In Japan, most children who can't live with their parents due to abuse or economic reasons are taken to care facilities. But in recent years, the number of those who move on from such institutions to live with foster parents is on the rise.
The number of children under foster care in Tokyo was 419 as of March last year, an increase of about 70 percent from 15 years ago.
But the latest survey shows that in the 3 years up to March 2017, child consultation centers had to send at least 43 children back to care facilities due to problems with foster parents, including suspected abuse.
Out of the 43 cases, 19 involved children 13 or older, accounting for about 40 percent of the total. 16 cases involved children from age 7 to 12; 8 involved children 6 years old or younger.
In 18 cases, children returned to care facilities due to deteriorating relationships with their foster parents. 13 cases involved suspected abuse by foster parents, and 7 cases entailed other issues. In 5 cases, foster parents gave up after problems with the child's behavior.
Government promotes foster parent system
The Japanese government is pushing for a policy that has children who cannot live with their parents sent to foster homes certified by municipalities, instead of to care facilities.
Officials say living in a family environment and developing loving relationships with foster parents is in the best interest of the children, and will help them gain self-confidence and a sense of independence.
The welfare ministry says that as of March 2017, out of a total 35,800 children nationwide who cannot live with their parents, 5,190 were under foster care.
The figure has more than doubled in the last 15 years, but it is still low compared to other countries. While more than 70 percent of children in the United States and Britain who need care live with foster parents, such cases account for only about 20 percent in Japan.
Last year, the welfare ministry set a new goal of raising the proportion of children under foster care. It wants to increase the figure for pre-school children to at least 75 percent by around 2024, and for older children to at least 50 percent by around 2027.
But in order to meet this goal, the number of children under foster care needs to be tripled. Staffers at child consultation centers say this will not be possible without establishing adequate support systems for foster parents.
Problems with foster parents
A 21-year-old woman living in Tokyo was provided protection while in elementary school from her abusive mother. She was entrusted to a couple who at the time were in their 60s.
But during the 6 years she spent with them, besides her own room and the restroom, she was not allowed to enter rooms without the couple's permission. She also wasn't given a key to the house.
The foster parents told her they made these rules after another child they looked after "stole food from the refrigerator."
The woman says she seldom had conversations with them, and had to wait in her room until they called her on the house phone for meals or a bath.
She was sent back to a care facility when she was 17, partly because her foster parents fell ill.
The woman says she used to feel sad when they complained about her ingratitude after she talked back to them, yet knew she had nowhere else to go.
She says she and the foster parents didn't trust each other, and that she never felt the warmth of a home while living with them.
Foster parents have their own issues
A woman in her 60’s became a foster parent 7 years ago after raising her own children, taking in a girl who had been subjected to parental neglect. But the woman says she has been too strict in disciplining the girl.
She says the girl gradually developed problematic behavior. After joining an elementary school, the woman says the girl couldn't concentrate in class nor fully focus on what others said to her. She says the girl also lied, didn’t do her homework and skipped physical education class.
The woman says she got emotional, shouted at the girl and beat her since the girl didn't seem to care about what she had done. The woman says she would first verbally scold her, but the girl wouldn't listen, so then she beat her. She says she never imagined that child rearing could be such a tough task.
The woman consulted a child welfare facility but says its staff merely told her to avoid strict discipline and gave no specific advice. She says she decided to become a foster parent to bring happiness to a child who couldn't live with her parents. But the woman says the girl gradually displayed a reckless attitude. She says the way she brought up her own children just doesn’t work, and that without any support, she doesn’t know how to raise the girl.
Yoshiaki Ishida, an official at the Tokyo Council of Social Welfare, says children who have experienced parental abuse sometimes turn violent or say disturbing things as a way to gain mental stability. He says it is essential to extend sufficient support to foster parents, such as listening to their problems and offering advice, as their burden is sometimes very heavy.
Boosting support measures for foster parents
Shizuoka city in central Japan is stepping up support for foster parents as it wants them to look after nearly half of the children there who have been subjected to abuse or other problems.
A local nonprofit organization handles various tasks related to foster care, from certification of foster parents to offering them support. Experienced foster parents regularly visit more than 40 foster households to provide counseling. If foster parents have concerns or if problems are suspected, they visit the parents at least twice a month. Support from experts is also provided if necessary, including clinical psychologists and medical staff.
One woman in her 40’s who had never raised a child before became the foster parent of a 2-year-old boy. When an experienced foster parent visited the woman, she was depressed, apparently exhausted from her efforts. The veteran advised her to take a break sometimes and entrust the boy to a childcare facility. The woman followed the advice, found time to relax and came to enjoy raising the child.
Another woman in her 40’s looks after a baby. When an experienced foster parent visited her in February, the woman said she felt anxiety and worry, so she appreciates the support from experienced foster parents who make her feel at ease.
Misako Endo, an experienced foster parent, serves as one of the consultants. She says some foster parents feel guilty about speaking harshly to children they’re taking care of and potentially hurting them emotionally. She says she’s trying to help the foster parents by building trust with them so that they can feel free to consult her.
To support first-time foster parents looking after a baby, experienced foster parents teach them how an infant should be taken care of, including feeding and changing clothes. Even after they complete the 30-hour program, first-timers continue to receive advice from veteran foster parents.
Naoko Ne-oi, an official from the nonprofit, says foster parents often face challenges that are different from what parents with their own children face. She says there are some things that foster parents can’t overcome by themselves, so it’s vital for them to support each other as well as the children they are looking after.