News that an expert panel at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has begun discussions on beefing up efforts to prevent of child abuse comes at a time when it has been revealed that the number of such cases reported to relevant authorities across the country hit a record high in fiscal 2014.

The panel should come up with effective steps to strengthen the functions of child consultation centers nationwide, which play important roles in enhancing children’s welfare, including providing shelters for abused kids, offering advice and finding appropriate facilities that can care for children who face various problems. At the same time, the government needs to look into the basic issue of how to eliminate the potential seeds of child abuse, such as poverty and isolation of families.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the 208 child consultation centers across Japan handled 88,931 cases of child abuse in fiscal 2014, a 20.5 percent increase from the previous year and the most since officials began compiling comparative data in 1990. The figure is 7.6 times the corresponding number 15 years earlier. If the centers are alerted to suspected child abuse, they dispatch juvenile welfare officers with expertise in psychology and pedagogy to the home of the abused kids within 48 hours to confirm their safety and talk to the parents. The centers may provide temporary shelters to the children or take measures to get other facilities to protect them.

Police statistics also suggest the problem is getting worse. In the first half of this year, police nationwide took action on 376 cases of child abuse and questioned 387 adults — also a record high. Cases of physical abuse including violence and injuries numbered 307 — or 81.6 percent of the total — 28 of them murder or attempted murder. During the same period, the police reported suspected cases of abuse involving 17,224 kids to child consultation centers. Conspicuously, 64.5 percent of these children suffered psychological abuse — 42.2 percent having witnessed scenes of one of their parents inflicting violence on the other.

Apparently, the number of abuse cases reported to the centers increased as a result of the Child Abuse Prevention Law, which took effect in 2000 to make it a duty for people to report child abuse by their neighbors. In 2004, the duty was expanded to include cases in which abuse is only suspected.

The burden on workers at the child consultation centers is growing heavier. In 2013, they started taking care of siblings of children who were victims of abuse, on the grounds that the siblings may have suffered psychological damage from the abuse of their brothers and sisters. In July, a new phone number — 189 — was assigned for people in any part of the country to call such centers around the clock. While the number of abuse cases handled by the centers in fiscal 2014 was 7.6 times higher than in 1995, the ranks of juvenile welfare officers at the centers nationwide rose only 2.4 times from 1,230 to 2,934 over the same period.

To reduce welfare officers’ workloads, the ministry panel is reportedly considering shifting the task of supporting parents to whom the abused children have been returned — traditionally part of the centers’ job — to municipal governments while allowing the centers to focus on measure to address immediate dangers, such as providing shelter for abuse victims.

Other measures under discussion include the creation of a new body that first accepts reports on child abuse and then disseminates the information to different organizations such as child consultation centers, the police and municipal governments, depending on the urgency of each case.

Also being weighed is the introduction of experts, certified through a government exam and having sufficient experience in jobs related to child welfare, who would work with abused children and their parents at child consultation centers and municipal governments.

The panel is also considering expanding the coverage of the Child Welfare Law by raising the maximum age of youths who can receive support under the law from 17 to 19. Now youths living in child support facilities or with foster parents who care for them under the law in principle must leave when they turn 18.

Such steps would indeed improve the mechanism to prevent child abuse and support abused children to some extent. However, the national government should be aware that child abuse is often triggered by larger causes, including poverty, unstable employment and the isolation of families in communities. In fiscal 2013, 36 abused children died — 16 of them younger than the age of 1. Parents feeling cornered by their own problems vent their frustration on their children.

While the government needs to consider what it can do to help solve the parents’ problems and cooperation among various public organizations will be essential in the efforts to prevent child abuse, it will also be crucial for people and nongovernmental bodies in communities to extend a helping hand to families who would otherwise become isolated. Creating a network among people and civic organizations to extend such help will be critical to reducing child abuse.

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