Rethinking Child Protection
Feb. 2, 2017
Child guidance centers across Japan are handling more inquiries about child abuse than ever before.
In 2015, these centers handled more than 100,000 cases of abuse, the highest on record.
Until recently, they had often been reluctant to take young victims into protective custody.
But now, some of them are calling for change. A move is underway to reform the system and take a more proactive approach to protecting children.
One such center is in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan. More children are seeking its safety. Its number of consultations has doubled in 5 years.
A young victim of abuse arrives at the facility. The child has been physically abused by a parent for several years.
A doctor at the center does a check-up. She says the child was probably made to think it deserved the abuse. Photos of the wounds are taken.
The center keeps information on each case with details such as the kind of violence that was inflicted on the victim.
Mr. Suzuki was appointed head of the facility 2 years ago. He's been treating abused children for 30 years. He believes staff put too much emphasis on being on good terms with the parents. This ends up putting children at risk.
"Such hesitation can put a child's life in danger. I've actually seen many cases like this, and began thinking, things must change quickly," he says.
One case in particular still haunts Suzuki.
It was an incident in Ito City, Shizuoka Prefecture, where abuse led to the deaths of 2 children. Their father was arrested for suspected murder.
The oldest son had multiple skull fractures. The center took him into custody when the boy was abused for the fifth time. But he was sent back home after his parents demanded it. The boy died 2 months later at the age of 2.
The following year, the couple had a baby girl, and the center began receiving reports of the baby's injuries.
But the center hesitated to intervene. The baby girl died from her injuries when she was just 8 months old.
"We should never forget this incident. We should always keep it in our mind. I think it's very important to ensure that we protect the child's safety first," says Suzuki.
The center where Suzuki works takes in children without parental consent if it determines they are frequently abused.
On this day, the center receives a phone call from a school. It's calling about a student who sustained a facial injury.
The center instructs the school to keep the child there, as the parents may not allow center officials to see the child at home.
The staff member meets with the child. Despite no obvious physical injuries, he decides to take the child into custody without notifying the parents.
Later, the staff member meets with one of the parents in a room without the child.
He asks the parent why physical violence was necessary. The parent responds that the family is struggling economically, and the child wouldn't help out, so it was discipline.
The parent would not admit to abuse. The staff member told the parent that violence is illegal, even against one's own child.
After 2 hours of talking, the child's parent finally agrees to write an oath, pledging not to use violence again. The staff members agree to let the child go home. The parent is reminded that a much stronger approach will be taken if abuse happens again.
Suzuki says he is considering involving police in cases of prolonged abuse. But in a staff meeting, a worker voices concern that this kind of intervention could break up families.
"The parent expressed remorse. But Mr. Suzuki, you say you want to report the case to police. I'd like you to share with us how you came to that decision," says a staff member.
"Don't judge from words alone. I would judge from actions. What's the past behavior like? Tags help us visualize the past. They show us the history of abuse. Violence repeated this many times...we have to protect children who suffer this kind of abuse every day," responds Suzuki.
Suzuki listens to the staff's concerns, but decides to stick to his own approach.
The child's parent is arrested and charged with bodily injury after Suzuki and his team report it to police.
The parent is later released, but now lives separately from the child. The child has refused to live with the parent.
"If we just watch children grow up while letting abuse continue, does it benefit a child? Or should we intervene even if a family is at risk of breaking up? We always think of what would be best for the child," says Suzuki.
Japanese government officials are trying to set up more child guidance centers across the country and strengthen the support system. But until then, the child abuse hotlines are likely to keep ringing.