We can do more to help abused children

by Toko Shirakawa

A 5-year-old girl died in Tokyo after being abused by her parents. She had left a note that said, “I will try to be able to do it a lot better on my own from today even if Mama and Papa do not tell me to do so. Please forgive me! Forgive me, please!” Her note has been made public and many people are calling on the government to take action to prevent child abuse by tweeting hashtag messages that translate as “This is not other people’s affairs” and “I will not support any lawmaker who does not tackle the problem of child abuse.”

The Japan Pediatric Society estimates that about 350 children die a year due to child abuse — or about one child a day. Why could we not prevent the death of that girl? This is a problem peculiar to Japan — that many Japanese have a weak sense of children’s rights.

The girl’s tragic death was not averted even though she had earlier been taken into protective custody twice over suspected abuse. This has reportedly led to a flood of complaints against the child welfare center that handled her family after they had recently moved to Tokyo. But criticizing the center will be of no use. Such centers are already pushed to the limit and run on a bare minimum budget and low manpower.

American movies and dramas suggest that children’s rights are strongly protected in the United States. The image we get from them is that if something happens to children, the police, case workers or relevant institutions intervene and the children are taken into protective custody. What about Japan? In this country, there are many hurdles to overcome before sufficient protective measures are taken for abused children.

If a child welfare center receives a tip-off that abuse may be taking place, its workers visit the child’s home and try to find out what is happening. They face the first hurdle here — if the parents refuse to let them see the child.

If abuse is confirmed to have taken place, the next step will be taking the child into provisional protective custody. The workers take the child and puts him or her in a temporary protection facility. But there are further potential obstacles. The parents may refuse to let the child be taken to a facility. Or the facility may be full and cannot take in the child. The parents may also fiercely protest the move to take the child into protective custody.

Even when the parents refuse to allow the child to be taken into protective custody, the police can intervene to override their opposition and put the child under protection. These are problems that need to be improved in the protection of abused children in the provisional custodial facility, such as not being able to attend school because the parents might try to snatch them back if they do.

After the provisional custody, child welfare workers and others concerned will determine whether the child should be given back to the parents, or enter a children’s home, or whether yet other measures should be taken.

If the abused children cannot live with their parents, where will they live? In Japan, there are some 45,000 children who cannot live with their parents due to abuse and other reasons. Many of them receive protection either at facilities or in the homes of other families, including homes of foster parents. Currently nearly 80 percent of these children live collectively in facilities. This ratio is the reverse of what is happening in Europe and North America, where a majority of neglected or abused children live with other families in their homes.

In Japan, only 15 percent of those children live with foster parents or are adopted. It’s not that the number of people wishing to serve as foster parents or adopt them is small — these people are in fact on a waiting list. One of the reasons is that in Japan, the biological parents of those children hold strong parental rights over them — even when they have lived for many years at a facility without the parents ever visiting them for a long time. In Europe and North America, if it is judged at an early stage that there is no prospect that children can return to their parents’ homes, a process kicks in to look for families that can take them. Just recently, the government set the goal of increasing the ratio of neglected or abused preschool children being entrusted to foster parents and the like to 75 percent within seven years.

Why can’t we save abused children? Why does entrusting of such children to foster parents not increase? These problems will not be solved by blaming the people involved in the child welfare efforts.

A report on child welfare centers by Maki Okubo details how those people are stretched to the limit with scarce resources and manpower. For example, Japan spends about ¥100 billion a year on child welfare centers and other such institutions. The amount is one-thirtieth the budget of the U.S., whose population is 2.5 times larger than Japan’s, and one-third the spending of Australia, whose population is one-fifth that of Japan, according to the book.

According to a blog by Hiroki Komazaki, child welfare institutions in general lag quite behind in the use of information technology — one such facility was sending fax messages to search for a child whose whereabouts had become unknown.

Information about children they cared for who have moved to different areas are no longer shared. A person who once worked as a commissioned child welfare volunteer told me, “Compared with the past, there are now rules for protection of private information. This make it impossible to know what is happening to children who have moved to other areas. I am worried about them. But I cannot do anything about them.”

To help rectify the slow use of IT in the field of child welfare, Yoshihisa Aono, president of Cybozu, Inc., has announced that his company will offer its groupware free of charge. The company offers a special plan to provide cloud services to child welfare centers at no cost for five years and will start a section to provide them with system support. Aono made the move thinking that more efficient IT use to enable people involved in child welfare efforts to share detailed information would contribute to preventing child abuse. Initiatives like this in the private sector should be highly appreciated.

We talk a lot about the declining population of children as a major demographic challenge. At the same time, we seem to spend so little on measures to promote children’s best interests.

For example, as the nation was hit by a heat wave in recent weeks, it came to be known that there is a wide disparity among elementary and junior high schools in areas where temperatures could rise above 35 degrees and the ratio of air conditioners installed in classrooms. In Kagawa Prefecture, the rate is nearly 100 percent, but in Ehime Prefecture on the same island of Shikoku, the figure is 5.9 percent. Government subsidies cover one-third of the cost.

Government officials should realize that Japan has become hotter than some areas in Thailand — and allocate sufficient funding to provide adequate air-conditioning in schools.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and an author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.