Veteran foster parent Mika Hobbs was surprisingly frank when she confessed how nerve-racking her job can be.
“Sometimes I’m beside myself with this murderous rage at the kids,” Hobbs said recently at her home in Machida, western Tokyo. “There are those moments when I feel like I’m losing it.”
Hobbs has been a dedicated foster mother for 11 years, during which time she has taken in five abandoned and abused children, some of them mentally challenged and prone to extremely sociopathic behavior.
One boy, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was taken in by Hobbs at age 7 and fostered for three years. He would heap epithets on her all day and vandalize her home, apparently trying to draw the motherly attention that he had lacked earlier in childhood. She eventually had to send the boy to a mental health care specialist.
Another child placed in her care, a 15-year-old girl, would wet her bed every night, in what turned out to be a carefully calculated attempt to test the patience of the foster parents.
Despite all this, Hobbs said she is certain of the need for all children to have families.
“It’s an enormous tragedy that a human being grows up without being around people they can call a mother or a father,” said Hobbs, 48. “I believe it counts a lot that I can be there for them to pull them out of it.”
But foster parents are in short supply in Japan, despite a mounting need for their services. An estimated 45,000 to 47,000 children have been found to be under so-called alternative care for the past few years, according to annual statistics released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
While the global norm is for abandoned children to be put up for foster care or adoption, in Japan close to 90 percent of them are consigned to children’s institutions. Critics say this excessive reliance on institutionalization represents a form of human rights abuse that Japan has long turned a blind eye to, unlike in Europe, which accomplished a full-fledged transition to family-based alternative care 30 years ago.
The number of children put into foster care or placed in semifoster settings more than doubled to 5,407 in 2012 from 2,122 in 1999, the highest in two decades. Still, this accounts only for 14.8 percent of children under alternative care. The government pledged in 2011 to raise that to about 30 percent by around 2025.
The adoption rate is low, too. In Japan, an average of 400 children are adopted every year, compared with about 5,000 in Britain, which has half of Japan’s population, said Tetsuo Tsuzaki, a professor at Kyoto Prefectural University who specializes in the sociology of child welfare.
Unlike in the past, when a majority of children who sought social assistance had lost parental support due to parents’ deaths, disappearances or divorces, many of those in state care nowadays havebiological parents but are unable to live with them because of domestic abuse or neglect.
Indeed, the number of children in need of alternative care is steadily rising. In fiscal 2013, abuse cases handled by child consultation centers nationwide hit a record 73,765, breaking 70,000 for the first time since the welfare ministry began compiling such data in 1990. But the way the system is set up forces the children to go independent upon turning 18, with little or no help from the government on how to survive afterward. As a result, some find themselves jobless and even homeless, experts say.
Foster parents in Japan are assigned by prefectural child consultation centers. Unlike adoption, foster parents have no legal relationship with the children, who are taken in on the premise that they will eventually become independent or reunited with their biological parents once they turn 18. It’s a paid job, granting the parents a monthly child-rearing allowance worth about ¥100,000 per child, plus other stipends.
Behind Japan’s penchant for institutionalization seems to be a blase attitude at the child consultation centers, which often find it a hassle to arrange foster parents and instead shove them into institutions out of sheer convenience, according to a report published by New York-based organization Human Rights Watch in May.
Japan has traditionally raised newborns and infants in institutions as well. Experts say the custom is almost unthinkable in Europe, where it is common knowledge that children are bound to develop severe attachment disorders if deprived of a chance to bond one-on-one with parents as infants.
According to professor Tsuzaki, Japan is one of the very few developed countries where institutions for infants exist.
“From a European point of view, these institutions are in themselves a human rights violation,” he said. “Staff caregivers there go home when the time comes, and only a few are left during the night. Watching the staff take turns coming and going like this, in a completely businesslike manner, instills a great mistrust of adults in infants.”
Some of those infants, as they grow up, go to extreme lengths to draw attention.
Hobbs herself dealt with two boys with a history of being institutionalized as infants. Both, she said, turned out to be “very difficult” and often exhibited unusually antisocial behavior. Hobbs said she had to return one to the child care consultation center after three years because he would become violent at the slightest provocation. He shouted death threats at neighbors, punched adults with wild abandon and even scratched a fellow school pupil with his nails, leaving deep cuts.
“Japanese policymakers must realize just how detrimental those infant institutions are to the kids’ development,” she said.
While a one-on-one relationship seems certainly vital to the well-being of children, Takayuki Watai, a former institutionalized child who now heads Tokyo-based self-help group Hinatabokko, stresses that simply promoting the foster parent system as “the best solution” sends the wrong message. Some foster parents are irresponsible, he said, adding they often send children back after realizing they aren’t the type they were hoping for.
“There are lots of wannabe foster parents who mistakenly believe their only mission is to take in orphans. But in reality, orphans account for a very small percentage of the kids in need of social care,” he said.
According to Hobbs, many foster parents registered in Japan are in their 50s or 60s and would rather adopt a child but can’t because the age gap with the children is deemed too wide. Foster parents of this type often prioritize fulfilling their desire to experience parenthood and become picky about what kind of child they want to foster. A baby girl with no disabilities is a common request, experts say, but in reality the children are likely to be much older, possibly handicapped or delinquent.
“Returning the kids to an institution just because they didn’t fit your expectations would make them feel like they were abandoned again, because they weren’t good enough, and suffer an even stronger self-esteem crisis,” said Watai of Hinatabokko.
Another problem with the foster parent system is that domestic abuse is likely to go unnoticed because of its familylike setting. As a result, fostered children tend to get hurt more critically than their institutionalized peers if mistreated, said lawyer Sayo Saruta, who was the main author of the HRW report in May.
“Staff from a child consultation center do some follow-up with the foster family every once in a while, but only after they’ve called the parents in advance. It’s really hard for the staff to detect anything unusual during such pre-arranged visits,” Saruta said.
In the HRW report, Saruta characterizes foster care as allowing for much “deeper” and “sustained” human bonds than institutional care, but nonetheless suggests the system be reviewed to better monitor foster parents.
Still, being raised in a foster family proved a lifesaver for one of the schoolchildren The Japan Times interviewed for this article. The 17-year-old bespectacled girl cheerfully spoke about her school badminton practice and favorite bands, and proudly showed off her collection of minuscule origami cranes. She is also an aspiring singer, often covering the Vocaloid songs sung by computer-generated pop idol Hatsune Miku.
Before entering foster care, she went through some “human relationship problems” in a children’s institution, said her mother, who asked that no further details about the girl’s past be revealed, citing confidentiality agreements.
“I always wanted to be free when I was in an institution. But I have that freedom now, being encouraged to pursue whatever I want. So I’m truly happy I ended up here,” the girl said.