Fighting poverty, abuse among Cape Verdean children

Dave Nadelman | 9/12/2012, 11:35 a.m.

With Eastern Massachusetts serving as the home to the largest Cape Verdean community in the United States, Cape Verdean Americans must play a leadership role — if not a direct aid role — in helping to serve a youth population that is highly vulnerable to poverty and abuse.

Of Cape Verde’s approximately 191,000 children, nearly one-third live in poverty and 7,600 are orphans, while many more remain at high risk for abuse or neglect. The rate of poverty and abuse is staggering and those in the community here, along with their friends and neighbors, cannot turn a blind eye to this alarming situation.

When I arrived in Cape Verde as a Peace Corp volunteer in 2005, I was overwhelmed with the kindness and generosity of the people. I quickly fell in love with the country and immersed myself in its culture. But as I began working directly with Cape Verdean children, I witnessed situations that were profoundly moving and sometimes heartbreaking.

My first assignment was at a shelter run by the Institute of Cape Verdean Children and Adolescents (ICCA), a government agency in charge of protecting child welfare. The first child I saw come through the door was covered with electrical burn marks. His father, an electrician and an alcoholic, had used frayed lamp wires to shock his tiny frame.

This horrible act was a prelude to the many other cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment I encountered over the next two years. In Cape Verde, the cycle of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and high rates of adult emigration leave youth, particularly girls, at a high risk.

To provide stability and support, ICCA and programs like it operate shelters across some of Cape Verde’s islands, offering residential, day and after-school programs. However, there simply aren’t enough resources to meet the vast needs of Cape Verde’s children.

One of the many urgent gaps to fill is counseling and mental health services. There is only one psychologist specifically working with abused children across the four Northern islands of the country, while the incidence of child sexual abuse and other types of trauma remain very high.

More than one in five Cape Verdean women have experienced physical violence by age 15.

In a UNICEF study of 482 children, 65 percent admitted to having a friend who had been sexually abused.

These surprising statistics call for a new approach. Massachusetts-based Justice Resource Institute (JRI) has begun working directly with ICCA, the Cape Verde Ministry of Youth, and the Cape Verdean government, and has created the Cape Verde Children’s Coalition.

The new group will work on expanding housing for children and developing new programs and services to strengthen ICCA’s existing efforts in providing expanded service for young girls and women who have suffered sexual and physical abuse.

The planning is underway for a new state-of-the-art residential program. The facility will be the first in the country to include trauma-informed programming to help the girls with the healing process as well as intensive academic and emotional support services.