The ever-growing number of child abuse cases — in sharp contrast to many other criminal offenses whose numbers have come down to postwar lows — testifies to the seriousness of the problem despite a series of measures taken over the years to stop the horrific abuse of children. A series of fatal cases that took place over the past few years shows how lack of proper communication and coordination among relevant authorities and poor judgment on the part of child welfare officials continue to fail to save the lives of children who could have been helped. It is imperative that all parties involved in combating the problem place utmost priority on the safety and welfare of the abused children.

The latest edition of the Justice Ministry’s white paper on crimes looks back on the criminal trend over the past 30 years of the Heisei Era (1989 to 2019). The overall number of Penal Code offenses handled annually by police nationwide hit a postwar peak of 2.85 million in 2002, but has since kept falling, to a postwar low of 810,000 in 2018. Likewise, the number of murder cases, which topped 1,400 in 2003, declined to 895 last year — the lowest on record since the end of World War II.

In contrast, the number of cases in which the police launched criminal proceedings over child abuse rose by more than six-fold from 212 in 2003 to 1,380 in 2018. Similarly, the number of domestic violence crimes — which is closely linked to child abuse since men who behave violently to their spouses or partners tend to abuse their children, and women suffering from the violence of husbands or boyfriends often fail to stop or even join in the abuse of their children — rose from 689 in 1989 to 8,299 last year.

The government has taken steps to fight child abuse. In 2000, a law was enacted to prevent child abuse that was aimed at exposing and stopping abuse of children at an early stage. Four years later, the legislation and the law on child welfare were amended to expand the obligation on the part of citizens to report cases to the authorities when they suspect child abuse was taking place. In fact, the number of suspected child abuse cases reported to child welfare centers across the country hit a record 159,850 in fiscal 2018 — double the figure five years earlier.

But as more and more cases of child abuse have been recognized and acted on, the workload on officials at child welfare centers has continued to mount, leaving them overstretched.

In light of the recent high-profile cases of fatal child abuse, the government has embarked on beefing up the manpower at child welfare centers, increasing the number of child welfare officers, experts trained to handle abuse cases and both support the abused children and deal with their abusive parents, by 2,000 by 2022. But since it’s said to take at least several years for such officers to gain enough experience on the job to be able to make proper judgments on difficult cases, the manpower shortage is not expected to be resolved anytime soon.

Measures to combat child abuse have been tightened over the years. An amendment in 2007 strengthened the power of child welfare officials, enabling them to override parents’ objections to hold an on-site inspection at homes where child abuse is suspected.

Following the tragic deaths of an abused 5-year-old girl in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward last year and a 10-year-old girl in Noda, Chiba Prefecture in January, the government introduced a set of emergency measures, such as giving more powers to workers at child welfare centers and requiring the officials to confirm the safety of children within 48 hours after their suspected abuse has been reported.

But the scrutiny and review of the recent fatal abuse cases pointed to poor communication and cooperation among relevant authorities such as child welfare centers, the local police and municipalities, as well as problematic judgments on the part of child welfare officials on the risk to the lives of abused children, raising doubts as to whether the measures introduced so far are adequately enforced to protect the children being abused.

Before the January death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara, who was subjected to repeated violence by her father, the victim had sought help through a questionnaire handed out to students at her school. She was also once taken into protective custody by the local child welfare center, but the measure was shortly lifted on the condition that she would live with her grandparents. A review by Chiba’s prefectural government of the response to her case concluded that an insufficient assessment of the risk of abuse against the victim eventually led to her tragic death. A lack of adequate consideration for the girl’s safety led to a chain of errors by the officials involved, as they failed to save a life that could have been saved. Such mistakes must not be repeated.

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