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With child abuse, CCTV feeds don’t lie

But parents’ demands to see footage bring up sticky legal issues
June 14,2019
The day care center in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, had seemed fine since the woman enrolled her 19-month-old last April. But one day recently, she heard children crying and an adult’s voice hollering.

The mother suspected child abuse and demanded to see the center’s CCTV footage.

Sorry, the center said. The CCTV malfunctioned and did not record anything that day. Enlisting the support of other mothers, the woman demanded the center give up the device storing the CCTV footage. They weren’t able to access the footage due to a technical problem, so they called in the local police.

They are investigating.

Another mother in Gwanak District, southern Seoul, found bruises on her two children and reported their day care center to the Gwanak District Office on May 23. The office investigated on May 27, but was unable to find anything. The main reason: the center’s CCTV storage device broke down in April.

The Gwanak District Office fined the day care center 750,000 won ($634) for poor maintenance of CCTV equipment, a violation of the Infant Care Act. Police are still investigating whether the center abused children.

To make sure children are not subjected to the angry hands or foul mouths of teachers with anger management problems, the Health Ministry made it mandatory for day care centers in Korea to install CCTV cameras in designated areas in 2015. This followed an infamous video from early 2015 of a teacher at a private day care center in Yeonsu District, Incheon smacking a 4-year-old girl for not eating her kimchi.

Other footage showed the same teacher making her young students eat food they spit out on their plates.

Under the revised 2019 Infant Care Act, every day care center is obliged to install one CCTV camera in each classroom, playground, playroom, cafeteria and auditorium within the facility. Cameras are recommended to be installed with the minimum number of blind spots. Additional cameras can be installed on routes children frequently use like stairs and entrances, but this is not mandatory.

Records must be kept for 60 days and directors of day care centers must ensure that the CCTV footage is safe from theft or damage. If violated, directors can face a sentence of up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 20 million won.

Parents can request access to the footage through consultations with the day care center director. How much of the footage to be made available is negotiated between the two sides. If parents are unsatisfied, they can call the authorities.

Whether kids are safer as a result of the law can’t be determined yet. But the increased scrutiny of day care centers is definitely raising a host of problems. First and foremost is fiddling with CCTV footage. That would appear to be a risky thing to do since it suggests bad things going on at a center. But if authorities are unable to prove that the act was done intentionally, at most, the center can be penalized with a fine.

“When there is a case of child abuse, not only is the teacher [who abused the child] punished, but the director of the center is punished as well,” said Gong Hye-jeong, president of the Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association. “Because of this, there are many cases of [personnel] deleting CCTV footage even though they would have to pay a fine. We need to prepare countermeasures soon.”

Already, some parents think the CCTV coverage will be unreliable and have taken the step of equipping their children with recording devices hidden in ordinary objects such as wristbands and necklaces in case they are abused. This trend has become popular since a court accepted secretly recorded evidence in a child abuse case in Daegu in 2017.

In that case, a babysitter was charged with child abuse for swearing and verbally abusing a 10-month-old child. The parents had planted a recording device in their living room. In the babysitter’s first trial, the court dismissed the audio recording of the abuse saying it violated the Protection of Communications Secrets Act, which protects conversations between third parties. In other words, the only person who can record a conversation is the person abused. The judge acquitted the babysitter.

But in the appeals trial, the court accepted the recording as evidence of abuse between the babysitter and the child, not a conversation between third parties. The court fined the babysitter 3 million won.

Parents should think twice before planting a recording device on a child going to school as there is a thin line between gathering evidence and violating the Protection of Communications Secrets Act.

“Accepting evidence and punishing an act that violates a law is a completely different story,” said Cho Kee-hyun, a lawyer at the Daehan Jungang law firm in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul. “If the recording contains threatening words against an infant, it can be accepted as evidence of abuse. However, if the recording contains a conversation between a day care teacher and the [day care center’s] director, [parents] can be charged for violating the Protection of Communications Secrets Act.”

The National Child Protection Agency, which is under the supervision of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, reported in its nationwide survey that there were 213 cases of child abuse by day care center teachers in 2013, 295 cases in 2014, 427 cases in 2015, 587 cases in 2016 and 840 cases in 2017.

Much of the increase is ascribed to parents’ being more aware of the danger - and stepping in when they suspect something wrong.

When they do, parents have to go through a lot of red tape in order to see CCTV footage. The Child Care Act states when a guardian of a child requests video footage or submits a doctor’s written opinion alleging abuse, the director of the center must notify whether it is possible within 10 days. When the director does not comply, guardians have to call the authorities.

Experts in the field have differing opinions on giving parents the authority to immediately watch video footage of day care center encounters.

Gong, president of the Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association, said the reason for restricting parents from seeing CCTV footage immediately is to protect teachers’ privacy. But that it is only a problem when the footage is leaked - as it often is these days.

“It is likely that there will be demands by parents that are not acceptable,” said Lee Sue-jung, a professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University. “It doesn’t seem that there is a way to differentiate reasonable demands from unreasonable ones.”

Cho, the lawyer from Yeongdeungpo District, points out that the abuser and victim are not the only ones in CCTV footage. It shows other children and teachers, so there is the danger of infringing on other’s privacy.

Gong suggests that CCTVs should be managed by a third party, which could prevent abusers and the directors of day care centers tampering with evidence.

Professor Lee also sees the introduction of a third party mediating conflicts a reasonable solution.

“As day care centers are managed by local governments, city and district offices should manage CCTVs firsthand and take the responsibility for resolving disputes,” said Lee.

“There may be controversy about who would manage the CCTVs if a third party is to do it,” said a Health Ministry official. “We will listen to all opinions and examine whether there is a way to improve [the current policy].”

BY LEE SEUNG-HO, KIM DA-YOUNG AND JUNG MYUNG-SUK [jung.myungsuk@joongang.co.kr]