updated 26 Jan 2014, 11:55
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Fri, Dec 03, 2010
Yomiuri Shimbun
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Bad parents' rights may be put on ice
by Yoshiko Kosaka and Yuko Iida

As she stared at the knife, the children's nursing home employee feared for her life.

"I thought I was going to be stabbed," she said. "The only thing I could think of was to try to calm him down."

What she thought would be a routine visit to pick up a teenage girl who had been allowed to make a brief visit to her father's home suddenly turned nasty when he brandished a knife as his anger reached boiling point.

The girl's father had a history of violence. Her parents got divorced when her mother could no longer put up with her husband's abuse. The girl was sent to the facility in the Kinki region when she was 3.

The man had previously visited the facility late at night while drunk, trying to meet his daughter, who is a second-year middle school student. When staff turned down his demand to see his daughter, he insulted and intimidated them.

"I'm her father. Let me see her!" he shouted.

One time, he took his daughter from the children's home. They were eventually found asleep at a park.

The father's behavior placed the institute in an awkward situation.

"We don't want to have to forcibly come between a parent and their child," the deputy head of the facility said. "But in some cases, for the sake of the child's safety, we have to limit a parent's rights to see them."

Cases like this are all too frequent. An increasing number of abused children are living in protective institutions, but their safety is often put at risk when they are left with parents who insist their access to them is protected by parental rights and obligations.

A review of parental rights under the Civil Code is one possible way to protect children from abusive parents.

A midterm draft policy compiled by the Justice Ministry's Legislative Council includes a plan to place a temporary restriction--up to two years--on these parents' rights to have access to their child. The ministry will submit a bill to revise the Civil Code to next year's ordinary Diet session.

A survey in June by the national council of children's nursing homes revealed that many facilities have had problems with parents. Cases included parents who forcibly took their children from nursing homes, and others who refused to give permission for their children to get a haircut.

In some extreme cases, parents refused to give consent to their children having surgery for an ear infection or to get influenza vaccinations.

In one case, a child's illness became more acute when the parents refused to consent to putting the child in hospital for psychiatric treatment, according to the survey.

Older children are also being terrorized by parents abusing their custodial rights.

The parents of a third-year high school student, who sought shelter at a nonprofit organization institution in Tokyo after being abused by her parents, threatened to have her kicked out of school.

The girl's parents flew into a rage after she ran away from home. They ordered her to come home--or else they would force her to quit school. Her parents then wrote to the school without the girl's consent and said she was dropping out.

A school spokesman said the school "can't ignore a request from parents." However, the school eventually persuaded the parents to reconsider.

Atsushi Takahashi, secretary general of Kodomo Center Tempo, an NPO shelter for children in Yokohama, believes children who want to live on their own need more support.

"Children need parental consent in many situations, such as when renting an apartment or getting a mobile phone," Takahashi said. "We need to quickly form a framework to help children be more independent."

Encouraging parents to step up

According to a 2008 Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey, 53.4 percent of children in these facilities had been abused by their parents. Among them, the most common form of abuse was neglect, at 66.2 percent, followed by physical abuse at 39.8 percent, psychological abuse at 20.4 percent, and sexual abuse at 3.9 percent.

Currently, parents can lose their custodial rights if the head of a child consultation center files a request with a family court. However, there is no set time limit on how long the parents will be deprived of these rights, which can negatively affect the parent-child relationship. According to the Supreme Court, there were 21 cases in 2009 in which parents were stripped of this right.

Alternatively, a consultation center can place children in a child welfare facility with a family court's approval, even if the parents oppose this.

However, the parents still retain official custody of the child, and many workers at these facilities "get exhausted from dealing with parents who strongly oppose having their children hospitalized or advancing to the next stage of schooling," a children's nursing home head in Tokyo said.

If the bill to revise the Civil Code gets passed into law, limitations on parents' rights are expected to be enforced for up to two years.

These parents can regain these rights even sooner if they change their attitude. The new policy will offer a step-by-step approach to improving the parent-child relationship before parents completely lose their rights.

Lawyer Fumiaki Isogae, who specializes in child abuse cases, believes this less-severe approach will encourage parents to become better moms and dads.

"Compared with losing their rights entirely, parents will be motivated to improve the home situation, and I think this will help prevent trouble between [children's nursing homes] and parents after kids are placed under protection," Isogae said.

However, introducing the policy is unlikely to be smooth sailing.

One problem is that many people are reluctant to take on the heavy responsibility of being a guardian for a juvenile whose parents have had their rights suspended. A possible solution would be to have more than one person or a corporate group placed in charge of caring for the child.

The policy also could place additional pressure on parents--and raise their objections to it.

Somei Muto, the head of the policy planning division of the national council of children's nursing homes, wants parents given more support.

"We need more staff who specialize in supporting parents and families," Muto said. "We also need to expand a program to educate parents about how to care for their children."

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