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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2003

MEDIA MIX

State gambles with the future of 'discarded' kids


Last month there were two news stories about legal complications arising from the conception of children through special medical procedures. In one, a surrogate mother in California gave birth to twins who were the product of a Japanese man's sperm and the egg of a third-party Asian-American woman. In the second case, a Japanese woman gave birth to a child conceived with the sperm of her dead husband.

In the former case, the Japanese government did not accept the twins as citizens because of a law concerning mothers over 50 -- the Japanese father's wife is 55 -- even though the State of California recognized the Japanese couple as the twins' parents. (The Japanese government has since changed its mind.) In the latter case, the mother wanted her baby registered as her late husband's, but a judge refused, saying it was not clear that the husband "consented to posthumous in vitro fertilization."

Nothing changes the fact that these people will be the parents of the children they brought into the world. The point of contention was the children's legal status as defined in the family register, which makes it clear that the Japanese government has the final say as to a child's parentage. But once that status is established, the government is through. Raising the child is completely the parents' business.

This latter concept may seem self-evident, but it has traditionally been manifested as a hands-off attitude on the part of the government with regard to parents' obligations and responsibilities. Reports of child abuse are on the rise -- they leaped from 4,000 in 1996 to 23,000 in 2001 -- due to the authorities' new willingness to pursue cases of child abuse and the media's willingness to cover them.

Consequently, authorities have begun removing battered children from their homes, something that would have been nearly unthinkable 20 years ago. According to social worker Kiyoshi Miyajima, in a recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun, victims of abuse now account for 52 percent of all new residents of child-welfare facilities, which are becoming overcrowded. Last Wednesday, Crown Princess Masako visited one in Nerima, Tokyo, that housed 107 children.

So the system relies on foster parents. Adoptions of young children in Japan are rare owing to social stigma. Foster parents bring abandoned and abused children into their homes so that they can experience a family environment. Because "having" a child in Japan is considered a blessing while raising one is considered a chore, foster parents have a saintly reputation. Only saints would raise children that aren't their own.

Last year, the system came under a cloud when a little girl in Tochigi Prefecture was killed by her foster mother. The trial ended last month with the woman receiving a four-year prison term. The little girl had developmental problems and the woman was once hospitalized for stress. Her social worker, however, continually told her and her husband to be patient. In the end, the foster mother snapped.

The media made the foster parents look like monsters, but in actuality the system is woefully unsupervised, a consequence of the government's hands-off attitude. Child-welfare facilities are subsidized by prefectural governments, but established and run by private individuals. Potential foster parents contact these facilities and work out arrangements without official mediation. In the wake of the Tochigi incident and other child-welfare tragedies uncovered by the media, the government is now suggesting "respites" for foster parents.

On Nov. 7, Fuji TV broadcast a two-hour drama special, "The Grape Tree," supposedly based on a true story, about a couple, the Katagiris, and their two foster children. The show received a publicity boost from Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who recommended it and even made a comment at the end.

The purpose of the drama was to show the difficulties that foster parents face. The girl, Sachi, was removed from an abusive household, while the boy, Yosuke, was given up by his mother when he was born. The Katagiris are saints of the highest order, and the story throws every possible difficulty in their path, including prejudiced teachers. Yosuke cannot get along in school and is eventually sent back to the welfare facility, though he continues to visit the Katagiris. Sachi, who "borrows" her foster parents' name, passes as their child, but the pressure finally gets to her and she eventually turns to stealing.

While it did a good job of explaining foster parenthood, "The Grape Tree" was too overwrought to qualify as effective public relations. The Katagiris come off not so much as saints, but masochists. In the end, Ishihara said that abused and abandoned children are society's discards and that foster parents "are the gods that gather them up."

That, in fact, may be the problem. As long as abused and abandoned children are presumed to be discards, they will always remain on the fringes of society; and as long as foster parents are expected to be Katagiris, they will fail more than they will succeed.

Miyajima makes the bold and practical observation that it is communities and not just nuclear families that help children grow into responsible adults. There is no reason why children raised in small-scale, government-supervised welfare facilities in neighborhoods that accept them (many do not) can't be as happy and productive as children raised by natural parents. The problem remains: How do you keep the government interested in children once they've been stamped and filed?



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