Many people in Japan were shocked after a woman threw her 3-year-old daughter into a river in Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture, last November. But a different type of shock came later when it was revealed how overextended Japan's network of social workers is. The municipal office and its small staff of counselors and social workers who knew about the case could not sufficiently attend to it.

That is no failure on their part, but rather a failure of the system to adequately care for those who need counseling, support and attention. One of the counselors in Tsubame was reported to have told a news conference that social workers were too busy supporting other families to take care of that mother. She had previously sought help for herself and her baby, but with only two full-time counselors and one part-timer handling as many as 75 children's cases, the needed intervention did not come in time.

Clearly there is insufficient central government support for those who are on the front line handling domestic violence, family problems, child abuse and those in need of support. Social workers, counselors and municipal office staff are burdened with an impossible load, even when they have sufficient training and experience. Social work is a complex undertaking that does not fit easily into bureaucratic time frames or restricted budgets. Deciding which cases deserve priority requires time and effort, especially since the development of each case is never predictable.