Whose child is this? Meeting the needs of street children

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Article Social Justice
"Banning" Mexico City's street kids only moves their plight from sight.

If you have ever visited Mexico City you may have enjoyed their antics as part of the federal district's colorful backdrop. Maybe you can spot them edging out from the corner of your vacation photos: the late-night Chiclets salesmen, the street jugglers and clowns, the grinning, cajoling panhandlers.

They are Mexico City's street children, tolerated­­, even subtly promoted as part of the city's charm.

Their day lives entertaining or huckstering on the streets certainly seem charming enough. It's the night lives of these often abandoned and forgotten kids that can get a little less pleasantly cinematic. Stalked by hunger and filth and the worst kind of adult predators, huffing gasoline or paint to dull the pain of their so-called childhoods and stiff-arm the hunger that pursues them, these kids are living more Mad Max than Tom Sawyer.

For the kids of Mexico City, at least, their days on the streets may be numbered. There has been growing pressure from federal authorities to do something-finally-about the nation's street children. A new law proposes a "ban" on street children, requiring municipal officials to find a safe refuge via social service agencies for these children or face fines of $420 per child left unattended. It's a dramatic proposal aimed at resolving one of the developing world's most persistent and troubling social phenomena.

Depending on how they are defined-some kids maintain loose connections to parents and families in households, some have been completely abandoned to the streets-the world is crowded with as many as 150 million street children. Fleeing abusive parents or institutions, orphaned by drugs, poverty, war, or AIDS, the children endure a feral, desperate, and sometimes short existence. In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the plight of street children has festered in plain sight for decades. In the United States an estimated 1.3 million kids live on our cities' streets.

Instead of aid and protection from the adult world that swirls around them, these children can anticipate only hostility-or much worse-from the grown-up world because of the kinds of things they do to survive. The begging and thievery that is their daily bread and butter make them constant petty irritants to local shopkeepers and police-"society's garbage," as one police officer in the Philippines said.

In some countries there is clear evidence that police vigilante squads have taken to cleaning up their municipal streets by liquidating the source of the problem, these unprotected children. The summary execution of children in Guatemala, Brazil, the Philippines, and other nations has been documented by Human Rights Watch.

Mexican authorities say they are now ready to respond to the plight of these abandoned children, but it's unclear if their solution represents a sincere commitment to rebuilding childhoods or a familiar effort to simply, sometimes ruthlessly, remove the problem from view.

 The saddest aspect of the deplorable state of these children is that it does not have to be this way. It would not take much to respond appropriately to the aching need of the world's abandoned children, not with the authoritative municipal sweep they've already experienced, but with the parental embrace they deserve.

That has been part of the promise of the UN's Millennium Challenge Project to cut world poverty in half by 2015, a commitment the United States has joined along with every industrial power on earth. We are already falling far behind on those goals, however.

A fraction of what the world's assembly of nations almost casually commits to arms production would be enough to save every one of these kids, to offer them clothing and cleanliness, safety and shelter, adequate nutrition.

We freely do as much for our own children. Can we find the political will to recover these childhoods lost, to accept these children as our own, and save them once and for all from the streets?

This article appeared in the August 2009 of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No 8, page 46).