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Editorial: Increase in child welfare center specialists not enough to curb abuse

Following the high-profile case of a 5-year-old girl dying in Tokyo's Meguro Ward of malnutrition and her parents being indicted for their involvement, the government has released an emergency plan for measures to curb child abuse.

At the heart of the new policies is increasing the number of certified child welfare experts working at consultation centers around the country by roughly 2,000 by the 2022 fiscal year and adding forcible home inspections in cases where the welfare of a child cannot be confirmed to the rule book.

Strengthening Japan's child welfare consultation center system is an urgent task. Over the last 10 years, child abuse cases handled by the facilities have increased 3.3 fold, but personnel have only increased by roughly 1.5 times.

A government plan released in 2016 promised to increase the number of child welfare specialists that staff child centers by 550 by fiscal 2019, but the plan was redrawn to aim for a personnel boost of some 2,000 experts by fiscal 2022. Currently, there are roughly 3,200 certified child welfare caseworkers in Japan, so the increase is quite the undertaking.

The specialty is not a government certification, but one that can be endowed by municipal governments on individuals holding certified social worker qualifications, those who studied sociology or psychology at university level and other experts on child welfare.

There are many cases in which parents or guardians deny that abuse is taking place and the centers are unable to confirm the whereabouts or safety of the child. This is not an issue that can be adequately handled with a simple certification. Even now, many staff members on the ground working at child welfare consultation centers are said to be lacking experience. The main issue is actually how to go about raising staff proficiency in handling these often complicated situations.

Even when centers take children being abused by their parents into protective custody, the traditional idea that the end goal is to restore the relationship between parent and child is still deeply engrained among these child welfare experts. Forced home inspections by centers are currently permitted under the law, but there is not much history of them actually taking place. Instead, an emphasis on the idea of rebuilding parent-child relationships has actually strengthened the trend of not taking children into custody.

It is extremely important that the new government measures included "home inspections to be conducted in principle when the safety of a child cannot be confirmed." In order to increase the effectiveness of the child welfare system, it is necessary for each facility to have teams to perform the opposing but dual functions of child welfare consultation centers -- "protecting the safety of children even against the wishes of their guardians" and "building a relationship with parents and guardians." In order to do this, strengthening ties with local police should be considered.

What is also included in the government proposal is to gather information about children who have not undergone infant medical checkups or are not attending day care centers or kindergartens by the end of this September, and take the steps necessary to provide support to these children.

There is no easy solution to child abuse. The only thing that can be done is to have the central and local governments join together and concentrate their strength into areas that require improvement and make those changes a reality.

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