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Mother of baby who died in day care: Prioritize quality, not quantity, of care facilities

Kento's mother strokes a photo of her deceased son. He had started walking just before entering the child care facility, and had never gotten a chance to wear the shoes (seen in the foreground) that she had bought for him. (Mainichi)

The mother of a baby who died while napping at an unlicensed day care center in Tokyo's Chuo Ward in March this year attended a metropolitan investigative committee meeting on June 29, calling for changes to Japan's day care system.

    "The day care center was staffed entirely by young people, and safety management was problematic," said the 38-year-old woman of the facility where her 14-month-old son Kento died.

    The government has said that it plans to set up some 50,000 corporate day care facilities within the next two years, but given the lack of qualified child minders, simply increasing the number of day care centers portends inherent risks.

    In an effort to prevent serious accidents from reoccurring at child care facilities, it became obligatory this fiscal year for local governments to make efforts to undertake third-party investigations in cases where such incidents have taken place.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government set up an investigatory committee in May, and officials met with Kento's parents on June 29 to hear their views.

    The couple began sending Kento to the day care center -- Kids Square Nihonbashi Muromachi -- this year in mid-February. Although Kento's mother's year-and-a-half childcare leave period was due to expire in May, there was no hope for being able to send him to the licensed daycare facility located in the family's neighborhood, due to its long waiting list.

    When a single spot opened up in a corporate day care facility located near Kento's mother's company, then, they decided to take it.

    Kento's death occurred less than one month later. According to metropolitan government officials, the boy took his naps alone in a separate room since he had not yet become accustomed to the group child care environment. The child care staff worker had placed him down on his stomach, rubbed his back, and left the room after determining that he had fallen asleep.

    When staff went to check on Kento after finding it strange that he had not awoken more than two hours later, it was discovered that he was still on his stomach, and was not breathing.

    According to figures compiled by the Cabinet Office, a total of 14 deaths occurred at child care facilities across the country last year, among which 10 took place at unlicensed facilities including those run on company premises.

    The largest number of these deaths -- a total of 10 -- occurred during sleep, among which six involved the youngsters having been placed face down.

    According to Kento's mother, his breathing and facial color had not been checked to make sure that he would not suffocate. A staff member at the facility apparently told her, "We were not sufficiently educated on this matter, and the attitude of the staff on duty was lax."

    The facility in question was opened in 2011 by Kyoto-based Alpha Corp., which also runs a day care facility located within the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. At that time, a total of 20 youngsters from birth through age 4 were looked after by four child care providers, including the head of the facility, in addition to two unlicensed part-time workers.

    While the number of child minders exceeded the required standards, the director only had one year and three months' experience in the field, while all of the other employees were young people with experience ranging from one to four years.

    Following Kento's death, an individual working in the child care sector commented, "The company had a good track record, so it was surprising to learn that it had not implemented even basic-level safety management."

    Another individual working in the field noted, meanwhile, "If the capacity of daycare facilities is increased within a short period of time, it makes sense that it would become difficult to assign experienced workers to more and more facilities."

    Kento's mother is not against the idea of corporations providing day care facilities for employees.

    "If there are not enough available spaces in child care facilities, the length of child care leave should be extended," she noted after providing an official statement regarding her son's death. "The problem that needs to be addressed here is the inconsistency whereby people are left with no option other than putting their infants aged below 1 into child care."

    In a bid to address the problem of long waiting lists for children needing care, the government is pushing to increase child care facilities that are run by companies.

    New corporate child care frameworks have begun to be implemented this fiscal year, and assistance to companies for this purpose has increased significantly. Because local governments have mostly been left out of such initiatives, however, facilities have largely gone uninspected.

    While licensed child care centers are subject to dual investigations by both the municipal and prefectural governments when they first open, corporate child care facilities need only to submit documentation to the Foundation for Child Well-being. If this is approved, they must then subsequently register with the local prefectural government office. In addition, only half of all staff persons are required to be licensed child care providers.

    In the case of supervisors, both municipal and prefectural governments are authorized to undertake on-site inspections on licensed daycare facilities -- but in the case of company-run child care centers, inspections are carried out only by the prefectural government.

    There are some 1,000 unlicensed child care centers in the Tokyo metropolitan area, with inspections able to be undertaken for only around 150 such facilities per year. A metropolitan official noted, "Corporations run these facilities upon the premise of safety management, so they are low on the priority list (for inspections)."

    Awareness can be low on the part of companies that operate child care institutions, however.

    "It is the personnel department overseeing family benefits that communicates with the operators," commented a public relations representative for the company that contracted with the facility where Kento died. "And because they are not professionals in the area of child care, monitoring is a challenge."

    In other words, safety management is left up to the facilities themselves.

    "The system whereby new operators are able to guarantee the quality of child care is extremely fragile," comments Aki Fukoin, who heads a group called Parents Concerned with Nursery Schools. "And if this does not change, it is possible that accidents will continue to occur."

    Fukoin continued, "Regulations need to be put into place to clarify who is intervening in what way -- and what countermeasures are in place -- in cases where parents and companies have concerns with regard to child care."

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