The recent death of a 14-year-old boy in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, who attempted suicide two years ago after he unsuccessfully pleaded for shelter from alleged abuse by his parents points yet again to holes in the nation’s system to protect such victims. If the city’s child welfare authorities cannot be blamed for failing to protect the boy, then the system needs to be amended to make sure that abused children will get the protection they need. The government’s move to beef up the power and functions of child consultation centers nationwide may be a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.
The boy, who died in February after being comatose since he tried to kill himself by hanging in November 2014, had repeatedly asked the city’s authorities for protection from his parents since signs of his abuse came to light in fall 2013. His elementary school alerted Sagamihara authorities that the boy suffered bruises on his face, and the local child consultation center investigated the incident as a case of suspected abuse by his parents. City officials interviewed the boy and the parents, with the boy repeatedly pleading for shelter — saying he was “scared of going home.”
In May 2014, the boy ran into a convenience store near his home late one night, alleging violence by his parents and asking for help, and was taken into protective custody by the police. The child consultation center began interview sessions with the boy and the parents, but the center reportedly did not consider the boy’s case serious on the grounds that his relations with the parents appeared to be improving. The boy told workers at the center that he wanted to stay at a child welfare facility. The center tried to persuade the parents into agreeing to temporarily relinquish custody of the boy, but the parents declined. The center did not exercise its legal power to take the boy into care without the parents’ consent.
Just before the boy tried to kill himself, a staff member at the center was alerted by the boy’s junior high school that he had apparently been physically abused by his father, but this staffer did not relay the information to higher-ranking officials at the center and took no further action to take the boy into care. After his death, the head of the center insisted that its staff handled the boy’s case properly because they judged that it was not urgent.
What exactly transpired between the boy and his parents is not known, and it may be difficult to determine whether the judgment of the centers’ officials was correct. But it’s puzzling why the repeated pleas for shelter by the boy himself — one of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s criteria for placing abused children under protective custody — went unheeded.
The number of reported child abuse cases in this country as shown in official statistics continues to rise sharply. Child consultation centers nationwide handled a record 88,931 cases of reported abuse in fiscal 2014, up 20.5 percent from the previous year. In 2015, police alerted such centers of suspected abuse cases involving 37,020 children under 18, an increase of 28 percent from 2014. They took action against 811 people suspected of abusing 807 children — both the largest numbers on record. At least 36 children were confirmed to have died as a result of abuse in fiscal 2013 — two-thirds of them aged 2 years old or younger.
These numbers are increasing partly because more cases are being reported since the 2000 law to prevent child abuse made it mandatory for people to notify authorities of abuse, including suspected cases, and as the definition of abuse has been expanded. Abuse now covered includes physical violence, neglect, sexual abuse and psychological abuse that leaves mental scars on the victims, such as violence by one parent against the other in the presence of their children. Experts also point to the growing rich-poor divide and an increase in socially isolated households as factors behind the growing problem.
Responses by child welfare authorities are obviously not catching up with the rapid rise in child abuse cases. The number handled by child consultation centers expanded 7.6 times in the 15 years to fiscal 2014, but the number of child welfare officers — professionally trained people who are tasked with visiting homes where abuse is suspected, checking on the safety of the children, interviewing the parents and taking the kids under protective custody if an emergency shelter is deemed necessary — rose only 2.3 times from about 1,200 to 2,900 nationwide over the same period.
The manpower shortage appears to be taking a toll. Many of the fatal abuse cases occurred even as the child consultation centers were alerted and were trying to deal with the situation. A report shows that each of the child welfare officers who dealt with the 36 fatal cases in 2013 was tasked with handling an average of 65 abuse cases per year.
In some cases, child consultation centers dealing with suspected abuse reportedly hesitate to intervene by, for example, taking the children under temporary custody when the parents deny abusing the kids or refuse to cooperate with the consultation process. Officials at the centers reportedly often balk at using their legal powers to act without the parents’ consent because they’re wary of getting into legal trouble with them. There are views that, as in many other advanced economies, courts should be called on to intervene and place abused children in custody.
The government is seeking to amend the child welfare law and the law for prevention of child abuse to beef up the power and functions of child consultation centers. Draft amendments approved by the Cabinet last week require that such centers assign veteran child welfare officers or child psychologists to teach and guide their colleagues, and simplify the procedures for allowing compulsory inspection by welfare officers of households where child abuse is suspected. These amendments would be a positive step forward but are not enough to close all of the cracks in the system that the victims of child abuse fall through.
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