Child poverty in Japan: Support vital for bonding between parents and children

This is the seventh and the final instalment of our third series on child poverty.

"I can see the head now. You're almost there." In a delivery room in April 2014, a 46-year-old woman went through the breathing exercises for childbirth. Her 42-year-old husband was by her side as she strained, covered in sweat. "It's a healthy boy!" About 30 minutes later, a nurse handed her a baby sleeping in a bed.

This was a "mock childbirth" for a couple greeting an adopted child, a unique programme offered by an obstetrics hospital. Although the woman did not actually give birth, "I got a real feeling that the baby is mine," she said.

The hospital in question takes part in Anshin Haha to Ko no Sanfujinka Renraku-kyogikai (Obstetrician liaison council for mother and child to feel at ease), which was established in September 2013 to help facilitate the adoption of children whose parents are unable to raise them unaided due to reasons such as poverty.

Over the past two years, 33 women have decided to give up their children for adoption in connection with the council, while 16 have chosen to raise their children on their own.

"We ask pregnant women to carefully consider raising their children themselves. Only in cases in which that won't work do we mediate adoption," said Koji Samejima, director of the liaison council. Birthing assistants and other parties coordinate closely to keep watch over the growth of adopted children. They monitor the children's health, hold Christmas parties and maintain communication with the adoptive parents and children.

If the birth mother cannot pay for childbirth or a hospital stay, the hospital often takes on the burden. "If this doesn't change, adoption is not going to become more widespread at medical institutions," Samejima said.

The infant introduced through the mock childbirth in April 2014 is now 1½ years old. He enjoys picture books that play music and goes to dance classes. Looking at the toddler running happily around the room, his adoptive mother said with a smile: "I've completely forgotten that I didn't give birth to him. He's so dear to me."

Maintaining biological ties

Programs also exist to reconnect parents with children who live in facilities.

"If you want to live with your children, you have to quit drinking." Those were the words spoken five years ago by Kaoru Koyano, a professional family aid counselor at the Shisei Daichi Children's Home in Tachikawa, Tokyo, to the mother of a then 2-year-old girl living in the children's home.

Koyano, now 74, chose her words carefully, knowing she could not return the girl to a mother who repeated, "I want to pick up my daughter" with alcohol on her breath.

The girl had lived with her parents and grandparents in a public housing unit. Her father did not have a steady job, and her mother suffered from depression and was unable to perform housework. The adults argued constantly and no one looked after the girl. She was taken into protective custody by a child guidance centre and placed in the children's home.

Koyano watched the mother change. Even when she complained that she wasn't feeling well, Koyano encouraged her, saying, "Start with the things you can do." The mother got a divorce, and stopped drinking when she remarried.

Koyano interviewed her new husband as well, and conducted repeated training sessions in preparation for the girl to live with her mother and new father figure. Koyano also asked the girl about her feelings, and three years later when the girl reached age 5, she was finally able to return to her mother.

It's been four years since social workers were placed in all nurseries and orphanages as family support professional counselors.

"Many counselors work side jobs. The truth is they're not able to give it their full attention," Koyano said.

The mother recently told Koyano happily that her daughter had made friends in the neighborhood. "In their hearts, children are always wanting their parents," Koyano said. "I want to keep providing support to reconnect children with parents who are trying to get back on their feet."

Creating happiness for children

Programs to rescue children from poverty have only just begun.

When parents are unable to raise children on their own, it is important to create systems to safely entrust children to foster parents or adoptive parents. There are private organisations that provide assistance for adoption, but they vary widely in their operations and depth of care. Rationalizing this work will require a shift from the current notification-based system to an approval-based system, and will require that the national government shoulder the expense.

It is essential to protect children who are in danger of abuse, but it is difficult to determine whether protection is needed. We need more staff to respond to such cases at child guidance centres and in municipalities, and more staff with professional knowledge, including social workers and psychiatric social workers.

A shift in thinking is required as well. Nationwide there are only about 100 Child and Family Support centres, which offer aid to parents and children in co-operation with child guidance centres and municipalities. This number should be increased.

Conversely, there are about 7,000 regional support centres that play a similar role for elderly people, including branch offices. They also have specialists such as social workers and public health nurses on hand. It may be worth considering to have regional support centres help parents and children, and provide them with funds, personnel and other necessary resources to do so.

Child poverty is not somebody else's problem. A single problem, such as divorce or unemployment, can put anyone in a difficult position. The national government and people of Japan must pool their strength to create happiness for all children who are suffering.

Based on an interview with Kiyoshi Miyajima, who is in associate professor of the Japan College of Social Work and an expert on child welfare