The millions of children living on the streets in cities and slums across the world often are regarded as delinquents and a menace, even while social workers and charities struggle to throw them a lifeline.
Experts say the task is complicated by drugs and alcohol, and made worse by the fact that even seasoned drug treatment professionals may not know what to do for young kids.
Now countries in South Asia and South America are being helped by a program that is training hundreds of professionals on how to treat children with substance abuse disorders.
The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs worked with the United Nations and academic researchers, then teamed with the Colombo Plan, an Asia-Pacific development organization, to produce the curriculum.
Social workers, psychologists, street educators and others from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Paraguay have undergone the training, soon to be offered in Argentina.
Dealing with kids requires special skills
“We teach the professionals how to talk to kids,” said Hendrée Jones, a University of North Carolina professor. “So many countries see children’s substance use disorders as a moral or criminal justice issue. It’s a medical issue that needs medical treatment.”
The State Department invited drug treatment leaders from both regions to Washington to learn from each other and dramatize the plight of both street children and those exposed to drugs by addicted parents.
Shaista Naz, who manages a Dost Foundation residential treatment facility in Peshawar, Pakistan, that reserves 135 beds for children, said, “Dealing with kids requires special skills and expertise. It’s not the same as treating adults.”
Children may start sniffing glue and inhalants, then smoke marijuana and move on to harder drugs — cheap opium in Asia, cocaine in South America, Jones said.
The need for counselors is great and the supply low
“Nobody wants to work with kids,” said pediatrician María Carmen Sánchez de Molina of Paraguay’s Center for Control of Addictions in Asunción. While the problem is greatest among teenagers, “they start at 5 with marijuana, then crack.”
Trained in 2013, she said, “I learned how to explore the way they think, the way they concentrate.” Her tools include teaching children how to meditate.
“Children who grow up on the streets have no boundaries. They explode when angry. We teach them how to control emotions,” Jones said. Counselors also engage street children in games, which “offers them an opportunity to have a childhood.”
Marilu Posada, president of the Instituto Mundo Libre in Lima, Peru, said, “These children sometimes are like shadows on the pavement who many see but do not care about.”