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West Japan parents separated from baby for over 1 year due to unproven abuse claim

Parents embrace their son after he was returned to them following a year and three months in the custody of the city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, on Oct. 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Mino)

A child consultation center in the Hyogo Prefecture city of Akashi in western Japan will be inspected by the municipal government after it took a baby with a broken arm into temporary custody and kept him for over a year.

    The center had suspected the boy was abused by his mother, but a family court that handled the case did not acknowledge any such abuse or neglect. The case came to light amid growing calls for child consultation centers to take strict responses against child abuse.

    "Who in the world was the measure taken for? We can only assume that the center was being stubborn," said the parents of the boy, who was taken into custody two years ago when he was just 50 days old.

    It was in September 2018 that the life of the family in the city of Akashi -- consisting of a father in his 50s, a mother in her 40s and two boys -- was turned upside down. According to the parents and judicial records, the mother had taken their youngest son to her parents' house so they could babysit him while she went shopping when they told her that the baby's right arm felt "stiff." She took the boy to the hospital, and an X-ray taken "to make sure" revealed the boy's bones from the shoulder to the elbow were broken in a spiral shape. "I couldn't immediately think of a cause," the mother recalled.

    A mother embraces her son following his return from temporary custody after a year and three months, in the city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, on Oct. 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Mino)

    A week later, she found herself at the local child consultation center with her youngest after the center summoned her. She was repeatedly asked what caused his broken arm. She couldn't explain clearly, and a staff member told her, "We have taken the child in a separate room under temporary custody."

    For three days the mom frantically racked her brain, and remembered that when she was holding her youngest son a day before she took him to the hospital, his right arm had gotten stuck between the crib and her own body when the eldest -- aged 3 at the time -- lunged at her playfully. She thought that could be the cause, and explained to the center that she got out of balance and accidently put weight on the boy's arm when her eldest son lunged at her, but the center accused her of changing her story.

    Tetsuro Tsuzaki, the 76-year-old chairman of nonprofit organization "The Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect" who had worked for a long time at a child consultation center in the western Japan city of Osaka, explained, "Placing (the child) in temporary custody is inevitable." He added, "The view of (child) welfare is to prevent a recurrence, and regardless of whether it was done intentionally or whether it was an accident, it tends to be difficult to return a child under temporary custody if there is a risk."

    The mother has denied abuse, but is regretting the incident, saying, "A child's bone fracture is an accident that should never take place within the household."

    In response to a spate of fatal child abuse cases in recent years, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has sent a notice requiring child consultation centers and local governments across Japan to put a child under temporary custody without hesitation if there is a high risk of abuse. Temporary custody is a provisional measure that lasts for two months in principle, but if the facility providing custody obtains approval from a domestic court, it can continue to keep the child in custody.

    The youngest son had suffered a serious injury that took three months to recover, and the doctor submitted a written opinion stating that the fracture was due to child abuse. For this and other reasons, the consultation center deemed there was a need to keep the boy away from his parents. Based on the Child Welfare Act, it reported the case to the Kobe Family Court's Akashi branch, demanding that the boy be admitted to a facility.

    In this March 2019 file photo, the Akashi child consultation center is seen in in the city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture. (Mainichi/Toshihiro Hamamoto)

    When the boy was under temporary custody, his parents were allowed to meet him only once or twice a month.

    "He started to become afraid of strangers, and it was so painful it tore my heart out to see him cry when we visited him," said the infant's mother. According to the parents, when they begged the consultation center to increase the amount of times they could see their son, the center just responded, "It is our policy."

    The family court dismissed the case by the center in August 2019. It ruled that "there is nothing unnatural about the mother not being able to immediately explain the cause of the injury, as she had another son aged 3 and may have taken her eyes off the younger son at times." It also added, "There were no signs giving rise to suspicions of the mother having abused her child, and she did not provide a false explanation. The bone fracture is not due to abuse."

    The consultation center, dissatisfied with the ruling, filed an appeal with the Osaka High Court, but this was dismissed three months later. The youngest son was finally returned to his family after being kept a year and three months under temporary custody.

    The parents commented, "If we didn't fight the child consultation center in court, the amount of times we could have met our son might have increased, and we may have gotten our son back faster, but we were told that could only happen after admitting there was abuse.

    "It took months for our youngest son to call us mom and dad. It's not like the case ended just because we got our son back."

    A lawyer representing the parents pointed out that the incident "hindered a crucial period for the parents and baby to form a strong bond."

    Akashi Mayor Fusaho Izumi offered an apology to the parents in September this year, saying "the city government's response was problematic." He told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview, "We want to inspect areas for improvement with a third party, including the validity of temporary custody and securing opportunities for visitations, among other issues, and put this to use in the future."

    It is unclear, however, if the inspection will be fruitful. The Akashi Municipal Government established the child consultation center in April 2019, but up until that time the Hyogo Prefectural Government had jurisdiction. The prefectural government filed for the temporary custody of the boy and a court ruling, and this action was taken over by the Akashi government. But the Hyogo government hasn't shown any intention of conducting a probe.

    From April to July 2019, the health ministry checked 13,110 cases across Japan in which children placed under the temporary custody of child consultation centers had been returned to their families. It found that in about 16% of cases, the children had been held in custody for over two months, and in 29 cases they were kept for at least one year.

    Yasumi Tanabe, professor of child and family welfare at Sonoda Women's College in the Hyogo Prefecture city of Amagasaki, explained, "If children and their parents are separated excessively to prevent abuse, the right to secure exchange between children and their parents could be infringed." An expert panel established by the health ministry is currently reviewing the Child Welfare Act, and is discussing the system of temporary custody and the way to handle this.

    (Japanese original by Masahiro Mino, Kobe Bureau, and Toshihiro Hamamoto, Akashi Local Bureau)

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