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OpEd: Hear the Children in the Streets

Friday, April 09, 2004

Art Linkletter is a longtime television broadcaster
Eric Thurman is CEO of Geneva Global Inc. of Radnor

It's a little-known problem rapidly becoming a global crisis. Of the 1 billion impoverished children living in cities worldwide, 140 million are now classified as "street children." That's twice the number of all U.S. children between 7 and 18. The numbers climb daily, a phenomenon without precedent in history, presenting us, the human family, with enormous challenges that require innovative and urgent solutions.

Forty percent live completely in the streets, without homes, parents or responsible adult figures in their lives. They include orphans; children separated from family by war; castoffs from the sex trade; and abandoned youngsters or runaways who have decided to cut family ties for good.

Other street children have occasional family contact but are abused or neglected, living most of the time on the street. Still others have regular family contact, returning home at night after spending most of their waking hours trying to help support their families through begging, menial labor, or theft. They are the working children of the poorest urban families, living in the harshest conditions and unable to attend school.

Poverty is the urban child's greatest enemy. One-third of the world's 3 billion urban children live in severe economic deprivation, according to UN-Habitat. Of these, 140 million are badly malnourished, underemployed or unemployed, living in dangerous and unsafe conditions, failing to receive education, suffering from ill-health physically, mentally and emotionally. Extreme poverty and breakdown of the family make a direct pathway to the street.

War and AIDS aggravate their plight. UNAIDS estimates that by 2010, HIV/AIDS will create 25 million orphans, more than double the number who already have lost parents. UNICEF adds that 12 million children were uprooted by armed conflict in the 1990s, as many as 1 million of them becoming orphans.

All these vulnerable children face violence, sexual exploitation, abject neglect, chemical addiction, and violations of their human rights. Some governments jail or even kill them. According to Human Rights Watch, "governments treat them as a blight to be eradicated, rather than as children to be nurtured and protected."

Living on the streets takes a fearful toll. Illness and malnutrition weaken resistance to diseases like pneumonia. Drug abuse and early sexual activity often lead to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Institutionalization is not the answer. Orphanages and asylums may provide food and shelter, but have miserable records of rehabilitating or reintegrating children back into society.

Research by Geneva Global Inc. shows that street children, in particular, need programs custom-designed for problems specific to their communities. Successful intervention for these children requires creative approaches and large numbers of local volunteers.

In South Africa, for instance, leaders from several churches realized that orphans and abused children were fleeing their smaller villages for the streets of larger cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Today a program rescues these children before they leave their villages. More than 600 receive meals each day, and three temporary emergency shelters are open to assist any children willing to stay. Citizens help the children reestablish stable homes with relatives or find them longterm foster care.

Consider Medellín, Colombia, a city infamous as one of the top drug centers of the world. It is a violent city, averaging 15 homicides a day. Most victims are males between 15 and 24. Here soccer clubs are the creative answer for children at risk. Coaches establish longterm, nurturing relationships with the boys. In this program, each coach is also a trained social worker. Ten of them work fulltime to mentor each boy, helping hundreds steer clear of danger.

The need is different in Russia, where 140,000 children are abandoned each year by impoverished parents. When they become old enough to leave the orphanages, 40 percent turn to crime, another 40 percent become drug addicts, and 10 percent despair completely and commit suicide. Here again, improvement came from a custom-designed program. Three thousand orphanage staffers were trained in psychology and human relations, raising the quality of care for 20,000 children in the institutions. A modest grant to the project also reunited 800 children with their families or found them stable foster homes.

A common feature of these successful programs is that they were invented locally, each designed for the desperate children in a specific community. Techniques vary widely, but the goal is always the same: bond each child to a caring adult. George Bernard Shaw wrote that "the worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them." Street children need love, attention and meaningful relationships to transform a life of desperation into one of hope. The good news is that solutions do exist. What we need are the eyes and hearts to find them.

Art Linkletter, an orphan himself, is CEO of Los Angeles-based Linkletter Enterprises. The Geneva Global, Inc. site