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Listening to children's concerns key to Japan legal revisions for stopping abuse

A child staying at a care facility, center, is seen on a trip outside with child advocates and others listening to her, in this image provided by the nonprofit organization Child Advocacy Osaka. Private efforts to support children are also advancing.

Japanese law may soon require that consideration be paid to the views and opinions of abused children under temporary protection at child consultation centers or entrusted to foster homes. The change is part of the government's response to numerous high-profile abuse cases in recent years, and is expected to be introduced in next year's revisions to the Child Welfare Act.

    Japan's policy provisions have been labeled insufficient regarding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which guarantees children the right to freedom of expression. The coming revisions are a first step in improving the situation.

    "The child consultation center didn't properly listen to what I had to say," said a 25-year-old woman who works as a company employee and lives in east Japan's Kanto region. She was taken into care at a child consultation center aged 4 after being abused by her biological parents, and later began living with a foster family. But her foster mother would tell her, "Because you came here our marriage has gone bad," and she would hit her regularly.

    Once a year, a child welfare officer visited the family, but they only spoke to her in front of her foster parents. She didn't know how to tell them about the physical abuse. Not wanting to go back when night came, she began to avoid home, and in her second year of junior high school, she was taken into care again over "delinquency."

    Although she told the child consultation center that she was abused by her foster parents, they did not investigate the claims, and she was transferred to a foster care facility on mental health grounds.

    "It's my life, but things have always been decided behind my back. If there was some kind of framework to fully convey the voices of children to child consultation centers, then I wouldn't have had to spend 10 years enduring violence," she reflected.

    Some past abuse cases where children's views were not acknowledged have had dire consequences. In fatal abuse cases in 2018 in Tokyo's Meguro Ward, and in 2019 in the east Japan city of Noda, Chiba Prefecture, the young girls who died told child consultation centers things like, "I don't want to go home," but their claims were not taken seriously, and the problems were left to get worse.

    Revisions to the Child Welfare Act established in 2019 included supplementary provisions requiring the establishment by 2022 of a framework to ensure children's views are heard. In response, a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare expert panel put forward its recommendations in May this year.

    Their recommendations seek for the Child Welfare Act to require that children's views be heard when they are being temporarily kept in care by child consultation centers, or being entrusted to foster parents or care facilities.

    The recommendations also include passages stating that the national government must establish a rights protection agency, which would protect children's rights from an independent position. It would have an oversight role, and decide on how to accept complaints made and what rescue measures to take.

    But even if a freedom of expression framework is enshrined in law, concerns remain over whether child consultation centers will really try to understand children's views, and whether they will use such opinions to undertake appropriate responses.

    More than 80% of child consultation centers responding to a fiscal 2020 investigation by the welfare ministry said they do listen to children's opinions during instances such as entrusting them to a care facility.

    But when the expert panel conducted interviews with children, including those who had been separated from their parents to live in temporary protection or care facilities, they heard multiple testimonies expressing unhappiness with their treatment and the way they were spoken to, with responses including, "My secrets got out," and, "I was taken without an explanation."

    Oita University's professor Masashi Aizawa, who is the expert panel chair, said, "Quite often, children will have difficulty gathering their thoughts and communicating them to adults. The idea then that they could submit their own complaints is unrealistic."

    But who will help listen to children's voices, and make them heard at child consultation centers? Among the welfare ministry expert panel's recommendations is one seeking the requirement in law that efforts be made to dispatch new "child advocates" to each of Japan's prefectures. The advocate system is already an established measure in the U.K. and Canada.

    Child advocates would speak to consultation centers and other bodies on children's behalf, and take on the responsibility of helping them submit complaints to the proposed rights protection agency. It is envisaged that municipal governments would nominate lawyers and other city residents who have completed the relevant training for the positions. The welfare ministry is set to look into what guidelines to apply to training content.

    Professor Masatsugu Hori of Kumamoto Gakuen University has been at the vanguard of efforts to educate people in the role, which he has done in areas including the western Japan city of Osaka. He defines child advocates as "people who listen to the voices of children and make efforts to influence those around them to ensure their rights are protected."

    Some local governments have already taken on the content of the recommendations. Southwest Japan's Oita Prefectural Government has entrusted Oita University with educating and dispatching child advocates. Around 20 university students and other adults have taken the training, and fulfill the roles of child advocates. The prefectural governor's advisory body -- the child welfare council -- has also been set up as a rights protection agency accepting children's complaints or concerns.

    Children in the prefecture who are staying at temporary care facilities are told they "can always call on a child advocate if they want to," and posters with pictures of the advocates' faces are up inside facilities. Once a week, a total of four advocates come in groups of two to the centers, and if children want to speak with them then and there, they can. In a roughly four-month period ending March this year, reportedly 25 of 141 children admitted to the facilities asked for face-to-face meetings.

    Many of the requests come from children saying things like, "I want you to hear what I have to say one more time," and, "There's something I want to make sure." More than half of the children asked for the advocates to relay their opinions to child consultation centers on their behalf. Professor Aizawa, who is also responsible for training the advocates at Oita University, said, "I was shocked by how many needed a service in which adults they're not familiar with listen to what they have to say."

    Satomi Eidome, a teacher at Kumamoto Gakuen University who is also engaged on training advocates, said, "It is important that foster parents, care facilities, child consultation centers and others like them understand the necessity of having advocates by children's side to support them. In the future, it should be legally required that they are dispatched to child consultation centers in all municipalities."

    The U.N. adopted the UNCRC in 1989, and Japan ratified it in 1994. But because Japan is seen to not take seriously articles set down by the U.N. to protect children's freedom of expression, it was recommended that revisions be made to the law. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has in response to recommendations by its expert panel decided it will put forward as soon as next year a proposal for a revised Child Welfare Act that would make it a legal requirement for child consultation services to listen to children's views.

    (Japanese original by Asako Kuroda, Mainichi Educational Institute, Satoko Nakagawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department, and Eri Misono, Utsunomiya Bureau)

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