The 60-year-old mother has been a foster parent half her life, caring for 11 kids besides her own two children.
But even an experienced foster parent like her could not handle one girl who had been neglected by her parents and was deeply disturbed emotionally.
“She had been taken in at a child welfare institution and came to live with us about five years ago at the age of 14, so she could have an opportunity to learn normal social skills in a family while attending high school,” the foster mother said.
The girl had a troubled family. Her parents separated and her mother had numerous boyfriends who frequented the house. The girl and her two brothers did not go to school.
She was placed in a Kanto region welfare institution at age 8, after she was found wandering a street barefoot and hungry. The foster mother was chosen to give the girl a chance to spend time in a family environment before she became independent.
The foster mom thought she had seen every type of problem behavior from an abused child, noting that some of her earlier charges had not only destroyed her furniture but had been arrested for theft.
But the woman could not handle the 14-year-old girl. Her father, who was living with a young woman, refused to let her stay with them during a visit and instead put her in an apartment. It was then that she started engaging in prostitution and other self-destructive acts, and soon began disappearing for days.
“I spent days and nights calling police and looking for her. When she came back, she wanted to tell me how much she had earned,” the foster mother said. “I scolded her and tried to get her to change, but I felt my life collapse.”
In the end, the woman had to let the girl go, but she regrets her decision now.
“She was a smart girl. She passed a high school (entrance) exam even though she missed school in her childhood,” the woman said. “If I had the knowledge to handle her or could get help, I could have hung on. I could have done so much more for her.”
Child psychologists say the best environment for kids, if they can’t be with their own parents, is a foster home.
But caring for children, especially those who have been abused, is extremely difficult. Torn between a distrust of adults and a craving for love, many abused kids display unusually high levels of anger, aggression and anxiety, according to experts.
But the nation’s authorities have provided little support for foster parents either financially or in the form of training, and depend on voluntary efforts, said Junichi Shoji, director of the social welfare foundation Japan Child and Family Research Institute.
This indifference helps explain why foster parents in 2002 took in only 2,211 out of some 38,000 kids who are unable to live with their real parents, for whatever reason, including abuse and death, Shoji said. The remaining 94 percent ended up in child welfare institutions.
The number of kids placed in foster care has steadily declined from a peak of 9,618 in 1958, a trend exactly opposite from that of the West, he said.
Last October, amid a rise in child abuse cases and growing awareness of the limits of care at child welfare institutions, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry started promoting foster parenting and revised the rules to this end.
The ministry’s initiative includes a program to train “specialized” foster parents who care for abused kids. It also gives foster parents a chance to be spelled by substitutes to allow them to take breaks, such as for a weekend, since their status is similar to that of institutional caregivers even though they receive much less in terms of official subsidies.
The 60-year-old foster mom said many of today’s foster parents are confronted with new problems because the children they take in have gone through more difficult experiences.
“When I started foster parenting in the 1970s, many real parents gave up their children reluctantly due to illness or financial trouble,” she said. “But now, many younger parents without such problems say they don’t want to have anything to do with their children, or abuse them, not knowing what to do.”
In late August, three-day training sessions for specialized foster parents were held for the second year by the health ministry and JCFRI.
About 120 people attended the courses in Tokyo and Kyoto. The program included debates, lectures and role-playing to let participants better understand the psyche of abused children.
In addition to meeting the qualifications required to become a regular foster parent, including not violating child-welfare, child-prostitution or child-pornography laws, a specialized foster parent must have at least three years of experience as a regular foster parent or in a child welfare-related job.
Many participants in the courses had such experience.
In his opening speech to the Tokyo session, Shoji, who is also an Aoyama Gakuin University professor of child psychology, said it is regrettable such important training just started a year ago.
“The children we deal with are so difficult that the helpers can easily turn into abusers,” he said. “All foster parents should have received this training a long time ago.”
Though the health ministry officially recognizes only two cases in which children died as a result of abuse by foster parents over the past decade, both the ministry and experts such as Shoji suspect that — given the difficulty in raising troubled children — there are many instances of physical punishment by foster parents.
Kazue Oda, a participant from Tochigi Prefecture, said that better governmental support for foster relationships is urgently needed, citing as an example the November killing of a child in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, by a foster parent — one of the two cases confirmed by the ministry.
“The foster mother who took care of the murdered 3-year-old girl was from South Korea and was isolated in the community and knew very few neighbors,” Oda said. “The child was also an extremely difficult case due to past abuse. Other foster parents had given up on her.
“She couldn’t handle the girl but had no one to turn to for help,” she said. “It was a sad case where a high-risk child happened to be put in the care of high-risk foster parents.”
Oda said she also experienced a narrow escape, when a troubled teen she took in hid an air rifle and butterfly knives in his room along with a note that said, “Kill Kazue, kill Kazue!”
“He originally projected his anger at his mother, who didn’t feed him as a child, and then transferred it to me,” she said. “Luckily, I could seek help before it was too late.”
Other participants, while welcoming the training course, expressed concern about their status. Some also criticized the lengthy wait and apparent red tape they experienced before being able to take in children, while others were distrustful of welfare institutions, feeling some were only in the business for the hefty subsidies, which sometimes reach 500,000 yen a month per infant child.
One foster parent in her 50s said she finds it strange that many more obligations than rights seem to be imposed on foster parents, noting the rules announced last October by the ministry added new minimum requirements that they had to fulfill but nothing was said about their rights.
“I’ve heard that in France, fosterage is recognized as a job in which a salary is paid and legal holidays provided,” she said. “I won’t demand that, but I think we should at least have the same right to exercise parental authority as the heads of institutions that provide the same social nursing care as us.”
When she sent her foster child to study in Australia, the procedure to acquire a passport for the child was much more troublesome than for blood parents, and she had to sign a document promising to take full responsibility for the child’s actions, she said.
Shoji said the government and foster parents must work together. Part of the reason for the decline in foster care is official distrust toward some foster parents, he said.
“The main objective of foster care, unlike adoption, is to try to return kids to their original families,” he said. “But some do not comprehend their role as providers of social nursing care and think they have a child for life. Some even sever contact with child guidance centers.”
The government therefore preferred to keep children at welfare institutions, where official control was easier and a certain level of care was guaranteed, Shoji said.
But he believes foster care should still be promoted, for its many advantages.
“Unlike institutions, where children must change from a nursery at 2 and start living independently at 18, foster care is much more streamlined. The chances for children pursuing higher education is also much higher than those staying at welfare institutions,” he said, noting that just 60 percent of children at institutions attend high school and only a tiny fraction ever make it to college.
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