Photo/IllutrationA woman in her 20s says she was sexually abused when she lived in a child welfare facility. (Maki Okubo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The central government will open a fact-finding investigation into child-against-child sexual abuse at welfare institutions nationwide, an underreported problem whose severity was recently exposed by shocking revelations in Mie Prefecture.

The move by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare followed the Mie prefectural government’s disclosure that at least 111 such sexual abuse cases occurred at child welfare facilities in the prefecture over nine years from fiscal 2008.

Under the Child Welfare Law, prefectural authorities are required to inform the central government about sexual violence committed by staff workers against children at these institutions.

But the prefectures are not obliged to report sexual violence committed by residents against other residents, leaving the overall picture murky.

“The ministry has not been aggressive about trying to grasp the actual situation, but the need has arisen for a reality check about violence between children, including sexual abuse, after the cases in Mie Prefecture emerged,” said Kei Kawajiri, an official at the ministry’s Family Welfare Division.

The incidents in Mie Prefecture might have remained hidden had it not been for Mie Shisetsunai Boryoku to Seiboryoku o Nakusu Kai, a civic group working to eliminate physical and sexual violence at child welfare institutions. The group was set up in Nabari in the prefecture, by a mother of a girl who was sexually abused by a boy at a welfare center.

According to the Mie government, more than 600 children reside at welfare facilities in the prefecture. They live separately from their parents for various reasons, such as abuse at their homes.

At those facilities, 274 residents were involved in sexual abuse--either as perpetrators or victims--between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2016.

Records on 51 cases over five years through fiscal 2012 showed that 144 residents aged 2 through 19 were either perpetrators or victims, and 88 of them were male.

The sexual transgressions included kissing, groping and oral sex, in addition to sexual intercourse.

The reports included same-sex cases.

A Mie official at a section overseeing assistance for parental support acknowledged that the number of sexual violence cases at child welfare institutions is “not small.”

“But we step in, depending on the nature of each individual case, and are trying to address the issue,” the official said.

Prefectural authorities have called on child welfare facilities to report instances of physical and sexual violence between children.

But the facilities are generally reluctant to do so.

One Tokyo metropolitan government official explained, “It could cause prejudice against and misunderstanding about child welfare institutions and the children who live there.”

According to the metropolitan government, reports about sexual misconduct between children at welfare institutions totaled 63 in fiscal 2015, 74 in fiscal 2016, and 60 from April to December 2017.

The figures, obtained by The Asahi Shimbun through information disclosure, only cover cases that the facilities have reported to metropolitan officials.

“There are no set guidelines obliging them to report to us,” an official handling metropolitan government assistance to single-parent households and other welfare programs said. “We cannot reveal any further details, such as how many children were involved, what kind of sexual acts occurred, or their ages.”

In Tokyo, around 3,000 children live in 63 metropolitan government-run welfare facilities.

The civic group in Mie Prefecture was established by Midori Kasuga last September.

After her divorce, Kasuga suffered health problems and put her daughter, then 7, in a child welfare institution.

Kasuga learned that her daughter was repeatedly abused in 2011-12 by a then 13-year-old boy at the facility who would pull down the girl’s underwear and press his lower body against her.

The mother sued the prefectural government, the facility and the boy for damages in 2013.

The Tsu District Court in the prefecture in April 2017 acknowledged the offense and ordered the mother of the boy to pay 1.8 million yen ($16,800) in compensation.

The court also ordered the prefectural government to disclose records about sexual abuse at the facilities through fiscal 2012.

Kasuga and her group gained access not only to those records but also cases for the following years from the Mie prefectural government.

“My daughter’s case was not an isolated one,” said Kasuga, 42. “We want to continue our activities to reduce the damage (to children).”

Katsumi Takenaka, chief of the secretariat of an advocacy group working for a similar cause in Tokyo, said child-against-child sex abuse is common at welfare facilities.

“In many cases, offenders have experienced the abuse themselves,” he said. “It is essential to understand the actual situation, and officials should be required by law to report sexual abuse between children.”