Across borders, foster care youth ask: What's missing?

Alumni of foster care in Seattle and Tokyo believe systems in each country could gain from the voices of young people.
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IFCA at the International Foster Care Organization world conference in Osaka, Japan last September doing a workshop on tranistioning out of foster care

Alumni of foster care in Seattle and Tokyo believe systems in each country could gain from the voices of young people.

When David Inglish was first displaced from his biological family and put into foster care, he asked the police officer who was taking him to the social welfare office, “What happened? What’s wrong?” The officer responded, “Don’t worry about it.”

Inglish asked the same question to his case worker, who gave him the same answer. Not until Inglish talked with his foster parents did he hear that his biological family was unstable, but it took him years to realize how true that statement was. “I felt that I should’ve been given the right as a human being to know exactly what is going on in terms that I understand,” Inglish said during the recent International Youth Summit at the University of Washington.

The event marked a stepping stone in giving foster care youth a voice over their own lives and building connections between the United States and Japan. The International Foster Care Alliance (IFCA), a nonprofit organization aimed at creating opportunities for Japan and the United States to engage in collaborative efforts to better their child welfare systems, hosted the summit. IFCA is made up of teams of former foster care youth — foster care alumni — from Tokyo and Seattle, and in June the Tokyo Alumni Team visited Seattle for the first time to survey American foster care programs. The Japanese team was impressed by the opportunities America has for foster care youth.

In the United States and Japan, the voices of foster care youth are often left out of the conversation about their needs. Timothy Bell, IFCA Youth Programs director who himself aged out of the U.S. foster care system at 18 years old, argued that involving foster youth in every single stage of the process leads to better results. Their involvement, Bell said, “keeps the system honest, true to original policy and purpose, better informed and better able to get things done quickly.”

Tokyo Alumni Team member Yoshie Hoshiko, 20, said she felt isolated growing up in foster care because of the lack of public awareness of foster care and because she did not know anyone else who was in foster care. She felt as if she had no one to talk to about her concerns. “Society needs to cherish children’s voices,” Hoshiko said. “Emphasizing young people’s voices seeks to combat negative images of foster youth and give foster youth and alumni opportunities to send their own message.”

Janice Cole, IFCA’s Youth Programs director who also has been through the American foster care system, told of going to Japan in September 2013 for the International Foster Care Organization's world conference. Talking to the summit at the UW's Husky Union Building, Cole said her lack of Japanese speaking skills left her frustrated and feeling out of control.

“One of the common frustrations of foster youth is that they don’t have the ability to make big decisions in their lives,” she said. “Their decisions are often dictated by people they don’t know. Similar to my lack of ability to speak [for myself] in Japan and how that was lying in the hands of somebody else, the fates of foster youth are literally lying in the hands of strangers.”

IFCA is seeking to give the power to youth and the June 25 summit directly put their voices on the table, asking U.S. and Japanese alumni of foster care, “During your time in care, do you feel your rights as a human were violated?” The IFCA crafted the question based upon themes group members noticed in their discussions with other organizations and with each other. And foster youth do, indeed, feel their rights have been violated in various ways like not being able to connect with biological siblings, not getting basic services like regular haircuts or even access to food when they wanted it while in foster care, suffering physical abuse and not having information regarding their own situation communicated clearly to them.  

While IFCA hopes to eventually become a global organization collaborating to better the child welfare system across the world, it currently focuses on Japan and the U.S. in part because of the Japanese backgrounds of some of the leaders and because the experiences and opportunities are so similar between the two countries. Cole called this Japanese-U.S. connection “a starting point.”

Cole described how she was initially afraid that she would be unable to relate to Japanese foster youth during her trip to Japan. But after a workshop with Tokyo foster youth and talking with caregivers and professionals, she found the opinions and concerns she heard were similar to her own experience in foster care and her work with professionals in the U.S. “What this showed me is that while there is an ocean between us, the issues are the same at heart,” Cole said.

Beyond the similiarties, though, there are significant differences in the handling of foster care by the two countries. During the summit, the Tokyo Alumni Team discussed what the current foster care system is like in Japan by demonstrating data and telling their personal stories.

Group homes dominate the foster care system with 89 percent placed in group facilities and 11 percent in foster homes, compared to 15 percent in group facilities and 75 percent in foster homes in the U.S., often with relatives. The average time in care in Japan is seven years, compared to almost two years in the U.S. With only 0.5 percent of the population in foster care, Japanese foster youth tend to feel particularly isolated and there is a lack of awareness by the general population of what foster care even is. Tokyo Alumni Member Susumu Yamanouchi, 19, recalled how when a foster parent explained to her neighbor she was a foster parent, the neighbor replied, “There are foster parents in the human world?” The neighbor presumably understood foster care as strictly being for pets.

A Human Rights Watch report released in May found that 90 percent of Japanese foster youth end up in understaffed, crowded institutions that fall short in the handling and reporting of problems, including physical and sexual abuse by adults and other children, and providing youth with the ability to learn and develop. The United Nations in 2010 began pressuring the Japanese government to change its child placing practice following the guidelines of the UN’s document, “Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.”

The Japanese government responded in 2010 by setting a goal to increase the percentage of foster children in foster homes from 10.4 percent to 16 percent by 2016. Japan is currently trying to move foster children from large facilities to small family homes, six-bed group homes, Miho Awazu, IFCA president said. In 2010, there were 446 small family homes in all of Japan, and the government is trying to increase this number to about 800 by 2016. Awazu mentioned that progress is slow partly due to the fact the UN warnings do not pose any sanctions. However, a wide range of other factors have also been suggested. Large facilities are seen as corporations and if they shut down, that could mean job losses. Also, Japanese foster care lacks some of the strong legal system in the United States, specifically in that scheduled hearings are less frequent, legal representation for children is lacking and parental permission is required for children to be placed into foster care. Culturally, biological parents tend to believe that compared to larger facilities foster care homes provide more of a family-like setting, making children less likely to want to return to their biological families. This, in turn, creates a greater incentive for biological parents deny permission for their children to go into smaller foster care homes.

Yamanouchi said the common perception of foster care in Japan is abandonment, and that other school children immediately asked if he had been abandoned when they learned he was in foster care. “I think it is important to focus on what I am doing right now rather than looking at my past,” Yamanouchi said. Almost 50 percent of all foster care youth in Japan are placed into the system because of parental abuse.

Like in the U.S., foster care youth in Japan are forced into independence upon exiting the system, even after experiencing severe instability. According to presented data at this summit, only 22 percent enter college in Japan while almost 70 percent enter the workforce. In the U.S. 70 percent of foster youth plan to attend college, although only 3 percent complete a four-year degree. Tokyo Alumni Team Member Rei Hatayama, 22, explained that, unlike the U.S., the Japanese foster care system is not equipped with supportive tools for helping youth go to college such as permanency pacts or services for foster youth on college campuses.  

While 98.4 percent enter high school when they graduate middle school, it is not a requirement. And if they decide not to attend high school, they must leave the foster care facility at 15 years old.

Hatayama noted that the age of maturity in Japan is 20 years old, but young people age out of the foster care system at 18 years old. From 18 to 20 years old, these two years are called “blank or empty space” in which youth are basically on their own but cannot get many of the necessities they need to survive. For instance, they may be unable to rent an apartment or get a bank card because they do not have reliable adults to co-sign for them.

“People call the Japanese culture family-oriented, the people gather together when one is having a problem within the family and they help each other. But for those people who don’t have a family, it is extremely difficult to live in,” Hatayama said.

Human Rights Watch's report says that physical and sexual abuse is common and not adequately dealt within foster care group facilities. Tokyo Alumni Team member S.Y. (he didn't want his name used) recalls lots of fighting between children in facilities and remembers getting hit by another child he shared a room with during his time in a group home. Instead of the other boy being removed, S.Y. was placed into an empty room, with little support and attention from adults.

“I felt that the boy who hit me should’ve been placed in that building, not me. But now I assume the staff was too busy to handle the issue better,” S.Y. said. “I can’t say what’s the best way to solve bullying in facilities, but I would say the balance of child-to-staff ratio should be improved so there would be enough care and support for children and less stress and workload for staff.”

After seeing the opportunities for foster care youth here, the Tokyo Alumni Team took away a few ideas from their trip. Masami Takizawa, 27, noted how almost every school district has mentoring services, which he felt would have been helpful to him when he was in school.

Yamanouchi praised Seattle child welfare organization Treehouse, which provides young people basic material needs and academic support, for its ability to be transparent with youth and provide information to everyone. He compared that to the lack of transparency and exclusion he’s seen in foster care, where the information given depends on “who you ask, who you know and what kind of information who you ask knows.”

U.S. Alumni Team member Valerie Skelton, 21, believes the experience of going to different countries and sharing personal stories has instilled in her a sense of global compassion. “Being able to go to Japan and connect with the foster youth has helped cross barriers between different cultures and made me realize that at the heart humans are all dealing with similar struggles and react similarly to the distress of being a foster youth,” Skelton said.

Both teams will continue their advocacy work with events held in September. Some members of both teams will present at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect world conference in Nagoya, Japan. And the U.S. Alumni Team will return to Japan to do workshops with foster youth, see the large residential facilities and meet with politicians — all while focusing on raising awareness about youth rights and youth voice.

Creating a cross-cultural connection between Japan and the U.S. has encouraged Cole to continue her work. “I saw a country that had such a need for youth voice and perspective and met youth that felt silent and ashamed just like me,” Cole said. “And while that doesn’t sound positive, it gives me nothing but hope for the change we have the potential to create.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Jessica Buxbaum

Crosscut editorial intern Jessica Buxbaum recently moved to Seattle from California where she studied political science at Humboldt State University and worked on the university's newspaper and magazine.