In what appears to be yet another tragic case of fatal child abuse, a 4-year-old girl in Izumi, Kagoshima Prefecture died in late August, and a 21-year-old man has been arrested for suspected violence against the victim. While the girl was found to have drowned — in the bath at her home, according to the suspect, who is the boyfriend of the victim’s mother — there were multiple bruises all over her body.

Just like in recent high-profile cases of fatal abuse of children, authorities including the city government, local child welfare center and the police had been alerted to signs that the girl was being abused, but failed to take action, such as taking her into protective custody, in time to save her life. Why they failed to do so — even though it has been emphasized over and over again that priority must be given to safety of victims of suspected abuse — needs to be closely examined.

The first signs of abuse emerged in March, when the girl and the mother were living in the city of Satsumasendai in the same prefecture. Police received an anonymous call that a video showing the girl possibly being abused had been posted online. When officials of the police and a child welfare center visited their home to meet with the mother and the girl, they could not find bruises or other signs of injuries on the girl. But the child welfare center later noted that there were fears of abuse.

Shortly thereafter, police found the girl repeatedly wandering alone on the streets in the middle of the night, placing her under protective custody four times. They informed the child welfare center of “the need” to put the girl in protective custody, but the welfare center did not take such action on the grounds that the girl did not appear to be wary of the mother and no signs of abuse was confirmed between them — although center officials were reportedly not aware then of the presence of the mother’s boyfriend. The child welfare officials only blamed the mother for neglecting of her daughter and warned that the girl could be put in protective custody if the same thing happened again.

Information about the neglect of the girl was passed on to the city of Izumi after the family moved there in July. The city government then received information from local hospitals where the mother took the girl that there were multiple bruises on her body, but that information was never shared with the child welfare center or the local police. A municipal health official visited their home in late August — two days before her death — but could not find signs of external injuries. Why the information about the bruises on the girl was not promptly shared with the child welfare center or the police — which could have led to a police investigation or protective custody of the girl — must be scrutinized.

Following a string of fatal cases of child abuse, including one involving a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward last year and another involving a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, in January, the government took measures such as strengthening the functions of child welfare centers and adding manpower, as well as requiring greater involvement of the police in dealing with suspected abuse cases.

An amendment to the law to prevent child abuse bans corporal punishment of children by their parents — in response to repeated excuses by abusive parents that they were only trying to discipline their kids — and the government is also reviewing a provision in the Civil Code that permits people with parental authority to discipline their children “to the extent necessary” for their custody and education. But the suspect in the Izumi case is quoted as repeating the same excuse to the police, and it remains to be seen how effective prohibiting corporal punishment on children — without penalizing offenders — is in preventing child abuse.

The manpower shortage at child welfare centers is often cited as a problem that hampers adequate responses to the ever-growing cases of suspected child abuse. In fiscal 2018, 215 child welfare centers across the country handled nearly 160,000 cases that were referred to them — an increase of 26,000 from the previous year. Of the roughly 153,000 children whose suspected abuse were alerted to the welfare centers from July 2018 to June this year, officials of the centers were unable to confirm the safety of nearly 12,000 within 48 hours of the alert — as required under the government’s guideline.

The government plans to increase the number of child welfare officers to deal with child abuse cases by some 2,000 by 2022. Given that the position requires years of experience to be able to gain the expertise to deal appropriately with difficult cases, improving the quality of such manpower will be a key issue. Whether such officers are properly communicating and coordinating their efforts with municipal authorities or the police in dealing with abuse cases must also be scrutinized.

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