When Ronald Masters emptied his bank account and flew with his three young children from Canada to Japan this August, he thought he had put a very wide ocean between himself and the social workers of his native Vancouver.
"You can't live with the fear of people kicking your door down and apprehending your children," he says.
He spoke too soon.
On Nov. 14, Japanese police and child- welfare workers arrived at Mr. Masters's Tokyo rooming house and took the three children into protective care. "It was not an environment where children can be raised," says Yukio Ogiwara, an official of the city's government-run Child Guidance Center.
Although the Masters case offers a rare view of how countries can cooperate internationally to protect children, it also illustrates how such actions can leave parents with no way to challenge or even question the decisions of social workers.
And it shows that there are few simple solutions when children are perceived to be in trouble. The Masters children have spent four weeks in the Tokyo Child Guidance Center while officials and diplomats resolved the bureaucratic technicalities involved in transferring them back to Canada. They are expected to leave Tokyo Dec. 12, according to an official of one of the governments involved.
Once they return, it appears that they will be at the center of a court dispute between their father and child-welfare officers in Vancouver, in whose custody they will initially be placed. Masters, who went back to Canada after the children were put into protective care, says he plans to file a lawsuit to have the children returned to him.
Social workers involved in the case defend their actions. The tow-headed, energetic children - aged 5, 7, and 8 - were not attending school, often appeared in public in dirty clothes, and sometimes told this reporter and other strangers that they were hungry. The proprietor of one of two rooming houses where the family stayed said their small room was used "as a toilet."
"Based on what we know, the man is not playing his role as a father," Mr. Ogiwara says. His intervention in the family's life was the result of an unusual collaboration between social workers in Vancouver and Tokyo that was brokered by a private, Geneva-based welfare group called International Social Service (ISS). The networking gave Japanese officials access to confidential information about Masters's previous interactions with social-welfare authorities in Canada.
Masters told different people different things about his plans for the future. In one of several interviews, Masters declared that he would "never" return to North America because of a welfare system that robs recipients of dignity and because of social workers who "abuse power." He cited frequent inspections of his former home in Vancouver, a six-month period when one of his children was placed in a foster home, and official attempts to keep the same child from traveling with him.
Diana Carr, the mother of the children, says she thought the trip to Asia was to be short. "He told me he'd be home before Christmas," she says in a phone interview from Vancouver. She and Masters, who are not married, have joint custody of the children. The mother seemed uninformed about the nature of the children's lives in Japan. "He told me he had a sitter ... for them," she said.
A thin man with a narrow, mottled face and a graying beard, Masters manifests some of the attitudes that characterized the 1960s in the United States and Canada. "I would classify myself as a political refugee from the system in North America," he affirms, adding later: "I dance to my own drum. I make my own rules. I'm a free spirit."
But he did not bring his children to Japan merely to avoid the "system." He is embarked on a project that suggests he has a desire to help others, even if social workers have questioned the way he cares for his own children.
He has spent the last six years - drawing some press coverage in Canada in the process - collecting unused artificial limbs and raising the funds to ship them to countries severely affected by land mines. He recognized that amputees in wealthy nations often have usable prosthetics that no longer fit or have been outmoded by new technology.
His main method of fund-raising is a barrel organ, an instrument that produces lilting melodies when a hand crank is turned. Until the children were taken into custody, Masters and his children could be seen on Tokyo street corners, grinding the organ and asking passersby for money.
The initial curiosity of many often changed to consternation. "When I heard the music, I immediately thought of a performing monkey," said Phillipa Shale, a tourist who saw the family on a Sunday afternoon near Tokyo's Meiji shrine. "Then I looked and saw a performing child."
The children did not sing and dance, however. "It's a little sad to see children holding bowls and asking for money," observed a kimono-clad Japanese woman out walking with a friend. "It's the first time I've ever seen such a thing."
The act brought in an average of $1,600 a week, Masters says, adding that he saved a good deal in the months he and children worked in the Japanese capital. He sometimes spent money on the children, buying them toys and taking them to amusement parks, but most of the gains were destined for the artificial-limb project.
The venture seems somewhat quixotic. Masters says he has sent thousands of donated limbs to hospitals and rehabilitation centers in Thailand, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, but says that he has personal knowledge of only two instances where amputees have actually been fitted with the devices.
Late this summer Masters shipped from Vancouver a container full of artificial limbs collected in Canada. His plan - which he says he will pursue once he regains custody of the children - is to meet the shipment in Vietnam next February and take it to Cambodia, where he wants to live in the port city of Sihanoukville.
Masters says he will travel the Cambodian countryside distributing his devices to amputees who lack access to governmental and private groups trying to help land-mine victims. Millions of land mines have been laid in Cambodia, a legacy of the country's two decades of civil strife.
"I've never heard of a mobile prosthetics unit - this is a new idea," he says.
BEFORE the family could follow his plan, however, they began to draw attention that Masters had not anticipated. After this reporter expressed interest to him in confirming details about his background by calling contacts in Canada, Masters named a social worker whom he was particularly glad to have left behind.
Ray Wargo of the Ministry for Children and Families in British Columbia, in a telephone interview Oct. 31, refused to say whether his office had ever been in contact with Masters or his family, citing privacy concerns. But he later contacted the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.
"Because we have been asked by the British Columbia [Ministry for Children and Families], we are still monitoring the situation," said Stephane Jobin, press attache at the Embassy, in early November.
At about the same time, Masters said that his child-rearing was "unconventional" and said he could understand why some people might be disturbed by it. "Yeah, I can see that. But I know they're OK," he said of the children. "They're happy."
Canadian officials then contacted ISS, a private organization involved in activities ranging from family reunification to international adoption, and on Nov. 4 its Canadian branch faxed background on Masters and a request for assistance to the ISS Tokyo office. "Since they were tourists, I wondered what we could do," recalls Keiko Terasaki, a social worker in the Tokyo office. "But I felt sorry for ... these children."
She contacted the Tokyo Child Guidance Center a couple of days later. Japanese law authorizes officials to place children in protective care under certain circumstances. In this case, Masters's apparent use of the children to beg - which is prohibited by Japanese law - in part provided the basis for the protective care, Ogiwara says.
On Nov. 14 the children were seized from their father and taken to the Child Guidance Center. A week later, the officials told Masters that the children would be returned to Vancouver with the assistance of the Canadian Embassy here, a decision that left Masters confused about where to turn. "It's between the government of British Columbia and the government of Japan," he complains. "That leaves me no options at all."
Child Guidance Center officials told Masters he could petition Tokyo's governor for a review of their actions, a process that can take months. But at the time Masters was within a week or so of having his visa expire.
Itsuko Hirata, a Japanese journalist who has befriended the family, observes that Masters was placed in a predicament. "He is just a traveler and he had no choice but to accept this decision. He's had no chance to explain his story and his activities," she says.
Although Masters was initially upset, Ms. Hirata says, he soon calmed down. He later provided the Embassy with the return portions of the kids' plane tickets so they wouldn't have to be flown back at government expense.
Ms. Carr, the mother, says a court has yet to decide which parent should have "permanent" custody of the children. Although she has been on public assistance and is staying with her eldest daughter while she looks for a job and a new place to live, she says she hopes to provide a home for her youngest children.