Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow

Ten years ago Brazil had no public policy towards its youth. This July the country celebrated the 10th anniversary of a federal statute that defends the rights of minors and is considered model legislation worldwide.

On July 13, the Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente (Child and Adolescent Act) celebrated its 10th anniversary. The legislative piece that deals with 60.1 million Brazilians—those who are younger than 18—is one of the crown jewels of Brazil’s new democracy and a direct result of the 1988 Brazilian constitution in which it was inspired. It also became an inspiration to Latin American countries (Venezuela and Peru used the Brazilian model to create their own child code) and got effusive accolades from Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The date was not forgotten in Brazil. There were billboards across the country reminding the population about the legislation, and the postal service issued a special commemorative stamp. For many educators and social workers, however, the moment is more for reflection and debate than for congratulatory celebrations. Among the measures established by the Act, also known as ECA, were the end of child labor and better chances of education and health care for all of those between the ages of 0 and 18.

Ten years after ECA’s introduction, however, child labor is still a serious problem, and education and health care are far from universal. Institutions dedicated to children inspired by a model that stresses punishment and repression are still thriving and hiding thousands of minors inside their walls. And public defenders continue without resources and infrastructure to do what the law asks them to.

Despite all the shortcomings, however, ECA has contributed for a better life for millions of youngsters who since the introduction of the legislation started to be considered as someone with rights and not merely troublemakers who had to be reined in when they went astray. ECA replaced the Código do Menor (Minor Code), which had been adopted in 1979. “In the last ten years, there has been a collective effort by society and by some governments to understand ECA, but there are still some people who can’t get rid of the old Minor Code,” said Olga Câmara, from the Justice Ministry’s Child and Adolescent Department, in an interview with daily O Estado de S. Paulo.

Like Câmara, other experts believe ECA has contributed to alleviate the problem of the minor. To make their point they list a series of mayors, entrepreneurs, and other leaders who have used the legislation with good results. One such example is CASE (Comunidade de Atendimento Sócio-Educativo—Community of Socio-Educational Care), a service maintained by the Labor and Social Action Secretariat from Bahia state and directed by Carlos Alberto Ferreira da Silva.

Created in June 1998, CASE, has been recognized by UNICEF as a good example of what can be done to solve the problem of kids caught in criminal activities. The place, which has 86 youngsters at the moment, looks more like a house than a prison as most of similar institutions do. There, the kids receive a formal education, practice sports and learn the arts, besides learning a profession. Among several courses offered, they can learn about computers, graphic arts, horticulture, and how to make bread.

A Different Approach

To reduce the number of working kids the government created PETI (Programa de Erradicação do Trabalho Infantil—Program for the Eradication of Child Labor) a program that, among other measures, offers $14 monthly to each kid who goes to school. For Wanda Engel, the coordinator of PETI, thanks to ECA the Brazilian government now has many of the same goals envisioned by the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) dealing with children’s interests. “The statute transformed the government into a protagonist of NGOs revindications,” says Engel. “When the new legislation was approved, the government had no public policy towards childhood.”

While incarceration has been a common practice for criminal youngsters, the Child and Adolescent Act calls for imprisonment only as a last resort. There are several steps to be taken—starting with a warning—before the child can be placed into custody. The new law contemplates the obligation of restitution and repair of damages as well as community services, but also determines that before being confined, the youngster should have a chance to be in a regime of semi-liberty and what is called “assisted freedom”. Internment should be reserved only for those cases in which the child committed a grave crime and there is recidivism.

According to the Justice Ministry, contrary to the public perception, only 10 percent of the crimes in Brazil are committed by a minor. For Anselmo Carvalho from the Justice Ministry’s Program of Social Reinsertion of the Adolescent in Conflict with the Law it is a misconception to think that youngsters are treated less severely by the law. “Often the law is even more severe with adolescents,” says Carvalho. “A primary adult who has served one third of his sentence, for example, may be released from prison, but not a minor. It also happens that an adult in some cases can post bail and leave jail, but not a minor.”

Of all the changes brought by the introduction of ECA no one was as dramatic as the proliferation of NGOs exclusively dedicated to children’s problems. From a handful of them ten years ago they have grown to hundreds—it is not possible to know their exact number. And they were created in response to specific complaints of society, complaints that started after the introduction of ECA, which gave a frame of reference for what to fight against and what to revindicate. These NGOs today have the role of guaranteeing that some policies of ECA can be implemented, mainly in those sectors that are not covered by the state.

“Before the statute’s creation, children who were victims of violence in their families were doubly punished,” says Mário Volpi from UNICEF. “Most of the time they were taken to an institution. Today, the aggressor—and it might be the father or the mother—can be taken away from the family.”

For Cláudio Augusto Vieira da Silva, president of Conanda (Conselho Nacional dos Direitos da Criança e do Adolescente—National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents), the statute was a big step in the right direction: “ECA was able to weaken the power of the Judiciary thanks to the creation of tutelary councils. This is the biggest example we have of a participatory democracy.”

Ten Years in Numbers

A study conducted by UNICEF for daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo concluded that 14 million Brazilian kids or 23 percent of Brazilians under 18 are not getting the benefits of ECA. These are children whose families’ monthly salaries are less than one fourth of the minimum wage ($84). The magnitude of the problem becomes clearer when we know that 24 percent of the Brazilian population lives in families that make less than the equivalent to $42 a month.

The UNICEF report found out some good effects from the adoption of ECA 10 years ago. During this period, the number of 5 to 14-year-old kids who work fell from 4 million (in 1993) to 2.9 million today. In one decade, the rate of minors going to school increased from 86 percent to 95.8 percent and illiteracy among black kids fell from 31.5 percent in 1992 to 22.2 percent in 1997, the last year for which there are data. On the other side, there are still 1.1 million children who should be going to fundamental school and are not going and 22.2 percent of black kids and 9 percent of white children are still illiterate

As for child mortality it also fell from 115 children for 1000 in 1960 to 36 per 1000 today, but this is still considered too high a number. Another disquieting piece of information is that there are almost 30,000 kids between the ages of 10 and 24 who have AIDS, representing 13.4 percent of all AIDS cases in the country. The Health Ministry estimates that there are 12,000 pregnant women with the AIDS virus and that 30,000 kids have become orphans due to the disease.

Confinement in jail-like institutions is a reality for 30 thousand adolescents every year. It is believed that this imprisonment would not be justified in 60 percent of the cases if the statute of the minor were to be observed. Among other widespread violations is the fact that every year one million Brazilian kids don’t get their birth certificate and that every five minutes, the death of infants who never reach the age of one occurs. The statute is not being observed when 2.9 million children younger than 14 are still working and when 580 thousand girls between the ages of 15 and 17 work as servants and, worse still, when 45,000 kids live near garbage dumps where they daily collect trash for a living.

For Reiko Niini, who represents UNICEF in Brazil, despite the real gains for the children brought by ECA, there is what she calls a “silent tragedy” involving deaths from newborns: “Every year there are 56,000 babies who die before being 7 days old.”

Among the most common criticism directed against ECA is that that the legislation limits its punishment to socio-educational measures that cannot last more than three years. According to some critics, this opens the doors for minors to do whatever they wish since they know they will never get time in jail. Well aware of this reality, drug dealers and all kinds of criminals prefer to work with minors. Last June, an 18-year-old boy from Rio Grande do Sul state who was responsible for three murders was freed thanks to ECA, even though the judge wanted to sentence him to prison.

Much to Be Done

With 3700 youngsters confined in 43 units, São Paulo’s FEBEM (Fundação Estadual do Bem-Estar do Menor—State Foundation for the Minor’s Well-Being) is often presented as an example of what should not be done when caring for juvenile delinquents. There have been so many escapes (hundreds of them) and so many rebellions (dozens of them) at FEBEM this year that the institution lost count of them.

The institution has been criticized for treating its kids as adults in a prison-like atmosphere where there is torture and children have their own slang, tattoos, gangs and “jungle law.” Torture and other violations at FEBEM have called the attention of Amnesty International, which has included the institution among violators of human rights.

The situation is not better in Rio. From the 2800 juvenile delinquents under the care of the state of Rio, 800 are confined. Rio’s Centros de Recursos Integrados e Atendimento ao Menor (Centers of Integrated Resources and Minor Care) have some model institutions and some that have become a school of crime. Among the former there is the João Luís Alves School, which shelters 120 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 15. There they have classes, learn about computers, are taught a profession, and have the chance to swim and play soccer.

Not far from the João Luís Alves school we have the Instituto Santo Expedito, which is part of the Bangu penitentiary, a high-security jail for adults. The place, which has room for 160 youngsters, is housing 340 of them at the moment. In May during a rebellion, an intern was killed. In July a group of kids escaped after getting a hold of two firearms and a grenade. In Rio, according to educators, most of the kids start their life of crime selling drugs.

ECA brought a new light to the drug question, turning what was considered a police matter into a public health problem. As Mario Volpi, from UNICEF, told O Estado de S. Paulo, “The statute took away drug consumption by kids and adolescents from the legal sphere and brought it to the health field. Instead of jailing, confining and punishing, the idea now is to force the state to create programs specialized in three main areas: prevention, pedagogical work with the kid being involved in cultural and leisure activities, and the therapeutic sector for those who need services of health and detoxification.”

Volpi also stresses that the government has been better at waging campaigns and creating catchy slogans to combat drugs among the youth than in creating centers to assist those youngsters who are already drug addicts. “There is a great concern about building rehabilitation clinics. What’s lacking are intermediate-level work, which when done well can solve a great deal of problems.”

The President’s Thoughts

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso admitted that there is still much to be done concerning Brazil’s youth, but attributed the deficiencies to what he calls “historical problems”. Cardoso sees the Child and Adolescent Act as very positive contribution to solve Brazilian injustices: “The most important thing, the way I see it, is the change of mentality. Since the 1988 Constitution and the Act there was a change in the way we see children and adolescents, who became people who have rights, who are persons in development.

“I have a very positive evaluation for ECA, although, in such matters we can always do more, especially in a country like ours, where the historical heritage is one of social inequality and the child suffers a situation of injustice because it is the most vulnerable.

“In these ten years, we’ve started programs, services and the agencies needed to guarantee the defense of the children and adolescents rights. We still have a long way to go, but the statute defined courses and norms that were indispensable.

“The federal government is investing R$4.25 billion (US$2.36) to guarantee that the children and adolescents have their rights assured. Everybody who follows what the government does knows how children’s education and health are a priority. The same can be said about our programs to eradicate child labor.”

The Good Example

Inspired by ECA, Santos, a beach town 45 miles from São Paulo, has become a model city in its treatment of minors. Last year, the city released Sem Dúvidas (No Doubts), a 128-page booklet that in plain language explains to its residents what the Child and Adolescent Act means and what is expected from the population in order to make the legislation work.

In 1996, the UN included Santos in its list of 100 cities in the world with the best social programs. Government officials and NGOs’ leaders from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela have visited Santos to learn with the Santista experience. Santos has implemented eight main programs. They are according to an article published by Folha de S. Paulo:

1. Casa de Acolhimento (Sheltering House)—Open 24 hours, this is the place where the child comes first when he or she enters the system after being abandoned or after becoming a victim of violence or sexual exploitation. It’s a temporary place with room for 20 kids.

2. Abrigos (Shelters)—These are two houses, one for girls and another for boys. Another temporary place for those kids whose parents are incapacitated to care for them for a short period. Responsibility is one of the things children learn here.

3. Nossa Família (Our Family)—This is not a space, but a program that monthly gives away $28 to needy families for every kid they maintain at school. The idea is that the kid is seen by a health professional and receive vaccination and other necessary health care when the parent comes to collect the money.

4. Família Acolhedora (Sheltering Family)—Volunteer families help to take care of kids who are up to six years of age. Once again this is temporary care for cases in which the kid guardian cannot care for the child. Often they are parents who are in prison or are going through some program of drug rehabilitation.

5. Medidas Socioeducativas (Socioeducational Measures)—This is a program that helps those kids who had some problem with the justice and are going through some kind of reparation arrangement, generally under parole. A team of experts is in charge.

6. Centros de Convivência (Sociability Centers)—They are part-time spaces for 7 to 14-year-old street kids or those from very poor families who can here learns a profession such as carpentry or gardening. They also get classes on painting and theater, are able to practice sports and eat a nutritious meal.

7. Casa to Trem (Train House)—For youngsters—mainly street kids who are drug-addicts—this program intends to keep the kid off the streets for as long as possible. Among the offerings are workshops dealing with hip-hop, street dance, and theater. Kids also can learn gardening and how to fix surfboards.

8. Espaço Meninas (Girls Space)—A house for prostitutes with ages ranging from 10 to 21. The place is in the heart of Santos red light district. Here the young prostitutes get a chance to learn a profession.

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