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Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Children's welfare in the doghouse


This past week the nation was shocked by the news of yet another small child who died at the hands of abusive and negligent adults.

In the case of the 3-year-old boy who starved to death in Kyoto, it has been revealed that the police, alerted by a neighbor last March that the boy's 6-year-old sister was roaming the neighborhood after midnight, brought the girl, who herself showed signs of possible abuse, to a public-welfare center for children.

The girl was subsequently placed in a facility. However, this fact, in combination with reports from other neighbors that they heard the boy crying for food over the past year, didn't lead to police action until it was too late and the boy was already dead.

In such cases, the media always fixes on the victim and the abuser with stories about the indescribable sufferings of the children and the abominable selfishness of the guardians. They rarely look at the people in the middle, the police and other authorities whose job it is to prevent such tragedies. The question remains: Why does it always get this bad?

Clues can be found in another recent news story. On Oct. 4, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on a "dog theme park" that opened in Saeki Ward, Hiroshima City in April of 2003 and closed in May of 2005. Promoted as a place where animal lovers could interact with a large variety of pure-bred dogs, the Hiroshima Dog Park was operated by a local "dog-production company."

Due to "bad management," the park never turned a profit, and after it closed five employees remained behind to care for about 500 animals confined to cages. As early as June 2005, a month after the park closed, area residents contacted the local public animal control center expressing concern over the dogs' situation. The center reportedly checked the facility five times over the next year and found the grounds filthy and the food inadequate. The city "verbally ordered" the operators of the facility to improve conditions 20 times. The operators did nothing.

Finally, in Aug. 2006, the operators placed an advertisement in local newspapers soliciting people to take the dogs off their hands. Ark Angels, an Osaka-based animal-welfare group, saw the ad and decided to get involved. Ark Angels' concern was that the operator would simply give animals away to people dazzled by the prospect of owning pedigree dogs for free, and that once the reality of keeping pets became clear the animals would be abandoned or put down.

About one thousand people showed up to adopt dogs from the park on the weekend of Oct. 21-22. Ark Angels also showed up with veterinarians to check the health of the dogs and with an army of volunteers to grill potential owners on their suitability to take care of the animals. They were made to sign oaths pledging they would not abandon their new pets.

The coverage of the adoption event in the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers, as well as on NHK, centered on the good work of Ark Angels. However, the seriousness of the animals' circumstances was glossed over. On the Ark Angels' Web site, volunteers wrote that when they first encountered the dogs in their cages it was like "entering hell."

Why hadn't the city done anything despite widespread concern that the dogs were being neglected? In a transcript of an Hiroshima Assembly session recorded by an interested citizen and posted on the Internet, some revealing aspects of the matter come to light in terms of the law and the bureaucratic mind-set.

Under questioning from the assembly, a representative of the animal control center said that though he received complaints about the dog park, he couldn't do anything. The operator would not authorize an "investigation," and thus the center could not gather evidence. But surely, the assembly pressed, there was enough reason to believe that the dogs were being abused or neglected to invoke the Animal Protection Law.

Not necessarily, said the bureaucrat. One has to prove that the abuse is "malicious" in order to bring a case and they couldn't do that. "Society recognizes what happened to those dogs as abuse," the bureaucrat said, "but the law doesn't."

The bigger question is: Did the animal-control center recognize it as abuse? The police and the child welfare center in the Kyoto case also claimed they couldn't do anything about the starving boy even though there was enough reason to believe that he was being neglected. In the past, it was enough to say that certain social taboos against interfering in family affairs prevented the authorities from becoming involved in spousal or child abuse, but awareness of such abuse has become much greater in recent years and laws have been fortified to address the issue.

The problem is not fuzzy laws, but a lack of imagination. The people who run public animal control centers and public welfare facilities for children don't necessarily have any special empathy for their work. They are civil servants who have been assigned to those jobs. They are taught to work within guidelines.

After the child-welfare center in Kyoto received calls from neighbors about the boy's cries for food, the center simply called the boy's father. A professor of clinical psychology told the Asahi Shimbun that bureaucrats feel "reassured" when they receive calls from neighbors because they think it means the community is keeping an eye on things. When they contacted the father he said nothing was wrong, and for some strange reason the welfare staff didn't understand that abusive parents "tend to lie in these situations."

The Hiroshima Dog Park survivors were lucky that Ark Angels, an organization made up not of civil servants but of people who love animals, stepped in. Maybe what's needed are non-government organizations that love kids, too.



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