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Japan's same-sex couples hope to foster children, but prejudice remains barrier

Mari and Ayako (both pseudonyms), a lesbian couple seeking to become foster parents, are seen with foster care-related materials in Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 31, 2022. (Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

TOKYO -- The word is spreading in Japan that becoming a foster parent is an option for members of sexual minorities including LGBT people who wish to raise children. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke with a lesbian couple who are considering fostering children.

    Foster parents take children in who cannot live with their biological parents and need social care due to abuse, poverty, or other circumstances. The main requirements to become foster parents are that they complete foster parent training, and must not be in financial distress. There is no requirement to be legally married, and same-sex couples are not excluded.

    Mari and Ayako (both pseudonyms), a female couple in their 50s living together in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, met in their late 30s and have been together for about 15 years. Mari, who is older than Ayako, loves children, but considering her age and other factors she did not think she would ever have any. Ayako, on the other hand, had a strong desire to have children.

    Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan, but Mari and Ayako decided they wanted to spend their lives together as partners, and a few years ago had a wedding ceremony with close family. They learned about the foster parent system in late 2020, when they happened to come across some information in a local government magazine.

    They realized that they might be able to have a child after all. They immediately contacted the local government's child consultation center. They went in to hear about the system, and told the staff there that they were a couple. They did not feel being a same-sex couple was any hinderance at the foster parenting course they took at a local children's home.

    However, at a meeting with a child consultation center official, they were told, "Realistically, it is quite difficult to entrust a child to foster parents who are both working." As it's currently unrealistic for either of them to become a stay-at-home parent, the couple has halted the foster parenting process.

    Mari said, "I hope I can do something for the next generation, even if I don't give birth myself. There are many different types of foster parents, and I hope that I can be a reliable adult for a child."

    Adoption is also an option for raising a child unrelated to you by blood. There are two types of adoption in Japan: "special adoption" and "regular adoption."

    Special adoptions are for children who cannot live with their biological parents due to abuse or other reasons, and once adopted, they are treated legally as the natural offspring of their adoptive parents. However, this type of adoption is only available to legally married couples, meaning same-sex and common-law spouses are not eligible.

    Regular adoptions, on the other hand, are generally for relatives or close acquaintances to adopt young children.

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as of fiscal 2020 there were about 42,000 children living in institutions or with foster families across Japan because they could not live with their biological parents. Just over 20% of these were living with foster families or relatives, indicating continued dependence on institutional care. In major Western countries, many children who cannot live with their natural parents are with foster parents, but the numbers are far lower in Japan, which also has a foster parent shortage.

    Shizuoka University professor Chiaki Shirai (Photo courtesy of the individual)

    What do child consultation centers and other organizations think about including sexual minorities as foster parents? In February 2021, Chiaki Shirai, a professor of family sociology at Shizuoka University and an expert on the foster parent system, and her colleagues conducted a survey of child consultation centers and private adoption facilitation organizations throughout Japan.

    The results suggest that the consultation centers prefer legally married couples as foster parents. One of the centers responded, "Even at the best of times it's difficult to obtain consent from custodial parents to put their children into foster care. And there is prejudice against sexual minorities, so it's difficult to put children into their care."

    On the other hand, Shirai noted that municipal systems recognizing same-sex partnerships as equivalent to marriage "are spreading throughout the country, and municipalities may start to promote placing foster children with same-sex couples."

    According to Shirai, efforts are being made in some foreign countries to reach out to sexual minorities as foster parents and adopters.

    "Overseas research and case studies show that being raised by a sexual minority couple is not detrimental to a child. Sexual minorities can also be expected to be valuable foster care providers. Since children's situations and experiences vary, we also need a diverse range of foster and adoptive parents," she said.

    (Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Digital News Center)

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