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Only 30% of child centers in Japan have clearly defined sex-crime prevention rules: survey

The building in which the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is housed is pictured here in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

Only around 30% of local governments across Japan that have child consultation centers have clearly defined rules and guidelines to prevent inappropriate relationships between staff and children, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has found.

    There have been cases in which female junior high and high school students who have been temporarily placed under protection of child consultation centers have become the victim of sexual crimes at the hands of child consultation center staff, and experts are calling for the establishment of clear rules to maintain an appropriate distance between staff and children.

    The Mainichi survey was conducted between June and July this year, seeking responses from 74 local governments where child consultation centers are located. Of these, a total of 64 local bodies -- 43 prefectural governments, 16 government ordinance cities, one core city, and four wards in Tokyo -- responded, putting the response rate at 86%.

    According to the survey, 49 local governments, or nearly 80% of the 64 local bodies, stated that they had put in place rules and guidelines for the purpose of preventing staff and children from developing inappropriate relationships. But how child consultation center staff and others were made aware of the rules and guidelines varied, with only 19 local governments clearly stating them in manuals and other documents, and the remaining 30 saying they "informed staff verbally during training," among other methods. The 19 local governments that said they clearly outlined the rules in writing made up just 30% of 64 local governments that responded to the survey.

    The local governments that clearly defined rules and guidelines said they have taken measures such as incorporating into their manuals bans on individual contact between staff and children, bans on staff giving children their addresses, and a general rule that staff of the same sex as the children handle their cases.

    In March 2017, a part-time staff member working at the Sapporo Child Consultation Center was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for indecent assault after sexually abusing a boy he met at the child consultation center. In October 2019, a male child consultation center staff in the northeastern Japan city of Sendai was sentenced to three years in prison for indecent assault after he forced two girls who were under temporary protective custody of the center to touch his genitals, among other behavior.

    It emerged in the latest Mainichi survey that in the 10 years ending in 2020, there were five cases -- including the ones in Sapporo and Sendai -- in which local governments terminated child consultation center staff for sexual offenses. The staff had hugged or kissed children in overnight duty rooms or had taken them to their homes to have sex with them.

    In May this year, staff from a child consultation center in the east Japan city of Yokohama took a junior high school girl, and another staff member took a high school girl, both of whom they met when the girls were under temporary protective care of the center, to hotels, and committed indecent acts against them. One of the men was handed a summary order to pay a fine of 500,000 yen (approx. $4,350) for violating the Kanagawa prefectural juvenile protection ordinance, while the other was not indicted. Both men kept in touch with the girls through social media. In response to these cases, a rule was instituted in Yokohama so that if center staff receive messages from children via social media, they must report them to their superiors. Of the 49 local governments that said in the Mainichi survey that they had adopted rules and guidelines to prevent inappropriate relationships, 35 local governments did not permit child consultation center staff to stay in touch with children through social media and other methods.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which has jurisdiction over child consultation centers, entrusts whether to set up rules and their contents to local governments, taking the position that "the authority to train staff lies with the local governments that appointed the local government employees." Yukiko Yamawaki, who worked as a child psychologist at a child consultation center for 19 years, said, "To prevent incidents like the ones in Yokohama from happening, getting in contact via personal cell phones must be banned as a general rule, and rules should be made clear, such as not responding even if one receives a message from a child. That such behavior will ultimately protect the staff themselves must be taught."

    Meanwhile, Kaori Fujita, who serves as a part-time attorney for the Kanagawa Prefectural Chuo Child Consultation Center, said, "From the perspective of preventing sex crimes, it is safe to stipulate that staff do not make contact with children on a personal level. However, when children who have left child consultation centers cannot keep in touch with the centers, there is the problem of not being able to extend further assistance to them. There is a need for child consultation centers as a whole to take responsibility to continue offering assistance to children after they leave the centers."

    (Japanese original by Minhyang Hong, Yokohama Bureau)

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