Goals of care: regional variation in norms
There are three goals of care in Japan: family reunification, the cultivation of self-reliance (Harada, 2013),4 or the provision of a new family, either through adoption or long-term fostering (Kawamatsu, 2013).
The most important factor in a CGC’s determination of the goal of care is the feasibility of the child returning home. There is a national checklist to help with this decision (Kawamatsu, 2013), but this does not provide clear guidance. In reality the CGC makes this decision by assessing the strength of the family-bond and the family’s present and future capacity to care. Where family reunification is considered impossible, the goal of care becomes cultivating self-reliance or finding a replacement family. This decision centres on the child’s age and the complexity of their needs.
The CGC does not determine the goal of care on its own. The lack of judicial support strengthens the legal guardian's voice. Where it is involved, the court’s default position is that family reunification is the goal of care. This is framed by the Child Welfare Act, Article 4, on the responsibilities of the nation and the public, and Article 11, on how to provide guidance to the guardian who abused the child, which assumes the goal of family reunification. This, in turn, connects with the political priority given to maintaining the family. Takeda, referencing Prime Minister Abe’s (2006) book, argues that this discourse on the family is in turn linked to ‘building a “beautiful” Japan’ (2011: 59).
The lack of a judicial role means that this decision is a ‘joint production process' (Meyers and Vorsanger, 2003: 246) between the CGC and the parent. Parental preference for welfare institutions (Kawamatsu, 2013; MHLW, 2012; Miyajima, 2001; Tsuzaki, 2009), based on the belief that they pose less of a threat to their family-bond than foster care, often prevents the CGC from using foster care whatever the goal of care.
While the parent must be listened to, the child’s voice is usually absent from the decision-making process. Indeed, the decision is often not even explained to the child, leading Kawamatsu to outline the importance of ‘explaining politely to the child what will happen so that the child is not anxious over what is going to happen to them’ (2013: 41). Nakamura (2013), herself a careleaver, is one of the rare voices who problematises this.
The caseworkers’ construction of the goal of care is also shaped by the available resources and the construction of the function of these resources, discussed in the following section. This book extends Brodkin’s argumentthat ‘caseworkers... do not do just what they want or just what they are told to want. They do what they can' (1997: 24), to acknowledge that what caseworkers ‘want’ is also shaped by the resources available to them.
Whether the goal of care is a new family, family reunification, or the development of self-reliance, placement stability is understood as critical. In each CGCI visited, I asked whether it would be preferable for a child in care from 2 to 18 years of age to be in one CW1 placement or a few foster care placements. All staff stated a preference for the single placement, though Teru staff were the least confident with their position.5
This aversion to placement change was evident in the decision-making process in both CGCs. In one case in Irifune, the caseworker noted that they ‘worry a little as this child has had one foster care placement breakdown and want to place with a foster carer who won’t have a placement breakdown again’. In a case in Teru, one section head noted that
if he goes to a home and it breaks down could be more damaging than a placement that is more secure. If it goes well it would be best in a house, but if it fails, having already had one foster care placement breakdown, he will feel a failure if another placement breaks down.
My fieldwork notes referred on several occasions to a ‘pathological aversion to placement breakdown’.
Despite their concerns, Teru staff were more willing to accept the risk to placement stability than Irifune staff were. This is because of differences in the constructions of the functions and merit of foster care placements, and differences in the way that risk is shared across staff.
In Teru, placement decisions occur within formal meetings. In these, senior managers take an active role in reshaping the caseworker’s proposed plan of action. The consensus decision, once made, is written by all participants on their copy of the form. In Irifune, the placement decision is ‘provisionally’ made prior to the formal meeting. Where a caseworker is considering foster care, for example, they ask the foster care supervisor prior to the meeting if a suitable foster parent is available. A negative response results in foster care not being raised as a possible placement in the formal meeting. The caseworker types the provisional decision onto the forms prior to the meeting and this is rarely changed, with senior managers limiting themselves to clarifying reasoning or noting additional steps to be taken. This results in the caseworker, rather than the managers, determining the goal of care and shouldering responsibility for this decision.
There is also a difference between Teru and Irifune in the staff’s willingness to challenge the parents’ goal of care. Caseworkers have a high degree of discretion in determining when to do this. This leads Miyajima (2001: 35) to argue that:
parents always say they want their child back at some point in the future. If say, the child goes to foster care or adoption the parents feel
Variation of norms 187 their ‘sins’ more than if the child goes into an institution. So, the caseworker has to say—but it will be difficult for you to actually have the child back in the future right.
Kawamatsu also argues that a placement into foster care ‘from the perspective of the guardian, ... makes them feel that this is a denial of their way of child rearing’ (2013: 42). A placement into a professional welfare institution with specialist staff lessens the parents' sense of responsibility for the child entering care.
Teru staff are more willing to broach this and challenge the parent’s goals of care than Irifune staff. Teru’s increased foster care rate has come with a concerted effort to gain parental consent, with the recent appointment of a lawyer further strengthening the CGC. This includes developing materials for natal parents explaining what foster care is and why it is more suitable for some children’s development, as well as training sessions on how to get parental consent. The Irifune CGC also recently created a pamphlet distinguishing foster care from adoption, though this is rarely used. In many cases it is assumed that the parent will not consent to foster care and the possibility is not even raised.
Teru staff’s greater willingness to accept ‘positive risk’ and to challenge the parents’ construction of the goals of care is shaped by the attitude of senior management and caseworkers towards foster care and the construction of its function, as discussed below. The differences between Teru and Irifune also reflect the different weight afforded to the family-bond. Where the family-bond is considered the most important factor for a child’s development there are cases where it is protected even where there is no possibility of family reunification, with the child’s image of their family-bond prioritised over the possibility of a new family being created. This can lead to an institutional placement, in the belief that a foster care placement may lead the child to feel that they have ‘been abandoned by their family’ (Kawamatsu, 2013: 42). This occurs more frequently in Irifune than Teru.
The decision on the goal of care is based upon limited information, confined by parental preferences, and shaped within a legal and judicial system that prioritises family reunification. Any attempt to challenge these parameters, as Teru has done, requires a concerted and consistent effort.