Government agencies are often ascribed the responsibility of ensuring that children are suitably cared for – departments like Child Safety, Community Services, Child Protection and so on represent the systems we have in place. The task is thankless and difficult. The work, often overwhelming has occasional dark glitches. The lurching disparity between protection and paternalism, tragedy and triumph should shake civilised apathy and call us to stubbornly resolve to do better for the “sake of our children”.
An expat. businessman living in Japan phoned one afternoon presenting what was for him, an intolerable situation. That call represented his defiance of “the system”. A 14 year old girl’s life was being consumed with relentless flights between Japan and the west.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and a European father, Matsumi had attended her local school before her parents separated and divorced. Matsi, a pre-teen who’d only lived the western dream - house with a swimming pool, near the beach, a love of horses and lots of gal pals to play with, was to accompany her mother to reside in Japan. The Japanese Education system was very different to what Matsi had known. A 12 year old school girl can find filial piety a challenge.
Caught in the wrong place whenever there was trouble, the fishing village police officers would reprimand her time and again. “I don’t understand you” Matsi would scream, ever louder, hoping that the uniforms would understand her sobbing despair and angst.
Several Japanese agencies soon met Matsi. At their recommendation she was put on a plane and flown back to her father. Dad had remarried and was enjoying a newly acquired family; his new life left no space for a Japanese delinquent. Matsi had a seat on the return flight.
Japan’s Child Safety was appointed to oversight Matsi after a fire destroyed part of a local school building. Further events with the police and a stint in Japanese juvenile detention saw Matsi again on a flight, one way to her birth home. Dad took less than a week to return Matsi to sender. This girl was not going to be part of his life or future.
In Japan, Matsi was regularly beaten by her mother’s family who believed it was the only way to bring this errant child into submission. Following most floggings, Matsi would run away. A street child in an alien land with limited language learnt there were ways to entice strangers to buy food, even take you to a warm room for an hour.
Japanese authorities became a regular interruption to Matsi’s world. Neither her mother nor the family would so much as open a door to this shaming disgrace. Matsi was put on a plane and returned west to be bounced between her father and the “authorities” here time and again.
A businessman (external to the whole situation) became aware of the ping-pong game that was Matsi’s precious life. Horrified by the insanity of this “return to sender” policy, he phoned The Salvation Army – to ask if something could be done by someone.
I spoke to Matsi by phone, she was again leaving for the west – her only request was for a chocolate bar – a Cherry Ripe. The airport issued a pass so that, accompanied by security, I could meet Matsi on the plane. Standing at the flight gate, I waited for this child who had just turned 14. The relevant child safety officers had been informed of her impending arrival, and by phone we had agreed to meet at the airport where they would “take over”.
Matsi wore a pale pink fluffy fleece and denim jacket with an embroidered bear and phrases of “sweetness” in the style of modern “Jap-lish”. Proceeding through immigration and customs, we kept trying to contact the Child Safety officer, Matsi’s Dad and the range of other “relevant” numbers I’d acquired in the previous eight hours. Standing on the airport concourse that Saturday morning the piercing reality that no-one was there for Matsi dawned.
We ate our Cherry Ripes.
Eventually Child Safety came and took Matsi to a youth refuge for the weekend. The staff were given my phone number “in case”. Twelve hours later, Matsi was back in my care. Exhausted, homeless and distressed, Matsi begged to be taken to a shopping centre where she could approach men asking them to take her home. Matsi had no money, but was willing to cook, clean, massage and provide pleasure in return for a place to stay in this her home country.
On Monday, we were back in a Departmental office where senior staff told Matsi she would be returned to Japan again. Tears streamed, her pleading cry ignited a powder keg of frustration, her anger exploded! The chairs and table were thrown over as Matsi howled at the Department to “stop doing this” to her. The situation was appalling; I left with Matsi.
We went to a beach, waded in till our clothes were wet to the knees and kicked waves at each other, then dried off sitting on the sand for a while. This girl’s world was crazy. Her life with all of its possibilities and potential was falling so far short of its purpose and plan - it was ridiculous!
The Department recognised that we had established some rapport and trust, so the next day, I was phoned by the authorities and asked to take Matsi to the airport. I was told a doctor would meet us there, to administer something to “calm Matsi down” for her flight to Japan.
We did not go to the airport.
"Father, lead me day by day, ever in Thine own sweet way; Teach me to be pure and true, show me what I ought to do.… When in danger make me brave, make me know that Thou canst save. Keep me safe by Thy dear side, let me in Thy love abide." John Page Hopps