Argentina offers new help to teens leaving state care

Tatiana Lustig Da Silva, 23, right, laughs with friends at the Buenos Aires headquarters of Doncel, an organization that trains young people who age out of the state institutional care system. She is joined by Jasmín Pérez Ccasani, 18 (center) and Florencia Rodríguez, a coordinator at the program. (Photo by Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina)

By Lucila Pellettieri, Senior Reporter

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — At 16, Jasmín Pérez Ccasani knew that she had to leave home. Family life was bad, she says, and teenagers her age can formally separate from their parents if the state agrees.

In her case, the state did agree, so Pérez Ccasani moved into a group home run by Catholic nuns. It was a good place to live, she says.

But a second change was just on the horizon – one Pérez Ccasani didn’t choose for herself.

Instead of a celebration filled with the excitement of entering adulthood, her 18th birthday would bring another move: this time, to live on her own, with no support.

Pérez Ccasani panicked when she realized what was about to happen. She looked for classes that would help her learn new skills so she could find a job and she found Doncel, an organization that helps kids like her adjust to independent living. Pérez Ccasani signed up for workshops and learned how to cook, how to manage her own healthcare, how to look for work and other skills.

She’s 18 years old now and says the future doesn’t seem so scary.

“I am not so scared that when I leave the world will collapse under me,” she says.

Pérez Ccasani plans to move out of the group home in March.

This is the situation for thousands of children who live in institutions throughout Argentina. A few organizations, like Doncel, offer training for those children to help prepare them to live on their own. But the government doesn’t offer streamlined transition services across the board, leaving some young adults vulnerable as they’re pushed out of the state-sponsored care system.

That will change as soon as a new law, approved in June, is implemented. Young people who age out of the state system will have the option to enroll in a program in which they would receive a monthly income equivalent to the 80 percent of the minimum wage – 7600 Argentine pesos ($516) beginning in January 2018 – and would be matched with a mentor. The program would last until a person turns 21, with a possible extension to the age of 25 if the person is studying or otherwise preparing for a career.

It’s expected that the law will be implemented in 2018.

“When these young people leave, they return to relive the orphanhood with which they entered,” says Carla Carrizo, the lawmaker who authored the bill. “This program seeks to guarantee them the ability to choose a life.”

The law settles a debt that the state owed to young people who lived in its care, she says.

There are 9,219 girls, boys and teenagers living in institutions in Argentina, according to a 2014 report by the Secretaría Nacional de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia together with UNICEF, the United Nations’ child advocacy organization. Just over half of those people entered the system because of violence and mistreatment by a direct family member. About 22 percent were abandoned, 19 percent were sexually abused and the rest were institutionalized due to other causes, the report notes.

Those are the latest official numbers available, according to Argentine and UNICEF officials.

Children who age out of the institutional system as young adults do so because it wasn’t possible to reunite them with their families, because they haven’t been connected with an adoptive family, or because they opt out of adoption.

In such cases, it’s critical to ensure that the young adults are prepared to be autonomous, says María Lucila Argüello, a rights protection official of UNICEF.

That’s difficult to ensure nationally. Argentina’s interior offers varied options for such children, depending on the province. Some provinces offer pre-departure homes where young people live with mentors who help prepare them for adult life. In other provinces, children go straight from the institution to live on their own, or sometimes wind up on the street or in difficult situations, child advocates say.

“In many cases when the young people leave , they have to go back to the vulnerable contexts which the state had considered was important to separate them from,” says Andrés Segade, who works with Red Latinoamericana de Egresados de Protección, a network that aims to protect young people who age out of state systems throughout Latin America.

Many of the young people don’t finish high school, he says, and they often lack even rudimentary skills.

“They don’t know how to do basic tasks like cooking, moving around in a city or getting medical appointments,” he says.

Doncel, the organization that aided Pérez Ccasani, has a pamphlet that includes an illustration of a birthday cake that is a time bomb.

“Turning 18 should be a party or just another birthday, but for the kids who are under the protection system, it’s an exit door from that state protection without any accompaniment,” says Florencia Rodríguez, coordinator of Guía Egreso, a platform that offers workshops for young people transitioning to life on their own.

That organization pairs young people so they can share experiences and count on one another.

“There is a social support and stability,” Rodríguez says.

Tatiana Lustig Da Silva, 23, didn’t have a mentor or partner when she left a state home. Now, she’s a mentor for Guía Egreso.

“It always ends up being a matter of luck if you could prepare your departure or not,” she says, adding that some homes have workers who help prepare people to leave, but others don’t.

She says she speaks with young people who are mere months away from turning 18, but they confess that they don’t think much about the coming transition.

“They still saw it as something far away or that it was going to happen by itself,” she says.

Lustig Da Silva and Rodríguez say each young adult’s potential depends too much on the home where they live and random factors, including whether they run into an organization like Doncel or Guía Egreso.

But the new law will ensure that pre-departure planning is a priority in every home, Rodríguez says.

Pérez Ccasani says the new law will transform the experiences of people like her.

“I think about my colleagues from the house, with whom I live, and know that their lives are going to change from that point on because they are no longer going to be desperate from the uncertainty of what is going to happen with their lives when they turn 18,” she says.

Elia Gran, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

This article was originally published on Global Press Journal.