Psychological child abuse difficult to identify and punish

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Psychological child abuse difficult to identify and punish

The abuse began in 2011. A 40-year-old stepmother in Yeosu, South Jeolla, became enraged when her 9-year-old stepdaughter refused to wash the dinner dishes and instead played computer games. She ordered her to kneel down for an hour or stand in the corner for more than two hours.

The stepmother’s cruelty deepened. In 2013, she painted the girls’ face with a black marker pen. A month later she clamped the girl’s lips with a clothespin and put tape over it, covering her mouth. The daughter’s transgression: speaking too loudly while practicing a presentation for school.

In the winter of 2014, the brutal stepmother pulled her daughter in and out of a bathtub 15 times and kicked her out of the house naked.

The abuse probably would have continued if the father and stepmother stayed together. But in 2014, when the father decided to divorce, he told police that his daughter was abused by the stepmother. The girl testified in court; she kept a diary of each instance of abuse. Last year, the stepmother was sentenced to one year in prison by the Gwangju District Court. The court characterized her cruelty as “psychological abuse.”

Psychological abuse is serious but it’s harder to spot because it doesn’t leave visible injuries.

“Mental abuse can bring trauma into a child’s life,” said Chae Hye-jeong, a child psychotherapy professor at Myongji University. “The trauma can develop into chronic depression or anti-social behaviors, despite their appearance.”

And yet punishments for parents, guardians, nannies and day care teachers convicted of psychological abuse in Korea are usually lighter than in other countries, as it is considered far less serious than physical abuse.

And yet according to the National Child Protection Agency, mental abuse actually accounts for the largest portion of child abuse cases annually. Its proportion of total child abuse cases rose to 40 percent in 2014 from 38 percent in 2012. The other categories of abuse are physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Psychological abuse was first included in the Child Welfare Law in 2000. But courts adopted the verdict of “mental abuse” a decade later in 2011.

But many people convicted of the offense are given suspended sentence or small fines.

In Suwon, Gyeonggi, a father was hauled into court for locking his 11-year-old son in a washing machine and turning it on for a few seconds. The father beat his son more than once a month, allegedly for stealing things. Last October, a district court gave him a suspended sentence of eight months.

In psychological abuse cases, it’s hard to get a conviction without the testimony of victims.

The Gwangju District Court last year acquitted a twenty-something man of psychological abuse. He was charged for cursing at his two-month-old daughter and threatening her with a knife.

The court said the baby didn’t understand the curse words and didn’t know the dangerousness of the knife, so it was not psychologically abused. The court convicted the man of physical abuse and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Overseas, psychological abuse convictions come with harsh punishments. The United Kingdom adopted a “Cinderella Law” in 2014 that enabled a court to sentence a parent to up to ten years in jail for being emotionally cruel to his or her children. In the United States, many states require adults to report suspected child abuse.

BY LEE YOO-JEONG [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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