By Andrew Gumbel
Published: 07 December 2007
Mothers prostitute themselves in full view of their children. Predatory relatives sexually molest children with the parents doing nothing to stop them. Husbands beat wives in front of children, who are themselves treated like slaves and also beaten. Every sort of child abuse is to be found in the one-room bamboo shacks of La Isla Trinitaria which are built directly over the filthy mangrove swamps at the mouth of the River Guayas. It is the worst urban slum in Ecuador.
After her first four years of trying to help the street children from this area in Ecuador’s main port, Guayaquil, it became clear to Sylvia Reyes that for all their material deprivations their biggest problem was not poverty. It was the cycles of neglect and abuse that had plagued their families for generations – cycles that made it impossible to achieve progress simply by sending the children to school, or making sure they ate properly, or tending to their medical needs.
From that epiphany came a whole new approach to helping some of the world’s most desperate children: Reyes and the Ecuadorean family workers in her organisation, Juconi – which is funded by the International Children’s Trust, one of the three charities being supported in this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal – decided there was no point tending to the children unless they also tended to the parents and the broader family.
What they found in the most benighted neighbourhood in Guayaquil was household after household where the parents had, essentially, come to expect their offspring to parent them rather than the other way around. "Typically, we’d find the mother in a hammock, knocked out from drugs or drinking or just tired," said Ms Reyes. "The kids would go out and make money and bring home food. And they’d be expected to tend to the mother’s emotional needs, too – console her if she was sad, give her hugs. What we were looking at was distorted parenting."
It is the terrible abuse this fosters that prompts children as young as eight to try their luck on the streets by themselves. Even if they don’t run away, they learn the hard way how to fend for themselves – selling sweets on the streets, dancing or singing on buses, acting as informal car park attendants, or selling roses and cigarettes in nightclubs.
In other words, they are routinely deprived of any meaningful kind of childhood. Juconi’s experience is that the parents, more often than not, suffered the same deprivation – and thus have no idea what healthy parenting even looks like. "Both parents and children have real attachment problems," said Ms Reyes. "It’s not reasonable to ask these parents to start looking after their children because they have no idea what looking after a child means."
In Ecuador, Juconi (short for "juntos con los ninos" – together with the children) restricts its focus to children still living at home, because that affords the best opportunity to improve the lives of the whole family unit. Typically, its "educators", as they are known, will meet working children on the street, initiate contact and then get the child to secure an invitation to the family home.
Rather than lecture the parents, the approach is one of acknowledging how hard family life is and offering help. "We ask: ‘What is it you need?’ We do things for them. We show we are reliable, doing what we say and turning up on time. That’s where we begin," explained Ms Reyes. "Slowly, we start to do things alongside them, as one might with a child, and then encourage them to do things for themselves."
Often, these families are clueless as to how to take advantage of the health and social services provided by the Ecuadorean government, so Juconi helps the parents get identity cards and goes with them to clinics and soup kitchens to make sure they receive what they are entitled to.
Once the parents have learned to trust the educators, the parents are encouraged to talk about their own childhoods, which invariably turn out to be as precarious as the ones they are inflicting on their own children.
"At some point they will have the insight that what they are doing to their children is what was done to them," said Ms Reyes. "We don’t tell them – they have to realise that for themselves. That’s when we can start talking about how to repair the damage… we encourage them to develop a personal mission, so that their own suffering is not for nothing. That’s when things start to really move."
Slowly, the parents rethink everything, from the way they spend the little money they have to the ways in which they can support their children, rather than the other way around. They use less of their spare cash to buy alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, and more to buy food and school supplies for their children.
After a while, they will go out and get jobs – usually informal, low-paid work. Some can qualify for micro-loans to set up their own modest businesses.
This, though, is a process that can take years. "It starts with emotional competence," said Ms Reyes . "Other competences get built on top of that."
As with the parents, so with the children. The most successful graduates of Juconi Ecuador’s programme have not only finished school but have gone on to university. Ms Reyes hopes, over the next few years, to demonstrate that the therapeutic technique she has pioneered has a lasting effect. It’s still too soon to tell – the oldest graduates are in their early twenties and have only just started to produce babies.
Juconi’s work has been a mixture of practical experience and theoretical input from some of the world’s leading child psychologists – Gianna Williams, of the Tavistock Clinic in London; Janine Roberts, of the University of Massachusetts; Sandra Bloom, an American psychiatrist, and others.
Ms Reyes is herself an educational psychologist, trained in Britain, who came to Ecuador in 1994 to work with Juconi’s founders, Gabriel Benitez and Sarah Thomas. Mr Benitez died very suddenly of a mystery virus in 1996 and Ms Thomas, fearing for the lives of the couple’s two young children, decided to return to Mexico where they had established the charity a few years earlier. That left Ms Reyes in charge in Guayaquil, where, with the help of colleagues in Ecuador and Mexico, she has slowly grown the operation and treated about 1,000 children in all.
Clearly, the Juconi approach has applications in all parts of the world, not just poverty-stricken slums. Ms Reyes was highly critical of the approach used by many social service agencies in Britain and the US, which tend to focus on punitive measures against inadequate parents and breaking up family units.
"The first instinct we want to do is blame these parents, but we have to stop ourselves," she said. "It is possible to take child protection measures without marginalising the parents to such an extent that you can’t work with them." The work of Juconi Ecuador is living proof of that.