Editorials

Another fatal case of child abuse

In the case involving the death of a 10-year-old girl at her home in Noda, Chiba Prefecture last month, in which her father was arrested on suspicion of assaulting her, it has been learned that the victim earlier complained about suffering violence at the hands of her father and pleaded for help in a questionnaire given to her by her elementary school. She was once placed under protective custody by a local child welfare center, but she was eventually placed back in the care of her parents — after the local board of education handed the father a copy of her response to the questionnaire, which was supposed to remain confidential.

As in many of the past cases of fatal abuse of children, the victim’s plea for help did not appear to have been taken seriously enough by the parties involved and the signs that should have set off alarms, such as her extended absence from school since the beginning of the year, did not prompt the authorities to take action to protect the girl. The process leading to her death needs to be scrutinized to see what was lacking in the response by school officials, the education board and the child welfare centers so that a lesson can be learned to make sure that other children do not suffer the same fate.

Mia Kurihara was found dead in the bathroom of her home when emergency responders rushed to the house late in the evening of Jan. 24, responding to a call to police by the 41-year-old father, Yuichiro, who was arrested the following day. The girl’s mother was also arrested this week for not stopping her husband’s violence against the girl.

The family had moved from Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, in 2017. A relative of the family alerted the city of Itoman that the father was acting violently toward his wife and threatening the girl. But when city officials tried to visit their home, the father refused and the family moved to Noda. That information was reportedly never relayed to the Noda municipal government because, as an Itoman official says, the alleged abuse could not be confirmed.

After Mia began attending the elementary school in Noda, she wrote in a confidential questionnaire by the school about bullying in November that year that she suffered from violence at the hands of her father. As more details of the abuse emerged in interviews by the school, a local child welfare center placed her under protective custody for about 50 days — but ended the measure after it determined that the degree of the abuse was not so serious and placed the girl in the care of a relative of the family.

Meanwhile, the father denied that he had abused the daughter and strongly protested her protective custody in a meeting with officials of the school and the municipal board of education. He demanded that he be shown the daughter’s response to the questionnaire. In a subsequent meeting the education board officials handed him a copy of the response as they “felt intimidated” by the father’s attitude — a move that education ministry officials now say might have increased the risk of violence against the girl. However, the episode was never clearly explained to the local child welfare center, which subsequently made a decision to move the girl back into the parents’ home.

After that, officials of the child welfare center did not have any direct contact with the family to check up on the relationship between the father and the girl — because, the officials say, the girl seemed to be doing fine at a new school to which she had transferred. Even when they learned in late January that the girl was absent from the school since the beginning of the year — which is often a sign of trouble for abused children — they did not pay a visit to the house because they did not link her absence to any serious danger to her. The girl was found dead three days later.

In many of the cases involving fatal abuse of children, the victims’ calls for help often went unheeded or slipped through the cracks due to miscommunication among the parties responsible for their welfare. In the death of a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo last March, an experts’ panel at the metropolitan government determined that a local child welfare center failed to grasp the serious risk of the girl’s abuse due to insufficient communication with its counterpart in Kagawa Prefecture, where the victim’s family had previously lived.

In response to that case, the government introduced a set of measures to beef up the functions of child welfare centers to intervene in cases where child abuse is suspected to protect the lives of the children, with the number of child welfare officers nationwide to be increased by 2,000 by 2022. But the latest case underlines once again that similarly tragic consequences of child abuse will likely be repeated unless all the relevant parties take all warning signs of child abuse seriously and respond in a manner that places the utmost priority on the safety of children.

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