St Bernadette’s Children's Home

St Bernadette's Children's Centre in Lima, Peru. - Photo: Fr Pat Raleigh SSCSt Bernadette's Children's Centre in Lima, Peru. - Photo: Fr Pat Raleigh SSC

A little shack of reed matting, barely held up by some wooden stakes and covered with old rags, was battling against the sun and wind at the foot of a hill in the shanty town of Ventanilla. Inside, though, a much more unjust and abusive struggle was being waged. Maruja (8 years) was witnessing how her sister Kelly (10 years) was being mistreated by their stepfather, a man whom the mother had brought into the family home to fill the emotional and material void left after the father had abandoned them. It was their mother who arrived at that precise moment to put an end to her children’s torment.

Through our work in the Children’s Centre, we often come across children who are alone and sad, who keep to themselves and look as if they are carrying the worries of the world on their little shoulders. And to all intents and purposes, they are. It is in this way that we have detected many cases of children being mistreated, at school and home. And with nobody to talk to about their problem, they feel all the more isolated and hopeless. But through our psychology department, we can help them open up and share the difficulties they are experiencing. At times though, this is not enough, and often we have felt frustrated as there is very little help available from the local authorities for these children, who to a large extent must suffer in silence.

We have found over the years in trying to help children who are living in abusive situations, especially through our “Child Protection Desk”, that everything is tipped in favour of the offender. Whether it is in relation to the police, judicial, or medical authorities, the system takes so long to process cases that often the child has to remain in the same abusive situation for up to a year or more. Only now, the situation is worse as very often the child is blamed for bringing this trouble on the family, and hence, suffers further deterioration in physical, mental and social health.

Motivated by this plight, St Bernadette’s Children’s Home was created. It offers temporary residential care and an opportunity to heal the wounds of abuse through psychological intervention. We try to ensure that the children have as normal a time as possible, by continuing to go to the same school as before, doing their homework, having family visits and time for play etc. They have small chores to do, whether it be cleaning or helping to look after the animals, which has proven to be very therapeutic. Because of their experiences, which have caused them many different behavioural problems, all are expected to participate in the weekly individual and group therapy sessions.

 

Children working together on a jigsaw puzzle. - Photo: Fr Tony ConeyChildren working together on a jigsaw puzzle. - Photo: Fr Tony Coney

The experience of Maruja and her sister Kelly left them traumatised. Maruja had become very aggressive, throwing tantrums and shouting, while looking to be embraced by adult men. She felt she was worthless, rejected by everybody, and tried continually to draw attention to herself. Her sister Kelly, no longer the same little girl with the mischievous smile, became distrustful, tight-lipped and passive to her surroundings. She had lost the motivation for any activity at home, in school, or in the playground, and said that she “... no longer wanted to live”.

They spent almost a year and a half with us, over which time they were able to deal with their difficulties, Kelly being a little slower than her younger sister Maruja in opening up in trust. Nevertheless, Kelly was able to write on leaving the Home, “On this day I am leaving the Home and going to my own home. I will never forget you because you have been a family to me and have shared my emotions, joyful and sad. How I wish that you will never forget me.”

From the very start, we realised the importance of also working with the parents of the children or those who were going to be the guardians when the children leave us. For what is the point in working with the child if the child then has to go back into the same situation and lose everything gained through their stay with us? So, it is a prerequisite for any child coming to us that the child’s parent/s or guardians must also commit to therapy with the psychologists, individually and in groups, and to removing the aggressor from the family home. In this way, they too will be able to prepare themselves better for the return of their children, and to avoid repeating what happened before. We put a lot of emphasis on self-esteem and recognising our own weaknesses and strengths. This means learning to respect ourselves. As many come from broken families and tragic backgrounds, only by learning to love and value themselves will they be able to love and value their children and hear what they have to say.

St Bernadette’s Children’s Home is the only institution of its kind in Peru. As a result, it also receives cases from the judicial system from all parts of Lima. We are only treating the tip of the iceberg, but what we are doing is very important to many children and families who have lost all hope of help and recovery. Now there is hope.

The gratitude that we all feel can be best expressed in the words of Dolores, mother of another one of our guests, Lisbeth: “I was feeling so alone in the middle of this problem; justice was so slow and distant. I did not know what to do with my little daughter to protect her and cure her of her depression, her nightmares, of her refusing to eat, of all the damage that had been inflicted upon her. It was the Home that appeared like a divine blessing; I am so grateful.” 

Columban Fr Tony Coney lives and works in Peru.

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