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Editorial: Child consultation centers need swift boost to battle abuse

Draft revisions to the Child Welfare Act and Child Abuse Prevention Act are being submitted to the Diet during the current regular session as measures to battle child abuse.

The legislation sets forth a ban on the physical punishment of children. Yet when it comes to improving the current situation in which the child consultation center system has been unable to keep up with the surge in child abuse cases, the draft revisions are insufficient. Questions remain as to whether consensus has been built within the government on the importance of countering child abuse.

A characteristic of Japan's child consultation centers is that a small number of workers have to handle a wide scope of tasks. The average population under the jurisdiction of each child consultation center is about 600,000 people -- much larger than the average for countries in Europe. The Kashiwa Child Consultation Center that has jurisdiction over the city of Noda, where a fourth-year elementary school student died this year in a high-profile abuse case, handles an area where over 1.3 million people live.

Prefectural governments and major cities designated by prefectural government ordinances in Japan are required to have child consultation centers. However, only two of the nation's core cities (with large populations of over 200,000 people) each have a center at present. This leaves large holes in the net catching child abuse cases, contributing to centers' inability to respond to an increase in abuse cases.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had planned to require child consultation centers to be placed in core cities and in each of Tokyo's 23 wards, but this proposal encountered local opposition. It was accordingly decided that the government would provide support so that centers could be set up in these areas around five years after the legislative revisions came into effect.

At the same time, the proposed revisions state that the government will establish new standards for setting up child consultation centers based on population and other factors by 2023. Officials must quickly proceed to establish a system allowing a fine-tuned response. Waiting four years to establish such standards is too long.

The government is also mulling making "child welfare officer," a title currently given to local body workers who fulfill certain conditions such as taking courses, a national qualification. Since child consultation center workers are dispatched under prefectural government personnel transfer rules for ordinary workers, they can often only remain at those centers for two to three years. It is said, however, that five to 10 years' experience in the field is needed to be able to respond to child abuse.

It is necessary to enable child welfare officers to remain at child consultation centers for long periods in a special category apart from ordinary workers by making their title a national qualification and having local bodies recognize that their jobs are specialist positions.

Also outlined in the proposed revisions is a division between the roles of separating children from their parents and of supporting the parents. It is hoped that children can be taken into protective custody before it is too late.

Last year police reported over 80,000 children to child consultation centers. A total of 1,394 of those children had been subjected to abuse (including 36 who died) -- about 20 percent more that during the previous year. It is necessary to dramatically expand the system and function of child consultation centers. The latest legal revisions should simply be regarded as the first step in that process.

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