Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Life After Institutionalisation

Graph copyrighted to Human Rights Watch

Tiger was telling me last-night about an orphanage trip to USJ. They'd gone on the Jaws ride, but he didn't know what a shark was so he didn't really understand it. His main impression was that it smelled funny. Despite the well intentioned efforts of the orphanage staff, the system is filled with these strange gaps where things most children simply absorb through daily life remain unknown. At 11:39 in this video a young woman talks about being alone in her apartment after 'graduating' from an orphanage and having no idea how to switch the lights on. In Tiger's orphanage, too, the lights were centrally controlled.

After ageing out of the orphanage system, Japan’s institutionalised children face extraordinary challenges in their adult lives. The 2014 “Without Dreams” report commissioned by Human Rights Watch highlights some of these challenges, including lack of access to higher education, emotional and cognitive development problems resulting from institutionalisation, and lack of basic life skills. The report contains a number of informative vignettes from orphanage graduates with concrete examples of how the lack of preparation and support they received for independent living resulted in homelessness and welfare dependency. These are all issues we were aware of when we became a foster parents, yet awareness of these macro concepts did little to prepare us for the micro-issues that arose on a daily basis when our eight year old son, institutionalised since birth, first came to live with us.

Within an hour of getting home, for example, we discovered that he had never peed in a western-style toilet; the orphanage and his school both had urinals. Having driven to his (few) off-campus excursions in the orphanage bus, he was beyond excited about the power windows in our car. "You push a button and the window opens!" He raved about them to some neighbourhood kids, who laughed at him. He asked our permission to cry when he was hurt or upset, and also before passing gas (I am not sure what he would have done if we’d refused it!). After living in an institution of 100 kids and a large staff, he was terrified of silence, darkness and of being alone for even a few seconds. He woke several times each night, always checking that I was still beside him. He had never been to a friend’s house to play, nor had a friend over. He reflexively called every adult he met “sensei”. He had never been inside a supermarket, bank or post office. The more new experiences we facilitated for him, the more I marvelled at the idea that children growing up in such hermetically sealed environments are expected to find their own way at the ripe old age of 18 (or younger in some cases). As the “Without Dreams” report explains, obtaining a drivers’ license is prohibitively expensive for institutionalised young people, and not having a license limits employment opportunities. This is easy to understand and empathise with. What is harder to understand from the outside is the additional challenge of getting a drivers’ license when you may have had no experience of even being inside a car.

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