Yomiuiri Shimbun
Ikuko Higuchi and Tsuyoshi Nakamura

A government effort to create a warmer and more homelike environment for children at public-run child welfare facilities has begun spreading.

Such efforts have been boosted through rising public awareness of the importance of mutual assistance with acts of charity made under the name of the cartoon hero Tiger Mask.

Many anonymous people, using the name Tiger Mask, the titular hero of the professional wrestler cartoon series, have donated gifts such as new school bags and supplies to facilities for underprivileged children.

The central government is calling on local governments to improve living conditions for children in welfare facilities across the country. But many problems remain unsolved, including the financial burden that comes with securing enough staff.

The number of children at such facilities is about 39,000. Their biological parents cannot take care of them because of poverty or abuse.

About 70 percent of them live in one of the 585 child welfare institutions across the country, while the others are being taken care of at homes for infants, related institutions or by foster families.

It was in the latter half of the 1990s when the number of children housed in child welfare facilities turned upward following the downward trend during the rapid economic growth period.

As there was a rise in the number of children requiring care at such facilities due to abuse, the total number of children housed at such facilities increased from about 27,000 in fiscal 1995 to over 30,000 in fiscal 2002.

More than half of such facilities are large-scale, with groups of more than 20 children living together. Groups living in facilities with a cozier and more homey environment in smaller groups of six to eight are limited.

Some say, “As there are too many children for facility staff to look after properly, they tend to bully each other or use violence.” Some facility staff have said, “As they are taken care of collectively, it is difficult to build an affectionate bond between the children and staff, who look after the children as if they were their own.”

According to a survey taken by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 53 percent of children living in these facilities were abused by their parents before they came to the facilities.

As there is an increase in the number of children who are more difficult to care for because of deep emotional scars, it has become all the more necessary and important to give painstaking care to the children, said a welfare ministry official.

Against such a backdrop, the ministry in 2011 unveiled a policy of providing children “a warm and homey environment such as those seen in foster families.” The ministry also clarified its stance of making welfare facilities as small as possible.

Such public initiatives were shored up by the Tiger Mask charity acts. At the end of fiscal 2010, 10 new school bags were donated anonymously to a child consultation center in Gunma Prefecture, apparently meant for those who were to enroll in primary school. This act drew public attention, triggering a wave of anonymous donations to such facilities across the country.

In November last year, the welfare ministry sent a notice to prefectural governments, asking them to make child welfare facilities smaller to create a warmer and more homelike environment. The ministry also asked them to formulate a plan to promote such efforts within fiscal 2014.

The ministry plans to eliminate large child welfare facilities in the 15 years between fiscal 2015 and 2029. As facilities for these children, the ministry envisions:

— smaller facilities where care is given to smaller groups of up to six to eight children.

— a children’s version of group homes, housing up to six children.

— foster families.

The ministry will partially fund the initiative from the planned increase in the consumption tax.

In realizing these schemes, however, it is necessary to reform existing facilities and to build group-home facilities, causing confusion among prefectural governments.

“As we never formulated these projects, we’re uncertain whether we could make the ideas reality within 10 years or so,” said an official of the Yamaguchi prefectural government.

Such concern among local governments apparently stems from uncertainty over securing enough manpower for the project and the prospects of financial support from the central government.

Prof. Reiho Kashiwame at Shukutoku University, versed in child welfare, said: “The number of children living in homey facilities is increasing. But in Western countries, such children are, in principle, living in a homelike environment, with more than half of them living with foster parents.

“There are also problems that make it necessary to increase the number of staff at facilities, while retaining staff specializing in child welfare,” he added.

These child welfare facilities are home to those up to age to 18. They are, in principle, managed with public funds from the central and local governments.

(Jan. 9, 2013)