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Fighting poverty, abuse among Cape Verdean children

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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.

Our aim is to facilitate career readiness in order to help the girls build job skills in order to become more financially stable and therefore less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

In the city of Mindelo, a shelter for boys is being renovated and will provide housing, nourishing food, a safe environment, and the oversight of caring adults. Programming will include sports and other recreational activities, as well as access to health care and mental health services.

But in order for these programs to be successful, we need our partners on the ground in Cape Verde. That’s why we’re building the capacity of local caregivers to ensure that the services for children remain high-quality and sustainable.

Cape Verdean Americans have a role to play as well. Enmeshed in Cape Verdean culture is the theme of never forgetting where you came from. Those who have achieved success in the Cape Verdean communities in Dorchester, Brockton, Taunton, and New Bedford can support Cape Verdean children by supporting the efforts of the Cape Verde Children’s Coalition.

Cape Verdean children are our lifeline. Through stable, nurturing environments, we have the opportunity to not only positively impact the lives of today’s Cape Verdean children, but the ability to build a prosperous and better future for the entire country.

David Nadelman is the Project Manager of The Cape Verde Project at Justice Resource Institute.