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Increasing media coverage of horrendous cases of child abuse, complete with gruesome details of serious injury or death, seems to indicate that the problem is getting out of control in this country. Until not so long ago, an issue that was widely believed to be a private family matter received scant attention of any kind, except from the rare concerned relative or neighbor. Now the subject is almost constantly in the news, sometimes involving individuals who have the professional responsibility of caring for young children.

Statistical reports on child abuse bear out its increased prevalence. Anyone concerned with the future of this country in the wake of the plummeting birthrate must be disturbed to learn that child-protection centers nationwide dealt with 12,411 cases of abuse in fiscal 1999, an increase of 60 percent over the previous year. These were cases reported to the 59 centers throughout Japan by concerned teachers, physicians and neighbors — and in some instances even by those engaging in the abuse but unable to stop themselves. As could be expected, the national association of child-welfare centers reports that most of the incidents involved physical violence.

One center official attributes the sharp increase in reported cases to the growing public awareness of the seriousness of the issue rather than to an actual escalation of child abuse. Credited with helping to expose the problem is the Diet’s enactment in May of a law granting child-welfare officials authority to prohibit abusive parents from meeting or communicating in any way with their children. The legislation remains controversial among those who cling to the belief that parents should always have the final say concerning their offspring. The most persuasive argument against that stubborn attitude is that the children could be maimed or killed by their abusers.

Last year, even before the new law was enacted, child-welfare officials filed a record 97 petitions seeking authorization from family courts to separate children at great risk from abusive parents. That is nearly seven times the 14 such petitions filed 10 years earlier. The number will surely increase under the terms of the new law, which for the first time clearly defines what constitutes child abuse, including acts by young mothers suffering stress from the burdens of child-rearing. Many adult abusers excuse or defend their violent behavior on the grounds that they were only disciplining children who had refused to do what they were told.

While it is tempting to accept the belief that child abuse may not actually be increasing, a growing body of fact strongly suggests otherwise. Two years ago, in fiscal 1998, the number of consultations at child-welfare offices reached 6,932, an increase of more than 30 percent from 1997. Reports indicate that abuse consultations in Tokyo alone last year increased by nearly 80 percent. The abusers in most cases are the child’s actual parent or parents, or men living with the victims’ mothers.

The National Police Agency seems ready to agree that the apparent increase in child abuse is more than a statistical anomaly or the result only of increased public awareness. The agency reported earlier this summer that police throughout Japan dealt with 924 abuse cases last year, well over twice as many as the 413 recorded in 1998. Most disturbing of all is the fact that police nationwide investigated as many as 45 child abuse-related deaths in 1999.

This month the NPA reported that the police handled 94 abuse cases in the first half of this year, 33 more than in the first six months of 1999. Fifteen of the victims were infants under the age of 1. Children 6 or younger accounted for 52 cases, some 55 percent of the total. Most of the incidents involved physical violence of some kind, including rape or sexual molestation of young girls by their mothers’ live-in partners. It is in no way an encouraging sign that among the 94 victims, 20 died as a result of the abuse, even though that is six fewer than in the first half of last year.

The new child-abuse law and increased public awareness, as essential as they are in a nation that has too long ignored the issue, are only preliminary steps. Understaffed and overburdened child-welfare offices must be strengthened, and improved systems for helping both abusers and victims re-establish their lives need to be implemented. The central and local governments, together with private organizations, have to continue efforts to protect all the nation’s children. That includes protecting them from the abuse that, according to the Health and Welfare Ministry, occurs in the form of corporal punishment even inside child-welfare facilities.

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