The 13-year prison term handed down to Yudai Funato for the fatal abuse and neglect of his 5-year-old stepdaughter, Yua, last year should provide an opportunity to review once again whether steps taken in the wake of the high-profile case involving the family in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, are being effective in fighting the increasingly serious problem of child abuse.
The death of Yua Funato in March 2018, after she suffered persistent violence at the hands of her stepfather and was denied sufficient food for several weeks, highlighted shortcomings in the nation’s efforts to combat child abuse, such as poor communication and coordination among relevant offices that often result in failure to intervene and save abused children, manpower shortages at child welfare centers tasked with handling abuse cases, and the lack of measures to cope with spousal violence in the background of child abuse.
The case prompted the government to take a series of steps, such as attempts to revamp the functions of child welfare centers and beef up cooperation between them and other authorities, including the police, and significantly increasing the number of child welfare officers. Another move was amending relevant laws to prohibit corporal punishment of children by parents. This was in response to repeated instances of abusive parents, including Yudai Funato, trying to excuse their crimes by claiming they were only trying to discipline their kids.
The government is also reviewing for possible elimination a provision in the Civil Code that allows people with parental authority to discipline their children “to the extent necessary” for their custody and education, a concept that many believe fosters the social perception in Japan that appears to condone parents physically “disciplining” their kids.
However, it remains to be seen whether or how effective the corporal punishment ban, which carries no punishment for offenders, will be in deterring child abuse.
Even after the Funato family’s case drew nationwide attention, tragic child abuse incidents resulting in the death of victims have continued. In some of these instances, it was found that measures introduced based on the lessons of the Meguro Ward case were not followed.
In Kagawa Prefecture, where the Funato family lived before moving to Tokyo early last year, Yua was twice taken into protective custody by the local child welfare center because of suspected abuse by the stepfather. But the Kagawa officials reportedly did not share the urgency of the situation with their counterparts in Tokyo. The child welfare officials in Tokyo were unable to meet with Yua to check on her condition when her mother refused to let them see her — until the little girl eventually died in early March.
That led the government to establish a rule requiring child welfare centers nationwide to confirm the safety of abused children within 48 hours after they are alerted to suspected abuse and, if they cannot, to hold an on-site inspection of the house where the abuse is suspected. In the death of a 2-year-old girl in Sapporo in June, however, it was found that the local child welfare center did not follow this rule. In that case, miscommunication and poor coordination between the welfare center and local police were exposed as one factor behind the failure to prevent the girl’s death.
In the Meguro Ward case, the victim’s 27-year-old mother, Yuri, who has been sentenced to eight years for her role in Yua’s death, had been subjected to persistent psychological abuse by her husband. The case led the government to take steps against spousal violence as a factor behind parental abuse of children. But in the death of a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, in January, officials were aware that the victim’s mother suffered from violence by her husband, but that information was not utilized in assessing the risk of the husband abusing the daughter.
Officials at child welfare centers across the country are indeed overstretched in dealing with the ever-growing numbers of suspected child abuse cases — which have multiplied in recent years to nearly 160,000 in fiscal 2018. To ease the manpower shortage, the government plans to increase the number of child welfare officers by 2,000 by 2020. However, concern lingers whether they can quickly acquire the expertise needed to deal with difficult situations surrounding families in which child abuse is suspected — which is deemed to require at least several years’ experience on the job. In the Noda case, poor judgment by welfare officials in assessing the risk facing the victim was blamed as one factor leading to her death.
Child welfare centers are given the power to place abused children in temporary protective custody and take other steps to separate them from abusive parents. However, there are no systems in place to get abusive parents to receive mandatory correctional programs or medical treatment to stop their abusive behavior, as is called for by some experts familiar with the issue. Efforts must be kept up to explore all possible means to save children from abuse by their parents.