Authorities must do more to protect young children from fatal abuse

Another unbearably grievous incident has occurred. Relevant organizations must examine the case and devise ways to protect young lives, seriously considering what could have been done to prevent this tragedy from happening.

A 3-year-old boy died after extremely hot water was poured onto him in Settsu, Osaka Prefecture, and the police have arrested the mother’s boyfriend on suspicion of murder. The boy had the hot water poured onto him for more than five minutes and was then left for several hours, according to investigative sources.

It is agonizing to think of the boy, who could not escape and had no alternative but to let the man continue to pour hot water on him.

The man has reportedly denied the allegations, saying that he was playing with the boy with 60 C water. If he actually means what he is saying, it is utterly appalling.

The mother and the boy moved to Settsu in 2018, and started living with the man in May this year in the apartment where the incident occurred.

The mother consulted with the city government at one point, saying the man had hit the boy. An acquaintance of the mother also notified the municipal authorities, saying, “The boy will be killed.” However, when the city government conducted an inquiry, the mother said her boyfriend was being nice and the boy liked him, leading the city to conclude that the abuse had ended.

It has to be asked whether the mother, who was aware of the man’s violence toward her son, could have protected him. Society as a whole needs to reflect on the fact that children’s lives are treated lightly. It is hoped that the police will ascertain the details of the incident, including the family environment and how the abuse had happened.

City government officials had met with the mother 91 times, and visited their home on 38 occasions. However, they interviewed the man only once, failing to acknowledge that he was living with the mother and her son. It has to be said that there was a problem with the city government’s lenient handling of the case.

The Osaka prefectural government has a system to share with police all information related to child abuse collected by child consultation centers. However, in the latest case, relevant information was held only by the Settsu city government and the child consultation center, and did not reach the police. If the police have been notified and the sense of crisis shared, it might have led to the child consultation center taking the boy into protective custody or the police intervening in the matter.

There have been other cases in which children were fatally abused, including incidents in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, and Noda, Chiba Prefecture. Every time such an incident comes to light, questions are raised over mishandling by administrative bodies. The Osaka prefectural government plans to have outside experts examine the latest case. It is imperative that its lessons be put to good use in the future.

Cases of child abuse have been increasing, with the number of cases handled by child consultation centers nationwide exceeding 200,000 in fiscal 2020. As people spend more time at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, there also is a growing risk of family conflict.

Child consultation center officials, who play a central role on the front line of child abuse cases, are becoming exhausted. An increasing number of officials have limited experience. The government must work to strengthen the relevant systems and improve training programs for related personnel so that signs of danger will not be missed.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 28, 2021.