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Staff at children’s homes strive to give kids their all

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

For Chikako Ishigo, 70, working at a children’s home has not been as worrying or troublesome a job as one might imagine. She says she has never wanted to quit since actively seeking out a career in the field back when she was 35 years old.

“Maybe partly due to my optimistic nature, I’ve never felt it burdensome to work here,” said Ishigo, who has worked at the same private institution, St. Joseph’s Home in the city of Nishi-Tokyo, for the last 3½ decades.

She is now a veteran educational manager training younger employees, and also gives advice on all aspects of life to the facility’s residents — children between the ages of 2 and 18.

However, a lot of institutions are not blessed with such a smooth operation as St. Joseph’s and consequently suffer from a high turnover of staff and a resulting chronic shortage of workers.

In a two-year survey released in 2011 by the Tokyo Council of Social Welfare, a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations offering welfare services, one-third of children’s institutions in Japan had an annual job turnover rate of 20 percent.

The number of “jido yogo shisetsu,” or children’s institutions, stood at 595 as of last October, representing an increase of 44 from 2001. There were 28,813 children between the ages of 2 and 18 living in them.

Although the children can stay at these institutions as long as they need to (basically, until they turn 18), and even though they can extend their stay by another two years, most remain for an average of about four years before returning to their parents.

“Our ultimate goal is to create an environment for the children to go back to their homes, to their parents, or eventually become independent (if such arrangements are possible),” said Hiroaki Miyata, director of St. Joseph’s, noting that some children come back again soon after leaving because of lingering troubles they encounter on their return home.

According to Kunio Kuroda, director of Futaba Musashigaoka Gakuen, a children’s institution located in the Tokyo suburb of Kodaira, two-thirds of the children that live in his home end up there because they could no longer live in their own home due to abuse by one or both parents.

“Our mission is to protect and raise ‘again’ properly a child that has been brought up inappropriately, such as through child abuse or neglect,” he said.

Children who have been neglected or abused often exhibit varying degrees of developmental or learning disabilities, mainly due to a lack of interaction with their caregivers, and high stress levels due to their inadequate surroundings.

Kuroda said that taking care of children who come from such circumstances is “of course a tough job in itself,” but the challenge isn’t insurmountable. Most people who turn to this kind of work hold high aspirations and must attain the qualification to be a care giver. Thus they are fully prepared to deal with these kinds of children.

What is troublesome, however, is that some facilities suffer from poor management, and the negative feelings this causes among the staff.

Most institutions used to be on the large size, though they can’t have more than 50 children living in a single facility. In 2000, however, the central government started encouraging institutions to divide their children into small groups called group homes and small group-care units.

Based on the policy shift, some — but not all — facilities have introduced a new type of accommodation, with a main unit holding at most 38 children and two smaller units each holding six children.

He said because the small units that are being introduced are built at different locations, it often becomes hard for the staff to get real-time support when difficulties emerge, and thus there’s a risk for the units “to become isolated behind closed doors,” he said.

Also, at institutions where smaller units have been introduced, with no overall increase in the number of staff, employees are required to do more night duties, Kuroda said, noting that this can lead to less communication among staff. It can also potentially increase the risk of accidents or violence among children or between staff and children inside the facility.

“As the risks become multilayered, some staff might become physically and psychologically exhausted, and their motivation will go down. In the end, they quit the job, not being able to achieve their career goals,” he said.

“A lot of the young workers spend all their time at the facility, keeping company of the children. And when their regular work hours end at 5 p.m., for example, they are left with administrative work, such as keeping records. That’s why they have to stay late to finish it, and thus physical and mental stress accumulates.”

Kuroda said each staff member and administrator should review their duties and find the best ways to improve efficiency, while taking good care of the children.

I feel the biggest problem is that staff do not get enough reward or encouragement, even if they do their best. There needs to be a system where the young staff can talk about their feelings more openly and share them with other (more experienced) staff. When the staff become stable both physically and psychologically, the children will become stable, too.”