Sun, Oct 14, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Poverty, prejudice sees removal of indigenous Brazilian children

By Karla Mendes  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, DOURADOS, Brazil

As a judge, Brazil’s Zaloar Murat Martins de Souza is used to making tough calls. More and more, he finds himself having to make one of the toughest of all: whether to separate a child from their family.

De Souza works in Dourados in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where large numbers of indigenous children are growing up in care, raising questions over who is best placed to look after vulnerable young people.

He said that poverty is fueling drug and alcohol abuse and violence among the tribal communities of Dourados, home to about 220,000 people, including 10,000 from Brazil’s indigenous minorities.

“The vast majority live in a state of misery and this deprives the family,” De Souza said in his office as he stared at a pile of lawsuits. “Alcohol and drugs are the two great evils of our indigenous villages.”

The number of indigenous children in care has doubled to 38 in the past four years, local social worker Ana Liege Charao Dias Borges said.

Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency that represents indigenous people’s interests, has raised concerns about children being wrongly removed from their parents.

In a report last year, FUNAI said it had received complaints of children being taken from their families “without notice, motivation or time for farewells.”

They are forced to adapt to a new and unknown way of life that can make reintegration into their community difficult, the report said.

They “forget customs, their mother tongue... Taking children from their tribes deprives them of a collective future,” it said.

More than half the children in shelters in Dourados were indigenous, up from one-third two years ago, Charao Dias Borges said.

Overall, indigenous groups make up about 5 percent of the local population.

Among them is Ana, a Kaiowa Indian girl who was taken into care after she was raped at her home two years ago when she was just nine. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

At a children’s home in Dourados, Ana said that her mother regularly got drunk and left the house, leaving her and her younger sister alone.

“He hurt me... He closed my mouth and I could not breathe,” she said of her ordeal, sitting on a bed surrounded by dolls in a dimly lit room.

Court documents list her father as the main suspect.

Ana now lives at the Santa Rita home, where children removed from their parents stay until a judge decides whether they can eventually be sent back to their families or should be referred to adoption authorities.

It includes a school and houses where the children live with full-time adult supervision, surrounded by toys. For many, life there is better than at home.

Under Brazilian law, children should only stay for a maximum of 18 months, but FUNAI said some remain for years — and the longer they stay, the harder it is for them to go home.

Santa Rita shelter director Monica Roberta Marin de Medeiros said that rising levels of violence and abuse are a major obstacle to sending them home.

According to national law, indigenous children can only be adopted by non-indigenous parents if all options have been exhausted within their own community, De Medeiros said.

Elida Oliveira, a Kaiowa Indian, said her son was taken away from her just a week after she gave birth in 2015.

“They [health workers] called the guardianship council saying that they had to take the child because I wasn’t able to raise him,” she said, referring to a panel of experts who work on child protection issues.

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