Children can be exposed to child abuse everywhere.
/Photography by Park Ji-wonj
Recently, many high-profile child abuse cases have occurred in Korea. These include the “Cheonan child abuse murder case,” “Cheongju child abuse and secret burial case,” “Mungyeong kindergarten child abuse case,” and “Gimpo child assault murder case.” Whenever major incidents occurred, the public was furious, and demanded measures to prevent child abuse, protect victims, and severely punish the perpetrators. However, the recent “Jung-in case” on SBS’ “Unanswered Questions” revealed that despite three reports of the suspected abuse of Jung-in, the child’s life could not be saved due to poor management by the police, indicating that conditions have not improved even though numerous child abuse cases have occurred. The importance of children’s rights and protection is growing day by day, but Korea has yet to make significant progress.
What is child abuse?
According to the Child Welfare Law, “child abuse” means that an adult, including a guardian, commits physical, mental, and sexual violence or abusive acts that may harm the health or welfare of a child or hinder normal development. Abandoning or neglecting child is also an abuse. Child abuse can be divided into physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Physical abuse is any act that causes or allows physical damage to a child in a non-accidental situation. Emotional abuse is verbal insult, emotional threat, imprisonment, restraint, or other sadistic behavior against a child. Sexual abuse is any sexual act committed against a child under the age of 18 to satisfy the perpetrator’s sexual needs. Neglect is the act of placing a child in a dangerous environment or not providing the child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, compulsory education, and medical treatment. Finally, abandonment is the act of a guardian discarding a child without protection.
Many children are suffering from child abuse
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s “Status of protection of abused children,” the number of cases reported and defined as child abuse to local child protection agencies in 2018 was 24,604 in total, showing a steady rise since 2001. According to the Korean Educational Development Institute’s Education Policy Forum No. 326, multiple abuses, which are a mixture of two or more types of abuse, was the highest at 47.9% among the types of child abuse cases. Among the multiple abuses, the mixture of physical and emotional abuse was the highest. In the case of single abuse, emotional abuse was the highest at 23.8%, followed by physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. As for the victims’ age, the ratio of children aged 13 to 15 was the highest at 24.7%. However, the ratio of infants and children under the age of six reached 23% of the total, and the ratio of infants under the age of one accounted for 2.0%. As a result of the analysis of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, about 76.9% were parents, 15.9% were surrogate caregivers, and 4.5% were relatives. In particular, the number of child abuse reports increased as children staying at home extended due to COVID-19. According to data that Kim Yong-pan, a member of People Power Party, received from police on January 6th, the total number of child abuse reports from January to November 2020 increased from 13,457 in 2019 to 14,676 in 2020. The data also showed that the number of “in the home” reports had increased by 16%, indicating that child abuse at home is a big problem.
Recent child abuse cases illustrate the seriousness of them. The Jung-in case, an incident in which a 16-month-old girl died of abuse by her adoptive parents, was re-examined on January 2nd on SBS’ “Unanswered Questions” broadcast, drawing attention from the whole nation. Above all, the fact that the police and the child protection agency coped poorly with the case even though the childcare teacher, who is obligated to report a suspicion of abuse, reported three times, caused people’s rage. After this incident, the “Jung-in Law,” whose main content mandates immediate investigation when child abuse is reported, passed parliament on January 8th, 2021.
Child abuse can occur in daycare centers, too. In December 2020, six childcare teachers at a national and public daycare center in Seo-gu, Incheon, were reported for abuse of 10 children, including a child with autism, from November to December. They were booked without detention on January 20th. Since other childcare teachers ignored the abuse even though they were aware of it, it turned out that all the teachers were involved in the abuse.
Aside from direct physical abuse, abuse in the form of neglect is also a severe problem. In December 2020, a district official found two girls who were eight and five-year-old each kept in a house full of oddments, and reported it under suspicion of abuse. According to the investigation, a Vietnamese woman, who is a mother of the two girls, was suffering from compulsive hoarding syndrome due to her Korean husband’s abusive language and violent behavior. The police said they charged her with child neglect and abuse and are also considering an investigation into her husband.
People were furious about these child abuse cases. Park, a freshman of Incheon University, said, “Looking at the children in the blind spot of safety, I thought it was a pity that something like this could not have been prevented.” Also, Park Dam-hee, a freshman of Chung-ang University, expressed her sadness by saying, “The more I read the details of abuse in the article, the more I could not understand the psychology of the perpetrator.” In January 2021, SBS’ “Unanswered Questions” team, which played a significant role in publicizing the incidents, proposed the “I am sorry, Jung-in” challenge in memory of the child through the YouTube community. The challenge was conducted by writing “I’m sorry, Jung-in” and a short phrase that one wants to say, taking a photo of it and posting it on SNS. Many people, including celebrities, joined the challenge, showing that people feel sorry for the incident. Also, in anger at child abuse, there have been petitions demanding the establishment of the office for children, raising the level of punishment for perpetrators of child abuse, and improving child abuse-related systems on the website of the Cheong Wa Dae’s national petition. As such, many people are making efforts to eradicate child abuse.
Child abuse occurs in various types, leaving the victim with indelible wound.
/Photography by Kang Da-hyun
Child abuse hurts not only the victim but also the society
Child abuse victims experience physical and mental damage, and especially suffer from the latter. According to the National Center for the Rights of the Child, victims may experience behavioral disorders, neurological temperament disorders, and psychotropic reactions. Also, according to “A Study on Abuse Experiences by Life Cycle,” presented by Korea Institute for Health And Social Affairs (KIHASA) in 2019, childhood emotional abuse experiences have the greatest influence on the physical and emotional health of young people, such as self-esteem, life satisfaction, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and heavy drinking. Also, according to the report, the more the primary caregiver experiences negative childhood experiences such as child abuse and witnessing domestic violence, the higher the rate of inflicting child abuse. The report divided the primary caregiver’s adverse childhood experiences into zero to seven or more points. It showed that the points were in proportion to the incidence of child abuse, with 80.3% of children experiencing abuse and 78.8% of parents experiencing inflicting of abuse when the score was seven or more. The report also showed that parents’ negative childhood experiences indirectly cause the infliction of emotional abuse, and consequently cause their children’s problematic behavior such as school violence.
Why is the child abuse problem not resolved?
There are currently various systems in place to prevent child abuse. First, suppose a person obligated to report child abuse becomes aware of or suspects a child abuse while performing his/her duties. In that case, he/she must report it to a child protection center or an investigation agency. Job obligated to report are divided into 24 groups, such as the head of a child welfare facility, the head of a foster care support center, and their workers. If the person obligated does not report child abuse, a fine of up to five million won will be imposed. Second, acts that damage a child’s body, abuse such as sexual harassment that gives shame to a child, and emotional abuse that harms a child’s mental health and development are subject to imprisonment for up to five years or a fine up to 30 million won. Third, when an employee of a child protection institution or judicial police officer goes into the field to investigate, any person who interrupts the performance of their work by assault, intimidation, or refusal, will be imprisoned for up to one year or fined up to five million won. In addition to the three provisions introduced above, there are various laws to prevent child abuse.
Despite the existence of various laws, many limitations make it hard to resolve child abuse. Limitations are primarily divided into institutional and practical parts. One of the institutional constraints is the difficulty of collecting evidence. It happens because the criteria for judging child abuse are unclear. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s 2018 statistics, emotional abuse accounted for the highest proportion of child abuse with 5,862 cases (23.8%). However, it is difficult to judge since there is no physical force visually displayed on the appearance. Furthermore, legal foundations to protect children by isolating abusers and children are insufficient. When investigating the site after receiving a report of child abuse, even if there is a need to separate the child and the abuser, it is difficult for an expert to intervene because the legal basis is weak.
There are also several practical limitations. First, the effect of the law does not apply to reality. In October 2013, an eight-year-old infant died in Ulsan after long-term abuse by her stepmother. Accordingly, the government enacted a special law on child abuse in January 2014. Whenever there were such cases of child abuse, the government created laws and systems to deal with them. However, suspicious cases of child abuse are increasing every year. Field workers argue that they cannot save children, not because there are no laws and institutions, but because they do not work in reality. Even in the Jung-in case, there was already a provision called “emergency measures” to isolate the child regardless of the parents’ intention. Also, there was a guideline, among the measures proposed by the government in 2014, that “The police should conduct an arrest investigation when reported three times.” Even though five institutions intervened in Jung-in case for nine months, the police and child protection agencies were unable to separate the child even when the pediatrician made the third report on September 23rd.
Second, child segregation facilities and human resources are insufficient. Currently, only about 600 children can be accommodated in the 76 abused child shelters nationwide. It is said that the “immediate separation system” will be implemented from March, but there are practically insufficient facilities to send children and workforce to take care of them. Since the services required for each household are different, a skilled workforce who can judge accurately is necessarily required. However, there is a shortage of specialized human resources because many workers are resigning from related jobs due to high work intensity and psychological burden.
Third limitation is the passive and poor response to child abuse. For example, even if an expert meets the parent and child in person after the report, when the parent concludes corporal punishment as discipline, the expert has to accept it passively. Judging the situation solely based on parents’ arguments, it is hard to figure out the reality. Since the field investigation is conducted after a suspected child abuse report, most of the abusers are uncooperative. Furthermore, the police who separated the child after receiving the report are sometimes involved in lawsuits. As above, since there can be a risk of one’s position, and the psychological burden of putting someone under the stigma of being an abusive parent, it is hard to intervene. Lee, a teacher of a daycare center, said that despite various institutional arrangements, child abuse continues because of the perception thinking child as a property. She also added, “Despite high rate of child abuse occuring at home, current policies are focused on abuse that occurs in childcare institutions such as kindergarten or daycare center.”
Improvements are needed to prevent child abuse
Foreign countries have made various efforts to prevent child abuse. For example, in Virginia, United States, if a parent inflicts serious injury to a child, he or she is imprisoned for two to ten years or fined up to one million dollars. In severe cases, the parental right may also be restricted. In addition, when child abuse is reported, children can be protected for 72 hours without parental agreement. Also, 34 states operate emergency telephone calls for child abuse all day, and 45 states have introduced a central registration system to manage child abuse across the state comprehensively. A police officer in charge of child abuse is assigned within the police station, and a counselor from a specialized child protection agency exists. Moreover, by recognizing child abuse as a local community problem, private institutions provide actual child abuse prevention services. The government minimizes intervention by providing only financial resources and basic policy directions. France’s efforts are also remarkable. According to the Criminal Law, when a child under the age of 15 is killed by violence, the abuser is imprisoned for 30 years. If the murder was intentional, the abuser is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the case of neglecting a child, the judge may deprive some part or all of the parental authority.
While various efforts are being made to prevent child abuse, experts argue that child abuse laws and manuals are relatively systematic even nowadays. Eventually, people's awareness about child abuse and the perception of children should fundamentally be improved. That is, people should recognize that child abuse is a crime, and corporal punishment should not be a means of discipline. People should know that mental suffering such as emotional abuse or neglect is also abuse. In addition, measures must be taken to protect the reporter and prevent disadvantages from the report. For example, if abuse occurs in a facility, such as a child welfare center, the facility is ordered to be closed for a certain term. Therefore, a person obligated to report may feel it difficult to report abuse when it occurs inside his/her facility. Creating a culture in which people report suspected child abuse without hesitation is important to protect children.
The most important thing is to teach children that they deserve protection and respect. Also, to overcome the phenomenon of improper parenting attitudes and lack of parenting knowledge and skills, which are frequently seen in abusers, education for parents must be initiated. Lee said that it is essential to improve awareness of children. Since it is practically impossible to install CCTV in home like children institution, she said that improving people’s awareness is the most addressed direction of preventing child abuse.
Since child abuse is a serious crime that causes lifelong injuries to victims, it must be resolved urgently. Although a legal system that thoroughly protects the victims and punishes the perpetrators is necessary, making efforts to prevent child abuse in advance is more critical. However, in the end, the most important thing is people’s constant attention and consciousness about child abuse. Since countless children have already been victimized by child abuse, and furthermore, by an indifferent and immature society on this issue, people have to work hard from now on to prevent additional victims from suffering.
Kang Da-hyun, Park Ji-won firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
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