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Tokyo suburb offers support for young adults starting new life outside orphanages

Mentor Tomoko Asano, right, makes plans with the female university student she supports about the next time they will meet, in the suburban Tokyo city of Chofu, on Aug. 2, 2018. (Mainichi)

CHOFU, Tokyo -- A one-on-one system of local adults supporting the independence of young people who have had to move out of orphanage facilities due to age limits is being promoted by the municipal government here.

Having private citizens in the community get involved in such public programs is rare across Japan, and the government of the suburban Tokyo city of Chofu is hoping to expand the program beyond its current five users.

As of the end of the 2016 fiscal year in March 2017, there were 26,449 children living in youth facilities because they could not live with their families due to economic reasons, abuse or other circumstances. However, in principle, these children are only allowed to remain there until they graduate from high school. In many cases, the young adults deal with isolation and trouble coming up with enough money to make a living, so the central and local municipal governments are expanding efforts to dispatch personnel to facilities to provide support for those leaving the institutions to get on their feet, and providing economic "aftercare" support.

The Chofu Municipal Government began its own "step up home project" from the 2017 fiscal year. When the young adults leave the orphanage or their foster parents' home to begin living alone, the facility acts as a legal entity that signs the lease, and the city provides a maximum four years of subsidized housing to college students and up to two years to those entering the labor force so they pay only between 10,000 to 20,000 yen per month out-of-pocket on rent. The program is also available for young people who are originally from Chofu but ended up in facilities outside of the city.

But what really separates the program from other support efforts is a system that matches the young adults with former facility workers and others in the community as a mentor. The two must meet face-to-face at least once a month, and can contact each other via telephone or email about any worries about daily life. According to the municipal government, so far mentors have been asked for advice on issues such as, "I'm anxious because a strange person keeps coming to my apartment" and "I lent money to my friend and they won't pay me back," and solutions to issues were discussed not only with the mentor but also facility staff members.

In addition, starting in fiscal 2018, using a staggering 200 million yen that was a lump sum donation from a resident or residents of Chofu, the city began a "livelihood support fund" of 50,000 yen per month for college students until they graduate so they can focus on their studies instead of working long hours at part time jobs to make ends meet. Those enrolling in universities and other educational institutions outside of Chofu receive a 300,000 yen lump sum grant.

A total of at least 100 young people are currently living in orphanage facilities operated by two social welfare corporations in the city. At one of the facilities, Chofu Gakuen, Gakuto Marumo, 34, is the independence support coordinator. Of the mentor program, he said, "When a child who has left the facility runs into a problem, it's important that they can ask advice not only from personnel here, but also from a variety of people living in the community. I hope this program will continue." A representative from the child policy division at city hall added, "We want to lay the foundations for an environment where young people can chase their dreams and goals."

Part-time Tokyo junior high school instructor Tomoko Asano, 59, who lives in Chofu, became the mentor for a 20-year-old female university student in April 2017 who had left a facility and was starting out living on her own. Because Asano had participated as a volunteer helping children at the facility with their studies, she was asked to become a mentor. The student is younger than Asano's own daughter, but she is well-spoken and the two women have much in common. Now, she considers the student somewhat like a friend.

The apartment where the student lives is a mere 5-minute bicycle ride from Asano's home. Each month, they share a meal together at Asano's home or other locations, but there are also times when the young woman does not answer Asano's emails due to being busy with tests and other school work, and Asano finds herself telephoning her out of worry. Like any parent, she sometimes thinks things like, "I wonder if she has collapsed in her apartment due to the heat."

Asano is also an important fixture in the life of the student. She is balancing housework while learning English and Indonesian, but balancing that with working her part-time jobs makes for a busy schedule each day. The facility where she lived is nearby, but even if she were to go and visit, she knows that the staff members are busy.

"I feel assured having an adult nearby that I can depend on," she said. "I would be happy if I could continue my relationship with Asano even after I graduate." Her current goal is to use her language skills to volunteer as a Japanese instructor for children abroad. She also said that she wants to be involved in support for the children living in the facility that she once called home. Sitting beside the woman, Asano also lit up: "She also motivates me. I'm really very proud of her."

The most important factor in the aftercare of children leaving orphanage facilities is creating opportunities to build relationships with the community from the time they begin living there. In a fiscal 2015 survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government of those who used to live in youth facilities, the problems they experienced after leaving facilities included things like loneliness, money management and the cost of living, but the personnel at the facilities where they lived topped the list of people they could turn to for advice and roughly 10 percent answered that they had no one to rely on.

The prefectural government of Shiga in central Japan has teamed up with local small to medium-sized business associations to provide work experience opportunities to children in orphanages or with foster parents. In some cases, the program leads directly to the young person landing a job, and a representative from the "Shiga no Enishi" experience creation center, the company contracted by the prefectural government to operate the project, said, "Understanding (of the project) is spreading little by little." From the previous fiscal year, two locations, including a house rented by a social welfare corporation, have been opened regularly to as places for young people to come to talk freely and to support them mentally and emotionally as well.

Meanwhile, in the city of Okayama in southern Japan, the municipal government contracted the non-profit organization "Kodomo Shelter Momo" to hold seminars for young people leaving facilities to teach them about necessary societal knowledge and other topics. The group also offers a special consultation hotline for those who have left orphanages and also a place where they can freely spend time. Thanks to awareness about the existence of such services being spread to children when they first begin living in facilities, as many as 90 or so people during busy months come to use the group's space, a representative said.

(Japanese original by Hitomi Tanimoto, Medical Welfare Department)

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