Recent data showing that reported incidents of child abuse nationwide hit a record 103,260 cases in fiscal 2015, up 16 percent from the previous year and topping the 100,000 mark for the first time, remind us once again of the urgent need for greater efforts to protect the youngest members of our society. The government plans to improve the manpower and functions of child consultation centers to help them better handle child abuse cases and prevent tragedies.
What is also needed will be efforts to root out the causes that lie behind child abuse in this society.
The rise in the number of abuse cases handled by child consultation centers is alarming — around 1,100 cases in fiscal 1990, topping 10,000 by the end of the 1990s and shooting above 50,000 in fiscal 2010. The sharp increase in the numbers is partly explained by the fact that more cases are being exposed as social awareness of the problem grows, especially after the 2000 law aimed at preventing child abuse made it mandatory for people to notify authorities of abuse, including suspected cases.
Officials also note that police are reporting more cases of psychological abuse, including children suffering from shock after witnessing violence by one of their parents against the other. Nearly half of the reported cases in fiscal 2015 involved psychological abuse of children.
It seems obvious there is a shortage of experts equipped to handle the problem. While cases handled by child consultation centers rose 7.6 times in the 15 years to fiscal 2014, the number of child welfare officers — trained experts tasked with visiting homes where abuse is suspected, checking on the safety of children in these households, talking to the parents and taking the kids into protective custody if deemed necessary — increased by just 2.3 times over the same period to 2,900 nationwide.
Many of the abuse cases that resulted in the death of children took place even though the centers had been alerted and experts were trying to deal with the situation. Each of the child welfare officers who handled the 36 fatal abuse cases in fiscal 2013 was found to have been put in charge of an average of 109 child abuse cases within a single year.
Following an amendment to the child welfare law in May, the government spelled out measures to improve staffing levels at roughly 200 child consultation centers nationwide, setting a target of deploying 550 more child welfare officers by fiscal 2019. Details are still pending on how to recruit a sufficient number of trained experts in the face of the tough workload at such facilities.
Along with beefing up the manpower at child consultation centers, the functions of such facilities in handling child abuse also must be reviewed. One factor requiring scrutiny is how the centers are tasked with handling both emergency protection of abused children and support for the families of the abused kids. There have been reports of situations where officials who exercised their power to place abused children in protective custody at emergency shelters — overriding the objections of their parents — were unable to establish trusting relationships with the parents in their efforts to rebuild family ties in these households.
There have also been reports that child welfare officials often hesitate to take prompt action when the parents deny abusing their children and refuse to cooperate with the protection process. Some cases eventually resulted in fatalities among the children concerned.
The death of a 14-year-old boy in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in late February, illustrates the problem. He had been comatose since attempting suicide 15 months earlier after seeking and being denied protective custody by the local child consultation center. In a report compiled this month, the municipal government said that support provided by the consultation center to the boy’s family relied too much on the parents’ account of the situation despite repeated signs that the boy was being abused.
A report issued by a welfare ministry panel of experts in March cited an opinion calling for separating the two main functions of the child consultation centers, but the government has not come to a conclusion on the matter. It will be important to streamline the jobs of such centers — such as by reorganizing their roles in cooperation with municipal governments — so they can most effectively perform their expert duties despite the constraints of limited manpower.
Along with strengthening the system for protecting abused children, efforts to tackle the root causes of child abuse will also be crucial. Experts highlight the growing problem of poverty and the financial disparity between rich and poor as factors that lead to child abuse, along with an increase in households that become socially isolated from the surrounding community — in which parents with nobody to turn to for advice when they face problems in raising their children sometimes resort to abuse. The government should realize that part of the solution to child abuse lies in addressing the nation’s broader welfare problems.