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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

INNOCENT VICTIMS

POOR STAFFING, LACK OF SPACE CITED

Child-guidance centers lacking: experts


Staff writer

Child abuse in Japan may be expanding faster than social workers can keep pace, but there's another side to the story as well: Many people outside the government child-welfare system are working hard to push those figures down. Meet two of those people, lawyer Fumiaki Isogae and foster mother Kazuko Sakamoto.

News photo
Fumiaki Isogae, a lawyer specializing in child-abuse cases, holds open a legal text at his office in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTOS

When he isn't settling a traffic accident or inheritance claim -- in other words, paying the bills -- lawyer Fumiaki Isogae of the Kuretake Law Office is huddling with case workers at child-guidance centers, where civil servants wrestle with abuse on a daily basis.

Isogae is one of the few select lawyers across Japan with expertise in child abuse. He helps the beleaguered facilities make smarter choices as they guide children's cases through the tangled bureaucracy. In all, there are only about 100 lawyers like him nationwide, he said.

It's not that case workers are ignorant of the law, the crisply dressed father of two said during an interview at his Tokyo office. Rather, it's their strategy that needs polishing.

"For example, when it's time to go to court, should the Child Welfare Law be invoked? Will doing that win? If we're going to invoke it, how do we prepare?" he asked. "That kind of knowledge is still lacking."

Child-guidance centers are tasked with formulating plans to help neglected and abused children and their families. Yet experts have long blamed poor staffing decisions at the centers for letting kids fall through the cracks, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Staffing is usually the responsibility of the prefectural or municipal government where each center is based. Isogae said that until about 10 years ago, civil servants from, say, waterworks or tax divisions, were routinely assigned to child-guidance centers despite their lack of expertise.

Although the Child Welfare Law sets out qualifications for holding directorships at the facilities and requires staff engaged in counseling and case investigation to be trained as social workers, enforcement is lax, experts say.

Isogae said efforts are now being made to hire as many experienced people as possible. Still, there are few facilities staffed exclusively with trained social workers, and people with relatively little child-welfare experience can still get jobs there, he said.

What's more, support from the central and local governments is woefully inadequate.

"Sure, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is expanding its budget for abuse and staffing is up, but it's not enough," Isogae said.

The lack of space is the most pressing matter.

"The absolutely biggest problem is that there isn't enough room at residential child-protection institutions or in temporary-placement facilities at child-guidance centers," he said.

Indeed, late last year, some 70 children found themselves wait-listed for temporary care in Tokyo child-guidance facilities, according to Tokyo Metropolitan Government official Keiko Kimura.

Kimura stressed that any child requiring emergency attention gained entry, and most children on the waiting list were low-priority cases. However, given all their other responsibilities, child-guidance centers do not have a lot of room to maneuver, she said.

"Tokyo's child-guidance facilities are serving kids at maximum capacity," Kimura said.

Isogae said the situation is unacceptable.

"These places are supposed to be for emergency purposes. The sheer existence of a waiting list is absurd."

Isogae first got involved in child-abuse cases in late 1994, when he joined five other lawyers in handling the case of a second-year junior high school girl who apparently had been so badly abused at home that she was too weak to walk or even sit up.

One of the lawyers became the girl's legal guardian and the team was able to prevent her from being sent back to her abusive parents.

Did his own experience as a father inspire him to crusade for children?

"I guess I'm supposed to say yes," he said with a laugh. "But truth be told, at first I was completely uninterested. I was unaware of the existence of abuse."

But as the father of two boys, he said he can understand how parents have their moments of anger. "Kids don't listen sometimes, and they break things," he said, stressing that he's never raised his own hand.

"But I've become conscious of the preciousness of a child," he said. "And as a result, protecting children gives me a sense of joy."


See related stories:
Foster-care group aims to change the way Japan treats its children
Kids' group home a safe respite
Rising child-abuse deaths draw national scrutiny



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