"What hit me hardest is that we, the parents, can be so blind even when our own child is being sexually abused," the mother of a five-year-old victim said at a news conference.
When her daughter's nursery school was shut due to the coronavirus, the woman was forced to hire a babysitter. She said the 30-year-old man watched her daughter eight times between April and May.
The abuse is believed to have taken place on at least two occasions. According to police, the man has admitted to the crime, saying he could not control his feelings.
"I was under the impression that babysitters who registered on the company's app were very caring," the mother said. "It never occurred to me that they could be sex offenders."
Male sitters banned
The mother hired the babysitter through an app operated by placement agency Kidsline. The company offers 24-hour matching services and has become popular for its reasonable rates.
However, this incident is not the first time that a Kidsline babysitter has been charged with child sexual abuse. Just a few months earlier, a 29-year-old man was arrested for molesting at least two boys.
Since the latest case, Kidsline has decided to temporarily ban male sitters from its service. It explained in a statement that "experts have pointed out that child sexual crimes are more likely to be committed by men."
The company says it is also implementing a new measure to screen candidates: a personality test that aims to gauge their sense of responsibility and identify any potential violent tendencies.
But according to Fukui Hiroki, a psychiatrist who heads Sex Offenders Medical Center, Kidsline's decision to suspend male sitters will not solve the problem. He says the screening process is of fundamental importance, since people who have pedophilic tendencies are more likely to seek child-related work.
"Even though they may not start off with any intention to abuse the children, they may be unable to control their urges after a while," Fukui says.
But spotting a potential abuser isn't always easy. Yamada Fujiko, president of the nonprofit organization Child First Japan, says sexual predators are often friendly and charming toward parents.
"It's impossible to screen them based on appearance or behavior," Yamada says.
Calls for criminal background checks
Komazaki Hiroki, president of the nonprofit organization Florence, says Japanese law leaves companies particularly ill-equipped to screen for sexual predators.
"Employers in Japan have no effective way of checking an applicant's criminal record," Komazaki says. "The reoffender rate among child sexual abusers in Japan is 84.6%, and yet many of these people are able to get jobs at nurseries or educational institutions after enough time has passed."
Komazaki says that in Japan, a teacher who loses their license can apply for reinstatement after three years. Childcare workers can do the same after only two years.
"We need to create a childcare system that minimizes the risk to children," he says.
Komazaki suggests something similar to Britain's Disclosure and Barring Service, a system that provides certificates for people seeking to work with vulnerable groups, like children, that confirm they have never committed sexual abuse.
But Yamada says efforts to keep children safe cannot be focused entirely on the hiring side of the process; education is also crucial.
"Age-appropriate education for young children can be an effective tool for primary prevention and risk reduction against sexual violence," she says.
"It's not always easy for parents to teach their children about body safety, so realistically, group education at preschools or kindergartens will play an important role," she adds. "Starting at around three, children should be taught the importance of physical boundaries, letting them know there are body parts that strangers or even family members cannot freely touch. And when something they feel is uncomfortable happens either inside the house or outside, they must tell their parents or caregivers immediately."
Yamada says signs of abuse will not always be obvious to parents, so it is crucial that children are able to recognize them and feel comfortable about speaking out.
"Parents should let their kids know it's ok to speak up and make sure they know that by doing so, they aren't going to get in trouble," Yamada says. "Once is not enough; remind your children repeatedly so they can always be open about their experiences."
Yamada recommends that parents who find out their child has been abused avoid questioning them directly, and instead call the police or a child consultation center for professional help.
For now, the government advises parents to constantly check in with their babysitters by phone or email, and even install cameras so they can monitor their children. Meanwhile, officials say they plan to consult with experts on how to implement changes that will make childcare safer for families across the country.