SENDAI (Kyodo) Child welfare officials have launched an extensive search for children who have either been orphaned or are missing in parts of Tohoku ravaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Their efforts are being hindered by the scale of the destruction and the lack of administrative services in many areas.

Search efforts moved into full swing Saturday in Iwate, one of the prefectures worst hit along with Miyagi and Fukushima, which are expected to soon request that the specialists come in.

The child welfare specialists were gathered from various parts of the country for this unusual mission under the initiative of the central government, with experts noting the disaster poses greater challenges in locating such children than the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.

In Iwate, 17 specialists have arrived, including psychologists and child minders from nurseries in Tokyo, Hokkaido, and Aomori, Akita and Kanagawa prefectures.

Last weekend they met with their local counterparts and started searching the cities of Kamaishi, Ofunato and Rikuzentakata and the town of Otsuchi.

The experts will initially work in groups of three and look for orphaned children at evacuation shelters.

Children who have been left homeless will probably be entrusted to temporary care homes at child consultation centers or to host parents.

But temporary care homes and regular homes for children are already running at full capacity in various parts of the country because of the growing number of children who need to be protected from abusive or neglectful parents.

Of the 17 specialists, six from Yokohama Central Child Consultation Center drove in two cars to Iwate, carrying their own food and gasoline. They are planning to check shelters in Rikuzentakata and Ofunato while sleeping at municipal assembly halls.

The two cities have more than 100 small shelters, and many of them are spread out. Local government officials are preoccupied with identifying the dead and restoring vital infrastructure, leaving limited resources to help the child care experts.

“It is a scale (of work) unimaginable, but we hope to do as much as we possibly can,” said Akira Katsusawa, head of the Yokohama child center.

The Iwate Prefectural Government is considering asking the central government to build a boarding school for orphaned children.

“Some local governments are not functioning,” said Muneyuki Sato of the child support division in the Miyagi Prefectural Government. “Some regions even declined our offer to help search.”

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said it has received information about some children orphaned in the disaster areas but has been unable to follow up on it.

In the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, 68 children aged under 18 were orphaned, while another 332 lost one parent.

The March 11 disaster is believed to have orphaned far more children because the monster tsunami devastated wide coastal areas.

A Hyogo official who was engaged in child searches after the 1995 temblor said that quake “was an early morning earthquake when children were with their parents and heavy damage was limited to certain areas. Schools were also operating (soon after the quake) and we could gather information quickly.”

The Tohoku earthquake, however, occurred at 2:46 p.m., when many children were at school and away from their parents.

Yasuo Matsubara, who teaches child welfare theory at Meiji Gakuin University, noted the need for providing psychiatric care.

“If children are left in a condition without knowing where their parents may be, many of them will be psychologically unstable,” he said. “What they need is a place to live in peace and adults who will be with them when they need them.”

Current rules require people to have a certain annual income and to receive training before they are certified as foster parents.

Matsubara suggests that a more flexible arrangement be made so more adults can participate in the foster parent program.

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