Should China consider criminalizing negligence in child supervision?

Yang Jian
The tragic drowning of a 4-year-old girl on a Shanghai beach has sparked debate about whether China should criminalize neglect of child supervision.
Yang Jian
Should China consider criminalizing negligence in child supervision?
Ti Gong

Photos of the girl were uploaded by her parents in social media search notices.

The recent tragic incident involving a 4-year-old girl on a Shanghai beach has raised questions about whether China should consider criminalizing negligence in child supervision.

The girl went missing on October 4 after her father left her alone on the Nanhui beach in Pudong for about 12 minutes to retrieve his phone. Her body was discovered about 100 kilometers away on Thursday in Ningbo, in neighboring Zhejiang Province. The police have ruled out foul play.

Surveillance videos show that she waited for about 10 minutes before heading toward the water's edge. She stumbled and then disappeared into the water.

The beach is not an officially designated public area. To reach the mudflats, visitors have to scale barriers and seawalls. The central issue in this case is the father's negligence in leaving his young daughter unattended on the beach, leading to her tragic death. Should such negligence, when it causes harm to a child, be deemed a criminal act?

In an online survey, more than 90 percent of respondents believed that the father should be held legally accountable and face criminal penalties.

"If a babysitter leaves a child unattended at the beach, resulting in the child's drowning, she would likely face criminal liability. Why is it different for a father?" a netizen argued.

Nevertheless, according to attorney Liu Chunquan, it appears to be a tragic accident, and while the father exhibited negligence, it may not satisfy the criteria for criminal negligence.

"The parents were not away from the beach for an extended period, and the tragedy could not have been foreseen at the time," Liu told Shanghai Daily.

"While they were in the wrong, it might not reach the level of criminal liability but rather be classified as an accident," he said.

About 100,000 children lose their lives in accidents annually in China. Drowning is now the primary cause of death for children aged 1 to 14 years old.

Most of these accidents occur due to negligence and carelessness, such as parents leaving their children unattended, either in locked cars or at home.

There's a legislative gap in Chinese criminal law when it comes to situations of moderate child neglect. The primary focus of Chinese criminal law is on extreme cases of parental neglect, such as physical abuse and mental torture.

Rarely do legal authorities prosecute parents for carelessness. The majority of punishments consist of warnings, fines and admonition.

In 2022, a 1-year-old toddler drowned at the grandmother's house. The father sued family members for 800,000 yuan (US$109,328). The court found negligence on all sides and ordered the grandmother to pay 20,000 yuan in compensation.

In another incident the same year, another 2-year-old baby drowned in a cesspool while in the company of his father. The court ruled shared responsibility between the father and the cesspool's owner, with a 7:3 ratio. The owner was ordered to pay 20,000 yuan to the child's family.

There is a demand for the country to roll out more specific laws and regulations to increase the accountability of guardians. In 2017, thirteen national political advisers proposed that "negligence in child supervision" be made a punishable offense.

Since many parents adhere to Confucianism, they view their children as personal property, and governments are encouraged not to intervene in their affairs.

When something unfortunate occurs to children, people frequently feel sad for their parents and view them as victims. People typically concentrate on the tragedy of the family's loss rather than blaming their parents for negligence.

Should China consider criminalizing negligence in child supervision?
Ti Gong

The girl was last seen in a photo snapped by other beachgoers at Nanhui.

In some countries, negligent child supervision can result in criminal penalties. This legal approach is intended to ensure that parents and custodians exercise proper care and attention when supervising children, especially in potentially dangerous situations.

In the US state of Maryland, parents cannot leave children under the age of 8 unattended in any circumstance. Infringers may incur a fine of up to US$500 and/or up to 30 days in jail.

Similar laws in the United Kingdom extended liability to include parents, relatives, instructors and caregivers.

Saitama in Japan has proposed a legal amendment that deems it child abuse to leave children younger than third grade alone at home, in a vehicle, or outside.

Criminalizing child supervision negligence could serve as a deterrent. Parents and custodians may take their responsibilities more seriously if they know they could face criminal charges. It sends a powerful message regarding the significance of protecting children and ensuring their well-being.

However, it is crucial to consider both the advantages and potential disadvantages of introducing such legislation. For example, it could contribute to overcriminalization, in which well-intentioned parents who make honest mistakes are charged with a crime.

Accidents are possible, and not all instances of negligence constitute intentional harm. It can be difficult to distinguish between a regrettable accident and criminal negligence.

In addition to criminalizing negligence in child supervision, it is crucial to emphasize educational and awareness campaigns.

These initiatives can assist parents and guardians in understanding the significance of child protection and provide them with the necessary resources. Rather than relying solely on punitive measures, this approach promotes a culture of accountability.

A more balanced approach to addressing the issue of infant safety may involve a combination of new legislation, education and support services. The ultimate objective is to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. We must recognize that children are more than just their parents' offspring. They are also the nation's future.

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