Photo/IllutrationA 40-page report compiled by an expert panel quotes children at temporary shelters in Tokyo. (Maki Okubo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Children staying at temporary shelters in Tokyo are being deprived of their human rights, including not being allowed to have private conversations and make eye contact and being punished for minor infractions, according to legal experts.

“The rules at temporary shelters reflect staff workers’ tendency to try to control children and lacks a perspective of protecting their human rights,” said a report compiled by a panel of lawyers after they inspected Tokyo’s seven temporary shelters for children.

The report, submitted to the Tokyo metropolitan government in March, was obtained through a freedom of information request by The Asahi Shimbun.

Temporary shelters, operated by child welfare centers, house troubled children, such as victims of abuse and juvenile delinquents, around the clock.

Children can stay for up to two months at those facilities. Each of Japan’s 47 prefectures has at least one such shelter.

The panel’s report provides a rare insight into the living conditions for children who were taken into custody.

Access to the facilities by outsiders had been extremely limited until recently although many experts have questioned the way children have been treated at shelters around the country.

TOUGH LIFE IN SHELTERS

Among children’s comments quoted in the report: “A newcomer talks to me, but I have to ignore that person because I will be scolded if I talk. I wish I could talk with that person.”

“It’s sad to watch TV and have a meal without being allowed to utter any words,” said another.

“When we change clothes, workers told us that children must not make eye contact with each other and to turn our backs, so we looked down,” said one child.

“We were trapped in this place, with no clue about what was going on outside. I cannot get in touch with my parents and friends. I cannot go to school and see my family. Given no prospect of when I can leave here, a worker who is a stranger to me tells me to get up early and go to bed early. I have to wear clothes that are not mine. If I lived like this for months, I would go insane,” another child said.

“I came here as life at my parents’ home is tough. But this place proved tougher than that,” one child said.

“I am a victim of abuse, but the first thing staff workers call on me to do is to reflect on my deeds,” said another.

QUESTIONABLE PUNISHMENT FOUND

The recent investigation became possible when the metropolitan government introduced a third-party panel in fiscal 2018 in hopes of reforming shelters based on proposals and findings by the legal experts.

Four lawyers sat on the panel. Each member visited a shelter once a month for an average of five hours to interview children and staff workers at all the facilities. The lawyers also observed children’s living conditions by having a meal together.

Their report stated that although circumstances of the shelters slightly differ from one another, children there are generally prohibited from having private conversations and constrained from discussing certain topics due to in-house rules.

At one facility, staff workers told children to avoid eye contact with each other.

The report said that workers explained that children are not allowed to discuss personal and family matters to protect their privacy.

When children violate the rules, they could be forced to eat their meals facing a wall, or ordered to transfer entries of a dictionary into their notebook inside a space separated by partitions in a hallway. They also could be made to run laps in a gym or on the grounds.

“Children are punished in the name of giving guidance as a result of breaking the rules,” the report said, adding such discipline should be evaluated for its appropriateness.

TOO CROWDED, TOO FEW STAFF

The expert panel noted that the shelters are overcrowded with children and short on workers.

The seven shelters in Tokyo have an overall capacity of 213 children in fiscal 2017. They took in 2,107 children, nearly 10 percent of all children housed in temporary shelters nationwide.

The Tokyo shelters take in school-age boys and school-age girls 50 percent and 38 percent more than their capacity, respectively, according to the report.

“The shelters have been operated beyond their capacity almost all the time and this is an abnormal situation, which creates an adverse result on the operation of temporary shelters,” the report said.

Yuri Kawamura, a lawyer well-versed in children’s rights, said the deplorable situation is not limited to just Tokyo, but other parts of Japan, as well.

She called for a legal provision to set up a third-party panel to revamp temporary shelters in the way they treat children.

“A major reason for many children to adamantly refuse another stay at a temporary shelter is they did not feel comfortable and safe there when they were taken into custody the first time,” she said.

Child welfare center workers interview children while they are staying at shelters to determine their physical condition and mental well-being, as well as their home and family environments.

If the workers conclude that children should not be returned to their family, they will be sent to children’s nursing homes or placed with foster parents.

In principle, children cannot attend school while they are staying in a shelter.

Heeding the panel’s proposals, the metropolitan government added 16 workers to the seven facilities in the current fiscal year starting in April.

Yukiyo Takenaka, head of the metropolitan government’s family support section, said Tokyo officials are taking the report seriously.

But she said it is “difficult to cohere children at the shelters as a group as children with diverse backgrounds come and go day after day.

“We will discuss ways to ensure the comfort and safety of children at temporary shelters."

FORCED TO STRIP

Children who have previously stayed at a shelter voiced their displeasure with its rules.

A 17-year-old girl who spent several days at a Tokyo shelter this year expressed her bitterness over her experiences when she was admitted to the facility.

“Staff workers examined me after I became naked at her instruction to take off all my clothes, including my underwear,” she said. “I was so embarrassed.”

According to the shelter, it is standard practice for a worker alone in a room with a child to have them change into other clothing to determine if the child has any injuries or scars.

The shelter defends the practice as a minimal procedure to confirm whether a child is being abused.

(This article was compiled from reports by Misako Yamauchi and Maki Okubo, senior staff writer.)