Surge in child abuse cases shows risk of pandemic-related isolation

The coronavirus pandemic has cast its shadow even over married couples and parent-child relationships. Central and local government support is necessary so that families with children are not isolated from society.

Child abuse cases handled by child consultation centers nationwide in fiscal 2020 numbered a record 205,029. The figure was up by more than 10,000 from the previous fiscal year, exceeding 200,000 for the first time since the tallying started in fiscal 1990.

About half of the cases were reported via police and other organizations. Increased public awareness of child abuse is thought to be behind such reports, as neighbors have become more likely to pay attention to children and notice when there is something unusual.

Psychological abuse, such as parents using violence against their spouses in front of children, accounted for 60% of the cases. As parents spend more time at home amid the pandemic, often under conditions of stress and financial difficulty, there is a growing risk of family conflict.

In some cases, children become the target of violence, triggered by parents being violent against their spouses. With more nuclear households, some couples may find it difficult to decide whom to talk to about issues regarding child-rearing. It is important to establish a consultation system so that parents can talk about their concerns before the situation becomes serious.

In some areas, around-the-clock consultation services, via phone and social media, have been introduced. The central and local governments should further expand such services, while making them widely known to residents.

Quite a few child abuse cases are related to children’s developmental disorders or parents’ marital problems, such as divorce and separation. While children are taken care of by child consultation center officials, some local governments involve representatives of private support groups for domestic violence victims when interviewing parents.

It is necessary for the public and private sectors to work closely together to attend carefully to child abuse cases, which often occur amid complicated circumstances, with each organization utilizing its own expertise.

Children’s centers and childcare support centers in various parts of the country have been forced to close or shorten their operating hours due to the pandemic. When schools closed last spring, some children were abused by their parents while stuck at home with nowhere else to go.

With the fifth wave of coronavirus infections, some municipalities have decided to extend their schools’ summer vacation periods. It is hoped that such municipalities will take necessary measures so no children will be left with nowhere to go for refuge when in trouble.

Strengthening the readiness of child consultation centers is also imperative.

The government is moving forward with its plan of increasing the number of child welfare officers, who are specialized personnel at child consultation centers, to about 5,200 by March next year. However, the fast-growing number of child abuse cases is outrunning what can be handled with the increased number of staff.

Many child welfare officers in the field have less than three years of experience, which highlights the need to nurture experienced staffers.

The government may need to review its plan to increase the number of child welfare officers and also consider improving the training and working conditions of such personnel.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 31, 2021.