Child Protective Services? Does It Exist In Korea?

Dealing with cultural differences in the classroom full of children can be bewildering, as Beth (at My Edited Journal) describes in her recent post, titled Death’s Door.

In that class today I also got asked one of those “did the student really just ask that” questions. This one was worse than the others because I wasn’t sure if I needed to take any action on it or not. Luby asked if I ever thought about what it would be like to die. Do you mean what it’s like after death or the actual moment that I die? “The moment that you die.” No, not really, I like to think about happy things. Why? Do you think about that? Some of her school classmates were discussing what it would be like to die, and some of them wanted to experience death. Luby said that her classmates knew how to bring themselves to death’s door (an idiom we had studied). I told her that maybe she needed to get some new friends because that sounded pretty dangerous. The whole topic was really weird.

In the USA as a teacher I would probably be expected to make a huge deal out of it and contact I don’t know who. But here, what is standard? If I told Mona she would dismiss it as nothing; it’s not like I can contact the school and tell them that some of their students are dangerously stupid. No one’s in immediate mortal danger. Or am I just trying to rationalize my inaction? Luby didn’t sound particularly worried, just curious as to my opinion.

So many situations show the culture difference: a student drawing a picture of himself killing Tanya–no problem, it’s just a joke. Students bringing toy guns to class or using small knives to sharpen pencils–normal. People asking each other, “Do you want to die?” isn’t a real threat, just an expression. Me hitting a kid on the back of the head with a paperback book–fine, I’m the teacher with the authority to do that to bring the kid out of whatever dream land he might be in. One of the students today told me about a teacher who was fired for beating a kid so badly that he had to go to the hospital (middle school or high school, the kid didn’t know many details). The punishment: the teacher was fired, that’s it. It’s a different country with a different culture. I can only hope that Luby’s friends were hypothetically discussing things.

That rings a bell. I once knew a male middle-school student who was in the thick of exams… those ridiculous departmental exams that are taken and scale-graded nationwide to see whose high school acceptances are the best.

Well, one day, he decided to threaten suicide in front of the whole class. I couldn’t decide if he was being his usual, class-numbing, passive-aggressive self, or if he was serious. I asked his sister and she said she had no idea whether he was serious or not. Understandably, she said she couldn’t very well tell her family about it. Well, I didn’t know whether or not to. The senior teachers thought it was serious enough to warrant calling his family, but nobody in administration would do it. Of course, if the boy did it, nobody would have taken responsibility for not having intervened. But I guess admin seemed willing to gamble that it was just a sick joke… though one he insisted wasn’t a joke for an hour. I learned later the boy consistently messed with foreign teachers that way, but without having been warned, there’d been no way for me to know that.

Of course, judging by some of the stories I’ve heard over the last few years, there’s not really anything like Child Protective Services operating (or at least not effectively operating) in Korea. People who beat the crap out of their children are not hassled by the law, unless they kill them. People who commit all kinds weird child abuse (like not feeding an infant during the first few months of life, one of Lime’s more horrifying stories out of the department of pediatrics) do not go to jail and their children do not get taken away… even if their baby only gains 500 grams in the first few months of life. Even if they are bruised and damaged beyond recognition.

It’s understandable why this is the situation, of course. It seems, to me, a combination of two things.

  1. Koreans until recently lived in extended families, which I suspect probably didn’t totally eradicate child abuse but would have made unlikely the more extreme or bizarre cases, like not feeding a newborn for months at a time. Extended familes mean more people to intervene. As families are becoming more fractured, more nuclear in their structure, as they live in domiciles which allow them more than ever to mediate how much neighbours know about their family lives, intervention from extended family and from neighbours becomes less and less likely. Unfortunately, nothing has risen up to effectively replace even this mediating force. Where a teacher or doctor would call the police and get the intervening services of the government at work in North America, the teacher or doctor here seems to have little recourse to any such services, and has to merely hope the abuses don’t recur. The situation is probably similar to how it was in America a generation or two ago.
  2. There is a strongly “Not My Business” meme in Korea that is widespread enough to be possibly considered cultural. Time after time I have noticed that people in general don’t want to get involved, and feel that people should only interfere in problems when those problems are “their business”. This meme exists, to a lesser degree, in North America, of course. But the people who support it most vocally are those who would withhold education from their kids, or would prefer not to have the way they abuse their kids scrutinized. Yes, there is something to be said for freedom, but at the same time, there is also something to be said for intervention. In America, the bar for intervention is less strong than in Korea. Sadly, I think it’s not weak enough in either country. I would never say peoples’ kids should be taken away for not being educated, for example. But to not intervene in cases of neglect until a child dies is just wrong, in my opinion.

I have no doubt that people will do something to change this situation in Korea, eventually. But I think that it will take a while, perhaps longer than it did in North America, because the autonomy of the family is likely tied up in questions of authority and especially the authority of the eldest male family member. Courts telling fathers they don’t have absolute control over their families, or mothers that they don’t have absolute control over their children, probably won’t fly well. Many young people I know have their choices and actions circumscribed in such an extreme was that from a Western point of view they look more like belongings than autonomous individuals, so I think state intervention is unlikely to be welcomed warmly, even by concerned citizens.

I could be wrong about this. I haven’t discussed it with Lime. But I do know that the only case I’ve heard of so far of any state intervention was the setting-up of orphanages for kids to be dumped in when their parents split up and neither parent wants to take responsibility for the child. I would call that only marginal social welfare intervention. I probably will ask Lime about it sometime, as I am curious about the whole question of this idea.

*UPDATE* 21 Sept. 2004: I was searching online and none of my searches brought up anything, which is not surprising since I was searching in English (and being pressed for time, it’s all I will be able to do today).

In any case, I did find something useful on the Prime Minister’s web site:

Prevention of Child Abuse: The government set up a legislative framework to prevent child abuse, and operates 24-hour hot-lines for immediate reporting of child abuse. The centers for the prevention of child abuse are at local autonomies to identify, treat, protect and prevent child abuse.

I don’t know how effective this kind of system is, of course. It depends on the following:

  1. Enough people being aware of where to call when it’s necessary.
  2. Enough of those people willing to call when necessary.

It’s sad to say but I strongly suspect this kind of program isn’t getting as much use as it should be. Calling such an office is likely to cause confrontation, embarrassment, and a sense of humiliation. Where I think little of humiliating someone stupid enough not to fee her child, or stupid enough to beat a little kid, I think the average Korean might be more hesitant, especially if the parent of the abused child is in a position of seniority (conferred by age or status). I’m not saying the average Korean wouldn’t care, but I think they’d be more hesitant to call.

In any case, it may that there actually is a system in place, but that there are social barriers to making it work. I’m going to try to find out more…

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