: How did both cases end in tragedy despite calls for help?

Here is a look at how child abuse cases are handled in Japan and some of the fatal systemic failures pointed out by critics:

What is the protocol for handling cases of suspected child abuse?

Anyone who witnesses or suspects child abuse — whether it be family members, school officials, neighbors, police or doctors — is obliged by law to report the case to local authorities or child welfare centers (dial 186 for the 24-hour hotline).

Once a case is reported, the child welfare center will then convene an emergency meeting to determine whether the child needs protective custody.

According to Yukiko Yamawaki, a psychological counselor who worked at a child welfare center in Tokyo for 19 years, children will be temporarily placed in protective custody if they refuse to go home due to fears of further abuse.

How much authority do the child welfare centers have?

The directors of the welfare centers have the authority to place children in protective custody without using any legal procedures — even if their parents resist.

According to Satoru Nishizawa, a professor of social work at Yamanashi Prefectural University, the directors have the authority to act unilaterally, unlike in the U.S., where court orders are required to separate children from parents.

“The authority of child welfare centers has been strengthened and centralized over the years since the late 1990s, when child abuse emerged as a growing concern in Japan,” Nishizawa said.

During the protective custody period, which can last two months or longer in some cases, the center will investigate family conditions by interviewing parents, other children, school officials and relatives.

If the parents sign a written statement promising not to abuse their children again, and if the welfare center director concludes there is low risk of repeated abuse, the child or children will be sent home. If repeat abuse is seen as likely after the two-month period, the children will be sent to a foster home.

Despite this seemingly well-organized process, Yamawaki noted that child-welfare officers in some regions are often left with no choice but to return children to potentially abusive parents when the protection centers reach their capacity.

According to data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, child custody centers in Tokyo, Nagoya, Chiba and Gunma prefectures were operating beyond 100 percent capacity on average in 2017.

When the centers can’t accept more children, those allegedly facing abuse are put on a waiting list.

In her book “Kokuhatsu: Jido Sodanjo ga Kodomo Wo Korosu” (“Child Welfare Centers Kill Children”), Yamawaki claims it was not unusual to see 10 kids waiting to be put into protective custody at any given time, or to see center directors asking child-welfare officers to refrain. Instead, they are known to lobby for other solutions, including allowing children to live with relatives, or even with their abusive parents again.

But even under temporary protection, children live under strict rules and harsh conditions, Yamawaki said.

“During the two-month custody period, the children are not allowed to go to school, in principle, and are not allowed to speak with other children staying there,” she said. “Under such harsh conditions, some kids prefer to go home even if they know they will be abused by their parents again.”

What’s more, the centers are not solely for abused children. Juvenile delinquents and children with disabilities also stay in them. Overseeing these children all in the same place means the centers usually apply strict rules, including taking away all the kids’ belongings. This is usually done as a way to prevent them from interacting and exchanging contact information with juvenile delinquents, Yamawaki explained.

Another issue is the lack of a manual or guidelines showing how to maintain vigilance over kids who have been returned to abusive homes, she added.

“Investigation procedures during a custody period are strictly stipulated, but no guidance is provided on what to do after kids are released from custody,” Yamawaki said. “Child-welfare officers usually follow the same procedures that their colleagues do, but there are individual differences.”

If child welfare centers have such strong authority, how do they fail to save the children?

Yamawaki and Nishizawa agree the fundamental issue with child abuse cases in Japan is the lack of professionalism among the welfare officers despite the crucial role they play.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, just 41 percent of all officers held social workers’ licenses as of last April. The rest were public officials, teachers and nurses who had attended short lectures hosted by their municipalities.

In addition, Nishizawa noted, even some licensed social workers lack the knowledge and skills needed to handle child abuse.

“In other countries, social workers are always specialized, such as focusing on the elderly or children. They classify such matters in the training stage,” he said. “However, in Japan, social workers are trained to be generalists who can handle all matters.”

The idea of having all social workers be generalists can be traced to the university curriculum for those desiring to break into the profession. According to Nishizawa, just one of the 20 subjects that must be studied to become a licensed social worker touch on child abuse and domestic violence.

“It is quite obvious students can’t become specialists from that,” Nishizawa said.

Yamawaki believes the centralized decision-making power held by welfare officers is the main reason behind the rise in abuse-related deaths in Japan.

Although the final decision to put a child under protection lies with the director of the child welfare center involved, the officers are the ones tasked with reporting such cases in the first place, meaning a child’s fate ultimately rests with them.

The 2016 suicide of an abused junior high school student highlighted the immense responsibilities bestowed on child-welfare officers. In that case, an officer in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, did not tell the center’s head that the boy’s school had reported finding bruises on his body. The boy, who had been refused protective custody by the center despite reportedly requesting it several times, later killed himself.

Have any measures been taken to prevent future deaths?

According to Nishizawa, there has been a similar pattern observed in almost all fatal cases of child abuse over the past decade — scenarios where child-welfare officers had prioritized parental demands over the children’s pleas for protection.

Most deaths involving a child welfare center were triggered by welfare officers worried about a child’s deteriorating relationship with parents. These parents were often aggressive and sometimes even assaulted the officers.

“The health ministry has been demanding officers give priority to a child’s plea for protection,” said Nishizawa. “This is not an awareness issue, but rather a systemic failure caused by the fact that child welfare centers, which are responsible for protecting kids, also have to support their parents.

“Such roles have to be separated,” he added, suggesting that separate facilities be opened, with one focusing on the children and the other on the parents.

Yamawaki said many child-welfare officers, despite having exclusive authority to enter a home in an official capacity when a child abuse case is reported, often give up when parents turn down visitation requests.

“They are worried about being attacked by parents, even though they know that they have authority over them,” she said. “The fact that no protection system has ever been arranged for the officers is a problem.”

Child-welfare officers can ask the police to accompany them if parents physically resist their demands to hand over children, but better collaboration is urgently needed, he added.

According to Nishizawa, almost none of the nation’s police departments has a division specializing in child protection, unlike the U.S., where departments usually have units tasked specifically with working closely with child protective services.

The Cabinet has signed off on an amendment to the child abuse law to ban corporal punishment. Will it make a difference?

Nishizawa and Yamawaki say the amendment is meaningful in terms of rectifying the law’s shortcomings but said it was highly questionable this will solve the core issue.

“As physical punishment is still allowed for discipline in Japan, lawyers often use it as an appeal for penalty mitigation by stating that the abuse was an extension of discipline,” said Nishizawa.

“However, whether it will cause parents to refrain from abusing kids is questionable,” he said, noting that most child abuse deaths occur even though child welfare centers have overwhelming authority to remove children from homes where discipline is viewed as crossing the line into abuse.

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