Amendments to the laws on child welfare and measures against child abuse, submitted to the Diet by the government earlier this month, explicitly prohibit corporal punishment of children by their guardians. That is a response to the repeated excuse reportedly uttered by parents accused of abusing their children: they were just trying to “discipline” them. It’s undeniable that compared with many other countries corporal punishment by parents has long been condoned as a means to discipline children in Japan. The nation’s Civil Code carries a provision stating that people with parental authority can discipline their children “to the extent necessary” for their custody and education.
In that sense, legally banning corporal punishment may constitute progress since it can be difficult to draw a line between where corporal punishment in the name of discipline ends and child abuse begins. The proposed amendments state the Civil Code provision on disciplining children should also be reviewed within two years. However, simply banning corporal punishment — without punitive provisions for offenders — won’t do much to stop child abuse, which claimed the lives of at least 36 children last year. Also crucial are efforts to beef up the system that responds to suspected cases of child abuse, deals with the parents, intervenes in families to protect abused children, and punishes those responsible for harming the children.
The amendments call for steps to strengthening the functions of child welfare centers nationwide to separate the children from abusive parents when necessary for their safety. They also stipulate confidentiality obligations for school and municipal education board officials dealing with child abuse cases in light of the criticism that in the January death of a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, local education board officials acted inappropriately when they disclosed to her father, who has been arrested for physically abusing the victim, that the daughter had complained of the father’s violence in a questionnaire at her school — a development that could have exacerbated the victim’s situation.
The measures also call for a greater role for police in dealing with child abuse cases. In the Noda case, officials reportedly felt “intimidated” by the overbearing attitude of the father, who insisted that the girl be returned to the family’s home. As of last April, 34 police officers and 192 retired officers were deployed at child welfare centers, and the government plans to station more at those facilities. It is hoped that the involvement of the police will help in dealing with parents who won’t cooperate with child welfare officials.
As for fortifying the functions of the child welfare centers, a clear division of roles will be stipulated between workers who take charge of intervening to take children into protection when abuse is suspected, and those who provide subsequent support/guidance for the parents. The separation of these functions was called for in light of criticism that in many of the fatal cases of child abuse officials hesitated to take action that could cause problems with parents with whom they need to stay engaged to provide support for the family. The government also plans to front-load the already planned increase in the number of child welfare officers — experts assigned to these centers to counsel and guide the parents and children — by roughly 2,000 by fiscal 2022.
Aside from these steps, what’s also needed are measures to improve the quality of child welfare officers and other staff at the centers. In the Noda girl’s case, such officers had been assigned to the local child welfare center, where efforts to increase staffing has been taking place in recent years, for an average of about four years. Those officers need to have enough experience and training to gain the expertise to make proper judgments on the risk of children being abused. In the Noda girl’s case, the welfare center’s decision to place the girl back in her parents’ care despite the suspected risk of abuse has been questioned.
Bolstering the network of child welfare centers — which number 210 nationwide — will be another challenge as their staff are over-stretched in dealing with the growing number of suspected abuse cases referred to them, which topped 130,000 in fiscal 2017. Currently each of the 47 prefectures and major designated cities is obliged to set up such a center. To increase their numbers, a provision attached to the amendments calls on the government to provide manpower support for other 54 medium-size cities as well as Tokyo’s 23 wards so they can also set up such centers. Those medium-size cities have in fact been empowered since 2004 to launch such facilities in their jurisdiction, but only two of them have so far done so. The government should consider more far-reaching steps, including greater fiscal support, to beef up the welfare centers, their functions and manpower.