THE TERM “Kindergarten” literally translates to “children’s garden,” reflecting Friedrich Fröbel’s sentiment that these preschool institutions should nurture and take care of children like plants in a garden. But recent media exposure of child abuse cases in childcare centers in South Korea suggests nothing other than the contrary. Repeated occurrences of child abuse in childcare facilities have come to turn the kindergarten into a place of fear for many.
Child abuse in Korea
The appalling child abuse cases that occurred in a national public childcare facility located in Busan and the Sejong Government Complex childcare center in Seoul brought to public attention the horrifying issue of child abuse in these facilities. Unimaginable acts have continuously been occurring such as hitting a child until bruises covered the child’s body and locking him or her in a room.
Statistically, the number of reported child abuse cases in childcare centers has been rising. Within three years, the number of reported child abuse cases in childcare facilities more than doubled. In 2009, 67 cases were reported to the National Child Protection Agency. In 2011, a total of 159 cases were reported. Kang In-su (Manager, Public Relations & Cooperation Team, National Child Protection Agency) says that though the amount of child abuse that is occurring is not necessarily rising, the number of reported cases has been rising. Consequently, the public is focusing more on the issue.
Why child abuse persists
South Korean society itself is a source for many problems that allow child abuse in childcare centers to continue. The trouble with child abuse is that, at times, the lines drawn between what is and what may not be considered child abuse are extremely ambiguous. “Child abuse is referred to as actions that inhibit child development, but then questions are raised about exactly what actions are included in this definition.” Kang says that this ambiguity contributes greatly to the reasons why child abuse is not dealt with effectively.
Kang also points to the low level of social awareness on the issue as a reason why child abuse persists. “Although there has definitely been substantial progress, our perception and knowledge about child abuse is still very limited,” he says. “And this ends up being a large contributor to why child abuse is not as effectively dealt with as it could be. Social perception is an important and crucial requirement to effectively and efficiently prevent child abuse.”
Another major perpetuator of the problem is the lack of training for teachers. Kang says that many teachers are greatly unprepared for the task of childcare. “Their inflicting abuse on kids may come from not knowing how else to express the overwhelming stress,” he says. “Also, the frustration that comes from the lack of comprehension of what a child needs can translate into physical violence. Why is the child continuously crying? Teachers who do not know the answer and who are desperate to make them stop then can use abusive methods to make them stop.” Indeed, teachers struggle with the need of having to control the children. “They may know in theory that one ought not to abuse a child, but it is a different thing to be able to apply this knowledge in real life situations. Unless there is a real and substantial training of teachers, abuse may result,” says Clifton Emery (Prof., The Graduate School of Social Welfare).
The punishments for abusers as well as lack of regulation policies prove to be problematic as well. Penalties are very light and inconsistent; the government can close the childcare center, cut off funding, issue a warning, suspend the teacher’s license for a year, or fire the teacher. If charged with child abuse, perpetrators face one of the aforementioned consequences. “But it pretty much ends there,” says Kang. It does not go any further to fundamentally punish the perpetrators and regulate the child abuse cases.
Additionally, there is no information system set for parents to identify whether teachers caring for their children have a record of abusing students in the past. “Currently there is no mechanism that is effectively monitoring these people,” says Kang. “The lack of transparency on abuser information ultimately leads to parents inadvertently entrusting the care of their children in the hands of past abusers.”
Antidotes for abuse
How should our society battle this problem? Kang says that raising awareness should be the first and most important step. “The level of the public’s awareness on child abuse is not where it needs to be.” The way to go about this, Kang says, is propelling more campaigning activities and education processes. The attitude that our culture comes to harbor regarding child abuse will be instrumental in both preventing the abuse before it happens and catching it is in its early stages.
On the governmental front, Kang says that there needs to be a re-education process, consistent supervision, and monitoring of the abuser. “As of now, the law has no significant policy regarding what is done with the abuser,” he says. “If the person is penalized, then it ends there. The case is finished. This is meaningless because it opens up the possibility of that individual committing acts of abuse again. For example, a childcare center head who is convicted of child abuse may be forced to close down the childcare center, but is free to then go and set up a new one under a different name.” In such ways the problem keeps perpetuating, he says. The government must be able to stop these abusers from moving on and repeating their actions through pursing policies that remove the danger of abusers.
Kang further asserts that there too needs to be transparency about information on abusers. “So the government must settle the issue of how regulation should take place and who will monitor the information on abusers so parents are informed.” Transparency should also be achieved in setting up mechanisms that will clearly indicate if one has abused a child. “Child abuse is very covert and very hard to uncover,” says Kang. “And children being young, do not have the ability to testify, so it becomes extremely hard for protection agencies to judge these ambiguous cases. A solution could be installing more CCTV’s so that it is easier to observe and monitor children in childcare centers.”
In addition, the government should ensure the quality of childcare center teachers. According to Kang, as the education system became compulsory and the demand for caretakers in childcare increased significantly, our country simply sought to widen the pool of teachers without working toward making sure that they were well trained so that the child’s safety would be guaranteed.
But other than training, Emery says, we need to support caretakers by decreasing strain for instructors. For example, in cases where the child to caregiver ratio is unbalanced, there is a large amount of strain for the caretaker. “It must be ensured that the circumstances are so that caregivers are not pushed to exhaustion which could lead to using violence,” he says.
Emery also says that street-level bureaucrats need to be given more authority so that they can tackle child abuse cases more efficiently. “The police officers, social workers, and child welfare workers in Korea have little authority, and this is a problem. In effect, they can only intervene when the party in question is willing to comply,” he says. Society needs street-level bureaucrats who are well trained in these issues and have the ability to exercise their training so that they know what to do when they face these problems.
* * *
To raise a child with love and care is to foster a bright future. Perhaps this is the reason why it is even more unacceptable that abuse is happening in the very places that are meant for this purpose. Child abuse must be effectively punished and fundamentally conceived of as a crime by society. It is time to realize the seriousness of child abuse, contemplate about what it constitutes, and to recognize that education and discipline should by no means include violence. Society’s collective duty as a whole is to ensure that childcare centers remain the institutions that reflect Fröbel’s initial intention of a haven for children and ultimately, society’s hope.