Tackling child drug abuse in Brazil

Casa Dia (Day House) is a simple complex on the outskirts of Garca, a small town five hours’ drive from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. It is home to eight recovering male drug addicts aged under 18 who reside voluntarily under the care and supervision of Altamiro Mendes Gomes, himself an ex-user, and a team of volunteer mentors, teachers and therapists, some of whom are also in recovery.

During the summer, I spent two weeks observing, assisting and recording the work at Casa Dia while on extended leave from my post as a youth justice project manager in the West Midlands. As a frequent visitor to the country – my wife’s family live there – I have taken a keen interest in how this large, developing nation deals with its many social problems. These become apparent on the journey from Sao Paulo airport in the form of the large favelas (slums) that occupy derelict land and dozens of child vendors selling fruit and water at traffic lights.

Casa Dia is funded by Comdicra – the municipal organisation for the protection of children. It is affiliated to a national federation of Cases Dias of which there are 47 in Brazil. The work of Comdicra is overseen at a local level by the mayor’s office, which recently decided to fund the painting and refurbishment of the boys’ dormitories.

The project is currently run entirely by a group of committed volunteers as a result the unit cost for a child is only 500 Reis (£160) a month. These places are purchased by Comdicra agencies from across Sao Paulo. The plan is to increase residency to 20 this will generate enough income to pay salaries to core staff.

Motivated workers

The motivations of the volunteers vary one is a psychology student gaining more experience, the yoga tutor is a retired teacher, the Portuguese teacher works part-time in a school, while the drugs counsellor (still in treatment himself) runs a local gym. Gomes, the project leader, has also come through Narcotics Anonymous programmes. A former chemist, his business and marriage failed through drug abuse but when his non-using brother was murdered in a robbery in 2000 he turned his back on drugs, became a Buddhist and vowed to help others.

Some of the boys have been resident since Casa Dia opened earlier this year while the youngest, a 12-year-old, arrived on my first day. They are referred by juvenile courts, social workers, teachers and on occasions family members. Two adult mentors, both former users, also reside at the home they play a peer mentoring role, supporting both the project workers and the boys, setting an example and leading on exercises and activities.

Group therapy

The day starts with prayers and bible readings. The boys then clean up, followed by activities like football and swimming. After lunch and a two-hour siesta, group therapy work is based upon the Blue Book of Narcotics Anonymous (NA), yoga and relaxation techniques, martial arts, art and crafts, Portuguese lessons and discussion sessions. All the group work is aimed at reinforcing the three guiding principles of Casa Dia an open mind, honesty and goodwill.

The level of support, co-operation and interaction between the boys and peer mentors is impressive. In addition, the warmth and welcome I receive is moving.

Observing them wash and clean the house without complaint and praise each other following a shared experience in group therapy sessions, which all begin and end with an embracing circle of solidarity and thanks, is inspiring. Each meal is preceded with traditional Catholic grace that is lead by one of the group. Although religion plays a significant part in daily life at Casa Dia, it does so in an informal, voluntary way and its use here is more a reflection of the common religious identity of most Brazilians.

School visit

During one afternoon a staff member and a mentor accompany one of the residents to a local primary school where he shares his experiences of drug misuse and street life with a group of 30 junior pupils.

One of the older boys is already being considered for a future mentoring role. He is beginning to be given group responsibilities and manage misbehaviour by younger members. He therefore sees Casa Dia as his long-term future, helping himself by helping others and having a role in life.

The role of older mentors at Casa Dia, living and working with the residents, takes the mentoring model to another level. As well as being positive role models and providing practical assistance, they act as a bridge and a safety valve between the staff and the children. They share all aspects of communal living and have a credibility with the young people that the staff cannot attain. Mentoring also provides a route out of drug use and meaningful future role for maturing young people to aspire to. It brings to mind recent plans in the UK to deploy former gang members as mentors for young offenders.

Positive atmosphere

This model of mentoring contributes and complements a second area of practice that leaves a strong impression, namely the ethos and spirit the home generates in helping its residents. It has ground rules and guiding principles that create a positive atmosphere among the volunteers and residents and, as a result, many tensions, disputes and conflicts common in UK residential child care are not present.

I am also struck by the amount of community involvement in the home, the number of volunteers and the generous donation of resources. Young people are also given free access to community resources such as a local gym.

The flexibility by which care packages can be obtained is evidence of the different child care systems in Brazil. Parents and other family members can refer children directly to Casa Dia as can schools or other relevant professionals – if the young person agrees to reside and work with the home, funding is then sought to maintain the placement. This gives agencies direct access to the project without the delay and red tape one would expect in the UK – the referral is agreed in person by the concerned parties with minimal formalities, delay or planning.

The limitations of a service that relies mainly on goodwill and volunteers are clear. The experience and skills of some of the teachers are limited and the house is certainly over-reliant on the charismatic personality of the project leader.

But this is Brazil, and just as the problems are different to those in Europe so are the solutions. The strength of the project is its warmth, trust and informally supportive and holistic nature. It’s likely that the formal systems required in the UK would seem alien to both staff and residents at Casa Dia.

Lives of the favela children

Life before Casa Dia for the young people taking part in the project

The boys living at the project have backgrounds, tales and a culture familiar to youth workers in the UK. Most started sniffing glue about the age of seven or eight, followed by marijuana use.

By the time they reached Casa Dia most boys were crack users with criminal records and experience of drug dealing. Stolen items are exchanged directly for pedra (rocks of crack), which has a street price of £2 for a small rock, £4 for a large one. They also claimed to know the kilo price of stolen metal such as copper and aluminium. All have tattoos, ranging from the simple to the elaborate, which feature symbols of religion, family and drug use poular samba and US hip hop is the choice of music.

The older members aged 16 and 17 are grateful for the opportunity that Casa Dia offers them as an escape from favela life the cycle of drug dealing, gang violence and police harassment, which is only interrupted by periods in juvenile detention. The younger members appreciate the regular meals, a safe place to sleep and role models to look up to.

● Andrew Griffiths is manager of the Black Country Intensive Support and Surveillance Programme

This article is published in the 2 October edition of Community Care under the headline “Survivors of the favelas”

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