BUENOS AIRES – While the COVID-19 crisis has altered the lives of billions of people worldwide, for the 10,000 minors living at Argentina’s 800 children’s homes it has marked a particularly abrupt before and after.
No more outings to parks and city plazas. No classroom schooling. No visits. Even the psychological treatments some of these youth were undergoing has had to be interrupted due to the nation’s coronavirus-triggered lockdowns.
“For a kid who’s one and a half, starting to see his mom on a cellphone screen is extremely distressing,” Valeria Leiva, the director of El Pequeño Hogar Mariposa, said in an interview with EFE.
A total of 13 children aged five and under live at that home, most of whom had suffered abuse and/or abandonment prior to their arrival. Now the pandemic has temporarily halted the family visits they had been receiving several times a week, as well as their psychotherapy sessions.
Most of the children are too young to do schoolwork or therapy or communicate via video, so the home tries to replace these stimuli with music, puppets and games, Leiva said.
But one of the most difficult challenges, according to the director, has been explaining to young people the uncertainty that adults themselves are experiencing because of the pandemic.
“Our vision is very much opposed to adultcentrism … but there are concepts that are very difficult to put into words,” Leiva said.
The situation is no less complicated at homes for adolescents, even though the rapid response of institutions enabled many of these teenagers to be sent to live with relatives, foster families and even at workers’ homes, said Dana Borzese, the executive director of the Doncel Civil Association, a non-governmental organization.
These measures also are aimed at alleviating the challenging situations in these homes, where the minors are spending more time than ever due to the lockdown measures even though staff has been reduced because at-risk members of the population are not allowed to work.
Borzese said one service that is vital during quarantine is the Internet, since that allows these teenagers to continue their studies and remain in contact with people on the outside.
With respect to youth serving sentences in Argentina’s juvenile detention centers (the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 16), the situation is better than in the prisons, where inmates rioted a few weeks ago to protest overcrowded conditions, the coordinator of the SES Foundation’s restorative justice programs in the juvenile justice system of Buenos Aires province, Nancy Fior, told EFE.
But she added that material conditions in some of these facilities have worsened considerably.
Buenos Aires province, the country’s largest by population, responded to the initial rise in coronavirus cases by sending some minors at juvenile detention facilities to their homes to serve their sentences under house arrest and hiring new staff to replace at-risk workers.
Fior also said Internet rules at those centers have been loosened to compensate for the youths’ inability to receive visitors.
But looking forward, she said the juvenile justice system needs to be approached from a “socio-educational perspective” to correct society’s failures with respect to these youth and help them start again.
For her part, Leiva stressed the need to avoid delays in moving minors from children’s homes back to their families or finding adoptive homes for them, noting that the law states that youth can be at these centers for a maximum of one year, although in practice that process can take as many as three years.
The pandemic, however, will have to subside before these matters can be addressed.
Until then, volunteers and teams at children’s homes are striving to ensure the wellbeing of the children in their care in spite of the extreme measures taken by the government and health officials to mitigate the deadly impact of COVID-19.