Child abuse cases exposed at nursery schools ‘just the tip of the iceberg’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sakura nursery school, a certified day nursery in Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture, where three former childcare workers were arrested on suspicion of committing violence against children.

Three former childcare workers at a certified nursery school in Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture, were arrested on suspicion of employing violence against nursery school children. Similar incidents have also been uncovered one after another in other municipalities, and anxiety is spreading among parents. What is going on at childcare facilities, which parents trust with their children?

‘Hanging upside down’

“I placed my precious child in their care, but they betrayed my trust.”

A father in his 30s whose child was in the 1-year-old class that the three teachers were in charge of at Sakura nursery school, the facility in question, was furious.

According to the Susono city government, between June and August, the three were found to have engaged in 16 kinds of inappropriate acts at the day care facility, including “hanging children upside down” and “threatening them by showing them a box cutter.”

After the city government received a report of such acts by a concerned party, it gave a directive to the facility in late August. However, there was no announcement or explanation from either the city or the nursery school until the problem was reported by news media in late November.

It was also discovered later that during that time the operator of the nursery had its staff members sign a written pledge not to leak any confidential information.

According to the investigators, the three admitted their conduct for the most part, stating that “there were gaps between what we recognized [as acts of child abuse] and what the general public would perceive.”

One of the three childcare workers explained to her lawyer that she “felt burdened by the increase in workload due to the spread of COVID-19.”

However, a 50-year-old childcare worker at another nursery school in the prefecture said: “It is true that our workload has increased, making us feel more stressed. But it [child abuse] must not happen under any circumstances.”

Similarly problematic behavior by childcare workers has also been found in Toyama and Kagoshima, where children have been locked in storerooms and warehouses.

Yet, some say that the cases that have been uncovered are just the tip of the iceberg.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Kaigo-Hoiku Union, a labor union of childcare and nursing care workers in Tokyo, 20 out of 25 childcare workers who responded to the survey reported having seen child abuse, including minor cases. The union said there were such cases as “pushing away a 1-year-old child who would not listen” and “throwing a chair and making a loud noise.” Union co-representative Kaori Miura said, “We still receive several [reports of] abuse at day nurseries every month.”

Hoikuen wo Kangaeru Oya no Kai, a Tokyo-based association of parents and guardians that considers issues related to day care centers, also receives several inquiries a year from parents seeking consultation. There have been cases of parents not being informed that their child had been abused, even in serious cases such as their children having been hit, yelled at or intimidated.

Failure to use manual

A welfare ministry order called the “Standards concerning the equipment and management of child welfare facilities” stipulates that “staff members must not engage in any conduct that would have a harmful effect on the mind or body of a child.” In April 2021, the ministry compiled a manual describing what would constitute an inappropriate childcare act and how to respond in the event of such an incident, and disseminated the manual among local governments across the country.

In March this year, the city government of Niigata formulated guidelines based on the manual, showing specific examples of such inappropriate acts and clarifying what roles the city government and childcare facilities will assume in the event of such incidents, as well as the sequence of their responses.

However, only a few municipalities have adopted the manual. A senior official at the city government of Susono admitted, “I was not aware of the existence of the manual.”

On Dec. 7, the ministry again requested that local governments across the country take thorough measures to prevent child abuse from occurring at childcare centers and to respond to such cases in line with the manual.

Increased burden

What also lies behind the series of abuse cases is the increased burden on the ground.

In recent years, the number of childcare facilities has increased sharply as a response to the problem of children on waiting lists. As a result, there has been a serious shortage of workers. The effective job openings-to-applicants ratio stood at 2.74 for the childcare industry in October, exceeding by far the average ratio of 1.23 for all kinds of jobs.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the workload for childcare workers has increased, too, as they are doing temperature checks, disinfecting toys and considering infection control measures when holding events.

The central government’s criteria stipulates that there must be one childcare worker per three infants under 1 or per six children between 1 and 2 years old.

But those who are actually working at day care centers say that it is quite difficult for them to take care of so many children. Some facilities have more workers than the criteria suggest, but in many cases, the operators of such facilities pay the extra personnel expenses out of their own pocket.

One official involved in the sector confided: “Even if they want an unqualified staff member to quit, it is difficult to find a replacement. Many facilities would hesitate to replace staff members in the middle of the fiscal year, which would prompt people to wonder whether there is something wrong at the center.”