In the wake of the death of a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture last month allegedly due to abuse by her parents, the government held a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers to adopt a set of emergency measures to crack down on child abuse. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered efforts to confirm the safety of children in all suspected abuse cases within a month. He reportedly urged the relevant parties to place the children under protective custody without hesitation if their parents reject intervention by child welfare authorities, calling such a response a sign that abuse is likely taking place.

Such actions are indeed long overdue and should have been enforced much sooner. As in many other cases of child abuse that resulted in the victims’ deaths, the authorities that responded to the case of Mia Kurihara, including the local child welfare center and the board of education, underestimated the danger the girl was in despite their strong suspicion that she was suffering violence at the hands of her father.

The child welfare center placed Mia under protective custody in late 2017 after she told her school that she was being beaten by her father at home, and then placed her in the care of a relative. When the father later protested the move in a meeting with officials of the welfare center and demanded that his daughter be returned home, he produced a letter — which he said was written by the girl — saying that she had been lying about the father’s violence and that she wanted to go home. Officials of the center said they suspected that the girl had been ordered by the father to write the letter — as was later found out to be the case — but they decided to send the girl back to her parents’ home anyway. After the girl’s death, the officials noted that the very fact that the father had the girl write such a letter “should have been considered a form of abuse.”

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its latest review of the Japanese government’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, expressed concerns about “the high level of violence, sexual abuse and exploitation of children” in this country and urged Tokyo to “prioritize the elimination of all forms of violence against children” such as by introducing an effective reporting mechanisms for victims and rigorous criminal prosecution of child abusers. The convention, which Japan ratified in 1994, requires states to take measures to protect children from abuse.

In an earlier review of Japan’s response to the problem of child abuse, the U.N. committee reportedly pointed out that the concept of parental rights under the Civil Code may be placing too much emphasis on the custodial rights of parents and leading them to control children in the family, thereby creating a breeding ground for violence and other forms of abuse of children .

As is the case with many other parents accused of abusing their children, Mia’s father is quoted as insisting to the police that he had only meant to “discipline” his daughter. Officials of both the child welfare center and the local board of education, in meetings with the victim’s father, eventually caved in to the father’s overbearing attitude and accepted his demands — and abandoned their chance to protect the girl. In many other cases of fatal child abuse, officials responsible for the children’s welfare are said to have hesitated to take strong action to stop the suspected abuse because they wanted to avoid trouble or confrontation with the parents. That kind of approach to the problem must change.

In response to the high-profile case of fatal abuse of a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo last year, the government decided to increase the number of child welfare officers, trained experts stationed at child welfare centers across the country to provide counseling, guidance and support for children and parents, by 2,000 by 2020. In the wake of the latest case, the government said it would front-load the measure, deploying roughly 1,000 of the new officers in fiscal 2019.

The number of suspected cases of child abuse referred by police to child welfare centers in 2018 surged by 22 percent from the previous year to top 80,000 — an increase of 2.8 times over the past five years. The number of child welfare officers has been increased from 1,230 in 1999 to 3,250 in 2017, but the number of child abuse cases handled by child welfare centers has expanded by 10 times over the period. It makes sense to boost their numbers so that they can respond more adequately to the problem of child abuse. At the same time, the officials responsible for the welfare of children need to sort out their priorities in their efforts to stop child abuse.

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