KAGOSHIMA -- It has emerged that child protection services did not follow up on commitments to take a 4-year-old girl who later died from suspected abuse into temporary care, despite multiple recorded instances of her being spotted alone outside her home at night.
Riara Otsuka died under the care of her mother and her boyfriend while a resident in the city of Izumi, Kagoshima Prefecture, southwest Japan. The man has been arrested on suspicion of assaulting the child. In March and April, she was repeatedly seen left outside of her home at night. The sightings led child consultation center officials to warn her mother that they would take Riara into temporary care next time it happened.
But it was revealed on Sept. 4 that despite the incidents continuing after her mother was cautioned by child consultation services, Riara was not taken into care.
The failure to do so has exposed differences in the Kagoshima Prefectural Police and child consultation centers' custodial response, as well as the inadequate cooperation between institutions related to the case.
On the same day, Shiro Sata, head of the central prefectural child consultation center, held a press conference. In response to criticism that the center had been slow to act and hadn't sufficiently communicated with the municipal government over suspicion that Riara was being abused, Sata acknowledged for the first time that its contact with authorities was inadequate.
At the conference, Sata outlined a total of four incidents in which Riara was seen outside alone at night in the nearby city of Satsumasendai, where she and her mother were living until July. They took place on March 21, 28 and 29, and on April 2. In each instance police received a report, and a member of Satsumasendai Police Station took her into protective custody.
After the first and third incidents of Riara being found loitering outside, child consultation services received a notice to consider taking her into temporary custody.
The day after the third case, on March 30, they carried out a face-to-face interview with Riara's mother, in which she was told that if her daughter was found outside again she would be put under temporary care.
But when Riara was spotted outside again on April 2, three days later, child consultation did not follow through. The next day, another meeting with her mother was held. But according to Sata, they couldn't remove her from her home, and only went as far as issuing another warning to take her into care next time something happened.
Regarding the fourth sighting, Sata said the information they received from police indicated the chances of it being Riara were high, and that they were investigating taking her into temporary custody as a case of neglect under rules specified by the Child Welfare Act.
However, Sata explained that it hadn't gone to plan, saying, "Riara wouldn't speak to the police officer who took her into custody, so they could not confirm her identity. During that time her mother came to collect her, and she ended up being returned to her."
The prefectural police's juvenile division issued a conflicting account of events, stating, "Because it was thought that the child was Riara, we asked if the child consultation center would take her into temporary care. But the center responded, 'If there is a possibility the child is Riara, then please return her to her mother.'"
The child consultation center also acknowledged that due to its vague stance on the issue, its plan to put the child into temporary care didn't get across to police.
When the hospital that received Riara informed the Izumi Municipal Government that her body was bruised, that information was not passed on to child consultation services.
Despite receiving information about a video reportedly showing that a man could be abusing Riara, neither local government attempted to confirm if a father was present, even though Satsumasendai's administration knew her mother was pregnant with a second child, and the Izumi government had received her details upon the family moving to the city.
At the press conference, Sata acknowledged that they had acted inadequately by entrusting a response to the issue to municipal governments, saying, "Child consultation services should have tried to confirm (if a father was present), given the level of information we had about their change of residence and her pregnancy."
Timeline of sightings of Riara being left outside in March and April
March 21 -- First sighting. Riara found walking around at night. She is taken into custody by staff from the Kagoshima Prefectural Police's Satsumasendai Police Station. A notice to try to put her under temporary care is sent to the prefectural central child consultation center.
March 28 -- Second sighting. Riara taken into custody by staff from Satsumasendai Police Station.
March 29 -- Third sighting. Riara taken into custody by staff from Satsumasendai Police Station. Another notice sent to the child consultation center.
March 30 -- The child consultation center holds a meeting with Riara's mother where it tells her that if Riara is found outside again, they will put her into temporary care.
April 2 -- Fourth sighting. Child consultation services consider putting Riara in temporary care but this didn't get across to prefectural police. Police return Riara to her mother when she comes to collect her. She is not placed in temporary care.
April 3 -- Child consultation services repeat their warning to Riara's mother that they will put her daughter into temporary care if she is found outside again.
(Japanese original by Masaya Matsuo, Soichiro Hayashi, Kagoshima Bureau, and Hideho Furihata, Satsumasendai Local Bureau)