Another high-profile child abuse case has once again spurred a nationwide political movement in South Korea. The public is calling for legislative change to protect children’s rights, including heightened punishment for child abusers and an improved system to investigate potential cases.
But the movement could end up as just another short-lived hype, experts warn, saying that earlier such endeavors fell short of yielding meaningful results.
The 16-month-old girl at the center of the latest case, named Jeong-in, died in October at a hospital emergency room in western Seoul after arriving there with bruises, fractures and severe organ damage.
The National Forensic Service concluded that the baby died of serious internal bleeding from her organs caused by external force. She was also found with severe injuries to her pancreas and a torn mesentery, an organ attached to the intestines.
A hospital worker alerted the police, and her adoptive parents now face a number of charges including child abuse and causing death through child abuse and neglect.
The police also came under fire for failing to act on three separate reports of child abuse filed by a day care teacher and a pediatrician before Jeong-in died in October.
By noon Tuesday, more than 230,000 people had signed a public petition on the presidential website asking for her adoptive parents to be tried on murder charges. An online campaign expressing remorse for Jeong-in’s death has also swept the nation.
The public outrage also spread to the world of politics, with top officials calling for stricter punishment for child abusers and legislation to prevent child abuse by adoptive parents.
President Moon Jae-in on Monday urged government agencies to strengthen the management and supervision of adoption procedures, asking them to prioritize children’s rights and interests in any adoption process.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Tuesday that the government will push for stronger punishment for child abusers. He also stressed that the government needs to play a more active role in adoptions.
“As the prime minister, I am deeply sorry and regretful of child abuse cases like the one of Jeong-in continuing to occur even though the government has introduced a number of response measures,” he said.
The office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice and the National Police Agency announced in a joint statement Tuesday that the government will strengthen checks on potential adoptive parents and ensure thorough follow-up to monitor the welfare of adopted children.
The government plans to dispatch a total of 664 specialized civil workers to respond to child abuse situations while adding more occupations to the list of those who are mandated to report evidence of child abuse.
The police will run a separate division to handle child abuse cases and will strengthen cooperation with related ministries and agencies. Regular police follow-up will be mandatory in cases where child abuse has been reported more than once.
Ministries added that they will push for legislative changes to give more authority to the police and child abuse response workers during investigations.
Both the ruling Democratic Party and the main opposition People Power Party have also vowed to revise related laws to ensure better protection for victims and stronger penalties for abusers.
While experts view this as a good sign, they are not optimistic as they fear the Jeong-in case could end up as another short-lived drama -- only to be forgotten after a few months like many other cases in the past.
“Attention is good, and we need that to spur changes that really matter, but in most cases, this kind of public outrage just ended at that with nothing made as a legacy,” said Chung Ick-joong, a social welfare professor at Ewha Womans University.
“All these bills are gone by the time the budget season comes, which means that child abuse is, in reality, anything but a priority to the political circle.”
According to government data, a total of 132 children were found to have died from child abuse from 2014 to 2018. The number of child abuse cases handled by the Welfare Ministry stood at 24,604 cases in 2018, more than four times the 5,578 cases recorded 10 years earlier.
According to parliamentary records, 41 bills regarding the Act on Special Cases Related to the Punishment of Child Abuse Crimes were proposed between May 2016 and May 2020, but only seven were made into law. The rest expired.
“Legislative changes are good, and people should be monitoring these bills to see whether they really turn into laws later on,” Chung added.
Experts also call for greater budgetary support from the government for children in danger of abuse, saying more experts are needed to identify potential child abuse cases and assist victims in need.
The government allotted 8.6 billion won ($7.9 million) for child protection initiatives under the Health Ministry’s 89.6 trillion won annual budget for this year.
“Legislative bills are just a start, and we need a lot more people assigned to look into potential child abuse cases and make on-site inspections, and those, of course, need budgetary support,” said Lee Bae-geun, chairman of the Korea Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.
“Unfortunately we cannot stop the acts of child abuse altogether, but what we can do is improve the system so that we can uncover potential or ongoing cases as early as possible.”
Lee said people should be encouraged to step up and protect children, and that those who report child abuse suspicions to law enforcement need greater protection regardless of whether those suspicions turn out to be well founded.
“People should be aware of the fact that any form of violence on children is unacceptable, and they should be willing to report suspicious cases to law enforcement at any time,” Lee said.
“Korean parents are more accepting toward using violence on their children, and people are used to ignoring such acts if they are not related. That mindset should be changed altogether to bring lasting changes.”
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org