Children's Voice September/October 2007

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It Takes a Global Village

Boosting Services for Chile's Children

Improved child welfare services are helping abused and neglected children at the SOS Children's Village in Antofagasta, Chile (shown here), and across the country. Photos by Nestor Rojas Mena.

For more than a decade and a half, life has been improving for Chile's nearly 5 million children. Since the government's transition from a dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet to a democracy in 1990, economic growth has surged and social spending has increased.

The Chilean government created Servicio Nacional de Menores (SENAME), under the Ministry of Justice, to reorganize and strengthen services to children, particularly the poorest. SENAME has developed a nationwide administrative and research model that is unique in Latin America, according to the International Child Resource Institute (ICRI).

In addition, President Michelle Bachelet launched a social policy initiative last fall--the first of its kind in Latin America-- called Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows with You). Under the policy, Chile will develop new mechanisms of support and protection for children, and Chilean children from the poorest families will be eligible to attend day care centers and preschools for free.

The country has also been making progress in improving services for abused and neglected children. Over the last several years, SENAME has downsized its large institutional homes for abandoned and abused children, called hogares, and created 300 smaller hogares throughout the country that each house 20 children. The government also recently established an adoption unit that is placing children with adoptive families within Chile and around the world.

At the same time, outpatient services for children have been developed in Chile's larger towns to work with families and help reunite them with their children when possible. These services include 60 assessment centers where children suspected of being abused are assessed, as well as 54 child abuse treatment centers that provide therapy and legal services for children who have been abused, says therapist Marianela Soto Hurtado, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been working through ICRI to train staff working in the centers and the hogares on assessing and treating child abuse.

"These measures have decreased the number of children requiring removal from the home and long-term care in hogares," she says.

Soto Hurtado has so far trained staff at 60 hogares in Chile, including the directors and clinical staff of the group homes and the group homes' child care workers--called educators in Chile--who traditionally have only tended to the physical needs of the children under their care, including cooking and cleaning for them. Typically, one educator is responsible for about 12 children. As a result, Soto Hurtado says, children in the hogares often are "starving for socio-emotional care."

Soto Hurtado created a 40-hour course for hogare staff focused on giving educators the basic tools to develop children's social skills, decrease inappropriate behaviors, and resolve conflicts. Hogare directors are trained to coach educators in these therapeutic skills and use them in individual and group treatment settings for abused children.

"The results of the first 60 hogares have been quite positive," says Soto Hurtado, noting that training more hogare staff will depend on available future funding. "Both educators and [managers] valued the opportunity to get to know each other and work together. Educators felt they had learned concrete skills they could apply in their everyday interactions with the children."

In addition to her work with Chile's residential group care staff, Soto Hurtado also has trained outpatient services staff on the assessment and treatment of child sexual abuse, one of the most widespread and hidden forms of abuse in the country.

By 2008, she hopes to complete her trainings and have a website where the staff she has trained can read articles on residential treatment of abused children and ask for advice on their cases anonymously.

The effect of SENAME's efforts are beginning to show, she says, noting a 2006 UNICEF study that found a 10% decrease in reported abuse of children in the country's lower socioeconomic strata--the population targeted by SENAME.


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