TOKYO (Reuters) - Miwa Moriya was 6 when social workers told her she was going to a Christmas party, but instead moved her into a group home for about 60 children in a small city in western Japan.
The “party” turned into more than eight years of living away from her mother, and the beginning of a long battle with loneliness, bullying, and trauma.
She never knew exactly why she was sent to the home - only that the state thought she would be better off there than with her family.
Unlike most developed countries, which place the majority of children who are abused, neglected, or can’t live with their parents for other reasons in foster homes, Japan puts more than 80% of the 38,000 such children in residential-care facilities, according to government figures.
Once there, about one in seven stay for more than a decade, data show - despite UN guidelines that say children should grow up in a family setting.
The government has made the issue a legislative priority after several high-profile child-abuse deaths and a sharp rise in overall abuse cases. Local authorities have been given a deadline of next March to draw up a plan to improve the situation.
Last summer, the Japanese government said it wanted at least three-quarters of preschoolers in need of state care to live in foster homes within seven years, and the number of adoptions to double to at least 1,000 within five.
Hundreds of care facilities were set up after World War Two to shelter orphaned street children, and state care has largely been relegated to them since then. About 600 are operating today.
Such facilities - most of which house 20 or more children - have helped many, but are a poor alternative to a healthy family setting, experts say. A government investigation last month found sexual violence among children was widespread at institutions.
“Everyone here says, ‘Children are important,’ but that’s bogus,” Yasuhisa Shiozaki, an influential lawmaker who has led efforts to improve children’s welfare in recent years, told Reuters. “Children have always taken a back seat to adults’ interests in Japan. That has to change.”
Miwa, now 23, said that when she first got to the institution, called Kobato Gakuen, in Wakayama Prefecture, she cried at night for days, pining for her mother.
But once Miwa realized that crying wasn’t going to bring her home, she gave up and stopped.
“That made the staff think the children had adapted, but that’s a big mistake,” she said.
Some of the staff were nice, she said. But caretakers came and went without warning. Children lived in fear of the bullies and the strict, chastising adults, she said.
“There’s no escape when you live with your adversaries,” Miwa said.
In such scenarios, and without nurturing attention, institutionalized children can develop what specialists call Developmental Trauma Disorder, said Satoru Nishizawa, a clinical psychologist who has worked with children in state care for nearly 40 years.
“The child doesn’t feel protected and safe,” he said. The disorder can hinder self-control, triggering fits of rage over seemingly petty things. “To calm those tendencies, a person might turn to self-injury, and relationships often go haywire.”
Miwa has many of those symptoms. Every so often, she changes her phone number to sever ties with acquaintances, she said, or is driven to smash things around the flat. The scars on her wrist are a reminder of self-harm.
Still, at Kobato, Miwa considered herself lucky. Unlike the others, she eventually started spending weekends and long breaks with her mother. Many kids rarely, if ever, saw their parents.
She said she never knew why she was living at Kobato, and never thought to ask. It was only in the past six months that she started to wonder.
Her mother told her that welfare workers convinced her Miwa would be better off at a group home, noting she had failed to complete paperwork for Miwa to enter primary school.
In February, Miwa requested the release of her casework to learn more. The 276-page file paints a picture of a struggling mother who needed someone to look after Miwa while searching for work or a place to live away from her partners, including Miwa’s father.
The file shows social workers were in no rush to reunite Miwa and her mother. Miwa doesn’t recall a caseworker ever visiting her when she was little - a fact the records corroborate.
It’s a case in point for critics of the system, who argue that child welfare workers are too busy and may lack the training and expertise to make informed decisions for children.
Shiozaki, the lawmaker, is still trying to push through changes that would boost the number of child welfare workers and require state-level certification, but opposition has been fierce, with critics citing a lack of both people and money.
Miwa’s psychological state also isn’t discussed much in the records until she was a teenager.
In 2008, she began having trouble sleeping at night. Soon after, doctors diagnosed Miwa with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, characterized by delays in socialization skills. A year later, they prescribed Paxil for depression, the files show.
By the time the welfare office sent Miwa back to her mother, she was 15.
Kobato Gakuen and Wakayama prefecture declined to discuss Miwa’s case with Reuters, citing privacy policies.
Government surveys show that when children leave state care and enter the “real world” at age 18, they struggle most with loneliness and financial strife. Only a third enter university, versus 80% of high-school graduates nationwide.
With few options, about a tenth end up in work that provides housing. Many can’t hold down a job; a tenth end up on welfare, and some become homeless.
As social costs mount, Japan has asked local governments to draw up by next March a roadmap to base alternative care around family scenarios. That includes recruiting foster and adoptive parents, and turning large group homes into family-sized units.
“We have the laws and policies in place,” said Shiozaki, who as a cabinet minister helped revise the Child Welfare Law in 2016 to state that children - not just parents - have rights. “Now the problem is implementation, and making sure things actually change.”
Many experienced caretakers say it won’t be easy.
A ten-fold rise in child-abuse cases in the past two decades raises the question of whether Japanese society has what it takes to properly care for its most vulnerable young members, they say.
“Personally, I want to know what took the government so long,” said Norihisa Kuwahara, who heads a group home in western Japan and is chairman of the national council of children’s residential-care facilities.
Kuwahara says he has no objections to family-based care. But as someone who has worked at the same facility for more than 50 years, he said he knows first-hand the difficulty of caring for a growing number of abused children with increasingly complex psychological scars.
“Now, when the family unit has become so fragile and child-rearing so dysfunctional, rushing through these changes is the wrong approach.”
Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Gerry Doyle
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