Several facts stood out to me from the recent report on the record-high number of child abuse cases in Japan in 2010. One was that in the previous three months, only seven petitions to temporarily suspend parental rights were presented to the court. And of those, only one was granted. Realize that these were not petitions to end parental rights, just to suspend them for up to two years.
It is extremely difficult to terminate parental rights against the will of the parents in Japan. For example, in 2007, out of 40,639 cases of child abuse handled by Child Welfare, staff members appealed to the family court for termination of parental rights in only four cases, and only one case was approved.1 This is the norm. As a college professor said ironically, “It is easier for judges to give someone the death penalty than for them to forcibly sever parental rights in Japan.”
Secondly, over 84% of the 51 children who died due to child abuse were age three or under; most were under age one. I have been watching a situation up close that almost contributed to this statistic. In 2010, a father, the boyfriend of someone I know, almost killed his son, who was about one year old at the time. That child remains in the child orphanage system almost a year later. The father’s rights have not been severed, nor has he been charged with a crime. The child is in limbo where he may remain until he is 18 years of age.2
Of course, there is no reason to work to sever the father’s rights if the goal of the government is just to keep the child safe in an orphanage . The primary reason that parental rights would need to be severed is so that the child could get adopted. Sadly, that is not the goal. And especially in cases where the child is still so young, how much more sense it would make to push as quickly as possible to a clear conclusion for the good of the child.
As it is, though the government doesn’t sever parental rights, the parents in abuse cases can be legally deprived of their child for long periods of time. The main right they retain is to keep the child from going to a loving family. By bringing the case to a clear conclusion as soon as possible, perhaps extended family members would step up and offer to become legal guardians. Or maybe mothers would get serious about leaving abusive husbands/boyfriends to keep their parental rights. The way things are, children are left waiting while the wheels of the system grind slowly and their childhood slips away.
I asked my professor friend why Japan prefers this approach. A gross oversimplification of what he said is that Japan had long been a theocracy with the Emperor as father/god, and the Japanese as children. Families were/are also considered small theocracies where the parents have the divine right to do whatever is necessary to keep the family under control. Thus, the system works in favor of the parents, and he said parental rights are very unlikely to be severed more often in the future.
Another way to understand this and other things in Japan is to recognize the value placed on form over substance. Keeping parental rights in tack and placing children in orphanages protects the form of the blood-line family. Cutting parental rights and adopting children to unrelated parents wrecks the form and makes the situation “abnormal.” The substance of family love and life-long support is not the main consideration.
An issue that often comes up when discussing orphanages and/or adoption here is the idea of taking responsibility. Parents must be made to take responsibility for their children at some level even if it hurts the children. I was not surprised to read that many of the 2010 abuse cases involved teenage mothers who didn’t know how to take care of their babies and had been ostracized by their local communities (Japan Today, 7/27/2012). Since these mothers didn’t do the responsible thing and get an abortion, they must be made to suffer the consequences. Probably no one around them suggested they choose adoption because that is considered “irresponsible.”
The truth is that unless Japan can wholeheartedly embrace adoption and foster care, there is nothing to do but continue placing abused children in the ever-expanding orphanage system where they are likely to be abused again. The unwillingness to cut parental rights is undergirded by the same thinking that leads to an aversion to adoption.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the government is beginning to promote adopting out newborns before they enter the system, so there is some hope. Of course, the women in those cases voluntarily give up their rights. That process began when a brave government worker started asking pregnant women in distress if they were interested in adoption.
I think the government should at least ask this same question to parents of young, abused children. Reluctant parents can be strongly encouraged by offers to drop criminal charges or reduce sentences, though bringing charges against abusive parents seems to be another weakness of the current system. It may be that especially young, single mothers of abused babies would quickly agree if only someone would ask and encourage them.
Stopping the abuse would, of course, be best, and I applaud the government’s call for more consultation services for at-risk pregnant women. But given the many adults who were themselves abused as children, the likelihood of a continued cycle of abuse is pretty high. I hope Japan will stop the cycle whenever possible by not only getting children away from abusive parents but by also getting them into loving families.
1. Sachiko Bamba and Wendy L. Haight, Child Welfare and Development: A Japanese Case Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 180-81.
2. The government workers involved in this case have done a good job protecting this child. Without being able to forcibly cut parental rights, there’s not much else they can do.