The government’s plan to add some 2,000 child welfare officers by fiscal 2022 is a long overdue step to cope with the rapidly growing number of child abuse cases handled by child welfare centers across the country. What triggered the move was the death of a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo in March due to repeated abuse by her parents. Because the girl died after a request by local child welfare officials to see her was rejected by the victim’s mother at their home, new guidelines on action by the welfare officials that put priority on the safety of victims of suspected abuse have been adopted. All the parties involved should continue to explore what can be done to provide effective protection for victims of child abuse.
Since the 2000 law to prevent child abuse made it an obligation for people who suspect child abuse is taking place to alert local child welfare centers, the number of such cases handled by the centers nationwide has multiplied — to reach a record 122,500 in fiscal 2016, up 18 percent from the previous year. There are currently 3,253 child welfare officers stationed at such centers and they are tasked to provide consultation, guidance and support to children and their parents. Their numbers have risen each year from 1,230 in 1999, but the sharp increase in cases of suspected abuse that they deal with — which shot up more than tenfold over the same period — has left child welfare centers with a chronic staff shortage.
The manpower problem has been one of the key shortcomings of Japan’s efforts to stop child abuse in comparison with those of many Western countries. In the United States, where far greater numbers of child abuse cases are reported to child protection agencies, such institutions are staffed by many more experts per capita than in Japan. The plan to add 2,000 child welfare officers in coming years — boosting their number by 1.6 times — will help alleviate the manpower shortage. But whether the increased number will be effective in preventing the occurrence of child abuse and protecting the victims will be another story. Continued efforts need to be made to build up the expertise of welfare officers so they can make the right decisions in a variety of difficult situations involving victims of child abuse and their families — which may require years of experience on the job.
Five-year-old Yua Funato was twice placed in provisional protective custody due to suspected abuse by her stepfather when the family was living in Kagawa Prefecture in the previous two years. The stepfather was referred to prosecutors over suspected violence against the child but was never charged.
After the family moved to Tokyo earlier this year, officials of a local child welfare center, informed of the problems that had taken place in Kagawa, visited the family’s house in February but their request to see the girl was denied. The officials did not push the matter further and the girl, who was effectively confined to the house where she was physically abused by the parents and denied sufficient food or medical care, died in March. This outcome raised the question of whether the child welfare officials in Kagawa and Tokyo were on the same page regarding the risk of abuse faced by the child.
Government policy requires a child welfare center, after it is alerted to suspected child abuse, to confirm the safety of the child within 48 hours. In the new measures adopted in July in response to the girl’s case, the government made it a rule that when officials of the center cannot confirm the child’s safety, they will in principle hold an on-site probe of the suspected victim’s house, enlisting the help of police if necessary.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has separately distributed to prefectural governments across the country a guideline that the child welfare centers “should not hesitate” to place suspected victims of child abuse into provisional custody “in situations where such action is necessary,” noting that delayed actions “could potentially put the victims’ life at risk.” When the welfare center wishes to continue the provisional custody but the child’s parents will not consent to it, that in itself is a sign that the child is in danger, the guideline says, calling for “extra caution” in making a decision to lift the provisional custody.
Many child welfare officials are said to balk at taking action when parents of suspected child abuse victims refuse to let them see the children or agree to their provisional custody, out of concern that they may not expect cooperation of the parents in dealing with the family’s case going forward. But that risk must not overshadow the need to protect the victims of suspected child abuse.