Tragic Death of Child Abuse Victim Prompts New Child Protection Measures
Tragic Death of Child Abuse Victim Prompts New Child Protection Measures
  • Reporter Park Eu-gene, Park Jee-won
  • 승인 2021.02.27 23:30
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▲Child protection laws passed in the National Assembly / Yonhap News
▲Child protection laws passed in the National Assembly / Yonhap News



On Oct. 13, 2020, an adopted 16-month old baby died of severe abdominal injuries, internal bleeding, and prolonged abuse. Though the abuse was reported three times, the police failed to help the baby each time. The cruel and brutal nature of the abuse, along with the fact that she could have been saved if the police had taken action, attracted public grief and outrage.
Child abuse is a serious problem in Korea. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of child abuse reports has risen dramatically by 115% over the last five years from 19,214 in 2015 to 41,389 reports in 2019. The number of confirmed child abuse cases also increased by 156% in the same period, from 11,715 to 30,045. 
However, child protection laws and services in Korea are inadequate. Even if abuse is reported, the current policy encourages the State and local governments to return children to their homes “as quickly as possible” (Article 4(3) of the Child Welfare Act). However, without adequate follow-up measures, many children face renewed abuse. Repeated child abuse cases increased by 177% from 1,240 in 2015 to 3,431 in 2019. Furthermore, protection against child abuse is fragile—there are only 240 child abuse officials and just 75 shelters for abused children. 
Korea’s child protection legislation and system are developing slower than in other countries. Many experts, including Save the Children, an international children’s relief organization, say there is no boundary between abuse and corporal punishment. Due to this perception, 54 countries worldwide have already banned corporal punishment of children starting with Sweden in 1979. In 2007, New Zealand passed a law banning corporal punishment. Previously, the New Zealand Criminal Law stipulated that hitting children with bare hands was not a criminal act. However, the regulation was criticized and revised for its possibility to be used as an excuse for parents to abuse their children. Moreover, Sweden has a collaborative system consisting of the government, child protection agencies, police, and health experts who respond altogether in child abuse cases. In the U.S., counselors from child protection agencies reside at the police station with police officers dedicated to dealing with child abuse cases. In Australia, emergency calls for child abuse are operated 24 hours a day. However, only in January—after the death of an abused toddler—did the Korean National Assembly pass child protection laws, including bans on corporal punishment at home.
The problem of child abuse came into spotlight after an investigative TV program, Unanswered Questions, aired the death of the abused toddler on Jan. 2. There was a public outcry from many, including celebrities and politicians. In response, the National Assembly passed several child protection laws on Jan. 8—just six days after the program episode aired. The new bill mandates law enforcement to start an investigation immediately upon being alerted of child abuse, and officials handling child abuse cases are given more access during on-site investigations. Furthermore, the perpetrator must be separated from the victim during the investigation and those who obstruct or refuse to cooperate with official investigations can face higher fines or prison sentences.
Additionally, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced new measures to prevent child abuse on Jan. 19. Firstly, more initial responders who are trained professionally will have access to greater resources and facilities. Secondly, a variety of measures to quickly identify, report, separate, protect, and treat children in abusive situations will be implemented. Thirdly, the overall adoption process will be reexamined to monitor adoption agencies more thoroughly and educate adoptive parents.
However, some pointed out that the more than 20 related bills rushed through by lawmakers could put victims of child abuse in greater danger. Unanswered Questions said, “If you look into the case, the victim died not because there was no law but because there was no system to support the law.” On Jan. 22, 91 civil society and human rights groups issued a statement calling for a review of the government’s measures. “The government’s measures list only fragmentary solutions, avoiding the diagnosis of the fundamental cause of the [child abuse] problem,” they criticized. The statement indicated that simply increasing the training of public officials without specific measures only adds to the burden on site. They argue that policies that protect children’s right to return to a safer home should be prioritized over the short-sighted, temporary solution of immediate separation. Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong said on Facebook, “[the immediate separation of children] could prevent children from being protected when shelter facilities are not properly prepared.”