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Gov't faces tough task in improving child protection steps as abuse reports rise

Nihei Hitoshi, right, head of the Kashiwa child consultation center, speaks at a news conference at the Chiba Prefectural Government headquarters in Chuo Ward, Chiba, on Feb. 5, 2019. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- As the number of reported child abuse cases continues to grow, cases of mishandling, misjudgment and insufficient coordination among officials tasked with child protection are also emerging.

Some experts worry that the government's plan of beefing up the number of child welfare officers will only end up increasing the number of inexperienced people who cannot do the job properly.

The high-profile case of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara, who died after alleged abuse by her father in the city of Noda in Chiba Prefecture in late January, followed a similar incident in the same prefecture east of Tokyo in 2014, but lessons learned from that case were not utilized.

In the 2014 case, an 8-month-old boy was fatally abused by his father in the city of Ichihara in Chiba Prefecture shortly after being released from protective custody by the Chiba child counseling center. This case's review panel set up by the prefectural government proposed in its June 2018 report that the mother should have been interviewed more carefully and separately from the father as she also faced abuse from the husband.

This proposal, however, was not applied to Mia, although her mother, Nagisa, had told Kashiwa child consultation center officials when her daughter was placed under protective custody at the center from November through December 2017 that she was suffering from domestic violence by her husband. The center lifted the protection measure in December that year and returned the girl to her parents in March 2018, without confirming if Nagisa, now 31, was still subject to violence. Center officials never visited Mia at home or interviewed the 41-year-old father, Yuichiro, thereafter. Both Yuichiro and Nagisa were arrested for allegedly causing injuries to the daughter, who was found dead at her home on Jan. 24 this year.

A Chiba prefectural official in charge of child abuse prevention, Yoko Shiseki, says that the panel proposal was about the single case in Ichihara, and "Just one incident cannot be applied to every other case."

According to the National Police Agency, in 2018 police across the nation referred 80,104 children to child consultation centers, renewing the past record for the 14th consecutive year. A similar trend is continuing around the Kashiwa center, which is responsible for northwestern Chiba. The center responded to 1,742 abuse cases in fiscal 2017, marking straight annual increases since fiscal 2009.

Shiseki says that the lack of human resources is "serious." A senior child guidance center official echoed her sentiment, saying, "The frontline workers are really stretched thin as multiple fresh reports pour in every day. People cannot deal with each case carefully."

The government plans to increase child welfare officers to 5,260 by fiscal 2022, accelerating the process and increasing the total number in response to the fatal abuse of 5-year-old Yua Funato in March last year in Tokyo's Meguro Ward. But securing experts with necessary experience is a big challenge. While five to 10 years of on the job training is said to be necessary, more than 60 percent of such workers have less than five years of experience. At the Kashiwa consultation center, the average work experience there was just 4.1 years as of April 2018.

Experts have pointed out that increasing the number of child welfare officers may mean a lower quality of service. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry panel proposed in late 2018 that a nationally certificated "supervisor" position overseeing welfare officers be created, but even a senior ministry official admits that improving the quality of workers "cannot be done overnight."

--- Improving information-sharing a challenge

The government on Feb. 8 introduced a number of additional child protection measures, but similar steps have been discussed time and again. Last summer, the government decided a package of "comprehensive emergency measures" in which schools were advised to make sure to report the situations of children facing high risks of abuse to a council of relevant bodies such as child consultation centers, schools, education boards and police. Mia's case was reported to the local council, but coordination after that was apparently insufficient.

The government countermeasure package last summer required that child consultation centers and the police share information about children when center officials cannot see them within 48 hours of receiving abuse reports from the police. But some prefectures are taking further countermeasures. In Ibaraki and Saitama in eastern Japan, Aichi in central Japan and Osaka in the west, all suspected abuse cases are shared between child consultation centers and prefectural police departments. Saitama will connect seven child consultation centers with 39 police stations online so that they can share information about high-risk children in real time.

Associate professor Taishi Arimura of the Japan College of Social Work, a specialist in child welfare, says that it is important to improve the quality of information-sharing. "Consultation centers and schools sometimes differ in their assessments of risks faced by children. They should discuss in advance at which phase they will place children under temporary protective custody or provide support to parents."

(Japanese original by Yuki Machino and Buntaro Saito, Chiba Bureau; Ai Yokota, Eriko Horii and Go Kumagai, Medical Welfare News Department; and Koichi Uchida, Saitama Bureau)

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