When handing down an eight-year prison sentence for the mother of a 5-year-old girl in Tokyo who died last year as a result of abuse by her parents, the Tokyo District Court recognized that the accused herself had suffered from psychological abuse by her husband, but this did not relieve her of the parental responsibility to protect her daughter.

In a case that renewed public awareness of the growing problem of child abuse and prompted the government to take a series of actions on the issue, Yua Funato died in her home in Meguro Ward in March 2018 after being subjected to repeated violence by her father and denied sufficient food for weeks. She weighed only 12 kg when she died — 6 kg less than the average for a girl her age — after losing 4 kg in her final two months, during which she was mostly confined to their home.

The victim’s mother, Yuri Funato, rejected intervention by local child welfare officials and failed to take her daughter to a hospital even after the girl’s health had deteriorated to a dangerous level, reportedly out of fear that the abuse by her husband would be revealed.

As the number of reported cases of child abuse continues to mount, including tragic cases that result in death, domestic violence by one of the parents toward the other often lurks in households where children are abused. A recent case that highlighted the link between spousal violence and child abuse was the death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, last January due to repeated abuse by her parents.

In June, Mia’s mother, Nagisa Kurihara, was found guilty of failing to stop and thus aiding the persistent abuse of the girl by her husband but was given a suspended sentence and placed under probation because she was also a victim of his violence. The court determined that it was difficult for the woman, exposed to her husband’s violence and suffering from a fragile mental condition herself, to stop his violent behavior — although the court still found her guilty of neglecting her duty as a mother to protect her daughter. Her attorneys argued that she could not go against her husband because he had her under his control with his violence.

In both the Meguro Ward and Noda cases, the husbands are still awaiting trial.

In fiscal 2018, nearly 160,000 suspected cases of child abuse were referred to child welfare centers across the country. A majority of such cases — 55 percent of the total — involved psychological abuse in which children were subjected to mental shock, including when they witnessed a member of their family inflict violence against another right in front of them. The number of such cases has increased nearly 10 times over the past 10 years. According to a 2017 survey by the Cabinet Office, in about 20 percent of families where one parent suffers from violence inflicted by their spouse, the children are also victims of violence.

In an amendment to the law for preventing child abuse enacted in June following the incident in Noda, the government called for closer cooperation between public institutions that deal with child abuse and facilities that support victims of spousal violence. But while child welfare officials nationwide are tied up in responding to the ever-growing cases of child abuse, the number of domestic violence reports that those facilities handle also reach 100,000 a year.

Lack of proper communication and coordination between relevant authorities has often meant that signs of violence and abuse are missed, where otherwise the worst-case scenario might have been prevented. In the case of Yua Funato, a doctor at a hospital in Kagawa Prefecture who treated the girl when the family was living there, before they moved to Tokyo last year, alerted relevant organizations that there were problems between her parents. That information, however, was never utilized to prevent the girl’s death. In the Noda case, the local child welfare center was aware of the husband’s violent tendencies toward his wife, but that information was not properly taken into account in assessing the risk to the child.

In both the Meguro and Noda cases, the mothers told the court that they did not realize they were suffering from violence or psychological abuse by their husbands when it was taking place. Many victims of spousal violence are reportedly unable to seek help from others and become isolated, thus failing to stop the abuse targeted at their children. That doesn’t relieve them of their duty to protect their children, as the courts say, but a system needs to be established to prevent victims of domestic violence from isolation and help them protect their children.

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