Police unit targets day care violators

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Police unit targets day care violators


Officers in the intelligence division of the Songpa Police Precinct in southern Seoul. By Kwon Hyuk-jae

At around 2 p.m. on Nov. 13, a woman in her early 30s walked into the Intelligence Crime Investigation Office on the third floor of the Seoul Songpa District Police Precinct. She had a sleeping child strapped to her back.

She hesitated a little but finally mustered the necessary courage.

“I’m here to charge my child’s day-care center director with child abuse,” the woman said, on the verge of tears.

The victim of the alleged child abuse was her sleeping 1-year-old son surnamed Han, who is barely old enough to walk.

Han’s mother, 32, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed that her son was habitually abused by the day-care center director.

“My son used to be very calm and easygoing. He didn’t even cry that much before. But after attending day care, he suddenly started crying all the time. Whenever I tried to send him off to the center, he would resist furiously,” she said.

“At the time I just simply thought he acted weird because he’s young. But it only got worse and my intuition told me something was terribly wrong. I quit my job and started taking care of him myself.”

She then took her concerns farther.

“A few days ago I met some workers from the day-care center and chatted with them for a while, and they told that the center’s director had been abusing my child,” she said. “The moment I heard it I could barely breathe.”

Her shrill voice woke up her son, who immediately started crying. The woman’s story continued as Lee Yong-woo, the intelligence section chief at Songpa District Police Precinct, was calming down the crying baby. The stories she heard from the workers were outrageous.

“The center director locked him alone in a room for crying and left him there until he stopped. Also, she roughly rubbed the baby’s head as if she was trying to hit him with a fist. She even cursed at him, saying ‘Hurry up and stuff your face, bastard,’ when she force-fed him milk. And these incidents occurred repeatedly.”

Mother protests

After hearing the story, Han’s mother visited the child care center to protest. But the director refused to admit any wrongdoing and even threatened the mother by saying “I will sue you on charges of defamation and business obstruction.”

After filing the charge against the director, the woman was still ambivalent about the investigation.

“It is going to be really hard to collect evidence because there are no CCTVs at the center,” she said.

The case could easily have turned into a case of false accusation. Section chief Lee entrusted the No. 1 Intelligence Team Leader Min Jong-Ki with the investigation. The general consensus within the team was that the investigation would be very challenging.

“It will not be easy to prove a crime since there is no evidence, such as a video recording or scars on the child’s body,” a team member said. “Even if we somehow successfully make an indictment, the court might find the director innocent.”

But they didn’t feel they could ignore the plight of Han and his mother.

The first step in the investigation was to collect testimony from the day-care workers who witnessed scenes of child abuse. Also, assuming other children could also have been abused at the center, the police expanded the investigation to other parents.

The pace quickened after a few days when they found three workers who were willing to testify. They had quit in protest against the director’s frequent child abuse.

Specific incidents were recounted in detail. They added testimony claiming the director had abused two other children.

The investigation unearthed a new charge. The director falsely registered her daughter as a worker at the center to receive more subsidies from the government.

Further investigation also revealed other subsidies paid by the government for workers’ wages and to keep the center operating were deposited into the director’s personal bank account. The testimony by the teachers and the revelation of her embezzlement history forced the director to finally admit her guilt.

After the three-month investigation, the director was indicted on charges of child abuse and stealing government subsidies and the day care center was closed in mid-February. But what seemed like the end of the investigation marked the start of something much more comprehensive.

“It occurred to me that this incident is not limited to just one center. We decided to delve into the situation even more,” Lee, the section leader, said.

The investigation was expanded to 700 other centers in the Gangnam area and it soon unearthed embezzlement of 30 billion won ($25.9 million) worth of national subsidies.

From then on, the investigation team became the public enemy of shifty day care directors across the country.

How to launch such large crusade was tricky at first. It seemed illogical to focus on child day-care centers since no specific reports of corruption had been made at that point.

The first move had to be coordinated with the Gangnam district office, which has the right of management and supervision.

On Feb. 25, the investigation team requested the Songpa District office to provide support for their investigation of day-care centers. The next day, an official from the district office visited the investigation team to discuss the matter.

At first, the district office was reluctant to get involved. But due to the police’s persistence, the district office finally decided to cooperate. On March 8, a task force was formed consisting of officials from the police and the district office. Soon resistance came from a surprising source.

District representatives object

Some Songpa District representatives condemned the district office and the police, citing a lack of legitimacy of the investigation. The district council has budget deliberation rights and the representatives threatened the district office with the prospects of a budget cut.

“Provide the reason behind defaming day-care centers as a corrupt group. We cannot understand why the district office is cooperating with the police since there is no legal evidence to justify such involvement. We are going to protest the office’s decision and will summon the officials related to this matter. Just wait until the budget time comes around,” the district council said.

The day-care centers also objected. “We will close down. The district office can take care of the children from now on,” some day-care centers threatened. The investigation team received criticism from people nearby, saying they were wasting their time and taxpayer money on an insignificant matter.

“I could not sleep for days. We asked the district office to join us, but at that point we were not sure how it was going to turn out. A certain level of opposition was expected from day-care center directors and other related organizations. And honestly, we were not familiar with how the day-care system was run at that point,” team leader Min said.

The team members looked into various regulations and directions for the centers, including the Infant Protection Law. With help from the district office, the list of day-care centers to be investigated was formed.

In mid-March they started getting information from day-care workers. The workers’ testimony became important evidence, and the team received a search and seizure warrant to investigate the centers. The searches happened only after the children had gone home.

“We expected less than a hundred centers to be guilty. But when we looked at the bank accounts of around 30 enterprises that made transactions with the centers, we discovered many centers that could be suspected of making illegal transactions. A bank account of one enterprise implicated up to 150 day-care centers. Even we were surprised to find out the seriousness of this issue,” Lee said.

By late March, corrupt practices such as providing low-quality food and embezzling governmental subsidies became obvious.

The investigation was extended beyond Songpa District to Gangnam, Gwanak, Seocho and Gangdong Districts, even as far as the Seongnam and Uijeongbu areas. It was soon revealed that Lee, a current Songpa District Council Representative, embezzled several hundreds of millions of won by running five day-care centers.

“It became clear why some district council representatives have objected so fervently to the co-investigation by the police and the district office. Lee also has the history of serving as the head of Child Care Association in the district for six years in the past,” Min said.

Mothers who came to the Songpa District Police Precinct as witnesses were shocked by the outcome of the investigation.

“It’s my fault I sent my kid to such an improperly-run child-care center,” one mother cried out and the entire office was soon full of crying parents.

One day-care worker testified, “We bought leftover vegetables from markets in large quantities and used them to make soups. Chickens were stripped of their skins and used in cooking even when they were past their expiration date. Some 600 grams (1.3 pounds) of pork was used to make food for 30 to 40 kids.”

A ‘miracle’ attempt

One member of the investigation team commented bitterly, “Could the day-care center directors be imitating the miracle of the loaves and the fishes? This is totally absurd, definitely something that cannot happen in the middle of Seoul.”

On May 27, the Songpa Police investigation team presented the midterm investigation report that 700 day cares embezzled about 3 billion won worth of public funds. Eighty-six people, including 55 center directors, were charged with crimes.

That was the result of the investigation for the last three years. The investigation is still ongoing and the amount of embezzled funds is bound to grow.

When the results were publicized via the media, the public was outraged. President Park Geun-hye asked for the implementation of special measures during a cabinet meeting.

Both the ruling and opposition party agreed. The Ministry of Health and Welfare and other local governments declared a special search for corrupt practices in day-care centers. The national police also directed district police offices to conduct special investigations of day-care centers.

The reactions from parents were even more intense. Some parents are preparing to sue the day-care directors who embezzled the activity fees they paid.

More than 100 mothers have filed a petition. They requested the police publicize the list of those charged with crimes and arrest them. The Songpa police are currently receiving representatives from other police stations who came to benchmark the investigation process.

“I have investigated only violent crimes such as drug use and murder for the last 20 years. I never imagined myself investigating day cares. At first the issue did not seem that big. But I came to realize it was even more serious and important than violent crime,” Min said. “This investigation cannot end at the level of simply punishing the criminals.”

Recently, Min and Lee received an invitation from National Assembly members to attend a conference about childcare centers.

They articulated their opinion that “it is important to identify criminals but it is more imporant to improve the day-care policy and system to make sure such crimes will not be repeated.”

Lee also said a police investigation is not enough to exterminate the entire problem.

“I feel like an expert now after being invested in this issue for the last few months. It is the police’s responsibility to do the investigation but it is the government and National Assembly’s job to come up with a decisive and comprehensive policy. And hopefully that will be the point when the police will stop with the investigation.”

BY KO SUNG-PYO, KIM HYE-MI [enational@joongang.co.kr]

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