Eight million kids are in care. Brazil found a way to keep them out

Even short stints in care can ruin a child's life chances

Brazil’s crack cocaine epidemic is the world’s largest, but it’s not just users experiencing the ruinous effects of one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Thousands of children have been neglected or abused by parents struggling with addiction, and care homes across the country are struggling to provide care to abandoned children and teenagers.

Brazil’s challenges are far from unique: an estimated eight million children between the ages of 0 and 17 years could be living in institutional care worldwide. Mounting evidence suggests that even short stints in care can be disastrous for a child’s development and life chances.

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While in Europe much of the debate around institutionalisation revolves around foster care alternatives or building smaller group homes, Brazil is supporting extended family members to act as formal guardians for abandoned children, in an effort to slash the institutionalisation of children. What began as a tiny pilot program in 2009 is now going nationwide — and could signal a new phase in the global fight to end the institutionalisation of children.

Family matters

Jonathan Hannay, a single father, founded the nonprofit ACER Brazil to advocate for the rights of vulnerable children more than 20 years ago. Frustrated with the growing number of children placed in care homes, he developed the Family Guardian Program. The program is intended to keep Brazil’s most vulnerable children out of institutional care by housing them with members of their extended families, known as “kinship carers”.

The Family Guardian Program offers a meaningful alternative to the two most commonly proposed and hotly debated approaches for helping abandoned children: foster care or institutionalisation. In 2009, the UN stated that keeping children with their families should be the first course of action before fostering or care homes are considered, but according to Hannay, while that announcement signalled “momentum” for change, “nothing happened.”

For Hannay, keeping families together — albeit in altered form — should be pursued with far more time and resources than it currently is in many countries, both in Latin America and worldwide. The Family Guardian Program does that by providing personalised support to kinship carers, making financial contributions to the child’s upkeep, and organising peer groups for guardians to share experiences of taking kids in.

These three elements all work in tandem. First is the “family educator”, a specially-trained professional who provides long-term support to kinship carers and the children they take in. They offer advice, discuss any difficulties, and help families access services.

A second element is a monthly cash transfer and a small lump sum for family members who take in a vulnerable child. The lump sum helps cover the “start-up costs” of having a child, in Hannay’s words, such as buying a bed and toys. While it doesn’t cover the whole cost of raising a child, it serves as a supplement to other sources of income, and is particularly necessary when many kinship carers are grandmothers who aren’t yet old enough to claim a state pension, but are often out of work.

The third is peer support groups of kinship carers who come together to share their experiences and learnings. “What we discovered is that families needed and wanted a facilitated space to talk about their own lives, their own challenges, and swap experiences,” said Hannay. “We discovered that, over time, they will start calling each other up instead of the caseworker.” Peer support, he adds, is a free and sustainable addition to the work of the caseworker.

“Our project costs about a tenth as much as putting a child in institutional care,” said Hannay, “and the outcomes are better because the child stays in its community, in its family.” Cost-effective outcomes attracted the attention of Brazil’s Ministry of Social Welfare, and the project is now being written into the country’s code of statutory services, meaning that one day it should be available nationwide.

Serving the nation

The main challenge to the program’s success, according to Hannay, is not getting government support, but helping the judiciary to better understand children’s rights and what alternatives are available when families break down.

Judges are integral to the success of the program, and it is they who often determine whether a child should be taken away from their parents. If they aren’t knowledgeable about the dangers of institutional care and the availability of kinship alternatives, children lose out.

But the second challenge is perhaps the most intractable of all.

“The health system, education and social services — the modern welfare state — was conceptualised with a specific family model which is the Judeo-Christian nuclear family,” he argues. “All three areas have great difficulties with dealing with non-traditional family constructions.”

Family educators can help kinship carers access various kinds of support, but legal challenges by biological parents and confusion by frontline social services staff around whether statutory provisions apply to non-traditional families are common, and speak to the wider importance of designing child-friendly services.

For now, however, the program looks set to offer a sustainable statutory alternative to institutionalisation. Whether other countries follow suit remains to be seen. — Edward Siddons

(Picture credit: Flickr/Verena Schäuble)

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