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CLAUDIA VIDIGAL

Brazil,

Claudia Vidigal is transforming the way childcare workers and the justice system interact with children and adolescents housed in child shelter homes. Claudia is introducing a simple methodology whereby: Children learn to create, share and value their personal life stories; childcare workers find new, simple ways to engage with them at an individual level; and judges can consider the children’s perceived needs and desires in their court cases.

This profile below was prepared when Claudia Vidigal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.

INTRODUCTION

Claudia Vidigal is transforming the way childcare workers and the justice system interact with children and adolescents housed in child shelter homes. Claudia is introducing a simple methodology whereby: Children learn to create, share and value their personal life stories; childcare workers find new, simple ways to engage with them at an individual level; and judges can consider the children’s perceived needs and desires in their court cases.




THE NEW IDEA

After volunteering as a psychologist in Brazil’s child shelter system—temporary housing establishments for kids whose families cannot take care of them—Claudia was alarmed by the lack of attention paid to individualized care and its affects on children. She therefore decided to introduce a simple methodology into shelters throughout Brazil to recover these children’s life stories through regular, in depth interactions with the shelters’ childcare workers and volunteers.

Claudia founded the Instituto Fazendo História (IFH—Making History Institute) in 2005, in order to demonstrate to children housed in shelters that their personal stories are valuable and that they are allowed to, and encourage to dream. She is thus helping them create new life paths, as autonomous and self-confident citizens.

Through the introduction of this simple approach to individualized childcare, Claudia is transforming the way shelter staff and volunteers interact with children and adolescents. In addition, she is organizing shelters into a network of learning practitioners who now understand the need to consider the personal and family histories of the kids they work with, as a way to improve their daily interactions with them, but most importantly, to help them develop as active citizens. 

In 2009 alone, the IFH worked with 65 shelters, attending to the needs of more than 1,400 children (directly and indirectly), training approximately 785 childcare professionals and engaging more than 400 long-term volunteers. Claudia began her work in the state of Sao Paulo and has begun to spread to Maranhão, Paraná, Pará, and Ceará. She has already systematized her methodology in order to replicate it in other regions of Brazil. Claudia has also begun to work with the justice system to introduce the children’s stories in their court cases, as a sensible way to give them a voice.




THE PROBLEM

The Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA—Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente)—passed into law in 1990 by the National Congress of Brazil—radically reformed the legal status of children and redefined the responsibilities of the state and civil society. For years prior to that, legislation relating to orphans and children whose families were not able to take care of them was weak and poorly implemented. The ECA however strove to ensure that shelters would remain temporary housing situations for kids, only to be used as a last resort. Children and adolescents are typically sent to these shelters when they are neglected by their parents (often for economic reasons), if they suffer from abuse in their families, or if they are orphans and do not have a legal tutor. The main mandate of these shelters is to strenghten and maintain affective bonds of children with their families, as well as facilitate their timely return home as soon as the situation gets better.
 
Despite the advances made through this statute, the situation of the more than 50,000 children and adolescents housed in shelters in Brazil remains precarious, thus jeopardizing the credibility of these institutions. Because the shelters’ staff are often poorly trained and do not have the systems in place to take care of such a large amount of children, those housed in the shelters are usually treated as a uniform population, with little regard for their individual personalities, needs and desires. The relationships between educators, volunteers, and the children are generally quite weak and it is not uncommon for staff not to know even the children’s names. In the case of volunteers, although they are driven by good intentions, they tend to get involved for short periods of time, and have little direction during their interactions with kids.

These establishments therefore become a place where children and adolescents feel abandoned or marginalized by society and their families, and where many lose their identities and stop dreaming. By ignoring their life stories—to avoid pain—they are done a great disservice. A study undertaken by the Institute of Applied Economic Research in 2005 found that the lack of individualized care in shelters results in affective deficiencies, difficulties establishing bonds with others, a low self-esteem, delayed psychomotor development, and a lack of familiarity with family routines. Such institutional childcare, if experienced during a long period of time, not only violates children’s rights, but also causes permanent trauma in children who do not feel they belong anywhere, and face serious difficulties adapting to other situations, and reintegrating into their families and communities.

This reintegration is made further complicated by the inability of the justice system to take children’s opinions and desires into account. Although by law, the ECA requires that children’s voices be heard in their own court cases, few respectful avenues exist for them to do so. This serves as a confirmation for many children and adolescents that their personal stories are not valued. Judges are ill equipped to deal delicately with such issues and often make decisions, such as separating siblings, that are not only illegal but also inconsiderate of the children’s actual needs.




THE STRATEGY

Claudia recognized these deep-seated issues as a result of her own experiences volunteering as a psychologist for a child shelter home. After piloting several approaches to respond to children’s developmental needs outside these institutions, she realized that in order to resolve some of these important challenges she would have to gently transform the shelters from the inside out. She understood that her initiative would need to involve working side by side with its childcare workers, educators, and volunteers in order to change the nature of their relationships and behaviors with children and adolescents.

Claudia therefore developed a methodology to help the children acknowledge and share their stories, acknowledging the past but focusing on the future. The approach became a tool not only to help children develop a sense of belonging and self-awareness, but also to identify and resolve some of the problems, emotional and otherwise, that occur during their stays in shelters. Her flagship program is called Fazendo Minha História (Building My Own Story).

Whenever she enters an institution with this program, Claudia first establishes a partnership with them and trains their staff and volunteers on three core aspects of the program: 1) stimulating reading by using strategically chosen books as a way to begin the conversation 2) working with children on developing their life stories, recognizing the challenges the exercise may incur and 3) acknowledging the importance of establishing strong bonds with the children in order to accomplish their mission as individuals and institutions. The volunteers are always supervised by the shelter’s staff members who in turn receive advice and support from IFH. Claudia’s staff organizes regular meetings with their partners in order to discuss particular challenges that arise throughout the process and to monitor whether the program’s guiding principles become an intricate part of daily life in the shelters.

Once the childcare workers and volunteers are trained, IFH works with them to build a library in their shelters. Each library contains approximately 150 children and youth books appropriate for every age group and every type of reading ability. Most importantly, the books are chosen specifically due to their focus on life stories and because they reflect the diversity of realities lived by children and adolescents housed in shelters. The goal is to create an environment where the childrens’ imaginations are stimulated on a daily basis, and to set the tone for conversations about their own lives and desires.

Each child and adolescent is then paired up with the same pscyhologist, childcare worker or volunteer educator on a weekly basis for a period of approximately one year (unless the child leaves the institution earlier). The adults are prepared to read with them and listen to them in order to record the children’s personal life stories together. During those encounters, they also participate in playful activities, using drawings, pictures, and collages that are then incorporated in the child’s album. By the end of the program, the children and youth come away with their own personal story books. In the medium term, Claudia plans to digitalize the collection of books. The exercise and the end product demonstrate to the children that their versions of the story are valuable, and are in fact a priority. The children thus become the protagonists of their own narratives. In 2009 alone, the Fazendo Minha História program worked with more than 700 children and youth, involving and training approximately 400 shelther staff and 230 volunteers.

Claudia has also adapted the methodology for babies, to guarantee that their personal stories are also recorded and to ensure the creation of strong bonds between them and their caregivers. The program began in 2009 and has already engaged 37 babies, 14 teenage mothers and more than 50 childcare workers.

Recognizing that many children need much more than recording their stories, the institute also began a program called Com Tato (With Tact), offering pscyhological support to those who need it. The volunteer psychotherapists are themselves supported by people that have navigated the child shelter home world for many years. In 2009, 34 psychologists saw 88 patients from 18 different partner shelters.

From the very beginning, it was obvious to Claudia that the problem faced by children in shelter homes was not simply a result of their life stories, but also intricately related with the way the shelters themselves were managed. She therefore created the Perspectives Program to work directly with institutional childcare technicians, managers, coordinators and educators. She aims to transform the institutional culture of these establishments and their workers by stimulating greater reflection around their missions and daily practices. Thus far, this program has engaged workers from 12 different partner institutions, including more than 200 participants on a regular basis. It has also delivered three workshops to more than 100 professionals on these topics. Most interestingly, the program has catalyzed the creation of a learning network of practitioners by establishing partnerships that did not previously exist between childcare institutions.

The IFH has already worked with 25 shelters in the state of Sao Paulo, five each in Maranhão, Paraíba, and Ceará and one in Foz de Iguacú. Its activities are financed through individual, corporate and government donations. Claudia has for example received funding from the Municipal Fund for Children and Adolescent Rights (FUMCAD), the Municipal Council of Children and Adolescents, as well as from the Ministry of Culture, which financed the establishments of many shelter libraries. She aims to strengthen and formalize these relationships in order to spread her approach nationally. Claudia’s organization is also sustained through charging fees for services delivered to shelters that are usually financed through patnerships with corporations and citizen organizations (COs). To supplement these two sources of funding, the institute also organizes regular fundraising events and counts on the help of numerous pro bono partners.

Claudia has worked alongside a number of other COs dedicated to the well-being of children and adolescents to craft a law that would improve certain sections of the Child and Adolescent Statute relating to the topic of adoption. The law passed in 2009 and specifies, among other things, that children cannot stay for more than two years in shelters before being adopted or reintegrated in their families. It also reiterates the need to give children and adolescents a voice in their own court cases. Claudia understands that this law may facilitate the spread of her approach to a number of jurisdictions throughout Brazil. She has already demonstrated in a few court cases that the children’s story books are a great tool for judges to assess their versions of the facts in a sensible manner. A number of her programs have already been financed by the Court of Justice and the Child and Youth Court in the North East of Brazil. Claudia has her eyes set on establishing a partnership with Brazil’s National Association of Judges, recognizing that if they buy-in to the approach, she will be able to spread it much more easily throughout the country.




THE PERSON

Claudia studied psychology out of a desire to understand people’s personal stories and help them make sense of them. Five years after graduating as a psychologist, Claudia was working in one of Sao Paulo’s most respected clinics, attending to more than 20 patients. However, she did not find the experience fulfilling and began looking for other initiatives to get involved with.

Claudia therefore began participating in the Semear Project by volunteering in shelter homes and immediately developed a strong interest in the challenges faced by the children, the workers and the institutions as a whole. At first, she brought the children to her clinic but quickly realized that a real and impactful tranformation could only happen from within. However, it is only after working as the corporate social responsibility coordinator for a small business that she began truly tackling this issue. Claudia developed a volunteer project with pregnant teenagers living in shelters to help them record their life stories. The project was not successful, but she did not give up. Quite to the contrary, Claudia realized that she had to immerse herself in the idea if she were to make it a success.

Claudia left her job and created the IFH. One year later, she created the methodology using literature to help children engage with, recognize and record their own stories. The first project was implemented in 2002 in eight shelters, engaging more than 100 volunteers. The methodology proved successful, but Claudia knew it still needed fine-tuning.

Claudia is tirelessly working to protect children and adolescent rights in the context of shelter homes for children, using their personal stories to ensure strong family and affective bonds. She recognizes that she has a lot of work ahead that will positively impact children, childcare workers and educators, as well as the justice system.




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