Lucy - a study for street workers

Lucy - a study for street workers

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Saturday 30th May 2020


This blog is very different to any blog I have ever written and I decided that I would let you into our world a little bit and help you understand how we determine which children come into the mentoring programme and what factors help us make this decision.

On Monday we were asked to help volunteer at the city feeding centre for homeless people in Guatemala City.  Each organisation takes turns to run the centre and Monday was our day.  It was while I was at the centre I met 9-year-old Lucy.  I would like to encourage you to look at her photo (thanks to Chris Dobson for the edit) and to study it for a while.

What do you see there?  What feelings come to the surface?  Why do you think she is at the feeding centre?  Lucy came with her mum and younger brother and all three looked very tired, hungry and like the world had hit them hard.  But still they managed to smile.  So, let´s explore this a little further.

When I first developed the mentoring programme in 2014, I did so because I couldn´t find a programme that would help prepare mentors to better understand and work with high-risk children.

When I first moved to Guatemala City in 1992 there were an estimated 5,000 children and young people living on the city streets and the situation was dire.  I lost count of the number of children we buried, not because they didn´t matter.  They mattered very much indeed.  It was that with each child we buried we all felt like something within us died.  Each child had a special place in our hearts and every death wrenched that away from you, leaving you numb and feeling helpless until the next death.  Another funeral, another time of mourning, another commitment to not letting it happen again and another night without sleep.

The coinciding of celebrating 25 years of working with street kids in 2017 and rescuing our last child from the streets, 11-year-old Jonathan, was a great time to survey the streets of Guatemala City again.  We celebrated the fact that we could not find one child living alone on the streets and, together with frequent research into the changing patterns of children taking to the streets, we wanted to focus our work more on the prevention of children taking to the streets and so was born the mentoring programme.

The stage is set with the understanding of the factors that both push a child to the streets and the unique components that entice or pull a child onto the streets is an important place to start.  These factors are the backdrops and props needed for the actors that will now be auditioned for the part of “street child”.

We draw upon research done by the ACE study in the USA that has given us 10 risk factors that can be applied to our child actors.  If a child, according to their research, has four or more of the following factors in their lives, they are more likely to have very negative health outcomes and therefore will tend to adopt negative behaviours as part of a detrimental coping strategy than only enhances their childhood trauma rather than bringing healing.  The factors are: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, a drug user in the household, member of the household in prison, member of the family who is chronically depressed, mentally ill or suicidal, the mother is treated violently, one or no parents, emotional or physical neglect and lastly the loss of someone close to you.  These factors are traumatic childhood events that many children can navigate well if they have a caring and supportive adult in their life. If not, then they compound a child´s sense of loss, vulnerability and, to some degree, abandonment.

Moreover, our child actor must now be exposed to street life in order for them to be conditioned to play the part of the street child.  Street life, with its temptations and dangers, lures the child into a world that will both rob their innocence and accelerate their entrance into the adult world.  Therefore, a child´s connection to the street is measured by the street worker and, together with the number of risk factors in their life, enables the worker to evaluate their unique level of risk and so target the intervention at the most high-risk child.

We return now to Lucy.  Take another look at her photo and stay a while as you study it again.  Knowing what you now know about the risk factors and connection to the streets can you begin to gather together the pieces of the jigsaw.

What do you now see?  Can you notice the marks on her body?  Can we assume there are more and maybe more serious ones?  The condition of her skin tells us something together with the dirt under the nails.  Are there parts of her body she is trying to hide from us or does she feel comfortable to let you see the pain she might live with? A street worker would also look at her shoes and, if she is wearing any, what they would tell you about neglect.  Is she shy of the camera and reluctant to give you eye contact? She has a dog, as many people on the streets do. What does the dog give to her or provide for her? Her mum stands behind her and you can see she is very slim and begin to assume they struggle to find food.  Why is this? Why is there no dad around?  Lucy´s clothes are interesting as she or her mum has chosen clothes that many young girls her age would want to wear.  Even the text on her beanie states something she is probably unaware of.

Little by little the street worker begins to put the pieces together and observes, asks questions and looks also at the context the child is living in – where in the street they are? Who is with them? What do they have with them? What time of day or night are they in the street? Who acknowledges them? Do their fast-moving eyes tell you they struggle to concentrate or that they are constantly scanning the scene for signs of danger? Does their breath give away drug or alcohol consumption?  The skilled street worker will be doing the calculations whilst, at the same time, trying to engage the child in play or conversation.

Lucy, we can now assume, is a high-risk child.  She has a younger brother whose demeanor, actions and appearance gives away his predicament of being highly connected to the streets.  He also has a dog!  Lucy, her mum and little brother are in a queue of people who are homeless and does seem to know many of them. She smiles when she sees the size of her lunch and looks at her dog as if to say “this is for us both”.

I have tried here to telescope Lucy´s life in order to help you understand how a street worker thinks and how their observations lead to engagement, play, understanding and eventually to action.  I will keep you posted.


 
Janie Awesome

Duncan Dyason is the founder and Director of Street Kids Direct.  He first started working with street children in 1992 when he moved to Guatemala City and founded The Toybox Charity.  His work has been honoured by Her Majesty the Queen and he was awarded an MBE the year he celebrated working over 25 years to reduce the large population of children on the streets from 5,000 to zero.  Duncan continues to live and work in Guatemala City.

 

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