Joint Protective Shelters for Children and Adolescents and their Mothers as a Protective Care Alternative in Brazil. 

By Patrick James Reason, founder and director of the NGO Associação Beneficente Encontro com Deus and National Secretary of the Brazilian Movement for the Rights of Children and Adolescents to live in Family and Community.

  1. Brief Description

This article presents the joint protection method of care for vulnerable and at risk children and adolescents together with their mothers, implemented in Curitiba in Southern Brazil for over twenty years.  Similar in practice to shelters for women suffering domestic abuse, this method of care is an alternative care model where the child or adolescent is at the centre, and their right to both protective care, and the right to live with their mother when this is both beneficial and safe, is upheld.  This care method has been recognized nationally in Brazil as a viable and necessary model for care, within a range of alternative care options typically in large cities, reducing the damages of institutionalization and the separation of families, and as such is to be incorporated in the Brazilian National Plan for the Right of Children and Adolescents to live in Family and Community (Plano Nacional de Convivência Familiar e Comunitária de Crianças e Adolescentes) which is currently under revision.

  1. History and Background

The experience gained in a Brazilian orphanage in the late 1990’s brought to light two conflicting observations: the first was the alarming prevalence of violence suffered by children and adolescents in the family and community, as victims of physical and psychological aggression, sexual abuse, neglect, social vulnerability, among other risks.  The second was problems with the model of alternative care provided at the time, where, after due legal procedures and the proven confirmation of the situation of violence, children and adolescents were referred to orphanages and separated from their families and communities. Although this protective measure represented a necessary attempt to guarantee the protection of children and adolescents as victims of violence, at the same time, it produced additional suffering by the ensuing separation, forced removal from the family, and their daily life and known environment. The mother had not been able to impede the violence of risk to their children, and as such was seen as co-responsible for this risk, however in a reduced number of cases she was the primary aggressor and in a number of cases was also a victim.  The child or adolescent, or group of siblings as the ones taken away from their home, perceived their new placement as a form of punishment and rarely understood why they had been removed from their family. This perception led to many feelings including that of guilt, abandonment, rejection, insecurity, frustration and unfairness,and this typically generated anger and aggression and resulted in emotional traumas and disorders that required lengthy treatment and clinical therapy. Other outcomes included: low confidence, low self-worth, low self-esteem, low resilience, conformism, repetition of the cycle of violence, tendencies to abusive relationships, and other abusive and destructive behaviour including self-harm and even suicide.

Additionally to this, the situation was observed where children and adolescents remained living with the (typically male) aggressor for an extended amount of time and were exposed to the recurrence of violence, because their mothers did not want to go to the authorities for fear of their children being removed from them, institutionalized and handed over for adoption. The mothers saw themselves as the best protector of their children, but in practice this only increased the violence, as the aggressors realising this fragility and impunity maintained the behavior of abuse and aggression.

Once the children were in the orphanage a peculiar phenomenon occurred.  On visiting day the mother’s (or mother figures) of the children would visit their children.  This practice can be seen at other institutions across Brazil to this day, with mothers, aunts, sisters and girlfriends visiting prisons, police cells, and juvenile corrective facilities across the land.  They had not given up on their sons and still provide a fundamental but fragile link and pertainment.  It was in response to the commitment of these mothers and the necessity to provide protective care without separation that the first house for women and their children of the Associação Beneficente Encontro com Deus was founded in January of 2000.

The Brazilian Statute of the Child and Adolescent, Law No. 8069/1990 in Article 98, determines the applicability of measures for the full protection of children and adolescents, when their rights are violated, and in Articles 15, 17 and 18 deals with the the right to freedom, respect and dignity for children and adolescents, and  Article 19, ensures the right of children and adolescents to live in family and community.  All these rights are of equal weight in law, however in Brazilian alternative care practice the right to live in family and community in Article 19 has been treated as of lesser importance.  It is with this more holistic approach that joint shelters for children and adolescents with their mother present offer the necessary protection from violence, whilst reducing the impact to the child caused by the unnecessary separation from their mother. The family unit is removed from the situation of violence and risk in such a way that the protection is extended to the maintenance of ties. This maintenance as a protective care practice, promotes and mitigates the impacts of family distancing, makes them feel more secure and facilitates the possibility of working to strengthen the emotional bond between mother and child and has had success in extending this as a consequence to the extended family. It reduces the traumatic consequences and compromises to the psychosocial development of mothers and children, promotes their autonomy and facilitates their effective and expedient reintegration into society.

The Associação Beneficente Encontro com Deus, a non-profit organization, was founded in 2000 and the institution presently has three joint shelters for children, adolescents and their mothers.  Each shelter has a distinct characteristic, one being in an unpublished address to allow increased safety and anonymity, one in a district which allows ideal access to the job market and public services, and more recently a third shelter has been developed to offer a quarantine facility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since its foundation, it has housed approaching 1000 families.

  1. Care Objectives

Keeping children together with their mothers.

Considering the effects of institutionalization on children and adolescents separated from their families and particularly their mothers, with the trauma of the deprivation of affective bonds and the loss of family life and its effect on the healthy development of the child and adolescent, there is the need to offer protective care using all means possible to protect, but without compromising psychological, cognitive and social aspects leading to anxious, insecure, and emotionally unstable adults.  Considering the developmental reference that the mother is to the child and whom the child builds its first affective bonds, separation of the child and adolescent from the mother brings significant suffering. For REASON[1],  “Every child deserves to be with their own mother wherever possible”. The preservation of the family unit is fundamental and brings benefits to the child and adolescent as the affective bonds of motherhood reduce the impacts of protective care, minimizes emotional losses and their consequences, promotes security, trust and removes the feeling of abandonment. According to the guidelines of the literature New Directions for Institutional Care[2]:

“The close, affective, bonding relationship, within the family, promotes security for communication, intimacy to build meanings, the possibility of developing initiative, creativity and autonomy. Capacity for expression, spontaneity, sociability, all so necessary, originate in this first reference group. Joint Protective Care provides integral protection and promotes family empowerment, emancipation and reintegration beyond care”.  Convinced of the value of living in family the primary objective is to offer a stable, although temporary, environment to permit healthy and nurtured development and strengthening of ties.

  1. Profile of the Children, the Adolescents and their Mothers

The families in this service come from in the municipality of Curitiba and surrounds, with infrequent cases where families are referred to the service from distant destinations for protection from more serious risk.  A number of the families have migrated from cities in the interior of the state of Paraná, from other Brazilian states or as refugees from other countries, particularly Venezuela and Haiti. These families are made up of children with their mothers, both adult and teenagers, victims of domestic and territorial[3] violence, physical, psychological and sexual violence, homelessness, vulnerability and/or extreme need. There are no age limits for the children and adolescents or their mothers, although at some points it has not been suitable to shelter male teenagers above 16 years old.  In a few limited cases the grandmother with her grandchildren or a mother together with an adult sibling has been housed, particularly in cases where the adult is mentally disabled or dependent on the mother for basic needs.

The social context of families is diverse and includes very vulnerable families. Families usually come from a context of poverty and risk, with refugees leaving their countries with few provisions and coming to Brazil in search of work and shelter. The difficulty of finding work and a lack of social network leads refugee children and adolescents and mothers toward poverty and exploitation. In migrant families, the situations of violence as the principal motive for protection is lower than amongst Brazilian families, however it has been observed that although the original motive for protection may be vulnerability, almost all families have experience of domestic or territorial violence.

The situations of vulnerability due to psychological, physical and sexual violence experienced by children, adolescents and mothers come from contexts of suffering, hostile environments where they are unprotected and subject to rape, neglect, abuse, sexual exploitation, corporal punishment, physical torture, captivity, modern day slavery, forced labour and living with habitual addicts and criminality. With weakened or broken affective bonds, without positive references and without extended family support, they develop limited perspectives, little emotional control, an inability to identify violence, risks, abusive relationships and without coping mechanisms, and with limited resilience. Most of the mothers have been neglected and suffered sexual abuse at some point during their childhood and may replicate violent behaviour with their children. Some children, adolescents and mothers have behavioral disorders, learning attention deficit, emotional instability, insecurity and other specific needs.

Some mothers and adolescents have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, behavioral disorders and emotional instability, requiring clinical monitoring and medication.  Another situation observed is the extended family of the children, adolescents and mothers with involvement  in drug trafficking and the consumption of narcotic substances, seeking to illicitly support these addictions with an ensuing involvement in crime.  Although the protection provided is not a rehabilitation program in itself, many families are enrolled in out-patient drug rehabilitation programs, or have recently left drug rehab clinics, prison or similar situations where they were previously impeded from living with their children.

  1. Methodology

The joint shelters for children, adolescents and their mothers are organized in a process with three phases: Phase 1 – Reception, Phase 2 – Case Planning and Development and phase 3 – Preparation for Reintegration. These phases are guided by specific objectives and individual and collective diagnostic assessments, assessment of the methodological work and self-assessment. Therefore, the actions and measures adopted are subject to changes and resumed according to the needs of each family. Weekly meetings are held with the technical team[4], monthly meetings are held with the technical team and each family, as well as regular individual and collective group work.

  1. Reception Phase

This phase covers the reception of the family into the shelter by the carers[5] and technical team, with the verification of the family’s immediate needs and other information or specific demands in order to better serve them. The welcoming process is fundamental, because it starts the affective bonds that will favor trust and productive interaction with the family. These bonds must be based on respect, empathy, attention and care, in order to create a welcoming environment that must be maintained and cultivated at all times during the care process. The majority of children, adolescents and mothers have just left violent circumstances and the process of placement in protective care is typically traumatic in and of itself, so a welcoming reception period is the first step to help them feel better, restore security and trust.

Key steps to the Reception Phase include:

  1. a) The reception of the family by a designated carer: the family documentation and referral from the Protection Network[6] is verified. Next, the basic needs of the family will be met, including: bathing, food and clothing; verification of medication use, special food or other particularity of the family. The family receives a personal hygiene kit;
  2. b) The family will be accompanied to the room they will occupy, which will be properly equipped and sanitized, will also get to know the other facilities of the institution and will be introduced to families who are already in the shelter;
  3. c) In the case of a parturient mother, the mother will immediately be instructed on breastfeeding and care for the baby;
  4. d) The designated carer will do the explanatory reading for the mother or guardian of the family and provide the opportunity for her to read the guidelines and collective norms of the shelter;
  5. e) The social worker will check the family’s needs related to physical and mental health, and any potential situation of personal or collective risk and other issues necessary for immediate action.
  6. f) The social worker will check and digitize personal documents held by the family and the need to search for documents that are missing or waylaid.
  7. g) The social worker will carry out a background survey of the family with the Social Assistance Network of the place of origin and attempt contact with an extended family;
  8. h) Both the social worker and psychologist will collect the family history from the mother concurrently, so as to reduce the revictimization:
  9. i) The psychologist will provide a qualified listening session to promote the identification of feelings and behaviors related to the protection process and its impact. As well as this the professional will seek to understand the life history of each family and contribute to the production of ways of life considering the individuality of the family.
  10. j) The pedagogue and occupational therapist will make a diagnostic assessment to identify the immediate reality of the family, related to the needs and difficulties and skills related to education and work, including: if the children are registered or enrolled in day-care centers and regular or special schools, the mother’s schooling, identification of educational institutions and needs for school transfers and daycare. It will also be ascertained whether the mother is unemployed or working, her profession and type of employment relationship, whether temporary or self-employed; if she has other skills, professional experience and if she is interested in vocational courses.
  1. Planning and Development Phase

In this phase, specific actions will be planned and developed with the family aiming to meet the family’s needs and promote their effective social reintegration.  Difficulties and other situations identified in the reception phase will base this process leading to the production of an Individualized Family Action Plan (IFAP).   Monitoring, evaluation and further intervention and replanning can be carried out whenever necessary.

Key steps to Planning and Development include:

  1. a) The development of an Individualized Family Action Plan by the technical team together with family with specific Action Plans by technical area: coordination, social work, psychology, pedagogy, occupational therapy;
  2. b) The development of the IFAP will be undertaken with the purpose of promoting the strengthening of the interaction between family, social and community members, in addition to meeting the needs raised in Reception Phase;
  3. c) The diagnostic assessment of the applicability and effectiveness of the IFAP, must use reliable criteria, thorough observation, and use practices specific to each area.
  4. d) The technical team will undertake visits to extended families and their communities.
  5. e) The preparation of technical documents, opinions and reports that guide the process and respond to requests from Social Services and, in some cases the judicial system, need to be regularly updated to correctly reflect the evolution of the proposed actions.
  1.  Preparation for Reintegration Phase

The preparation for reintegration is developed by the technical team, carers, the family, their extended family and the local network in the territory. Based on information contained in the IFAP, and considering the actions taken during the whole care period and the limitations observed in this process, this phase is to prepare all stakeholders as thoroughly as possible to promote effective and permanent reintegration.

Keys steps in the Reintegration Phase include:

  1. a) Diagnostic assessment and self-assessment of actions developed with the family aiming at financial autonomy and family support;
  2. b) The insertion of the family in government benefit programs;
  3. c) The verification of effective protection, integration in local social service programs, adherence to physical and mental health referrals and education;
  4. d) The verification and the strengthening of affective bonds between mothers and children and their extended family and community;
  5. e) Mapping the potential of the territory, listing the possibilities, services and the way to access these spaces;
  6. f) Strengthening the autonomous role of the mothers to progressively take an active role in the search for solutions to the problems faced in all spheres of daily life, and encourage relationships and bonds, considering the need of each individual;
  7. g) The elaboration and forwarding of technical documents to local social services where the family will live;
  8. h) Preparation and submission of the IFAP to the Judiciary in judicialized cases. Referral or request for judicial authorization, for family or social reintegration on a case by case basis.
  9. i) Assist the family in setting up a new home, with furniture and appliances from the institution’s contacts where possible;
  10. j) The monitoring and assistance in the demands of education and of the social survive network;
  11. k) Carry out a preparatory visit to the home where the family will reside, to identify the conditions of that environment as a whole.
  1. Methodological Principles

The shelters utilize a number of methodological principles, while integrating the knowledge of social work, psychology, pedagogy, occupational therapy and specific legislation. These references guide the actions developed with the children, adolescents and their mothers.

  1. Active Listening

Affective listening must integrate individual and collective activities and daily interactions. Qualified listening and diagnosis guides the actions to be developed with the family and with each member of that family. For children, adolescents and mothers newly arrived at the shelter, the initial listening is fundamental because it represents the first contacts and the first impressions that they will have. It represents the opportunity for them to be heard, respected and to receive attention and credibility. Listening conveys security, confidence and a favorable opinion of the care process. It also promotes the expression of opinions, ideas, desires, and when the feedback does not report care or satisfaction, this feedback should be taken on board or justified, so as not to underestimate the understanding of the children, adolescents and mothers who want to be heard.

To accept and respect differences is to promote freedom of expression and expression of different forms of cultural languages. For Freire[7] “Accepting and respecting difference is one of those virtues without which listening cannot be done”. With this understanding, children, adolescents and mothers can express their feelings, emotional state, fear and desires and their realities and identify themselves.  For children and adolescents, different forms of expressions such as: oral, written, gestural and other expressions through drawing, painting, dance, dramatization, are more revealing and help them develop. As such, they can express themselves and be heard within the care process.

  1. Case Study

Case Study enables the sharing and analysis of information about the families, based on the difficulties, needs, facilities and skills, relationships, in problematic situations and in the actions proposed by the care service, aiming to promote conditions to optimize care with effectiveness and applicability. It also evaluates the actions carried out and directs changes in planning and interventions with the family and articulation with the wider care network. Case studies are carried out weekly in the technical meetings and count on the participation of the technical team and carers. Case studies provide professionals with the expansion of knowledge through the exchange of experiences and information and reflection which leads to a better understanding of the cases.

  1. Socialization and Relationship Building

Understanding sociability as a human capacity or ability to be sociable. It starts in childhood where the child lives and learns to live and is shaped by family life and extends throughout life. For RIZZO[8], some factors hinder sociability in childhood: aggressiveness, apathy, fear, stubbornness, shyness and hyperagitation, among others. These situations may be related to aspects of the child’s cognitive, motor and social development. The interests, values, feelings and games, affective domains of the child, undergo constant changes following their cognitive development and result from exchanges and affective bonds established with their families and other people who live with them. The situations provided with emotions and feelings experienced by the child influence the formation of his character.

The absence of affection or the lack of attention and indifference are harmful to human beings at any age and especially to children and adolescents and adults who are in emotionally fragile conditions. Contradictory to affectivity, they are apathetic demonstrations of those who do not care about them. SHINYASHIKI[9], explains: “Affective misery is as or more serious than material misery, because it takes away from human beings their condition of man pertaining to a group, because it leads man to isolation and to loneliness . ”

For children, as well as for us adults, it is very difficult to endure the indifference of significant people. This situation invites a painful feeling of rejection and inadequacy, which usually leads people to do something so as not to have to come into contact with that feeling.

  1. Conflict Mediation

In collective spaces individual differences are enhanced. The difficulties of living in community are due to different customs, interests, values, ideas and personalities. Low emotional stability, difficulties in social interactions and even the absence of basic attitudes of cooperation, empathy and respect stand out as the main conflict-generating aspects. An excess of inapplicable rules, impositions, the non-construction of collective agreements and non-compliance with the rules further aggravate this situation. Conflicts are inevitable, but beneficial, when recognized and managed and as an opportunity for change and learning.

Mediation for conflict resolution aims at practical and accessible solutions that meet the wishes of all involved and the structuring of a healthy collective environment. The follow-up guarantees the maintenance of the agreement or the possibility of other measures. For Morgado and Oliveira, conflict resolution mediation in a reconciling approach, provides opportunities for the parties involved, conditions to develop mutual respect, ease of communication and improvement of relations between the group, tolerance, empathy and understanding of reality. (2009, p. 48-49)

The conflict mediator must maintain impartiality, not manifest personal positions, analyze and act clearly, be objective and seek points of approximation. Conflict management involves finding out the facts, listening to the parties involved, talking together to clarify the perceptions and understanding of the parties’ needs, guidance and seeking collaborative solutions, with the conviction that the parties are committed to agreements made.

  1. Learning and Education

Learning is inserted in all moments and interactions in the care process. This learning aims to equip children, adolescents and mothers for life, including routine activities related to basic food hygiene, physical health, personal hygiene and the environment.  Activities that promote access to socio-cultural services, expansion of the development of capacities related to expression, communication, social interaction, thinking and to ethics. Also activities aimed at addressing essential needs for the development of identity and associated with basic needs, formal education and job training.

  1. Play

Play favors the development of attention, imitation, memory, imagination and socialization skills. In play, they experience concretely the elaboration and negotiation of rules of social integration, as well as the elaboration of a system of representation of the various feelings, situations of social interaction. Collective games and games with logical reasoning, movement and rhythm benefit children and adolescents, in all aspects of emotional and physical health and social relationships, in addition to developing global motor coordination, appropriation of concepts, spatio-temporal relations, laterality, peripheral vision and balance. They can also assist in a transversal way in the learning of language and mathematics. Through games and play, adolescents develop logical thinking, become more confident and participative. It can be understood that through play, older children and adolescents develop capacities to monitor and self-regulate their own cognitive processes, which has been learned in one situation and applied in another.

  1. Registers

Registers have the function of organizing, assembling, reassembling and telling the life story of each child, adolescent and mother, and contribute to the formation of their identities. Records have the function of memory, not as a mechanized bureaucracy, but as a special care of each life story: health, physical development, school progress, reports of behavior, the relationship with the family. CAVALCANTE ET AL.[10]  show from studies carried out in São Paulo, that adults sought personal and family information from where they received care during childhood and adolescence.

  1. Conclusion

The provision of Joint Protective Shelters for children, adolescents and their mothers as part of a broad portfolio of alternative care services has proven to be both relevant and necessary.  Whilst diminishing the negative effects of institutionalization and reducing the trauma of family separation, the service provides short term and intensive care to the smallest basic family unit.  It does not intend to substitute broader family and extended family and community living, but does offer necessary protection to children and adolescents together with their mothers, who may have not been able to prevent violence or risk, but typically are co-victims or reproducers of destructive behaviour, and as such offered risk to their children without intention to harm or perpetuate violence.


[1] Reason, Patrick J, Surpresas no Caminho de Amor, Editora Esperança, Curitiba-PR, 2006,  p.12

[2] NECA, Novos Rumos do Acolhimento Institucional, Instituto Camargo Corrêa, São Paulo – SP, 2010, p. 31

[3] Territorial Violence – especially in the urban communities in Brazilian cities, where drug trafficking, gang involvement and milicia activity is rife, there is a type of violence based on control of the territory.  The state has lost control of these territories and there is a parallel code with rules of conduct that involve executions and retribution, where death threats are commonplace.

[4] The technical team is a multidisciplinary team of professionals made up of a minimum of a coordinator, a social worker and a psychologist for every twenty people in care.  In the case of this institution the team consists of 2 coordinators , 2 auxiliary coordinators, 2 social workers, 2 psychologists, an occupational therapist and a pedagogue.

[5] Carers work a 12h/36h shift within the shelters and fulfil a multitude of roles in the day to day running of the shelters.  They act as a positive role model for the mothers, often covering for and undertaking child care when the mother is absent.  Their role is not to substitute the mother, however in a scenario where it is common for the mother’s not to have had maternal role models themselves, the carers have a significant role in guidance in all aspects of life including, child and baby care, domestic activities, hygiene, play, conflict resolution and first aid, among others.

[6] The protection network in Brazil is a generic term for all social and welfare services which among other roles are trained to identify and act upon situations of violence to children and adolescents. With formal procedures and a tracking system in place they inform the judiciary system and remain the reference with the community during the care process.

[7] Freire, Paulo; Pedagogia do Oprimido, Edições Afrontamento, Portugal, 1972, p. 136

[8]  Rizzo, Gilda, Educação Escolar, Editora Francisco Alves, 1983

[9] Shinyashiki, Roberto, A Carícia Essencial, Editora Gente, São Paulo, 1985 p.33

[10] CAVALCANTE ET AL, Aprendizagem individual, suporte organizacional e desempenho percebido, Docentes Universitários Educ. rev.,São Paulo, 2018, p.342

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