OK, so if you could tell us your name, the institution where you work, and what your general role and tasks are within the institution. My name is Matilde Luna, and I am the director of RELAF, which is the Latin American network for family and community right to life. We are based in Latin America, and we work in Latin American and Caribbean countries, in various cultures, contexts, and countries. We unite individuals, key players, governments, and international organizations, and we are working to support practices that guarantee the rights of the family. In what types of context is it necessary to work specifically on the prevention of unnecessary separation and the abandonment of young children?
What are the problems that come up in the lives of children and families if this is not performed? Well, working on prevention with families requires a number
of resources: material resources, emotional support services, legal support services, services of all kind, highly varied and diverse due to the fact that there is a wide range of problems that may affect families, for which reason we need to be prepared. Furthermore, whilst there are prevention activities carried out for all families with children, there are prevention activities that are specific to families that have small children, including for families who are experiencing a pregnancy, already thinking about the unborn child.
So, in this sense, if it is absolutely necessary to work, I insist that general preventative measures be carried out for all families, when dealing with families that are in the midst of complicated situations, and whom have small children, we must take specific action to support this family and have the capacity to be conscientious and responsible with respect to the intervention in terms of prevention for families with small children, it may be possible to start a life with support and to truly have a chance to start out life in a way that is healthy and suitable for the development of a child in a family.
In many cases, when there is a lack of intervention early on, it leads to a life filled with problems, which just add up, and it becomes a question of why intervention was not provided early on. So, the key is intervention in families with small children, support for families with small children. Unfortunately, what we find in Latin America, at least in the areas where I work in most, and which I am familiar with, with situations where there has not been intervention early on, and unfortunately this leads to cases of abandonment, negligence, mistreatment, which really puts the boy or girl at a disadvantage in their development.
So, these situations, when they are serious, can even lead to a risk to the lives of the children, because a small child who has been abandoned is absolutely defenceless, and this abandonment becomes not only the responsibility of the family, but also the responsibility of the State as well, of a society that is not supporting them. So the first thing that I want to point out is that the abandonment of a small child is never the responsibility of just one family, or of one woman who performs this abandonment, but rather, it is a problem that should really be seen as a problem that is the result of lack of support from society, the community, and public policy.
So where do these children eventually go? In institutions, because unfortunately, in extreme cases of abandonment or separation, often we do not have responses prepared for alternative care in the family, which is what is needed to provide appropriate care, as stated in the UN guidelines for care. A child younger than three years should always be cared for in a family when alternative care is necessary. What are the levels and what changes can be brought about immediately, as well as in the long term? Well, considering this situation where we are not able to provide appropriate preventative actions, it is necessary to prepare short term mechanisms and prepare, in the long term, a system capable of preventing everything we see as unnecessary separations.
Then, when there is a need for separation, we act to be sure that the children and families are safe. Thus, we say that there are certain changes that can be made immediately to improve response capacity. This means creating mechanisms, the more formalized and planned, the better. We’re working towards, for example, the creation of intervention protocols, which are procedure road maps for everyone who interacts with the family and with small children who may be experiencing difficulties. Normally, these are the health sector, the education sector for small children, community sectors, social sectors, the legal sector as well, many times the police who intervene when there is a conflict in the family.
So, if we manage to establish certain mechanisms that involve the capacity to be able to listen, to interpret what the family is saying, what their problems are, and what the possible solutions might be, we can quickly gain the advantage in this situation which at present works against children who are experiencing difficulties. Many times I say that we are fighting mosquitoes with missiles, because sometimes we have a problem which could be dealt with using a more or less accessible solution, and we use responses that are totally disproportionate to the problems that families experience. So, separation is an extreme response, and that’s why we say missiles against mosquitoes, and what we do is completely against the idea of providing help.
Far from help that we are providing, it is an intervention that makes things worse. So, there are mechanisms are quick, if we review them, if we prepare them, if we train staff in them who are close to the families, it can help relatively quickly. Think about the structure of a comprehensive protection system with institutional diversity, prepared, well formed, with resources, a common focus, training, common mechanisms, procedures - sure this would take longer. However, I don’t mean that making an improvement with quick mechanisms does not further the more profound response we want in the long term.
Each person has their responsibility in this, there are different levels of responsibility, but each person has to take responsibility for that assigned to them, it’s obvious that the best change occurs under the framework of changes in public policies, the great changes, but that’s not to say that the civil sector or other governmental sectors do not, per say, have to make this move, this effort so that changes are carried out. We mustn’t wait until a counterpart makes the change and improves its mechanisms. Yes, of course, to advocate, lobby, so that changes continue to be produced, but I insist, we already have the tools in order to work on the change.
In RELAF in Latin America, along with UNICEF for Latin America, we have created a model for the prevention of abandonment and of the institutionalization of small children, a model that contains the focus, the framework of knowledge to be applied, and guidelines for practice. This model is available for everyone who wishes to apply it, and it is based, of course, on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and on UN guidelines. What are the results of the work in prevention in Latin America and the Caribbean, and what type of lessons are there to be learned in relation to the people and institutions that intervene, and the problems that are the root cause of separations?
Well, we are working in Latin America, as I have said, applying the prevention model, which is a sort of manual for intervention, which contains one part, let’s say, that is theoretical, with regard to standards, the focus of the work, problems that affect the family which may form the context for a loss of care, and how to tackle situations with very specific guidelines. The application of the model in itself also gives us a sort
of diagnostic: what it is that we have in the countries, what resources do we have, how prepared the personnel of the various entities are, what level of resources there are, what programmes exist, and a question that we come up against very frequently is the lack of coordination of resources. While it’s true that resources will generally not be sufficient, it is still necessary to direct more resources towards supporting families of origin, however, we find with, that the resources that do exist, there is no accessibility for families in need, they are often far from the families, In addition, resources are not coordinated with each other.
So, this is the first point, there is much work to be done so that resources get to families. There is the matter of what has happened in Latin America in these last few years, in the last decade, let’s say, there has been a great improvement in availability of economic assistance, the “bolsa escuola” in Brazil, “la asignación” in Argentina, the “Chile crece contigo” programme that has an economic component. These are support programmes for families that have an economic component. It is an amount of money for families with children that they can receive for assistance.
This shows that these types of economic programmes do help, these economic assistance programmes are truly an absolutely essential, resource of vital importance, above all for families who are in vulnerable situations. So, the important thing is to make sure that this resource gets to families, above all, families that are in vulnerable situations. In addition to economic resources, there is a need for this ability that we spoke of initially, to be able to listen, to intervene in situations of family conflict. We also see that there are key players, who can be participants in the legal system, or in law enforcement, such as the police, who can also intervene in family conflicts with small children.
Many times, when there is a family conflict or a situation with an abandoned child on a weekend, the first to intervene is the police. So, we find that there are key actors who are necessary and important participants in these separations. So, it’s very important to make sure these participants are trained, with standard procedures, the standards included in the convention guidelines which must be known to them for all interventions that they perform, particularly with families.
We also find that there are socio cultural problems, which are related to issues involving the repression of families, that is to say, there is not an understanding attitude, and many times there are professionals or agents who intervene from the concept of an ideal family, and they are not able to understand the cultural and social problems that affect families, for example, immigrants, single parent families, families that fall outside “the norm,” who in many situations are not understood and are not heard, and they are not evaluated with regard to their care abilities.
What is important to us is not the formal capability of the family, if there is one mother and one father, that is, the question of formality, but rather, the capacity for providing care that the adults who are responsible for the young children have.
So, the final message is this: we evaluate and strengthen care needs. Children need responsible adults, capable of caring for them, and sometimes this is their biological mother and father, but sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it’s an aunt, sometimes it’s someone in the community who is prepared and supported in providing care for small children. So, basically that is the important thing, and it’s from this point that we need to move forward, take note of what is happening in terms of social and family changes, issues such as migration, extreme poverty, gender-based violence.
These are issues that come up in societies, which produce changes in families, but I say again, we must attempt to understand and come closer to promoting the capacity of adults to care for children.