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Number 1 Shimbun

My two (foster) sons, three years on

04-1

 

Despite global awareness that children thrive best in family situations (biological, adoptive or foster), Japan’s child welfare system is stuck in an institutional approach.


By Caroline Parsons

Part dance in heaven, part ghastly nightmare. The first part describes my experience as a foster parent (sato-oya) of two Japanese brothers, now aged 15 and 16. For more than ten years, they have come to my house for some weekends and school holidays from the welfare facility where they spend most of their lives. (I wrote of our early life together in the July 2016 issue of this magazine.)

The second part describes my experience with the welfare bureaucracy in my attempts to offer the boys a life in a family home instead of in an institution. Of all the children in state care in Japan, some 85 percent grow up in institutions. The same was true 30 years ago in the UK, where I come from. But today, well over 70 percent of children in the UK are placed with foster families. In Japan, that figure is only 15 percent.

In 2010, soon after I began foster parenting, I was encouraged by the coordinator at the Child Guidance Center, (the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare agency responsible for where children are placed), to consider applying for full foster parent accreditation which requires some extra training and assessments. If I was successful in getting that certificate, the boys could live with me and I could receive adequate financial support to foster them, she explained. 

She knew that it was costing me a lot, and the Volunteer Family category I was in offered only a very small subsidy. But at that time, the boys were still “wild balls of dynamite” – albeit adorable ones – and I was unsure if I was up to having them on top of working full time. I decided to continue with the weekend and holiday scheme.

The coming and going had its challenges, though. One Sunday night stands out: the older boy (then six) sat down in the middle of the road leading to the facility. He was not going back, he screamed, because he was “moving into Parsons-san’s house.” A teacher carried him unceremoniously inside as I walked away in agony. The courageous little one-boy demo left me with an indelible stamp on my heart and a promise to myself to offer the children their own home one day if I could.

 

MEANWHILE THE BOYS ADAPTED to essentially having two homes. Their institution is a “model home,” a small modern unit with teachers who are mostly young, unmarried and childless themselves. Trained in social welfare, they are kind and hard-working, rotating on shifts. The boys like their teachers, but they do not think of them as parents, nor are they encouraged to. 

By 2014 the boys had become much less of a handful and were developing wonderful friendships in our local community which I wanted to encourage. I asked if they still wanted to live in my house if it was possible and the answer was a resounding yes, so I decided to try to make it happen. 

Unfortunately, it turned out that the first coordinator’s advice did not represent the view of the decision-makers at the CGC. Transferring the boys from the institution to their foster parent was simply not their idea of a good idea. They were resolute that there would be no change of policy for my foster sons, who they thought were most stable staying in the institution where they had been placed at two and three years old. I was told I could not apply for accreditation and asked to continue the same schedule. If it was costing me too much, they said, I could simply reduce the number of days the boys visited. In 2016 I again asked them to re-consider and again I was turned down.

“Japan’s overwhelming use of institutions instead of family-based care is failing thousands of vulnerable children by not preparing them for independent, productive lives in society,” claims Human Rights Watch in the report “Without Dreams” on children in alternative care in Japan. These children are being denied a family life and being set up to fail, says the report. 

The issues that impede faster development of the fostering system here are complex. One is the right of the birth mother to refuse permission for her child to go to a foster parent – even if she cannot live with the child herself. Another has been the public’s lack of familiarity with fostering and adoption. Then there is the very complicated close relationship between the CGC and the institutions. 

In the current set up, the CGC, already over-worked and understaffed, is very dependent on the institutions. When emergencies arise – all the time, as that is the nature of child welfare work – the institutions are there to quickly take on rescued children. (It’s an imperfect system and some tragic consequences have been in the public eye recently, but that’s another story.) And the institutions, which need to pay teachers, cooks, cleaners, office and many other staff, are dependent for their own survival on the CGC. 

 

THERE ARE A LOT of groups now working to address these deep and political issues and a breakthrough came in April 2017 when the Child Welfare Act was amended to prioritize family-based care. That has resulted in much more media coverage, which is a positive. But for the ‘New Vision’ of family-based care to really take root, the general public has to become much more familiar with the situation, especially as taxpayers are paying for it. Sato-oya Renrakukai, a foster family group, estimates the total cost of raising a child from birth to 18 in Japan’s institutional set-up to be ¥120 million, four or five times what an average family spends over the same period. 

In 2017 I decided to make one more attempt at accreditation. I hired a lawyer to help me understand the legalities. I found out that anyone has a right to apply, which is then assessed by an outside board of specialists. The lawyer obtained the appropriate forms and as I had already attended foster training sessions and had a good track record as a model foster parent, I was approved and got my certificate in January 2018. I knew the foster parent has no right to choose which children – if any – they are assigned.

Soon after, the boys and I were forbidden from seeing each other for four months while they were interviewed extensively to assess whether they could live with me. But in the end the answer was “No.” I was given the news by a case worker new to our case at a meeting that the head of fostering (who had called the meeting) did not attend. Exhausted, I don’t even remember asking ‘Why?’ When I next saw the boys, the older brother was very upset that his request had been refused; the younger brother had not even been asked his preference.

04-2

SO WE HAVE FINALLY given up our goal of living together in “our home” before they turn 18. The process has become too stressful. Better to look for the positives, I tell myself. The younger brother has recently taken to writing novels online – and seems to be showing amazing promise. He used to love when we visited the FCCJ in Yurakucho for hamburgers on Sundays and I’m delighted he finds writing exciting.

The older brother is very aware that at age 18, he will have to leave the institution for good and make his way into the world. “Can I come and live here when I am 18?” he asks, as we sit in the living room over tea with a neighbor, a great friend to the boys and I. I point out that in two years he may feel differently and have other places he wants to go.

He turns to our friend. “I know children usually want to separate from parents when they are 18,” he tells her. “But I just want to go home.” ❶

Caroline Parsons has lived in Japan for 38 years, working as a photographer, reporter, writer and narrator.

Published in: May 2019

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