The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted in November 1989 at the UN General Assembly as a convention specifying the fundamental rights for civil, political, social and cultural rights of every child. Korea, as one of countries that has ratified it, is obligated to seize the situation of children human rights and report the results of continuous monitoring. Now, 98 years later, there are increasing child abuse cases and children in blind spots are still at risk. In 2020, Jeong-in passed away due to the cruelty of her adoptive parents.
What is Child Abuse?
Despite the Korean government trying to follow this obligation and to prevent child abuse, child abuse incidents are causing increasing social resentment not only regret. Until a few years ago, the reporting rate was very low because many people had not conventionally regarded child abuse as serious, and worried about being criticized or putting children in danger by reporting. However, abuses committed in the name of discipline are no longer excuses for suspected abusers, and the government is trying to specify how far is too far in discipline and what abuse is. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW), there were more than 30,000 reports of child abuse recently, proving it is a terrible epidemic that people are dedicated to put an end to.
Child abuse mostly refers to physical, emotional, sexual violence, verbal abuse, and abandonment and neglect by an adult, including a guardian, a parent or caregiver that may harm the health and welfare of a child or cause injury or risk to normal development. The causes of child abuse are largely attributed to family and social factors. The abusers are parents, other children, educators, etc. This is not just a problem between parents and children but a structural problem encompassing everyone from families to those in social isolation.
The Current State of Child Abuse in Korea
Since 2015, the number of child abuse reports has steadily increased with a rapid surge in recent years. Over half of the cases are a mixture of child abuse types. Notably, a big problem discovered was that 97% of child-batterers were relatives, parents and surrogate caregivers; moreover, the victims have not escaped from harmful places and even worse are neglected by society.
National Center for the Rights of the Child (NCRC) said, “There are various reasons for the increase in child abuse cases.” At the same time, they gave a different perspective on the reason why the detection rate of abused children is gradually increasing. They mentioned that the social perception of child abuse is gradually changing due to various promotions and legislation, such as the Child Welfare Act and the Act on Special Cases concerning the Punishment, etc. of Child Abuse Crime (ASCPCAC). Accordingly, the workforce, related organizations and the occupational group of the person bound in duty to give the notification have increased, which made it possible to “reveal” incidents that were not previously discovered. With this expansive cooperation, there was a gradual increase in the “detection rate” of child abuse victims.
A positive outlook is that Korea’s attitude toward child abuse has changed a lot. Although it is still in the early stages, child abuse officials began to be assigned to local governments from last October with help from private specialized child protection organizations. Unfortunately, compared to the growing number of child abuse detections, the response to the victims is still insufficient and the investigations or punishments are criticized for being inappropriate.
The Current State of Dealing with Child Abuse in Korea
Oh Joon, Chair of the Save the Children Korea Board explained how Korea copes with child abuse cases. “After a child abuse report is received, the police or an official will investigate the matter. During the field investigation, the child can be separated from the home as a first aid measure if the situation is too dangerous. However, if the separation itself is a big shock to the child, counseling and education can be conducted to support the guardian and the child. Along with the results of a judicial police investigation, the case can proceed with a child protection trial or a criminal trial and the court may restrict the child abuser.”
For each type of child abuse, different punishment rules are applied. As far as is known, those who have committed physical/mental abuse or neglect would be imprisoned for no more than five years or pay a fine of less than 50 million won. Aggravated punishment is possible for habitual offenders. In cases of serious injury, one could be in prisoned for more than three years and if the child died, then one could be imprisoned for more than five years or life.
What About Other Countries?
Many people criticize that Korea’s sanctions are relatively weak compared to other countries such as Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom. From the interview with Chair Oh, he compared Korea with other countries saying, “The level of punishment in Korea turned out to be lower than other countries according to MOHW. Nonetheless, even in other countries, laws and institutions do not necessarily operate in the direction of imposing heavy penalties. Child abuse is a special case in that most of child abusers are care givers, and the victim's defense ability is extremely low. Unless those specificities are distinctively considered, sentences on child abusers are easily commuted in courts.”
Additionally, many cases have not been investigated in-depth in Korea because of private organizations. Unlike other countries where child abuse is under the control of the local government, private organizations had mainly managed child abuse cases in Korea. Therefore, they have had restrictions, preventing them from intervening in a case if the abuser denied them, leaving no other recourse. Reflecting on other countries, changing the managing institutions regarding child abuse in Korea would be positive.
After Victoria Climbié’s preventable death from child abuse in England, the government investigated the case for two years and published The Victoria Climbié Inquiry: report of an inquiry by Lord Laming, which established major changes in child protection policies in England. When it comes to Korea, considering how short the time has been after change, local governments should have a bigger responsibility in dealing with child abuse.
Problems in Dealing with Child Abuse in Korea
- Relatively Light Sentences for Child Abusers
In the case of a death from child abuse, where it is difficult to prove the “intention of murder”, the related crime is often prosecuted as a Child Abuse Homicide rather than being considered as a murder crime. Thus, sentences toward child murder are usually criticized as “a slap on the wrist” because the law is too permissive.
Park Myung-sook, a Professor from the Department of Social Welfare at Sangji University, conveyed her ideas on the Korean system: “It is true that the current punishment level for perpetrators of child abuse in Korea is low compared to foreign countries. However, it is important to discuss child abuse in a broader space, not just focusing all on ‘punishment issues’ because sometimes excessive discussions on punishment may conceal the core problem in our society. In this regard, when we deal with child abuse, for instance, the abused parent, non-affected parent, the victim child, siblings and other members are all required to be interviewed when the case occurs at home. Also, the abuser must face legal penalties, but at the same time, professional treatment services must also be provided.”
In 2014, the Special Act, reinforcing social intervention for child abuse was announced, but 70~80% of cases still have no clear ground to enforce the law or directions on how to step in, making it difficult to produce a practical effect. Thus, the necessity of active prevention and early detection is being emphasized to respond differently for each case.
- Lax Investigations by Police
In connection with the problem occurring in Korea, insufficient responses to incidents and unclear investigations have also been problematic. Professor Park explained, “Since each field has different standards, it is hard to cope with child abuse cases actively due to dissimilar regulations and education in the work-place.”
In addition to this, Korea has just started to set public officials to investigate and report child abuse cases so professional judgements are not properly carried out. People are also reluctant to take charge of a child abuse case because the task itself is physically excessive requiring accountability. To ease the negative atmosphere, education and the treatment are critical.
- Unconvincing Reporting Climate for Child Abuse
The reporting climate of child abuse in Korea also seems to be unstable. According to ASCPCAC, a few professions are designated to have a duty to report child abuse: doctors, teachers in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, workers in adoption agencies, workers in youth facilities, etc. Under the condition of legally protecting their status, it is mandatory for those professions to directly report every child abuse or suspicious case they find, so that proper actions can be quickly taken to save those children in need. These people should also regularly participate in compulsory reporting education for a deeper understanding. Ha Ji-yeon, a teacher in a public day care center located in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul, said that she had taken the compulsory education. Taking an online course, she said that she learned about actual precedents of child abuse and procedures of reporting child abuse depending on situations. However, in spite of these legal and educational efforts to increase the report rate of child abuse, the actual effectiveness seems to be far less than expected. Especially, she thinks that the reporting climate of child abuse is not well settled, since there are too many other factors to be considered. For example, it is common for people with report duty to worry about their identities being revealed. There have been cases where a reporter’s status became implicitly identified after courageously reporting to the police. With the fear of retaliation or experiencing disadvantages in their work, it is unlikely that many would report to the police. Moreover, in terms of child abuse at home, reporting with only a slight suspicion is almost impossible, because an adult’s opinion often has more weight than that of children. In addition, considering the various relationships between parents and teachers, reporting without a specific conviction becomes a burden. In other words, an unsubstantiated protection system for child abuse reporters lowers the reporting rate to where they eventually lose their sense of responsibility to report.
- Poor Child Protection System after Reporting
Lastly, protection for child abuse victims after reporting also seems weak, throwing suspicion on its practicality. After reporting, a field investigation is taken to identify the case in detail. Most child victims are provided with counseling programs. They are also sent to a child welfare institution or adoption center, where they can be protected. Kim Sun-ah, Professor from the Department of Social Welfare at Korea Soongsil Cyber University, said, “A lack of safe places for victims is one of the biggest problems among current policies for child abuse. Originally, it was necessary for those victims to be separated from attackers in the worst case and stay in a shelter, where they could relax and be protected from any further danger. However, there are not enough shelters provided for victims in reality, which lowers the quality of protection toward victims.” At this point, she also mentions that family separation is not a simple solution to the problem. “Considering that family has a huge influence on a child’s growth and development, it is important to think about how a family can fulfill its function to raise a child. Since there are some cases abroad where a child fails to have proper protection even after being separated from their family, separation cannot be everything.” Ultimately, she thinks that such problems are actually derived from the small budget for child welfare. “Most of the budgets for child abuse prevention are filled with funds, which mostly remain insufficient. As a result, the lack of funds decreases the scale of child welfare support; abandoning victims in a blind spot.”
Social Perception on Child Abuse in Korea
Professor Hong Eun-joo, from the Department of Child Studies at Eulji University, said that the Jeong-in case was a chance to reveal actual social perception on child abuse in Korea. At first, in terms of child abusers, increasing the number of child abuse cases means that there are still many parents or teachers who have a low perception of children. Those adults who take care of children tend to regard them as possessions or lower beings. Therefore, they do not realize that what they are doing is abuse. This implies that changing the perception of children should be prioritized so that perception of child abuse can be further improved.
Additionally, in terms of the public, there was an active social movement going on in the Jeong-in case. Being shocked at the tragic incident, many people started a hashtag movement on their SNS to grieve Jeong-in’s death. With a photo of the #Sorry_Jeong-in phrase written on a piece of paper, they tried to share their feelings of how sorry and distraught they were. Thanks to their participation, the case was more publicized. Also, over 500 petitions were registered on the national petition website. Professor Hong said that such online movements are positive in that they expand social perceptions on child abuse effectively. However, there were some people who used the Jeong-in case for personal benefit, such as increasing video hits on YouTube or selling products for money. Professor Hong said that she feels sorry about those malicious actions. She also advised that publicizing a case through the internet should be done carefully with a pure purpose; not for personal gain. Such social reactions showed how SNS use could be a double-edged sword. It seems especially important for people to inspect themselves as to whether or not they are utilizing it for a proper purpose.
Desirable Solutions to Prevent and Deal with Child Abuse
It was not just Jeong-in, but many children who have been sacrificed because of vicious adults. Whenever a serious case was discovered, there was the same social pattern repeated in Korea. First, people poured out their anger about the case, mentioning how unbelievably terrible the case was. Watching the public’s rage, investigation officials and other supervisors made an urgent apology. They also trotted out personnel management to reprimand the people in charge of the case. Later, dozens of countermeasures are suggested by politicians in a hurry, which are known to be “recurrence preventions” for the future. After all, those hasty “preventions” without prudence provoke confusion, and the public’s attention is forgotten over other issues. In order to break this poor cycle, many experts are looking for practical measures to effectively prevent and deal with child abuse.
As mentioned earlier, Professor Park suggested preparing an education system to strengthen the expertise of people in charge of child abuse. However, she also mentions that realistic measures should be examined in the current situation, where public officials should take care of tasks on child abuse from this year. For example, regarding the fact that child protection institutions in Korea span more than twenty years, some experienced workers from those institutions should be specially recruited as public officials. These experienced workers would provide other public officials with supervision to manage child abuse cases correctly. Additionally, she highlighted the importance of preventive efforts regarding child abuse: “Legal punishment and control are one of the factors to deal with child abuse. However, early discovery of child abuse in a family and getting rid of possible dangerous causes should come before.”
Likewise, Professor Kim Sun-ah pointed out how important it is to prepare for child abuse preventive education: “Especially, teenage parents or a family with a history of violence should have compulsory education on how to deal with their children. Providing various services, like counseling or monitoring of young children, would help a family to reinforce its own functions. Such preventive measures could be strengthened with help from the local community and educational institutions.”
Professor Hong Eun-joo also mentioned education as a significant way to fundamentally increase social perceptions of child abuse. In order to view a child as an independent individual and someone who adults should protect, having continuous education in child-related professions is highly necessary. Moreover, promoting such ideal perceptions through local governments would also be supportive.
Preparation for victims after child abuse should never be overlooked. Professor Kim emphasized focusing on a victim’s circumstance, rather than on the abuser’s. “Nurturing methods afterward should be taken carefully according to the victim’s situation. In this regard, every single method should be practiced under systemic case management, including foster care, family separation, and adoption. Particularly, a large-scale care service should be avoided if possible, because a child cannot have individual freedom and the experience of family.”
Professor Hong also added the hardship of caring for victims after child abuse. “Victims are supposed to have expert protection in child protection institutions. However, after a certain period of protection, victims go through difficulties, such as being reunited with their abusers. Therefore, close management when visiting families and supporting victims with counseling therapy is highly needed.”
A Step to Save Children, A Step to Protect Our Society
In conclusion, Professor Park implies an essential point about child abuse in Korea: “Korean society has long been fixed with the sociocultural context of refusing social intervention in family problems, parents having absolute authority over children, and an optimistic attitude regarding physical punishment. Such features not only hinder effective intervention of child abuse but also become risk factors in intensifying child abuse. Therefore, a change of social perceptions on child abuse should be prioritized to strengthen sensitivity about child abuse. Moreover, various research has shown that people who suffered from child abuse at a young age have negative trauma over their lifetime. These negative influences not only impact an individual’s life but also the whole society. Thus, effective intervention and prevention of child abuses, including legal punishment and social policies, should be recognized as a social investigation to nurture healthy members of our society. The government is also required to show active support for improvement.”
Korean society has already lost too many young victims. From now on, there should be no more children who are crying in the darkness of pain.