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.

All over Japan, counselors and social workers are woefully overworked and underpaid. Around 2,500 counselors worked at city offices on all types of cases as of April 2014, but 70 percent of those were employed only part time. Some municipalities around the country have no counselors at all. More counselors are desperately needed to prevent similar tragic cases from occurring again.

The health and welfare ministry admitted that the current system is based on one adopted in 1964, the time of Japan’s first Olympics. A revision in the Child Welfare Act in 2005 allowed municipal governments to provide counseling services, in addition to prefectural consultation centers, but that’s not enough. The number of child abuse cases handled by municipal counselors rose to 73,000 in 2012, from 40,000 in 2005.

The central government should take social services more seriously. More counselors and social workers should be hired, trained and sufficiently funded. Effective social outreach and counseling are one of the markers of a caring society. No children should have their lives cut short because their parents didn’t get the help they asked for.

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