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Editorial: More experts, including for parent education, needed to prevent child abuse

The government decided to implement emergency measures to prevent child abuse at a recent meeting of Cabinet ministers concerned. The decision was in response to the case of Yua Funato, a 5-year-old girl who died after her stepfather punched her and refused to provide her with proper food.

In fiscal 2015 alone, 52 children died due to abuse. Many of them, like Yua, could not be saved despite the involvement of child consultation centers, whose main task is to protect abused and neglected children. We must introduce fundamental measures to change this situation.

Yua was placed under protective custody twice by the local child consultation center in Kagawa Prefecture in western Japan, where she had lived until January of this year. Following her move to Tokyo and a notice from the Kagawa center, a case worker from an equivalent facility in the capital's Shinagawa Ward visited her home, but could not reach the girl.

It is not rare for abusive parents to move to other areas to avoid intervention by child consultation centers. The importance of cooperation among different local bodies, child consultation centers and local police departments has long been called for to prevent continued abuse. In the case of Yua, Kagawa child protection officials said they requested their Shinagawa counterparts take due care of the girl, as she was a "high priority case." The Shinagawa officials, however, denied that they had received such information.

The number of child abuse cases handled by some 210 child consultation centers nationwide topped 120,000 in fiscal 2016 -- more than tripling over the past decade. Both the central government and local governments have tried to increase the number of child welfare officers, but the number remained at around 3,000 in fiscal 2016. This is only a 50 percent increase from 10 years ago.

The central government plans to raise that number by 550 by fiscal 2019. These personnel increases, however, lag behind the spike in child abuse cases. The staff members involved are exhausted, and cannot respond properly to referrals from other local bodies.

The child consultation center in Kagawa returned Yua to her stepfather, although it had placed her under protective custody twice. It is understandable that the centers see importance in rebuilding family ties, but for such a move to be effective, abusive parents must also receive proper education and go through rehabilitation programs. Expert assistance must be extended continuously not only to children, but to the parents who cannot get rid of abusive habits -- especially after children are released from protective custody by consultation centers.

We need experienced case workers who can support such families, but 40 percent of the officials at child consultation centers are said to have less than three years on the job.

The current child protection system is not sufficient to counter the ever-increasing number of child abuse cases. We must expand it substantially and train expert case workers in order to bring about significant change.

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