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Educators' failure to seek help over intimidating father in abuse case raises questions

Investigators from Chiba Prefectural Police search an apartment building where Mia Kurihara was found dead, in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, on Jan. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Mayumi Nobuta)

TOKYO -- Questions are being raised over why an education board in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo failed to seek advice from lawyers or cooperation from police when dealing with the intimidating father of a girl who died after being abused by him.

Mia Kurihara, 10, was found dead on Jan. 24 after alleged parental abuse at her home in the prefectural city of Noda, according to people close to the investigation. Her father, 41-year-old Yuichiro Kurihara, and her 31-year-old mother Nagisa are under arrest on suspicion of inflicting injuries on the girl.

Before Mia's death, a member of the Noda Municipal Board of Education handed over a copy of a school questionnaire on bullying -- in which Mia had complained about the alleged abuse -- to her father after he pressed the worker to do so.

"We were overwhelmed by the father who with composure persistently questioned us, and ended up getting talked into (handing over the information). We should've consulted a lawyer," the official said.

The welfare ministry and the education ministry are considering measures to prevent a recurrence, while Chiba Prefectural Police served a fresh arrest warrant to the father on Feb. 14 over a separate incident in which he allegedly inflicted bodily injury on his daughter, and are trying to get to the bottom of the incident.

In January 2018, Yuichiro Kurihara visited the principal's office at the municipal elementary school in Noda where Mia was enrolled. He placed a voice recorder on the table and urged the principal and an education board official to hand over a copy of the questionnaire.

"Do you understand the feelings of people who have had a family member taken away from them?" he asked. He then threatened to take legal action.

The official refused to hand over a copy of the questionnaire saying they "couldn't comply without her consent."

The suspect then visited the board of education three days later with a "letter of consent" with Mia's signature.

An official who responded to Yuichiro clearly remembers the suspect's sharp eyes. While talking politely in a low-pitched tone, he coercively urged the board to hand over a copy of the questionnaire.

He glared at the board official's name plate, and, using their name, said, "Do you mean that the other education board official (at the school), who said, 'We can't comply without her consent,' told a lie?" The official bowed to Yuichiro's pressure and ended up handing over a copy of the questionnaire.

The board never thought about consulting a lawyer, and officials did not think they needed to report the case to police because there was no violence.

The suspect then met with the Kashiwa child consultation center that had placed Mia under protective custody. The meeting took place at the home of Mia's relatives where she was staying after being released from protective custody.

In a threatening tone, he stated, "I'll file a defamation suit against individual officials if they disturb my family any further."

The center failed to consult with a lawyer posted to the facility on a part-time basis or any prefectural government lawyers serving as legal advisers when responding to child abuse cases.

One lawyer who serves as a legal adviser says many parents complain when their children are taken away by child consultation centers. Child consultation centers can consider extending the period of protective custody of children if their parents are abusive. However, the lawyer points out that it is extremely difficult to deal with parents who are calm with center officials yet uncooperative, just like Yuichiro was.

"There are structural problems with the role of child consultation centers, which must intervene in families to protect the safety of children and nurture mutual trust with parents," the lawyer said.

-- Close cooperation between relevant bodies needed to protect abuse victims

The national government worked out emergency comprehensive countermeasures against child abuse in July 2018 following a separate case in which 5-year-old Yua Funato of Tokyo's Meguro Ward was fatally abused by her parents. The countermeasures require child consultation staffers to ask police for help if parents who are allegedly abusing their children refuse to meet them or intimidate them.

According to the National Police Agency, the number of cases in which police have been asked by child consultation centers for assistance has been increasing since the countermeasures were announced.

The Child Welfare Act authorizes child consultation centers to place children under temporary protective custody and inspect homes of alleged child abuse victims regardless of the will of their parents. Moreover, such centers are empowered to ban parents from meeting their children or limiting their communications with them.

There are many cases where those who abuse their children repeatedly move from one home to another to cover up their abuse.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is seeking revisions to the Child Welfare Act to make it obligatory to assign lawyers to child consultation centers to help center officials to take resolute action against abusive parents.

As parents who abuse their children tend to be confrontational in their interactions with child consultation centers, Okinawa University professor Ryoichi Yamano, who previously worked as a child welfare officer, pointed to the need for family courts to intervene in the process of placing children under protective custody.

"The system should be reformed to require approval from a family court shortly after placing child abuse victims under temporary protective custody," he said.

(Japanese original by Buntaro Saito, Yuki Machino and Shohei Kato, Chiba Bureau; Toshiaki Uchihashi and Hiroshi Endo, City News Department; and Ai Yokota, Medical Welfare News Department)

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