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Foster-care group aims to change the way Japan treats its children

by Eric Prideaux

When Kazuko Sakamoto found herself unable to conceive a child, she and her husband figured there was more than one way to start a family.

“It was my husband who first had the idea of becoming foster parents,” Sakamoto recalled with a boisterous laugh.

“It was tough for me, with the fertility treatments and all,” the straight-talking woman of 60 said. “That gave me a lot of sad moments, and seeing that, he felt that even without blood ties, we could make a family by bringing in a child from outside.”

They went on to foster three children — a boy they raised as their own son who is now 30, and two girls who lived with the family temporarily.

“Being a foster parent isn’t all fun and games,” Sakamoto said. “But it is enjoyable in the sense that it introduces you to the deepest part of our humanity. . . . It made my life 10 times deeper. It’s been wonderful.”

People like the Sakamotos are in high demand, as residential child-protection institutions overflow with abused children in need of caring guardians.

But by law, abusive parents can hold kids back from foster care. And few Japanese families volunteer to invite nonkin children into their fold.

Anne Funds Project, a 540-member-strong foster-support group in which Sakamoto serves as vice chairwoman, is trying to fundamentally change the way Japanese treat their kids.

After the 2004 Tochigi Prefecture murder of two boys by a 39-year-old man, the group helped lead the nationwide Orange Ribbon campaign aimed at preventing child abuse.

But its main mission is to build a community of foster families where neglected and abused children can receive the personal attention they need.

That, Sakamoto explained, requires a change in the way society views the very notion of family.

Sakamoto explained that the “ie seido” traditional social system, which places family ties above children’s individual rights, forms the basis for parental custody rights, granting even abusive mothers and fathers powerful influence over the lives of their children.

When those children are moved into the protective care of the state, such traditional values, plus jealousy toward potential foster parents, often prompt biological parents to bar their children from foster care or yank them away from a foster family after the children have settled in.

Sakamoto recalled the case of a couple she knows who took in a foster daughter at age 3 and raised her for seven years.

The girl’s biological father had been in prison. But one day, the child-guidance center called to inform the couple that the man had been released and, incensed, ordered his daughter returned to the residential institution.

“Those foster parents couldn’t forget her,” Sakamoto said. “They cried when they said goodbye.”

That was 15 years ago, but similar things often happen today, Sakamoto said.

Biological parents lose their say over whether their child can be removed from foster care when the placement is done with court permission. However, in cases where a biological parent initially gave the go-ahead for foster care, the parent can revoke it under Article 27 of the Child Welfare Law, which simply spells out the process for gaining approval from child-welfare officials.

For years, Anne Funds Project has tried to persuade politicians to revise the Child Abuse Prevention Law to allow courts to partially sever the custody rights of abusive parents so their children can be more securely placed in foster care. That would put Japan more in line with North America and Europe.

There are signs of change, Sakamoto said.

This year, the law is up for review and is getting serious attention from a bipartisan group of politicians focused on children’s issues. Partial severance of custody, she added, has appeared as a possible issue for revision.

“Our appeals were not in vain,” Sakamoto said. “Japanese — top politicians — have finally come around to understanding.”

See related stories:
Child-guidance centers lacking: experts
Kids’ group home a safe respite
Rising child-abuse deaths draw national scrutiny