JAPAN: New law may protect children from abusive parents

Summary: Japan’s revised Child Abuse Prevention Law, which will be passed in April 2011, aims to prioritise children’s welfare by restricting parental authority over the child in cases of domestic abuse.

[TOKYO, 27 January 2011] - For years, Toshikazu Takahashi, director of the sixty-year-old St. Francis Children’s Home child care facility, has grappled with the difficult issue of protecting battered children from their abusive parents.

"I was up against a deeply rooted Japanese family tradition - the belief that children belonged to their parents and were not individuals with their own rights that had to be respected. With this notion firmly entrenched in Japanese society, I was fighting a loosing battle," Takahashi explained to IPS.

Takahashi says that the local Child Welfare Law gives parents the sole authority over their children - even in the case of their involvement in abuse.

"The law represents the vulnerable position of children in modern Japanese society," he explained. He echoes common sentiments among social workers who report that they are helpless to protect children who are taken away from child care facilities by their violent parents who use the law to their advantage.

"The kids eyes are terrified when their parents come to take them back. We know they do not want to go back to their violent homes. But what can we do when the parents demand their release," said Takahashi. The Home has fifty children, almost all of them from abused homes.

The situation may soon change. With cases of child abuse now topping more than 35,000 annually and related deaths around 120, the Justice Ministry is now putting the finishing touches on a long-sought revision in the Child Abuse Prevention Law.

The new law, to be passed in April, will finally suspend parental authority for a period of two years in cases of domestic violence - allowing more time for children to be protected, say experts.

"It is true the current law can be ineffective sometimes in protecting children. The revision has now been formulated," said an official from the Justice Ministry who spoke to IPS under condition of anonymity.

The law according to Takahashi is a landmark in Japan’s slow progress toward accepting child rights as an official and social platform - child abuse was recognised as a social issue in 2000.

"The law will benefit children but not parents who will now have to prove to authorities they are capable of meeting the needs of their children," he said.

Takahashi - who has watched over hundreds of vulnerable youngsters who sought refuge at the Franciscan home since the early post-war years - explains that care was traditionally given to poverty-stricken war orphans who had lost their parents and had no one else to look after them.

But children in modern affluent Japan represent a starkly different picture. Surveys indicate parents tell police after their arrest that they are simply disciplining their offspring even after causing serious injury - often withholding food and leaving them alone for days.

Professor Kyoshi Miyajima, at the Japan College of Social Work, a former child counsellor, explains that while he welcomes the government’s steps towards revising the law, the push towards child rights in Japan must be taken slowly.

"In comparison to the West where individual rights are seeped into the national trait, Japan is still new to this thinking," he explained. "Pushing child rights too much could lead to the notion that the abuse is an individual problem rather than a social issue which needs to be addressed by everyone."

He says this is one of the main reasons why childcare workers are supportive of the two years that is the stipulated period during which parents must heed to the decisions of authorities. Social workers explain the two years must be used carefully to counsel parents to change their violent behaviour while state support continues for children in homes.

Sayuri Ichigatsu, who recently launched a project to celebrate the birthdays of abused girls who live in homes, says she hopes it’s time for the community to also be involved in the issue.

"My project has started to turn the public spotlight on children who are living longer in homes away from their families," she explained. "If they have to be cared for by strangers for longer periods, then there is a growing need for the community to be involved. The concept that children do not only belong to one family but are everyone’s treasure, has been long overlooked in Japan." 


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