What is lacking in the fight against child abuse?

The recent fatal abuse of a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo once again highlights the shortcomings in the nation’s system to protect children from abuse by their guardians. Laws have been updated so that more cases of child abuse come to the attention of authorities and more victims are placed under protection. Child welfare officials have been given greater powers to intervene in suspected cases of abuse. But some victims still face tragic ends as officials balk at taking action due either to resistance by the victims’ guardians or to poor coordination between relevant authorities. The process that allowed the most recent tragedy should be scrutinized in order to identify what is lacking in our efforts to end child abuse.

Yua Funato died March 2 of sepsis caused by pneumonia at her home in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. She had reportedly been subjected to repeated physical abuse by her stepfather and died after being denied sufficient food or medical care — the victim weighed just 12 kg when she was found dead. The girl’s 25-year-old mother and 33-year-old stepfather were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of fatal negligence of their duty as her guardians.

The family had just moved from Kagawa Prefecture in December. In Kagawa, the stepfather, Yudai Funato, was twice referred to prosecutors over suspected violence against the girl but was never charged — he had indicated contrition for hitting the girl to “discipline” her. The violence appeared to have been going on since 2016. The police, alerted by the family’s neighbors, intervened and the girl was taken into protective custody by the local child welfare center — a process that was repeated a few times.

After the family moved to Tokyo last year, the girl appears to have been mostly confined to their home. An official from the child welfare center covering their neighborhood — informed by the Kagawa facility of conditions in the family — visited the house in February to check up on the girl but was denied seeing her by the mother.

The law on preventing child abuse, which took effect in 2000, makes it an obligation for people who have witnessed child abuse to alert a child welfare center. In 2004, the obligation was expanded to cover cases in which child abuse was suspected. As social awareness of the problem grew, the number of cases handled by child welfare facilities across Japan topped 100,000 in fiscal 2015 and rose 18 percent to 122,500 cases in fiscal 2016. Showing a particularly sharp increase are cases reported by police to child welfare centers, jumping 20 percent in 2017 to a record 65,431.

The child welfare center that handled the Funato family somehow did not share its information about the case with the police. In the absence of legal rules on welfare centers reporting to the police about abuse cases, such decisions are left to the discretion of the relevant local government. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has a guideline stating that its child welfare centers should share information with police on cases in which the victim has ever been placed under protective custody over physical abuse and on cases that the head of each center deems is necessary to alert the police.

After being denied a chance to meet the girl, the child welfare center did not push the matter further because it reportedly put priority on its relationship with the girl’s parents. A 2016 revision to the child abuse prevention law simplified the procedure for officials of such centers to carry out on-site inspection of homes where child abuse is suspected without the parents’ consent. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says that protection of children should be prioritized and that officials should not hesitate in the face of parents’ objections to take abused children under protective custody. However, it is believed that many welfare officials balk at resorting to such action out of concern that support for the family may not proceed smoothly if the action is taken over the parents’ opposition.

Japan’s efforts to stop child abuse are weak when compared with the systems in many Western countries. For example, in the United States, where efforts to prevent abuse of children started much earlier than in Japan, far greater numbers of child abuse cases are reported to and handled by child protection service agencies. Such agencies are staffed by far larger numbers of experts per capita than in Japan, and the police and the judiciary are more deeply involved in the effort against child abuse. What’s lacking in our system to stop child abuse should be explored so that similar tragedies will not be repeated.