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[Editorial] Fatal child abuse

More rigorous protection needed to prevent abused children from falling through the cracks

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 15, 2023 - 05:31

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In back-to-back incidents, two young children have been found dead in Incheon this month in connection with alleged abuse and negligence by their parents, igniting criticism over the repeated failures of child protection services to safeguard children.

On Feb. 2, a 2-year-old boy was found dead. Incheon Police Station took a 24-year-old woman into custody on suspicion of leaving her son at home alone for three days. Police suspect that the boy died of starvation, though investigations are still underway to identify the exact cause of death.

In another case of alleged child abuse, a 12-year-old boy was found unconscious at home with multiple bruises on his body. He was taken to hospital in Incheon on Feb. 7, but later died as a result of his injuries. Police arrested the boy's father and stepmother on Friday for allegedly abusing their son to death.

The police charged the stepmother with homicide by child abuse. She is accused of having habitually beaten and abused the child. The child's father was charged with habitual child abuse.

The two heartbreaking cases lay bare the fundamental problems facing the country’s child protection services, who are not only supposed to detect the early signs of abuse, but who are supposed to protect children before it is too late.

According to the annual report by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Korea’s child abuse cases have been on the rise in recent years. The number of identified child abuse cases rose from 22,367 in 2017 to 24,604 in 2018, reaching 30,045 in 2019. The figure stood at 30,905 in 2020 and then jumped to 37,605 in 2021. During the period of 2017 to 2021, there were an average of 38 child abuse-related deaths per year.

In recent years, more child abuse cases have been reported to welfare authorities, but it is no easy task to detect early signs and take swift steps to rescue children who are facing physical violence and deadly threats.

After all, child abuse cases are complex. It is often difficult to identify the causes and symptoms of abuse, many of which often go unnoticed on the part of government officials, education authorities and local communities. The majority of abuse takes place at home where parents are the source of the abuse, making such cases hard to identify. According to the same data from the Welfare Ministry, 83.7 percent of the reported child abuse cases were perpetrated by parents, followed by surrogate caregivers with 9.6 percent and other relatives with 4 percent. Moreover, in 2021, 86.3 percent of the reported child abuse, equivalent to 32,454 cases, took place at home.

As in many instances of child abuse, there were missteps in the cases of the two children who died in Incheon. It seems that authorities failed to catch on to some crucial signs that would have warranted protective action for the two children. The parents of the deceased fifth grader, for instance, had not sent their son to school since Nov. 4, claiming they were choosing to homeschool him instead.

The local school had marked the child down as a student who required intensive supervision following more than 10 days of unexcused absences. However, the school only conducted welfare checks through three separate telephone calls from December through January, not once visiting his home, and therefore failing to detect any signs of the abuse he was allegedly suffering.

The Welfare Ministry seems to have failed to spot potential problems involving the 2-year-old baby too, despite its child welfare support system which analyzes 44 types of information about children, including health records, to detect cases of child abuse in advance. There were no records of the child's essential vaccinations or medical checkups in the past 12 months, yet the ministry did not investigate this discrepancy, media outlets reported.

Authorities have to strengthen the policies, regulations and early warning systems related to child abuse, including the expansion of related services such as counselling and medical support. It is also urgent to prevent abused children from returning home only to face the same violence by their parents. In 2021 alone, around 85 percent of abused children were sent back to their homes, where few, if any, were protected from repeated abuse.

The government must implement stronger measures against child abuse and make efforts to remove blind spots to prevent abused children from falling through the cracks.