Changing the Laws Is a First Step Toward Helping Needy Children

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS happens so frequently here, an impoverished rural family moves in desperation to the outskirts of Sao Paulo to live in a shack and try to make a living. Drawn in by city lights, the children, or perhaps just one child, soon spends days searching the streets for small jobs and begging to pay for family food and clothing. Staying behind a bit later each evening, he or she finally misses the last bus home. For that child, sleeping on the streets becomes the norm.

It is a snapshot of a young life that is not unusual here. And when Brazil's outdated institutional care system catches up with these homeless children, many end up being batted back and forth between the streets, the courts, and the orphanages.

A broad-based solution is what is needed, experts agree - and this may be on the way, albeit slowly. By June, Brazil is expected to have a new, more liberal law for minors. It would substitute community participation for the juvenile court and what experts describe as repressive institutions.

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``The judges don't always seek out these children's family ties'' when placing homeless children, says Wanda Pereira, the Sao Paulo regional coordinator for the National Movement for Street Girls and Boys. ``We are trying to change this so that poor, abandoned children will no longer be wards of the judicial system.'' Because Brazilian law and culture favors institutionalization and discourages formal adoption, many children have grown up in orphanages or on the streets. The problem has become an escalating crisis.

According to the movement, 45 million of Brazil's 140 million population are children and adolescents living in subhuman conditions. About 15 million children are malnourished, 12 million abandoned, and 7 million are handicapped and get no assistance. Abortion is illegal and birth control is not widely available because of religious opposition.

A new child and adolescent statute, drawn up by a variety of interest groups and scheduled soon for congressional consideration here, is set to replace the 1979 minor's code. The statute would limit foreign adoptions, making them a last resort to be used only when a Brazilian family cannot be found.

That is because even such fairy-tale solutions as moving abroad with a new family do not always have a happy ending. For those growing up poor, a move to the United States or Europe can be as incomprehensible and disturbing as landing on Mars.

Crucial to any solution are government subsidies for local families that adopt. The idea is to create local councils, set up by the state and independent groups, to solve children's problems, and help find them homes. ``The neighbor of a family where the mother died or the father has left will often say she can bring up six children, just as well as five,'' says the movement's Ms. Pereira. ``There is already a strong emotional attachment. But as things stand now, the judge won't help,'' finding her inadequate simply because she is poor.

The new law attempts to address centuries-old afflictions of Brazil's poor. The wheels of law grind slowly, however. After the bill passes Brazil's Congress, the government is expected to take years implementing it. Rio de Janeiro is to have the first pilot program.

Meanwhile, a child - whether in an orphanage or on the street - learns to make do. He joins groups to share the warmth of a bonfire, and some liquor, glue, or marijuana. Other kids initiate him by taking his money and beating him up.

The shift to even the best adoptive situation can be tough for such children. Yet, given extra doses of love and patience, even these can adapt, experts say.

``Once they are sure that they feel loved and secure, they will pour out the whole thing, years afterward,'' says Emmy Andersen, director of Limiar, a nonprofit adoption support group in Sao Paulo.

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