Is foster care possible in places affected by poverty? Brazil says "Yes!"
A Brazilian once told me that Brazilians are perhaps the most “teeth prejudiced people in the world”… So you can imagine my feelings a few weeks back as I stood ready to present to a 400 strong crowd of Brazilian court workers, lawyers and judges without my two front teeth. I always feel a little intimidated presenting to large groups of professional people but, thanks to a recent tooth infection and the Brazilian’s love of dental perfection, my nervousness was at a whole new level!
Thankfully the group understood my situation and accepted that all the photographs I was to be in would have the same smile, without showing my teeth (see above for Exhibit A and below for Exhibit B!). I couldn’t help but laugh when, at the end of the conference, I was presented with a certificate from the Supreme Courts by a small child. A small child who also happened to be missing her 2 front teeth. I’m convinced it was a ‘set up’!
People often ask me why I have such an affinity with Brazil. Almost 20 years ago my wife, Brenda, and I put everything on hold in the UK, packed up our things and moved halfway across the world to Sao Paulo for a year. We worked in a children’s mission that looked after around 100 children of all ages in residential care homes. Most of these children had been referred to the organisation by the local government.
Having worked as a social worker in the UK I soon realised that most of the children we were working with could easily be placed into local families rather than living in a children’s home. At that time, however, the concept of foster care was almost unknown in Brazil and South America. Many Brazilians told me that the level of poverty and large families in Brazil meant that foster care could never work!
In 2002 SFAC was born as a direct response to that challenge and our recent invitation to speak at the conference referred to above was the result of over 15 years of work introducing the idea of foster care to Brazil. Below is a quick recap of our trip.
Brazil – Campo Grande in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul and Sao Paulo and Campinas in the state of Sao Paulo.
I continued to visit Brazil almost annually after Brenda and I returned to the UK to live back in 1998, first as an individual consultant and then, later, under the umbrella of SFAC. Our most recent visit to Brazil was over the first two weeks of last month (September).
WHO (invited us)
Last year Dr Deni, a Brazilian judge and fervent child rights advocate, heard me speak at a conference in Brazil. He used his influence with his fellow judges, President of Supreme Courts and local politicians to put on a high profile event, “The Second International Meeting on Foster Care. The 2-day conference, organised and sponsored by the Supreme Courts and the Mayor’s office in Mato Grosso do Sul, focussed on a child’s right to live in a family. Particular attention was given to foster care and decision-making processes for children. There were over 400 participants registered – a wonderful achievement.
Meanwhile our longstanding friends at ABBA, a locally registered non-government organisation who originally worked with street children were planning a training event later the same week. We’ve worked with ABBA since 2008 to equip them to run a foster care programme that can function as a model for the rest of the country. They have recently become the first registered foster care programme in Sao Paulo, one of the most populous cities in the world – yet another wonderful achievement!
WHY (they wanted us)
Dr Deni specifically requested SFAC be the keynote speakers for the conference as he wanted people with expertise in the area of foster care and particularly with the legal issues and processes surrounding it. He was extremely conscious that judges in his state, and possibly others were being asked to make important decisions about children’s welfare, often without sufficient information available and without the right resources for children in particularly younger children.
The second event was a two-day training session in the centre of Sao Paulo. 100 participants learnt how the UK trains and supports its foster carers. As a newly registered fostering agency, ABBA had a twofold purpose for the training: to recruit more carers and to demonstrate how the UK trains and prepares families in the community to understand the issues are associated with children being looked after by the state.
In addition to these two events I spent an afternoon and evening providing consultation and support to the technical team at the local council in Campinas and working with some of their foster carers in as well fitting in a few consultancy sessions with other local groups.
HOW (we did it)
The conference had a specific legal focus so UK Deputy District Judge and member of the SFAC team, Ranjit Uppal, joined us for the first part of the trip. The conference emphasised that, in legal proceedings regarding children, the child’s welfare is paramount – it supersedes all other important interests.
Ranjit outlined the UK legal and judicial decision-making process and how the child’s welfare is considered in that process. Mick equipped the participants with practical information on topics such as working with the family of origin to prevent family breakdown, placing children into foster families and why this is a better option for children who are not able to live with their biological family.
Why is this training so important in Brazil right now? Because there is no early intervention to prevent a child’s case going to the courts. Once a child’s case enters the court process that is when the notion of preventative work begins. And just as important, children cannot be placed into foster care, even if families are approved and waiting unless the judge gives their expressed permission. Hence the need to ensure the message that children belong in safe families is reaching the top-level decision makers in Brazil.
The training with ABBA was much less formal. I worked with current foster carers, families who were thinking of becoming foster carers and professionals working in the area. Many of the professionals were working towards developing foster care but had little idea how to equip ordinary families in the community to understand some difficult issues for children. These were much more practical sessions using presentations, videos, stories, group work and questions to start working through some of the issues involved with finding safe families for vulnerable children.
WHAT (was the outcome)
The conference in Campo Grande was a huge success and SFAC has already been invited by judges from other states (Parana, Minas Gerais, Bahia, Amazon) to make similar presentations. When policy makers and judges understand why they shouldn’t accept delay in processing children’s cases and understand why foster care is a better option for children then Brazil’s children will be far better served by the authorities that represent them.
Over a number of years’ SFAC has seen Brazilian child care legislation change leading to the closure of many large institutions with the focus now on family group homes and seeing the development of a number of small pilot foster care schemes. State after state are reviewing models of good practice as they try to implement foster care into their social programmes. As of March 2016 it is now Federal Law to develop foster care programmes as an alternative to residential care.
Our time with ABBA was also a success but in different ways. The training we ran with them focussed on working with the families in the communities equipping them to have a healthier understanding of what it means for children to go through neglect and separation from their families. Those of us who have worked in foster care in UK know that the kinds of families who put themselves forward for this important work are usually not the professionals or academics in social work but ordinary working class families who have a big heart to help vulnerable children. But, they need more to truly support the children they look after. That was our task, to help them understand children’s issues better.
On more than one occasion during this visit I was told that SFAC’s visits to Brazil over the past 15 years, all the presentations we’ve made, the training we’ve run and the discussions we’ve had with local gropus have played a significant part in seeing foster care develop in Brazil. It is a wonderful privilege to have been part of this huge leap forward in caring for children and to see so many Brazilian professionals working to achieve the best outcomes for the children under their care.