Japan Rewamps Child Welfare, Pushes for Increased Foster Care

Children eat lunch with a nurse at Futaba Baby Home in Tokyo, Japan, June 21, 2016. Picture taken June 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

Children eat lunch with a nurse at Futaba Baby Home in Tokyo, Japan, June 21, 2016. Picture taken June 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

Tokyo: A baby lies in a metal-bar cot drinking from a bottle perched on his pillow in a Tokyo orphanage. There’s no one to hold and feed him or offer words of comfort.

The director of the institution, nurses scurrying busily around him, says he would like extra time and staff to pay more attention to the 70 babies and toddlers under his care, but it’s not going to happen.

“I wish we could hold them in our arms, one by one,” says Yoshio Imada. “Some people call this abuse. It’s a difficult situation.”

Japan last month passed a bill overhauling its 70-year-old Child Welfare Law, recognising a child’s right to grow up in a family setting. It is short on specific, immediate measures, but experts say it’s a first step to making institutions a last resort, rather than the default position.

A staggering 85% of the 40,000 children who can’t live with their parents in Japan are institutionalised, by far the highest ratio among rich countries and prompting repeated warnings from the UN. Even with the revised law, Japan’s goal isn’t lofty: family-based care for a third of those children by 2029.

The statistics raise the question: where can foster parents be found for tens of thousands of children in need?

“We do the best we can but it’s obvious that a one-on-one relationship that foster parents provide is better,” says Kazumitsu Tsuru, who heads another infant institution in Tokyo.

“All children need someone who is dedicated only to them.”

A major hindrance is a lack of awareness about the fostering system – there are just 10,200 registered foster families, while adoptions are even rarer, at 544 last year. And in a society that treasures uniformity and blood ties, fostered or adopted children are often stigmatised.

A rise in reports of child abuse has also proved a stumbling block. Welfare workers are too busy taking children out of immediate harm. Placing them in institutions is faster than finding a foster family.

Too busy with the next victim, welfare workers also have little time to follow up with those children, leaving them to languish for years.

Foster mother Asako Yoshinari and her foster child walk at a park near her home in Inzai, Chiba prefecture, Japan, June 24, 2016. Picture taken June 24, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Foster mother Asako Yoshinari and her foster child walk at a park near her home in Inzai, Chiba prefecture, Japan, June 24, 2016. Picture taken June 24, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Starved of attention

One foster mother knows all too well how harmful institutionalisation can be.

Now 16, her foster son lulls himself to sleep by pounding his head against his pillow for several minutes. It’s a habit he picked up as an attention-starved child growing up in institutions until he turned six. He is a charming boy, his foster mother says, but erratic.

“When I call him out on something he does wrong, he lashes out at me as if he can do whatever he wants,” she says.

“He’ll do hateful things and at other times he’ll say, ‘Mummy, I love you,’ in a childish voice that’s not normal for a teenage boy. The emotional ups-and-downs wear you out.”

Another mother describes a child she took in from an institution at age five, just when he was beginning to realise he had no family. He flew into fits of rage at school and was afraid to leave the house. Needing to test his new family’s affection, he would ask, “Mummy, what would you do if I died?” At other times, he would beg to be fed milk out of a bottle in his foster mother’s lap.

The warehousing of Japan’s most vulnerable highlights the paradox in a country struggling with a stalled birthrate and ballooning social welfare costs as the population ages. Experts say institutionalisation costs three times as much as fostering, and that Japan’s tight job market would be better-served by shifting those caregivers to daycare services to allow more women to work.

“I think the role of infant institutions will change,” says Tsuru, adding that, as the primary caregivers, institutions like his could help find babies a match in a foster or adoptive home.

“None of us wants to see a child stay longer here than they need to be.”


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  • Joe Burns

    Japan have made some other very progressive moves in Child Protection recently. The Education Minister stopped universities from teaching Social Work and other Humanities programs in favour of “Evidenced Based” and “Science Based” programs. To me this is huge step forward.

    But unfortunately, how Japan seeks to solve this problem is going to meet with further failure. There is an inherent assumption that Foster Care is a better solution. While I would strongly agree with Lumos Charity, that no child belongs in an orphanage, I would equally feel strongly that Foster Care is not a better solution. I would strongly oppose the UK or Irish model of protecting children or that adoption is ever a good solution.

    There is a misguided belief that children thrive in Foster Care which is not supported by scientific evidence. Hopefully Japan will move forward based on Scientific Evidence? It is widely known by professionals that children do not thrive in “Care”. In the most exhaustive study of Outcomes for children of Care, MIT Business Professor Joseph Doyle studied 12,000 subjects over a 15 year period. He found that 80% of Care Alumni had very poor outcomes compared to children in the General Population and even against the offspring of foster carers themselves. There is no shortage of other studies that prove equally disastrous results. In my own country of Ireland, the suicide rate is 10 times the national average for “Cared For” children. Children in “Care” are 6 times more likely to die and 6 times more likely to be sexually assaulted, but the most damning statistic of all, is the fact that UK social workers see women who have spent any significant time in care to be such a risk, that they are 66 times more likely to have their child removed and placed in “Care”. This is a self perpetuating system, it is rife with Children’s NGO’s posing as Children’s Charities and bilking the government and bleeding the taxpayer while not helping any child.

    There is a very simple solution to the challenges that Japan faces; stop taking children unnecessarily into “Care”. You will find that in the UK and Ireland, that 73% of children are removed from parents on the basis of; “Risk of Future Emotional Abuse”, a wonderful theory that the child may have a bad outcome in life (or equally may not) and then remove the children to where they are guaranteed to have a poor outcome. This is indeed Einsteins very definition of “Insanity”; “to repeat the same experiment over and over and expect different results every time”. In the event that children must be removed as a last resort, Kinship Care should be the first choice. Family carers should be paid more than strangers to raise a child, in most cases they are paid far less, if at all.

    If Japan really wants to improve outcomes for these children, they must change to an “Evidence Based” system, which currently doesn’t exist. As a matter of urgency, Japan must remove must remove the “Best Interests of the Child Principle” (BIP) from all statutory law. BIP has never been defined, it was described by a Harvard University human rights lawyer named Hilary Rodham as;

    “Best Interests operates as an empty vessel into which adult prejudices and beliefs are poured”

    It has been pointed out that BIP is nothing more than a slogan used by people with good intentions, however, good intentions don’t translate into best outcomes for children. There is no way to measure or demonstrate the benefit to children when using this principle. BIP has no;

    1/Legal Value

    2/Scientific Value

    3/Moral value.

    It should be replaced with a far higher standard suggested by Social Worker Charles Pragnell who suggested;

    “To the Demonstrable and Measurable Benefit of the Child”

    If Japan is serious about protecting children, then all actions they take must be based on Evidence and Science. Using flawed models such as Ireland, UK, USA or Canada will result in the catastrophic failures we have seen in these countries. “