The common practice of shunting orphans and abused children into child-care institutions instead of placing them with foster parents has left thousands susceptible to mistreatment, social stigma and homelessness, New York-based Human Rights Watch warned Thursday in its first such report on Japan in more than a decade.

There were about 39,000 children in various child-care institutions in Japan in 2013. Government statistics show that, contrary to the global trend, the overwhelming tendency is to institutionalize kids in need of so-called alternative care.

In 2012, just 12.0 percent were in the care of foster parents. This contrasts sharply with 93.5 percent in Australia and 77.0 percent in the United States.

Running 119 pages, it is the first major report on Japan since the international nongovernmental organization set up its Tokyo office, headed by lawyer and rights advocate Kanae Doi, in 2009.

“The reason we focused on these kids this time was because their voices are rarely heard, despite the sheer severity of their predicament,” Doi told reporters Thursday.

Titled “Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan,” the report said in 2011 that only 310, or 15 percent, of the 2,032 children under 2 years of age who required alternative care were in foster families.

It warns that institutionalization puts the infants at risk of developmental delays and other stumbling blocks that impede their growth.

According to Human Rights Watch, child guidance centers, which place kids who need alternative care, are largely inclined to institutionalize them, partly because they balk at the hassle involved in making the arrangements for individual foster care.

They also tend to cater to the financial interests of child-care institutions, which receive government subsidies based on the number of kids they admit.

“We demand the government revise the current Child Welfare Act so that an independent organization free of such vested interests, like a family court, can decide where to put the kids in consideration of their best interest,” said Doi.

Investigations by HRW also shed light on a raft of rights violations pervading child-care facilities, including physical and sexual abuse by caregivers, stigma-based bullying, lack of privacy and poor hygienic conditions.

Once himself in an institution, Takayuki Watai, who now heads the self-help group Hinatabokko, agrees. Noting institutionalized children tend to form highly hierarchical communities, Watai said: “Senior kids there would have an absolute say on everything. If you disobey them, they’ll kick and beat you up.”

Many continue to face hardships after leaving the institutions, typically at the age of 18, as they wrestle with poor access to higher education, unemployment and even homelessness, he said.

Many institutions that were interviewed by Human Rights Watch admitted to losing touch with graduates within a year of their departure, suggesting a widespread failure of responsibility.

To improve the status quo, the government pledged in 2011 to reduce the reliance on institutions to a third of the current level. The HRW, however, slammed the effort as “half-hearted” and far from real reform, such as transitioning to a full-fledged foster parent system.

“Japan doesn’t even recognize it’s a problem to put kids in institutions. Changing this mindset is the first step to solve the issue,” Doi said.

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