Sexual Violence of Children in Japanese Welfare Institutions

A number of cases of violence involving children in child welfare institutions are coming to light in Japan. The residents of the facilities include victims of parental abuse and other children in need of protection.

But NHK has learned that over the past five years, there have been at least 409 cases of sexual violence involving children in the institutions.

One 7-year-old girl at an institution in Mie Prefecture was sexually abused by a junior high school boy living in the same facility. The girl was placed temporarily in the institution. Her mother had become mentally unstable following a divorce, and put her daughter in the facility because she had nowhere else to turn.

The mother says the child welfare office had assured her that her daughter would be safe. She feels great anger at what happened.

Seven years have passed since the abuse occurred, but the mother says her daughter is still suffering. The girl is unable to attend school, and refuses to wear clothes that show her skin, even in summer.

The junior high school boy repeatedly abused the girl, including stripping her of her underwear. He himself had been placed in the facility to protect him from a physically abusive mother.

The girl's mother says she is not surprised to hear that the perpetrator was also a victim. She says sexual and physical abuse lead to more abuse, and that this vicious cycle needs to be broken.

There are about 26,000 children living in child welfare institutions in Japan. NHK has learned that over a period of five years, at least 409 cases of sexual violence were reported by institutions to local authorities in Tokyo and 8 other prefectures.

About 60 percent of the children in these institutions are said to have experienced abuse at home.

Professor Haruo Asai of Rikkyo University says sexual violence involving children in institutional care is less about sexual urges and more about exercising power over another person. Asai says abused children know better than anyone that violence is a means of control.

How can the abuse be prevented?

After sexual violence took place in one institution, the administrators decided they had to create space between each child. Private rooms were built for all of the children. Instead of using communal tableware, the children were assigned their own chopsticks and dishes.

The deputy director Shuhei Yamaguchi in the institution says the objective was to teach the children that everyone has his or her own time, space and belongings -- and that those are important to them. Yamaguchi says drawing boundaries within daily life is one way to prevent violence, because violence is an act that overrides boundaries.

The staff members also watch the children carefully. To ensure that no child is dominating another, they have drawn up a chart depicting the relationships among the children.

And they tell the children to remember one message, which is that many of the kids in the institution have suffered from violence, so do not use violence, as that is the very means that was used to cause their suffering.

Yamaguchi says they look after children who have suffered severe emotional and physical trauma. He says institutions need to be able to provide a higher level of specialized care and support for the children.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare intends to conduct a survey of child welfare institutions across the country during fiscal 2018 to help draw up measures to address the problem.