According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, only a quarter of convicted child abusers whose actions did not cause death were incarcerated between 1998 and 2016. Most received suspended sentences or fines.
Even among child abusers who killed their victims, 21 percent avoided prison, the report showed.
“In many cases, parents facing prosecution for child abuse have their charges dropped as the children have nowhere else to go,” criminal lawyer Kang Shin-up said. Sometimes children even ask to be sent home to abusive parents, Kang added.
According to Kang, Korean society as a whole still places heavy emphasis on the protection of the family unit and parental rights over their children.
The tendency is reflected in Article 915 of the Civil Law, which enshrines parents’ rights to take “disciplinary action” against their children. The article, established in 1960, states that parents can punish their children to educate or discipline them.
Many children’s rights activists in and out of the nation have urged its removal, saying the clause may be interpreted as sanctioning the use of force on children. Few Organization of Economic Cooperation member countries spell out such a right by law.
However, the Justice Ministry holds a more cautious stance on deleting the clause.
“Article 915 does not grant any corporal punishment in childrearing prohibited by the Child Welfare Law, and hence it is rather unreasonable to suddenly delete the clause which has not in itself caused any problems,” said an official from the Justice Ministry’s judicial deliberation department, who wished not to reveal her name.
Nevertheless, Kang said, penalties for child abuse have been heavier in recent years with the enactment of the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment Etc. of Child Abuse Crimes in 2014.
The act states that if a child sustains severe injury from abuse, the minimum sentence is three years imprisonment, whereas homicide resulting from child abuse can incur a life sentence and the minimum is five years.
But this is only the minimum for the “statutory punishment,” and the actual sentence issued may be less than this if the judge recognizes mitigating circumstances.
So despite the act, court rulings often fall short of public expectations.
This September, a father who killed his 10-month-old son by shaking him hard and pushing him over was given a suspended sentence. In July another father got seven years for killing his newborn baby for disturbing him while he was playing computer games. Last week, a mother who had repeatedly abused her 3-year-old daughter, locking her up in the bathroom for hours in freezing January weather and eventually killing her, had her sentence commuted in an appellate court because of hardships she had experienced in her life.
Meanwhile, Korean law mandates harsh penalties for those who kill their own parents. Those convicted of parricide -- a separate offense here, more serious than ordinary murder -- get a minimum of seven years in prison, while the minimum sentence for murder is five years.
Holes in child protection system
As the high rate of repeat offenses by parents shows, officials have difficulty intervening when child abuse happens at home.
Under the current system, the National Child Protection Agency -- affiliated with the Welfare Ministry -- is exclusively in charge of responding to child abuse reports and handling abuse cases.
Once a member of the public alerts the police to possible child abuse, the police will go to the scene accompanied by an agent from the relevant regional branch of the child protection agency. The system was installed to ensure the involvement of a child protection expert to exercise appropriate judgment and protect children throughout the investigative process.
However, since 2000, when the national agency was established under the Welfare Ministry, local ward offices have entrusted the operation of the regional agencies to private organizations.
“The so-called child protection experts from the agencies who are dispatched to the homes can exercise no official power because they are affiliated with private organizations and are not public officers,” said Lee Soo-jun, a professor of criminal psychology at Gyeonggi University. “If the parent complains about their interference with what they call ‘family affairs,’ the agents can do nothing.”
Because the people at the front lines of child abuse lack authority, children are often sent back to parents who hurt them -- with no action being taken.
According to an official from the National Child Protection Agency, who wished not to reveal her name, unless a child abuse case goes to court and judicial orders are issued, there is not much that can be done.
“Around 3.4 kids out of 1,000 are abused in South Korea, whereas about 9 or 10 out of 1,000 children are in danger of abuse in the developed nations, including the US. But don’t be deceived by the numbers because South Koreans are still shy about reporting (abuse) to the police and taking action on other families’ problems,” the official said.
“Not many child abuse cases (result in) jail terms at the court and many stop at being ordered some hours of child abuse education and separation from their children for a year or more.”
According to the 2014 special act, victims of domestic child abuse are separated from their abusers for a minimum of one year and up to four years. If there are no signs of violence during that time and if the parent requests the child’s return, there is little chance the court can extend the protection period.
Follow-up on abuse cases is almost nonexistent under the current system.
Although the Child Welfare Law states that local agents must visit the family and make phone calls to check on the child and the parents, the law lacks disciplinary measures for parents who refuse to cooperate. Even if they deliberately deceive the agents, the officials have no legal way to gain access to private homes against the parents’ wishes.
Not parent and child, but offender and victim
Experts also decry the government’s principle of “returning children to their original families,” which is considered the ideal, but may in fact be a cause of the high rate of repeat offenses.
According to the Welfare Ministry’s data, 81 percent of 22,367 child abuse cases ended with the children returning to their homes.
“The principle is based on the idea that it’s always best for a child to be raised by his or her parents inside the family,” Kong Hye-jung, the chief of the Korea Child Abuse Protection Association, said. “To make that happen, the parents must be properly educated and rehabilitated before bringing their children back. But such preconditions are not being fulfilled.”
Kong said it is unclear how the agency decides when and why children can be sent back to their families. Such ambiguous decisions have led to child deaths that could have been prevented.
“The boy who was repeatedly abused and finally killed by his stepfather was returned to his house after two years and a few months of protected stay at a child care institution. There were several attempts by the father that clearly proved it was still dangerous to return him, but the boy was still returned at the father’s request,” Kong said.
In Lee’s view, when a parent harms his or her own child, they are no longer parent and child but perpetrator and victim.
“The only way to prevent child abuse happening inside the home is to put the police back at the front line,” Lee said.
Under the current system, the National Child Protection Agency conducts preliminary child abuse investigations and decides which cases should be prosecuted.
“The police should screen and decide whether the case warrants prosecution or should just be put to the agency to deal with through education,” she continued.
According to Lee, in the US, once child abuse or neglect is reported to the police, law enforcement works in cooperation with a governmental agency known in many states as Child Protective Services. In cooperation with the state agency, law enforcement takes charge of all responding procedures, investigates criminal allegations, apprehends offenders and files appropriate criminal charges.
Fundamental changes needed
While strong law enforcement and punishment can help identify abused children and prevent repeat offenses, a fundamental system to root out violence against children at home is imperative.
“Most of the kids being severely injured by their parents’ neglect and violence are often under 1 year in age. And in such cases, the parents are also so young, many of them in their teens and early 20s,” Kong said. “A large part of the parents who commit crimes against their own children are undereducated, often do not have a proper job and are too immature to rear a child.
“Although such impoverished situations cannot excuse child abuse, the society must become aware and support such families that are evidently in dire need of help. Taking care of those problematic parents must come first,” Kong said.
By Choi Ji-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)