Chapter 3: Coercion by Authority

For the middle class, the police protect property, give directions and help old ladies. For the urban poor, the police are those who arrest you.

Michael Harrington (The Other America, 1962)

‘Taxis refuse to come up here at night, it’s too dangerous,’ said Father Rodrigo as we clambered into the jeep and bumped away down the hill. The headlights picked out the makeshift breezeblock hovels on either side of the track. Apart from a skinny dog or two, there was nobody about, but I could believe him. ‘We’ll find plenty of them all right-don’t worry!’, he went on, in answer to my question.

The jeep came to a halt outside the city office. Greg, the volunteer from California, halfway through his missionary year, had been playing football with the kids in the  patio at  the back. We met a friend from Nuevos ldeales’, with his store of chocolate, and planned our route. Stick together,’ said Rodrigo. Although it was now ten at night, the streets seemed as noisy and animated as ever, with crowds milling around the different stalls. And now, at a muddy crossroads, sitting alone in a door­ way, was the first of them: he must have been about twelve and had no shoes. Though dirty beyond description, he grinned broadly when chatted up in friendly fashion. Yes, he told us, he had seen other boys not far away, over there.

A succession of similar encounters followed, each leading to the next: a pale little girl, who said she was very hungry; a boy playing heads-or-tails outside a factory; another carrying a blanket in a plastic bag, near a fairground. A group of people was standing near a bridge and wearing short skirts. ‘They’re not women, actually,’ he whispered.

We lengthened our stride, and on turning a corner found a child begging outside some brightly lit shops. ‘Why, it’s you!’ exclaimed my guide, coming up to him. He, too, grinned, but this time it was a sheepish, awkward grin. ‘You’ll always be welcome back, you know!’ said Rodrigo. Every year, it seemed, a small percentage of the intake fell by the wayside again, perhaps finding the regular timetable a bit hard.

Further down the street, under a lamp-post, a dozen men and women were standing in line,  their  backs  to the wall. In front of them stood a policeman, his white truncheon conspicuously drawn. Others in squads of seven or eight strode rapidly about, checking identity papers throughout the area. In a corner stood a stunted boy, glancing nervously to left and right. The  crunch of marching feet came nearer. In a flash,  and  without a word, the arm of the law made as if to grab the youngster. It was more of a casual backhander than a real blow. We came  to the rescue of the boy, indignantly repeated the name of the aid project and stated our business. The policeman hesitated for a very long second, and I looked into some cold, hard eyes. Then he turned on his heel, shooing us on with a gesture of irritation, and allowing the lad gratefully to breathe again.

It had been no more than a trifle, and yet was too much. Grim thoughts pressed in on me, and we hurried back to the jeep by the shortest route. As we drove away, not speaking, the heavens opened with a crash, flooding the road in sheets of tropical rain. In two minutes, the whole city was awash. For­tunately this didn’t matter, as of course we all had nice warm beds to go back to.

(From a Field Report, Colombia)

This incident illustrates the likely nature of the encounter between Child and State at the street level. Under the legal systems inherited by developing countries from the colonial period, vagrancy, which can be widely interpreted, is often a punishable offence. Arrest, so narrowly avoided on this occasion, is therefore only the first stage of the laborious, indeed trying, procedures that await the street youngster unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with no fieldworker in sight.

Here is a brief account by a journalist from a country in the Near East:

A dozen boys interviewed in the streets all said they had been taken to the Children’s Bureau at least once. Most claimed that they were beaten there – hit with sticks on the hands or the soles of the feet. Mr A. admitted that the children were sometimes beaten. ‘We ask questions, the child gives us a false name and says he’s from B. We call B. and no one knows him. Then he tells another lie. Then we must beat him, and finally he begins to tell us the truth.’

Not all youngsters have people in their villages, maybe hundreds of miles away, prepared to take them in, even when there may have been good reasons for leaving. Despite the Bureau, these boys were still in the street, and perhaps lucky at that. Consider an African case:

The building is located in an attractive residential area, and used to be a middle-class villa. Today, its windows are bricked up and the inside has been converted into three cells, one for youths, one for girls and one for younger children. The cells have 20-30 occupants each; the prison holds 70 in all. The inmates stay there until such time as somebody can be found to look after them. In one instance, a boy of nine ‘guardinga bicycle who threw a stone at a thief who had come to steal it was kept for over a year.

Some idea of the fear which can be evoked by ‘the street’ emerges from the fact that a few of those released from this prison into unsatis­factory home situations and soon adrift once again actually asked to re-admitted.


Harsh Indifference

These vignettes from three different continents are not juxtaposed to make an extreme case. Arrest and detention  in harsh circumstances at the hands of law enforcement agencies such as the ‘Children’s Bureau’ are the common lot of street kids almost everywhere. They tell us more about the real attitude of many governments than could be gathered by examining national legislation. Instead of treating it comprehensively, their principle is often to extirpate ‘the problem’ from its habitual environment. There is also sometimes an unstated bureaucratic assumption that new problems, of whatever nature, demand new administrative infrastructures and once those concerned have been accommodated within them, whether handicapped, blind or delinquent, then the State will have discharged its responsibility and need do no more.

When authorities do act preventively, legislation somehow often seems to glance off the problem at a tangent, and the families con­cerned rarely qualify for its benefits. In India, for example, the State government of Maharashtra became aware that many street children in Bombay were the offspring of casual labourers in the building industry. It therefore ruled that all contractors had themselves to provide day-care facilities on construction sites. In practice, however, in such a crowded city, physical space was simply not available.

The sad fact is that below the ministerial level most of the govern­ments in the front line are not interested in street children. Like teachers faced with an unruly group of schoolboys, they tend to turn to others more appreciative of their efforts. In any event, they are often conditioned by the lack of financial and human resources.

No generalization about a world-wide phenomenon holds good everywhere, however, and there is always a danger of drawing exag­gerated conclusions from sporadic fieldwork. Although few govern­ments actually do much that is positive for street children, it would be wrong to generalize from the worst case and conclude that outright rejection by the public and repression by officialdom were universal. Within the same country, attitudes to street children, partially or totally abandoned, may be very different. In countries such as Thailand, the former may be considered essentially as no more than hard­ working young citizens and the latter as deserving unfortunates. In sub-Saharan Africa and much of Latin America, both public opinion and governmental reactions are typically much more negative: apart from those working in the most recognized jobs like shoeshining, the tendency is either not to see them at all or to label them forthwith as undesirables who ‘give the city a bad name’. They seem to be too close for comfort. To raise the subject is to face that age-old motive for human inaction: fear of involvement. Middle class people sometimes entrench themselves behind a comfortable smugness, with the bland assurance that, yes, we do have foreign priests in this country who look after that sort of thing. Awareness of community responsibility, instead of waiting for the government to ‘do something’, is the rare exception.


In Theory

What is supposed to happen when street children do come into contact with governmental agencies is, in theory, naturally very different from the picture we have seen so far. Most countries have a safety-net of legislation – usually extensive, but very unevenly applied – to protect the best interests of the child whose family is inadequate to the task of caring and providing for him. On society’s behalf, governments run ‘homes’ for those in need of care and protection if substitute families cannot be found for them through adoption and fostering. The latter are subject to fluctuations of supply and demand, and always take time; the tiny minority of children concerned must in any case be processed somewhere. In most developing countries, the expensive solution of ‘homes’ for abandoned children, is, in any event, inap­propriate from social and economic points of view.


In Practise

Instead of being only a last resort, such homes, or rather institutions, are frequently used when alternatives might be available. Some of their inmates, such as the handicapped, have been placed there by their parents. Others may have been legally removed from their families out of concern for their welfare. In many cases, the institution serves to camouflage the real needs of the family. Institutions have been the subject of passionate debate, and in practice tend to occupy an ambivalent position between the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of the Interior, as if there was some confusion between what those ‘in trouble’ are and what they do, between protecting the child against the wide world outside and protecting society against the ‘predelinquent’ child. The two things are very different, yet inspire similar reactions: systematic exclusion and segregation from the norm.

Despite their official nature and status, it can be difficult to know how many such places there are in any given country. A high figure can be taken as evidence that the problem is on a frightening scale and the country’s families are falling apart, which they may be. A low figure will be taken to indicate official indifference. In a recent count, India was found to have 774, which is perhaps not excessive in relation to its population of almost 800 million. Brazil, with a population of 125 million, puts the total number held in its numerous institutions at 470,000 of whom only 14,000 have committed offences.

The street child unconvicted of any crime qualifies for admission under the heading of those one does not know what else to do with: he gives the institution an impossible task. What is officialdom to make of the sullen, wide-eyed youngster cowering in the police station? Is he shoeless orphan or gangster’s apprentice? A bit of both, no doubt, but where does the law draw the line? The legal age of penal responsibility is often 14, but it will be for the Youth  Magistrate, if the country’s legal system provides for one, to decide what happens. Few Third World countries guarantee that the decision will be taken in consultation with social workers. ‘Loitering’ alone is good for periodic imprisonment, and commitment to closeddoor estab­lishments. These are often ‘deformatories not reformatories’, ‘depots for children’ in the eyes of their detractors. Middle-class public opinion, for its part, will have no doubts on the subject: the child inside is less victim than potential assailant, and the price of his release is a rise in the crime rate.

Unless he is sent to a showplace largely intended for foreign visitors, the youngster assigned to a ‘holding institution’ can expect to find himself in a cold, impersonal, paternalistic, rigid world of concrete corridors, steel railings and walls topped with broken glass. In addition to roll-calls and cleaning duties, he will have lessons and manual work, but little contact with the outside world. If the place has been officially ‘upgraded’, under the pressure of reforming zeal, his lunch may occasionally include fresh vegetables and meat.

A child in such an institution commonly goes through three stages: ‘Reception’, ‘Observation’, and ‘Rehabilitation’. Like everything about the system, this is nominally designed for his own good, but at the very least he will find it difficult to know clearly what is expected of him. From having been totally free and independent in the street, the youngster is restricted on every side. Everything he does, what, how, and where, is subject to regimentation. The human cost, the trauma, of applying the letter of the law – arrest, detention, hearings, delay, bureaucracy – becomes out of all proportion to the damage suffered by society, such as a minor theft.

As well as uncongenial facilities and the regime applied, the human element in the educational process is likely, at best, to be mediocre. Staff in such governmental institutions are often underpaid and poorly qualified; some also work part-time elsewhere and are only waiting to find something better. Others may have sunk into the same routine for years, with no in-service training, and be equally poorly motivated. In some agencies, the turnover may be rapid, thus depriving the child of any stable figure with whom to identify. Childcare facilities on this pattern rarely make much effort to understand the deeper motivations which have brought the child to his present pass. They do nothing to provide the sense of belonging whose lack is central to the condition of those they accommodate.

In terms of the numbers of children actually ‘rehabilitated’ and earning an honest living, or at least keeping out of trouble, the record of traditional institutions is poor. In practice, authorities do not often know how many of their graduates are able to make their own way in life, and are not always interested in knowing. Many street youngsters have been in and out of different institutions several times,

shunted from pillar to post, getting more and more difficult to handle. Few governments are anxious to make their remand homes accessible to comparative research, but findings in different countries point to delays in physical, emotional, and intellectual development.

Facilities for vocational training are frequently inadequate. A repressive regime isolated from the community makes it difficult to prepare them for independent living. The youngsters remain as root­ less as they were on entering, or more so, and vulnerable to the break caused by leaving. Institutions therefore tend to keep their inmates too long. In some cases, jobs and the concerned government depart­ments may depend for their existence on ensuring a regular supply of street children for whom to care, which guarantees inertia. A fresh wind of reform, should it ever materialize, will have strong vested interests to overcome.

Today, most governments recognize the severe limitations ofclosed­ door residential care. A few, more aware of its expense, as in Latin America, have started programmes of ‘deinstitutionalisation’. The problem is to devise alternatives, such as home-like family units, capable of accommodating comparable numbers . Such initiatives have commonly tended to supplement as much as to replace insti­tutions. Other governments pay lip service to the idea, and many of their decisions at the intermediate or local levels are still influenced by the unstated gut reaction widespread in the general public. Why bother when, whatever you do, they are going to end up in prison anyway?


Children in Prison

Unfortunately, real prison, for adults, is exactly where many street children picked up by the police do end up, even if only temporarily’. More see the inside of a prison at some stage than are committed to child-care institutions. Many will return to spend time ‘inside’ in later life. In Sao Paulo, for example, 80% of the prison population are ex­ street children. The alternative facilities prescribed by law may be overcrowded, or simply unavailable. The Geneva-based NGO Defence for Children International, in a report on children in adult prisons (1985), found cases occurring in all the 27 countries studied, including the United Kingdom: ‘regulations and policies are simply ignored in practice for economic and administrative reasons. Imagine the catastrophic effects on a twelve-year-old of being put in the same cell as hard-core criminals: ‘Physical and mental abuse directed towards children by adult inmates and prison guards is both frequent and severe…various types of sexual abuse appear to be among the most prevalent visited upon the children in prison’.


The Police

The role of the police as a whole is clearly a crucial dimension of the problem and would appear to be susceptible to rapid improvement. One is tempted to add the cliche ‘given the political will’. Far from being a given quantity, however, the degree of political will is only one parameter of the environment among others. Presently, authorities in many countries have far too much latitude and little practical obli­gation to respect the right of the child to care and sympathetic treatment. The notion of rights often takes second place to the require­ment of avoiding tourists being made uncomfortable by unsightly and importunate beggars. Reports of victimization and extortion are frequent , and policemen on the beat have been known to relieve street children of their earnings on the grounds that they can only have been ill-gotten. Street children have emerged from police stations with cigarette burns . Minors aged 16 arrested for having no identity papers can be recorded as aged 18, to ensure they are  put  in with adults and get ‘a real lesson‘.

In parts of the world where the incidence of street children is highest, police corruption is a regrettable reality, and may be enor­mously difficult to control when drugs and the huge sums of money that go with them are involved, especially in producer-countries Even the suspicion of corruption removes the legitimacy and moral authority of official agencies. Awareness of this on the part of street youngsters can undo much of the good work put in by those who would educate them.

A  more positive, preventive role for the police has often been 65 proposed, but rarely come to much, at least in developing countries. With the best will in the world, undermanned forces may have little time to devote to cultivating neighbourly relations with youth clubs and social organizations, and may be unable to cope with seemingly conflicting roles. Contact with other social agencies or NGOs may exist only informally; relationships are often strained, with each side jealous of its own prerogatives.

The inclusion of elements of child psychology and legal aspects of child protection in police training have been suggested as one step towards a more enlightened treatment of the young. It tends to meet with resistance, however, especially from the middle levels of the professional hierarchy.


Passing the Buck

Evidence from a conference on street children for French-speaking countries of West Africa, organized in 1985 by the Inter-NGO Pro­gramme, suggests that interdepartmental cooperation and coor­dination, though unexciting, do offer scope for relatively painless improvement. Ministries are often too vertically compartmentalized, and the emergence of the problem may itself point to gaps in coverage between the various jurisdictions, for NGOs to fill. Typically, each separate Ministry will tend to have far more immediate concerns on its hands than street children, and none will be prepared to take overall responsibility. Crucially, departments determine and shape their programmes by the policy instruments they have available, which are geared to those in families and not always flexible enough to cope with exceptions. Housing, for example, has nothing to offer individual minors in the street, and the experience of relocating fami­lies into cigarette-packet apartment blocks does not necessarily reduce the incidence of street children, as Western experience shows. For Education, street children are dropouts: without the back-up required to benefit from teaching, they had better leave the field free for those who can. For Labour, they are untrainable without education and therefore unemployable. For Youth and Sport, such unruly spirits are liable to damage precious equipment reserved for recognized bodies.

Health may be somewhat better placed, in that while they may be sceptical of well-intentioned efforts, street youngsters, who may themselves be a tangible threat to public health, do not reject first aid. Hospitals, however, will normally be inaccessible to them if there is no intermediary. The record of most countries in recognizing and tackling the issue, therefore, is largely disappointing. Having been consistently avoided, it has had to grow to huge proportions before attracting the proper attention. Authorities do the minimum, and only under pressure.


Other Alternatives?

Many governments are unable to embark on the deeper structural changes needed to get to the root of the problem. In this context, it is perhaps interesting to examine the experience of governments which are Marxist or authoritarian and committed to radical measures. On principle, they deny the existence of street children in their own cities, and the visitor to those areas where he is allowed to go will not see any. Vagrancy is certainly difficult under highly successful systems of police surveillance. It is easy for such governments to support the charge that street children are caused by capitalism, at least in the eyes of their home constituency. They point to the enormous gulf between the rich and poor and countless other social evils which none could fail to recognize.

In the Soviet Union, authorities are aware of the presence of hooli­gans, (uligani), but do not hesitate to clear the streets of ‘social parasites’ and help them better appreciate the dignity of directed labour. China has very few street children. Its strict family planning (‘one­ child’ policy), and the ‘street committees’, closely linked to the formal police structure, have undoubtedly played a ‘preventive’ role.

Ethiopia, in contrast, has many street children in its capital, largely driven there by natural and man-made disasters. In 1979, the auth­orities launched a vast and expensive project intended for 5,000 street children: the ‘Amba’ village built near Lake Zwai, 200 km  south  of Addis Ababa. Opinions differ as to the desirability of such mass operations and their costeffectiveness.


The experience of Nicaragua is probably more relevant to other developing countries. At the end of the national war in August 1979, the number of street children in the country was estimated at 70,000. By February 1980, a parallel estimate showed that the number had decreased to about 25,000This was brought about not through any official government programme, but merely, it seems, by the impulse towards community solidarity. A local councillor of the town of Esteli was quoted as saying: We were determined that not one of our children would have to leave us and that not one of our children would be without a family. All of us in Esteli are each child’s family.The form such a change in the attitude of the community might take, whether revolutionary or evolutionary, would seem to depend mainly on whether the urban poor feel they are being treated like friends or like enemies by those in power. In either case, long-term, durable solutions require moving the whole question upstream, from effect to cause. It should be viewed only in humanitarian terms. The best penal system in the world cannot solve it. Street youngsters are not deterred by repeated sanctions. ‘Just retribution leaves them indifferent. One must seek rather to spread the issue among the various actors in the community so that the work of government and private initiatives can be mutually reinforcing.