Last year, Jeong-in, who was a 16-month baby, had her short life ended unfortunately due to serious child abuse by her foster parents. Doctors who autopsied Jeong-in said her abdomen was full of blood and many of the bones in her tiny body were broken. They also emphasized that the child was raised in an unhealthy parenting environment. The outraged public and political circles who heard this tragedy through the broadcast programs such as the famous exploration program, Unanswered Questions (그것이 알고싶다), have urged the justice department to take measures to solve the child abuse crime.
Bills proposed and passed
Since Jeong-in’s incident is issued and widely spread, National Assembly moved quickly. They proposed 16 bills related to child abuse over three days. Among those 16 bills, passed bills are the special act on the punishment of child abuse crimes, which includes imprisonment for up to three years or fines of up to 10 million won for guardians and others who refused to conduct on-site investigations without justifiable reasons.
This bill strengthens the effectiveness of an on-site response by making the launch of an investigation by child abuse reports compulsory and mutual notification of on-site investigations between investigative agencies and local governments. It also required separate investigations for abuse offenders and victims. Some of the revised civil law stipulates banning parents from giving corporal punishment to their children in principle by deleting the clause, “a person with parental authority can take necessary disciplinary measures for the protection or cultivation of a child."
Bills not passed during the plenary session
Meanwhile, some bills were not passed in this plenary session. Those non-passed bills commonly have the purpose of charging the abuser with child abuse crimes so that they receive strict punishment that are equivalent to a charge of murder. The representative bills stipulate severely punishing the child abuse crime sentences with the "death penalty, life imprisonment or more than 10 years in prison" and a bill to raise child abuse felonies from the current sentence of "more than three years in prison" to "more than seven years in prison."
When the public heard about those bills that were not passed, they expressed their complaints. Protesters demanded a law that would punish abusers like the foster parents of Jeong-in more seriously than now, as posting the national petition (국민청원) on the site of Cheong Wa Dae. However, members of the legal profession and experts in the sector of child protection said that consideration should be given to increasing the level of punishment to prevent the result that young victims are not be saved due to the failed law.
The reason why strengthening the level of punishment is dangerous
Experts said that harsher punishments could lead to cover-ups of child abuse crimes, causing difficulties in the court hearing process. A lawyer at the Center for the Rights of the Disabled, Kim Ye-won, said, "The strengthening of sentences in the National Assembly could be counterproductive. Increasing sentences means more responsibility of prosecution and judges to prove the fact of damage.” If the prosecution thinks it has insufficient evidence to get a guilty verdict, the prosecution may choose not to indict suspects for child abuse at all. Judges also require a more specific and higher level of evidence because of the increased responsibility for the ruling.
Especially, considering the point that most of the victims in child abuse cases are young children who cannot express the facts of damages coherently, the requirement of a higher level of evidence makes a range of prosecution narrower. Kim Jong-in, the chairperson of the People Power Party(국민의 힘), said, "I think that this problem will not be solved only through strengthening punishment. Fundamentally, we should focus on how the government will monitor and protect children.”
Failed precedent of strengthening prison sentences, “The Crucible Act(도가니법)”
The movie silenced (도가니) had made people aware of the sexual assault on the disabled by a disabled school staff in November 2011. After the screening of the movie, “The Crucible Act (도가니법)" was created to prevent the crime depicted in the movie. The act increased the minimum sentence for sexual violence crimes against the disabled to seven years. However, the rate of perpetrators being sent to the prosecution has decreased significantly, which was not the expected outcome.
What must change
The measures going forward should protect the children in advance. Experts who are working in the sector of protecting children say the more professional investigation team that can manage the child abuse crime from the first to the end carefully is needed instead of an investigation by ordinary police. In particular, the necessity of a professional investigation team was highlighted recently as the Yangcheon police managed the investigation of the case of Jeong-in insufficiently, despite three reports filed by a kindergarten teacher, a doctor who diagnosed Jeong-in and neighbors of the foster parents. The law separating the child from abuser also should be refined in the way it separates the child in a timely manner, regardless of the count of reports.
Furthermore, the social prejudice that children in relatively well-to-do homes would suffer from child abuse less than children in poor homes should be eliminated. Because child abuse is not a crime caused by the gap between the rich and the poor. Kim Hee-jin, a lawyer of the International Child Rights Center said, "It is time for everyone to be sensitive. All adults of this nation and society need to care about clothes and facial expressions of children around them with interest.”
Many laws related to the child abuse crime have been proposed and passed. However, the child abuse crime is increasing year by year paradoxically. According to the National Police Agency, the number of child abuse reports increased from about 4,000 to 18,830 cases in 2016 to 14,894 as of November last year. It means that the bills passed are not that helpful in preventing the crime effectively. A law for just strengthening punishment only punishes criminals, and does not result in child protection in the long run. National assembly members should remember that saving the life of children is incumbent upon the laws they create. Also, the people and nation should remember the important lesson our society learned through the death of Jeong-in is that we all need to pay more attention to the children around us to see how effective the proposed bills in the national assembly are in protecting Korea’s children.