(Tokyo) – 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 Japanese society, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
According to government statistics, more than 39,000 children in Japan live in different kinds of institutions across the country. These are “alternative care” settings, including infant care institutions, child care institutions, short-term therapeutic institutions, group homes for independent living, and foster care and family homes. The children were removed from their families because the authorities determined that their parents were either unable or unwilling to care for them properly.
“It’s heartbreaking to see children crammed into institutions and deprived of the chance for life in a caring family setting,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch. “While other developed countries place most vulnerable children in family-based care, in Japan, a shocking 90 percent end up in institutions.”
The 119-page report, “Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan,” is Human Rights Watch’s first major report on Japan since the launch of its Tokyo office in April 2009. The report examines the alternative care system’s organization and processes, problems found in the institutionalization of children and infants, and abuses that take place. It also considers the difficulties many children experience when they leave alternative care, and outlines problems with foster care. Finally, Human Rights Watch examines the experience of orphans of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.
The report concludes the Japanese government should overhaul its alternative care system, which harms the well-being and healthy development of children and infants, and is contrary to international children’s rights standards.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people between December 2011 and February 2014 in four different regions of Japan. Interviewees included 32 children aged 7 to 17 years who were in alternative care, and 27 adults who previously had lived in alternative care arrangements, as well as foster parents, institution administrators, care workers, child care advocates and experts, and prefecture and national-level government officials.
While Human Rights Watch found some improvements in alternative care in recent years following high-profile abuse cases, and a greater use of foster care and other positive policy initiatives, the alternative care system is still rife with problems.
Japan’s alternative child care system suffers from overly large institutions where physical space is limited and chances for bonding are scarce; poor physical conditions of facilities; physical and sexual abuse by both caregivers and other children; and insufficient mechanisms for children to report problems.
Compounding these problems are a lack of support for children once they leave the alternative care system – leading many to a life of unemployment or dead-end, low-paying work, little opportunity for higher education, and in some cases, homelessness. Bereft of family connections, many who have left the alternative care system have serious difficulties navigating a social and employment structure in which a “guarantor” is crucial to get a job or rented housing.
More broadly, the very system of institutional care may itself be abusive – depriving children of the family-based care that numerous studies have shown is important for their development and wellbeing. Only a fraction of Japanese children in alternative care are cared by foster parents while the vast majority – more than 85 percent in 2013 – were placed in government regulated and supported institutions. By comparison, in 2011, just a tiny number – only 303 in 2011 – were formally adopted out of the alternative care scheme.
Bureaucratic Priorities Trump Kids’ Rights
Human Rights Watch found that Japan’s child guidance centers, the local administrative authority that determines the placement of children needing such care, remain predisposed to institutionalizing children rather than placing them in adoption or foster care. These centers often defer to the preference of biological parents to place the child in an institution rather than with a foster family, or seek to avoid time-consuming and often sensitive individual adoption or foster care arrangements. Other factors, such as the financial interest of existing child care institutions that get government subsidies based on the number of resident children, also play a role in the high numbers of children sent to institutions. Lost in the mix is the best interest of the child. A care worker at an institution in
Tsukuba said, “In Japan, the interest of the parents is seen as more important than the interests of the child.”
“Japan’s child care policymakers are allowing bureaucratic priorities to get in the way of finding alternative care that is in the child’s best interest,” Doi said. “While many people working in the system are committed to helping children, a sustainable solution should recognize that foster care and adoption need to play a much more central role.”
International human rights law recognizes the importance of family settings for children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that for the full development of a child’s personality, they “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.” The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which oversees implementation of the Convention, states that “the institutionalization of a child is a measure of last resort and only occurs when family-type measures are considered inadequate for a specific child.” The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children call for adoption, family reintegration where possible, or other secure care in an alternative family setting.
Over-institutionalization is especially problematic for infants – in Japan, 3,069 children, mostly younger than three years old, were living in so-called infant institutions in 2013. The UN Alternative Care Guidelines set out that alternative care for children under age 3 should almost always be in family-based settings. One care worker in a Tokyo infant care institution told Human Rights Watch that, “There are not enough care staff. …When there are multiple children crying at the same time, we can’t do anything but hold one child and feed the rest of them from a bottle placed on their bedside.”
Japan’s foster care system also faces severe problems, Human Rights Watch said. Almost one quarter of all foster child placements fail, resulting in the child being sent back to the group institution. Japan also does not provide foster parents with adequate training, programmatic support, or monitoring.
Human Rights Watch called on the Japanese government to transition its alternative care system away from reliance on institutions toward greater use of properly monitored and supported foster care and adoption, including:
- Amending Japan’s Child Welfare Act to require an independent mechanism, such as family court, to decide where a child should receive care in line with the best interests of the child;
- Close all infant care institutions as part of a plan to transition the care of infants from institutions to families;
- Assign an independent panel of experts to develop a set of policy recommendations to ensure that adoption is considered before other long-term options such as foster care or appropriate institutional care; and
- Assign an independent panel of experts to make recommendations regarding training programs, support programs, and monitoring mechanisms for foster parents.
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeastern part of Japan and left 241 children orphaned. However, almost all of these children were subsequently taken in by relatives and the government revised its foster care scheme to financially help some relatives. Thus, although the tragedy left an indelible mark on these children’s lives and their situation remains difficult, the response from their relatives, community, and the government has helped to prepare them for the future.
“Thousands of Japanese children each year need new families to love and support them but the current institutional system places major obstacles in their way,” said Sayo Saruta, consultant to Human Rights Watch and primary author of the report. “The Japanese government needs to urgently overhaul its alternative care system so that children can form long-term attachments that families can best provide.”
I don’t have any dreams [for the future].
—Nozomi M. (not her real name), 15, living in an institution, in Osaka, December 2011
I was beaten by a baseball bat, hit in the face. … The older guys would just hit me if they were having a bad day… [the institution staff] was an old lady so she didn’t say anything.”
—Toshiyuki Abe, 19, former institution resident, July 2012. Institution staff did little to protect him from bullying.
Many of the staff look like they take care of us only because it is their job. They just play with us and they work. They don’t love us.
—Kenji M. (not his real name), 17, living in an institution, Tokyo, August 2012
Consistent bonds of attachment with parents are important for normal growth of the brain. Bonds of attachment made within the first three months after birth and made after that period differ in depth and quality. … We [in Japan] have been creating mentally delayed children by bringing them into infant homes.
—Sumiko Hennessy, director of Crossroad Social Work, professor emeritus of Tokyo Welfare University, Tokyo, May 2013
Even for those children for whom we request foster parent’s care, the child guidance center staff most often respond by saying they cannot get the parental consent. Sometimes we wish the child guidance center would try harder.
—An infant care institution staff in Tokyo, Tokyo, June 2012
When I was leaving the institution, I was excited, thinking, “Finally I’m out of this prison!” But life is not such a smooth ride. A day feels like it never ends. I cannot enjoy my life.
—Masashi Suzuki (not his real name), 21, former institution resident, Chiba, June 2012
I didn’t have anybody to talk to after I left the institution. My parents abandoned me when I was two months old so there was no way that I could go back to them. I couldn’t go back to the institution and didn’t want to either… [In doing sex work] I was happy that somebody, even though a stranger, actually listened to me. I was looking for a place where I belonged.
—Ayumi Takagi(not her real name), 24, former institution resident in Ibaraki, Tokyo, July 2012. Ayumi earned a living through sex work to live on her own.