The Korea Herald


[Weekender] Kids still under threat of abuse as improvements remain weak

Experts voice need for more authority of frontline workers with budgetary, legal support

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : Jan. 15, 2022 - 16:00

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A 20-month-old baby girl in Daejeon was murdered in June after months of physical and sexual abuse, apparently from her stepfather, and neglect by her biological mother.

The toddler’s body was found in a cooler at the stepfather’s house with severe bruises and scars apparently from the abuse. Her stepfather was reported to have beaten her for more than an hour on the day of her death just because she was annoying him by crying too much.

The stepfather reportedly testified during the investigation that he threw the toddler against the wall multiple times, broke her thigh bones with his hands and trampled on her face under a blanket dozens of times. He even raped the baby just before her death.

The case caused a huge uproar in South Korea, with many calling for the death penalty. Protests ensued, angry media reports followed, and later on in December, the stepfather was sentenced to 30 years in prison and 20 years of wearing a location tracking device.

This horrific crime done is just one of numerous child abuse cases reported in South Korea every year. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 42,251 reports of child abuse were made throughout 2020, up 2.1 percent from a year earlier.

Throughout the year, 43 children died, with 20 of them being less than a year old. Fourteen of the kids died from extreme physical abuse, and 13 died from extreme neglect. No official data for 2021 has been made available yet.

In light of horrific child abuse cases, South Korea’s political circle made a series of amendments aimed at curtailing the continued rise in the number of child abuse cases reported every year.

The country strengthened punishment for child abuse in February and made it possible for child abusers to be convicted of murder even if they did not intend to cause death. Under the revised law, those who kill children while abusing them can face the death penalty or imprisonment for seven years to life.

Yet the situation does not seem to offer much hope, as what experts and those in the field have suggested as improvements have not been upheld. It is likely as many, if not more, children will face abuse in 2022 as did last year, if more attention is not paid to bringing about preventative measures.

The number of child abuse reports have increased every year, having nearly quadrupled from 11,700 in 2015 to more than 42,000 cases in 2020. The trend was especially evident when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were in force, as children were forced to spend more time with abusive parents and caretakers.

With a much smaller chance of their abuse being seen by others, many children were left alone to be beaten, assaulted and harassed for months, even until their death.

Yet in those years, only a few laws have been made in response. Many of the bills were neglected by lawmakers for years, only to be pursued after some high-profile cases were widely shared with the public.

In light of continued reporting of high-profile cases, the government increased the budget for dealing with child abuse by 46.1 percent to 61.8 billion won ($52 million) this year, increasing the number of shelters from 105 to 140 while vowing to prepare 14 more specialized protective agencies.

Yet experts say the increased budget is not enough to effectively prevent additional child abuse, as not much support is made for frontline workers who are tasked with identifying cases of child abuse in the absence of an effective monitoring system.

The Welfare Ministry has a total of 730 child abuse response-specialized workers across the country, but many are bombarded with cases and do not have enough time to comprehensively review each case. This has raised calls for an increase in the budget for tackling child abuse.

"The government did come up with measures, but I don’t think any noticeable changes will be seen this year if there is not a larger budget," said Chung Ick-joong, a social welfare studies professor at Ewha Womans University.

"These frontline workers are bombarded with work, and they are working in some of the harshest environments. While more budget is given from the central government, if it is distributed across the country, that doesn’t mean much."

Even the latest amendment made to the Special Act on Punishment of Child Abuse Crime has loopholes, experts point out, as the revision does not comprehensively outline the actions that field workers can use in preventing abuse.

Reports were made that anti-abuse police officers are not given authority to carry out investigations and protect victims, with some facing lawsuits for interviewing children who are possibly facing abuse without their legal guardians. Potentially abusive parents also refused entry to officers for inspections, which delayed investigations and responsive measures.

"Specific rights and authorities of individual entities must be clearly outlined for early measures like reporting to the scene and carrying out inspections so that employees of child protection agencies and the law enforcement to carry out their roles effectively," said social welfare studies professors Yoo Young-mi and Park Hyun-sook in a report in April.

"The scope of who can file requests for termination of guardian status to the court should also be expanded. Not only prosecutors, but also heads of local governments could be reviewed to be given this authority like in the United States."

Experts also add that local governments should be given a greater role like examples seen from other countries. Local governments must be given the responsibility to prevent child abuse, similar to how it is specified in Japanese law, a report from last year claims, in contrast to Korea where legal terminology is too obscure to levy any duty for regional officials.

"The expansion of public responsibility for child protection, ultimately presupposes a shift in the perception of all of us that child-rearing and protection are not just a responsibility of individual parents but also the joint responsibility of all families and society," Park Ju-young, a civil law professor at Andong National University, said in the report.

"In the future, for local governments to build up an efficient and high-quality child protection system, various follow-ups and many practical tasks remain."