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Japan gov't OKs plan to ban parents from physically punishing children

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government on Tuesday approved a plan to legally ban parents and other guardians from physically punishing children following fatal cases of abuse conducted in the name of disciplining them.

The government is aiming to pass a bill to revise the child abuse prevention law and related legislation during the ongoing parliamentary session and put most of the amended laws into force in April next year. There will be no penalties for offenders, however.

"It is the responsibility of all adults to protect the lives of children. We are going to powerfully and swiftly work (to take steps to prevent child abuse)," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a gathering prior to endorsing the bill at a Cabinet meeting.

Under the envisioned changes, parents, foster parents and welfare workers would be prohibited from physically punishing children as a means of discipline.

The current child abuse prevention law stipulates that assault and lewd acts constitute abuse. But when it comes to disciplining children, it only says people "shall give due consideration to appropriate exercise" of parental authority.

The planned amendment would also seek to strengthen the ability of child welfare centers to "intervene" in abuse cases by separating staff members in charge of taking children into protective custody from those dealing with their guardians.

Efforts to tackle child abuse through legal changes gathered momentum following the death in Tokyo's Meguro Ward last March of 5-year-old Yua Funato, who left desperate pleas for her parents to "forgive" her and stop mistreating her, as well as another high-profile abuse case confirmed in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, in January.

In the Noda case, 10-year-old Mia Kurihara was found dead at her home due to suspected physical abuse by her father Yuichiro, 41, which her mother Nagisa allegedly failed to stop.

In both cases, the parents, who were later arrested, did not recognize their behavior amounted to abuse. The child welfare centers temporarily put the children into protective custody, but failed to protect their lives in the face of the parents' rejection of their efforts to intervene.

The law revisions would also introduce confidentiality obligations to schools, education boards and child welfare centers after a copy of a note Mia wrote to alert her school about the abuse was passed on to her father by a local education board. The revelation that she had made such a plea is thought to have aggravated the father's violence.

The revisions also call for enhancing liaison with domestic violence consultation centers, as mothers are often subjected to violence in child abuse cases, and supporting the establishment of more child consultation centers in Tokyo's 23 wards and major cities in the five years after the revised laws take effect.

While the planned changes are welcomed by many experts as a first step forward in the fight against child abuse, some have also worried the abuses may shift from physical to psychological.

"There is not only an increase in the number of cases of physical abuse but also cases in which parents drive children to the edge psychologically," said Takayuki Suzuki, Toyo University professor on child welfare studies who used to work at a child consultation center.

"We have to prevent abuses from becoming insidious and invisible on the surface," Suzuki said, adding it is also crucial to create a community network of people watching over and helping each other so families do not get isolated.

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