Get to Know Mirai no Mori Series #2 – The Children
Through this series, we would like to provide more insights into the institutional care system in Japan, children in it, and Mirai no Mori’s mission. Previous blog introduced the system and infrastructure of institutional care. In this blog, we focus on the children who live in them and some of the issues they face. We hope you find it interesting and informative.
Children’s foster homes (care homes) maintain a secure environment that allows children to enjoy their day-to-day lives and learn without worries. The recent trend for the homes is to have a smaller scale, family-like living units, as opposed to the traditional large communal living. Large care homes often have “home groups” within the facility, and each “home” unit is equipped with its own kitchen, living room, dining room, and children’s rooms, to allow family style living. Some care homes have the groups organized by gender, while some are mixed; some allocate children around the same age in one group, while some have children of all ages in one. Generally, children get their own rooms as they become older. Home staff (care workers) usually prepare meals, and they eat together at each group home.
Children commute to school from care homes and participate in after school activities such as sports if they wish to. They also participate in neighborhood children’s group, and sometimes care homes open doors to locals for their own events. For the children whose family visitation is possible, weekend visits are arranged and some stay with their families over the holidays. Siblings do not always live in the same care homes, and even at the same care home they may be placed in different groups.
Care homes have increasingly adopted small group configurations in order to accommodate individual child’s needs. However, with many adults still looking after groups of children at once, care workers often mention they need to stay mindful of each child, as it tends to leave quiet, well-behaved children with less attention. Many children keep their living situation a secret, even from friends, as the reality of institutional care is not well understood in Japan and discrimination and prejudice at schools and/or workplace are a common problem. Moreover, because the society is not prepared to accommodate for the situation that these children are in, there are many obstacles unique to them. Something as simple as getting a mobile phone requires extra procedures as they cannot get the parents’ signature for the paperwork, often causing them extra expense and time.
Many children in institutional care suffer psychological trauma from past experiences, and for some, it can interfere with their daily lives. Care homes have psychotherapists that offer counseling as needed, tending to children’s mental health. According to a 2019 study, 36.7% of children in institutional care are reported to have some disability including physical, intellectual, and/or psychological.【1】 While these numbers cannot be directly compared due to overlaps and differences in categories, compared to the national result of 7.6%, it is notably high.【2】
Preparing for the Future
After graduating middle school and the compulsory education ends, children must be under 18 years old and continuing in education to be able to stay in care homes. Because of this, they are strongly recommended to enter high school. However, care workers share their dilemma of having to recommend children to choose an easier school to get into, despite wanting them to challenge themselves for higher more difficult schools, as without an admission to a high school, children cannot stay in the care home. When the children talk about their future and career, we often hear “foster home staff” or “childcare worker” as their preference. While these are wonderful and respective professions, we cannot help but to wonder if exposure to the outside world and opportunities to broaden their views are limited, contributing to the monochronic answer to their dream jobs.
Children start preparing for their independent lives while still in the system. Some care homes have space designated to simulate life after leaving care homes, where children can experience some aspects of living alone, such as budgeting for daily expenses, shopping for groceries, and cooking for themselves. Many children also start part time jobs once in high school, to save up money to fund the transition into the independent life.
Leaving Care Homes – Independence
After leaving care homes, many children choose to work for economic reasons. A 2019 study shows that among those who have lived in care homes, only 40% continue to higher education. While this number is on the increase in recent years, compared to 76% of all high school graduates of the same year, the difference is still significant.【3】 And the actual rate of the children continuing into higher education is even lower, as this number does not include those who graduated from correspondence schools or special needs schools. Furthermore, the same study reports that of those children who get into higher education, more than 20% drop out within 4 years, a rate 10 times higher than that of national average. There are many different reasons for them dropping out of schools, however we often hear the difficulty of continuing to study while working to financially support themselves.
Care homes keep in touch with children after leaving the system, providing support in various ways such as sending food and other necessities, and giving advice as needed. Some even provide temporary shelter for those who suddenly lost places to live. However, continuously supporting graduates with flexibility on top of caring for children currently in care homes is not easy. We often hear that some graduates stop communication to the homes when their care workers leave the home. And homes lose contact with some graduates after they quit school or job, raising a concern that support is not being provided to those who need it the most.
Immediately after graduating high school, the children start a life very different from what they had at care homes. Without the constant assistance and protection from trusted adults, in new environment, forming new relationships, and having to live alone, the graduates face variety of problems and issues that they have never encountered before. Many struggles balancing freedom and responsibility that suddenly became all theirs to manage. It is almost impossible to gain all the knowledge, skills, and mindset necessary to navigate through new and sudden transition while in school or at care homes. As one care worker told us, reaching 18 years old and leaving the care home may feel like an end to some of us, but to the children, this is when real learning, development, and journey towards their dream actually starts.
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1. 児童養護施設入所児童等調査の概要(平成30年2月1日現在), 令和2年1月, 厚生労働省子ども家庭局. [Survey Overview on Children Admitted to Foster Homes (2018 Feb. 1)], Child and Family Policy Bureau, (2020 Jan) (online) https://www.mhlw.go.jp/content/11923000/000595122.pdf (last visited May. 20, 2021)
2. “参考資料 障害者の状況” 内閣府. [Reference Data: Current Status of Persons and Children with Disabilities], Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, https://www8.cao.go.jp/shougai/whitepaper/r01hakusho/zenbun/siryo_02.htm (last visited May. 20, 2021)
3. 全国児童養護施設 退所者トラッキング調査2020, 認定NPO 法人ブリッジフォースマイル. [Tracking Research on Foster Home Graduates Across Japan 2020], NPO Bridge For Smile, (2020 Nov) (online) https://www.b4s.jp/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/report-tracking-research-2020.pdf (last visited May. 20, 2021)