The sound of giggling fills a room at Kodomo no Ie, a children’s institution in northern Tokyo, as a group of half a dozen girls work on their homework while waiting for dinner to be served. It’s the same situation that is typically played out in homes across the country, except these are no ordinary children. Some of them are lucky to be alive.
“I’ve seen children that have been brought to Kodomo no Ie that could have died if left in their homes a little longer,” says Satoshi Hayakawa, director of the facility. There are 40 children between the age of 3 and 19 years old currently living at the home, Hayakawa says, adding that almost all of them have suffered some sort of abuse.
An estimated 30,000 children live in 599 foster homes nationwide, according to statistics from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Abuse or neglect is the principal reason for most children being placed under protective care, according to ministry data from 2008.
Kodomo no Ie is no different, Hayakawa says, with children often arriving at the facility with multiple broken bones, ruptured eardrums and scars caused by knife wounds. Once they have been placed under protective care, it is extremely rare for them to return home.
Although some specialists emphasize the importance of children eventually returning to live with their parents, Hayakawa disagrees. “We don’t have time to dream of (abused) children being raised by their own parents,” he says. “The situation is grave and it’s essential to protect their lives first. Right now, that safest place for those children is at this facility.”
While the number of reported cases of abuse to child consultation centers has been on the rise for a couple of decades, Hayakawa believes little has been to done to address the shortage of facilities that can rehabilitate the children in need of protection. “If there is any doubt (in cases of suspected abuse), children should be taken into protective care,” Hayakawa says. “However, there’s not enough centers at present, which means the only children placed under protection are those found in life-or-death situations.”
Even if a child is fortunate enough to be placed in a foster home, his or her struggle continues. And even if he or she does manage to adjust to life in an institution, they will, ultimately, be forced outside into the real world without a safety net.
Ami Takahashi, head of Yuzuriha, a consultation center for former residents of such children’s facilities, said the life that awaits those who leave the centers is often harsh. “These people have no parents, no family to rely on and they are not allowed to stop and think once they leave the facilities,” Takahashi says. “With no one to turn to, many wind up committing suicide, landing in jail or becoming homeless.”
About 77 percent of high school graduates in Japan go on to college or vocational school, according to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. By comparison, just 20 percent of graduates who lived in a state facility continue their education after high school.
“Most of these young adults have no other alternative,” Takahashi says. “They need to work in order to survive.”
Throughout her career, Takahashi has seen her share of abused children — not just those who were physically beaten up by their parents, but also those who were neglected to the point that they weren’t given a bath for eight years or were fed only snacks. These children typically have no one to turn to once they leave the facilities.
And that’s why Yuzuriha was founded — to offer advice and support to former residents of foster homes. Founded in 2011, Yuzuriha’s rehabilitation program consists of providing advice on life issues such as housing and education, introducing public loan services and offering free lessons for those who want to obtain a high school proficiency degree. “The pain these people harbor is so overwhelming and I know that it might even be easier for them if they choose death,” Takahashi says, “but I want them to live. I can’t live their life or take away their pain but I want to do whatever I can to help them survive.”