Child abuse cases triple in decadeAn elementary school teacher was shocked by what she saw when she visited one of her students’ homes in September in Nowon District, northern Seoul.
The child, who hadn’t come to class in more than a month, was sleeping in a pile of garbage. Trash literally filled his room. She immediately notified the police and the local child protection service.
Two one-ton trucks had to be dispatched to clean out the boy’s room.
The child’s mother, 35, insisted that leaving the refuse in his room would foster his sense of self-sufficiency and responsibility. But the neglect didn’t stop there.
Authorities discovered that the boy’s brother, only 8 years old, had fractured one of the bones in his leg. Their mother never sought medical attention, claiming it would eventually heal on its own.
“The mother’s behavior is typical of the one displayed by parents with severe depression and paranoid disorder,” said an official at the child protection center, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
These sorts of abuse cases, authorities say, have increased sharply over the past decade.
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, reports of child abuse have jumped by more than three times over the past 10 years - from 2,921 in 2003 to 10,943 just last year.
Last month, a 40-year-old woman, identified only by her surname Park, beat her 8-year-old stepdaughter to death in Ulsan. The autopsy showed that the girl suffered16 broken ribs. One of the fractured pieces, it said, punctured her lung, which ultimately led to her death.
According to the ministry, emotional abuse accounted for 38.1 percent of the total number of child abuse cases last year, at 3,785, followed by physical abuse at 28.8 percent and negligence at 28.7 percent.
Sexual abuse accounted for 4.5 percent of the total 10,943 cases.
Of the total cases, parents were the abusers 83.9 percent of the time.
“Parents accused of negligence often [rationalize the abuse] by claiming economic hardship and fail to recognize problems they have,” said Choi In-yong, the manager at a child protection service center in Mapo District, central Seoul.
Officials and child safety advocates say Korea needs to toughen punitive measures against abusers to rein in the growing abuses against minors.
“In Britain, authorities can take immediate action and bring the children into custody as soon as a report of child abuse is filed,” said Baek Tae-geun, a Ministry of Justice official. “We need to adopt a similar enforcement measure that will force parents to hand over abused children into custody and bring a case to prosecutors within 72 hours.”
Under existing child protection laws, those convicted of child abuse are subject to a maximum of five years in prison or up to a 30 million won ($28,421) fine - a much more lenient penalty compared to in Japan or Britain, where a convicted offender could potentially receive a life sentence.
In September 2012, Representative Ahn Hong-Jun of the Saenuri Party put forth a legislation aimed at toughening sentences in child abuse cases, which called for a 10-year prison term and a 50 million won fine for those convicted.
The bill, submitted more than a year ago, is still pending at the National Assembly.
“We need to have the bills passed through the Assembly to better protect children,” said Lee Myung-suk, a lawyer at Nauri law firm. “But bills intended to merely toughen up punitive measures will not solve the problem. We need preventive and practical legal measures that will protect children from continued violence inflicted by [abusers].”
BY MIN KYUNG-WON, KOO HYE-JIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]