Editorials

The overstretched system of dealing with child abuse

Tragic cases of fatal abuse of children by their parents continue to be reported. In response, an amended law to prevent child abuse, enacted in the latest regular Diet session, will take effect in April to beef up the functions of child welfare centers across the country to intervene in suspected abuse of children. In the July Upper House election, most of the parties cited greater efforts to eradicate child abuse, including revamping the child welfare centers, in their campaign promises.

After the death of a 5-year-old girl in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, last year due to repeated abuse at the hands of her parents, the government decided to increase the number of child welfare officers — experts stationed at the welfare centers that advise, guide and support both the abused children and their guardians — by some 2,000 by 2022, with half of the increase to be carried out during the current fiscal year.

The staffing shortage, a serious problem in many of the child welfare centers, has been exacerbated by a sharp increase in abuse cases. The total number of child welfare officers stood at 3,400 nationwide as of April 2018, an increase of 800 from 2012. However, the number of suspected cases of child abuse referred to those centers had more than tripled to over 130,000 in fiscal 2017.

The plan to deploy more child welfare officers may make up for part of the staffing shortage. However, a child welfare officer reportedly needs at least five years on the job to become capable of making proper judgements in difficult child abuse cases and effectively deal with the parents of victims.

In some recent cases involving the fatal abuse of children, staff at child welfare centers and other officials were criticized for underestimating the risk and urgency involved, leading to decisions or inaction that eventually paved the way for the tragic consequences. In Sapporo, where a 2-year-old girl died in June after suffering from suspected violence and neglect by her mother and boyfriend, the child welfare officers had an average of 1.59 years of experience on the job. Not only boosting the sheer number of welfare officers but improving their expertise to adequately deal with abuse cases is a key challenge in the effort to combat the problem.

As part of the emergency measures against child abuse, the government in July last year told child welfare centers across the country to make sure their officials confirm the safety of a child within 48 hours after they are alerted to the possibility of abuse — and to hold an on-site probe of the home if they cannot meet the child in person. However, this 48-hour rule was not observed by child welfare officials in Sapporo, who reportedly determined that the risk of abuse was low on the basis of their previous contact with the girl’s mother after they were alerted by a neighbor in April. Following the girl’s death in June, they also said that it’s extremely difficult to respond to all cases within 48 hours given that each staff member must deal with more than 100 cases.

A recent Kyodo News survey shows that Sapporo officials are not alone. In the survey of 69 prefectures and cities that have set up child welfare centers in their jurisdiction, 59 replied that there have been cases in which the local welfare centers were unable to confirm the safety of allegedly abused children within 48 hours of an alert, and 23 of the local governments said it would be difficult to follow the 48-hour rule. The outcome of the survey indicates that manpower and other systems at child welfare centers have not caught up with the government’s policy to improve their ability to intervene in cases of child abuse.

Some prefectures and cities polled reportedly noted that limited manpower and a surge in the number of abuse cases make it tough to observe the 48-hour rule, while others said there’s a limit to putting only child welfare centers in charge of dealing with all suspected cases of child abuse — suggesting that some cases that appear to be of low urgency could be handled by local municipalities instead.

The amended law calls for separating officials at child welfare centers in charge of intervening in abuse cases, for example by taking abused children into protective custody, from those tasked with providing support for the parents to help rebuild family ties to stop the officials from hesitating to intervene out of concern that such steps could alienate the parents and make them stop cooperating with the child welfare staff. Another idea, however, is that municipalities should take charge of measures to support the parents of abused children. It’s worth looking into whether such a division of labor would be practical in order to ease the workload of child welfare staff.

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