A couple of months ago I met a group of care-leavers from Italy. Actually they were in Italy, but not all of them were Italians. The group included a Romanian young man, a girl from Bangladesh, a girl from Tunisia and several others. Two Italians were also part of the group.
For those who are not familiar with the child protection jargon, a care-leaver can be defined as an adult who spent time in care as a child. Usually this care is approved by the state through a court order or on a voluntary basis. It can range from a few months to as long as one’s whole childhood (18 years). Such care could be in foster care, residential care (mainly children’s homes), approved schools, industrial schools, institutions with a punitive element, etc.
They were all part of AGEVOLANDO (in English an approximate translation could be ‘FACILITATING’), a non-governmental organization aimed at offering support to care-leavers, by helping them find appropriate accommodation, by building a network of inclusive companies where care-leavers can find jobs, by encouraging and supporting them in their education, by building independent life skills (ex. understanding the bureaucratic procedures, etc.). To make it clear: this is an organization run by care-leavers for care-leavers with the help of other care-leavers and the wider community. This is why I could only be impressed with this organization. Among so many projects which are based on non-realistic projections, wannabe realities, overnight-made experts chasing the next pot of cash, fake know-how and the latest so-called ‘promising practices’, Agevolando’s projects are remarkable, as they are rooted in personal experiences, led by people who understand all too well what it means to be a care-leaver and inspired by real-life needs.
Each member of the group has a fascinating personal story. Federico, the president and the founding member of the organization, grew up with his grandmother and he was put in residential care when he was 10 years old. On AGEVOLANDO’s website he confesses that ‘when I came out at 19, I was still very fragile and vulnerable and I had a very hard time to find my way’. But luckily he continued his studies, he started psychotherapy and now he conducts a fulfilling life, while trying to help those who are now leaving the child protection services. He explained me that in Italy they started the de-institutionalization process in the 1960s and they closed the last residential care unit in… 2006. It made me think about the prospective of deinstitutionalization in the ChildPact countries.
Jenny, who joined the organization in February 2011, is a nice, delicate young lady who lived with her parents until she was 14. At that age, her parents could not take care of her any longer so she started to live in a supervised apartment. Jenny is now studying educational sciences and she is the translator of the group. She learned her English during an Erasmus scholarship that allowed her to spend time in Great Britain. Jenny is a role-model for the Agevolando beneficiaries. A truly graceful and generous person.
The girl from Bangladesh, around 16, used to live with her parents until recently, when her abusive father wanted her to bend to cultural and religious rules that she did not feel like her own any longer. She was supposed to marry a man chosen by the family, silently witness her father’s abusive behaviors towards her mother and the rest of the family, and be part of a family where the father had all decision-making rights while the other members could only bear the brunt of unwise choices. The girl from Tunisia used to live with her parents too, but then the parents divorced. The father re-married in France, while her mother is trying to make a living in Sicily. She once visited her father in France but decided that it is better for her to be on her own so she came back to Italy where she leaves in a ‘social apartment’ with other girls like herself.
But the one who touched me most (maybe because a longer conversation allowed me to become aware of a fuller picture) was the teenager from Romania. As a little boy he used to live with his mother and his other siblings (5 or 6), until he was put in a home-like care unit. He was somehow proud of the skills he acquired in this care unit, saying that all the children there were well educated, so that when he arrived in Italy he could count on his superior skills when compared with other boys, in particular the ‘Gypsies’ he met there. ‘I am not a Gypsy, my mother is one, but I had a good education, I am polite, I know how to talk with people, I am clean and I take care of myself’.
And indeed, his clothes were fashionable and perfectly clean, his nails were elegantly clipped, his eyebrows were neatly plucked, his stylish hair was cut in a way to reveal his long-lashed eyes and sensual lips. Everything in his physical appearance was testifying his deep care for his body and for his looks. At 16 he had arrived in Italy with some male ‘friends’ and the Police found him on the streets and placed him with child protection services. He met Agevolando, but after a while he decided to decline the ‘safe heaven’ offered by this organization and go and live with a male ‘friend’, somebody a bit older who used to have a wife and family. Agevolando could do little to help: he was now 18. The ‘friend’ is now growing colder and tells him he should be on his own. Other male ‘friends’ took him to Switzerland and France and some others give him gifts and money so that he can lead an apparently normal life. He started to have such ‘friends’ when he was still a little boy living in family-type home supervised by the child protection authorities. He says his male ‘friends’ are kind to him and help him in various ways: they take him on trips, they help him pursue his passion for dancing (due to their ‘help’ he can go out every week-end), they introduce him to other male ‘friends’. He would like to find a job, but none of his ‘friends’ could help him with that, although some of them promised him to.
The story of these male ‘friends’ is striking me. How comes that the only one in the group having such ‘friends’ comes from an Eastern European country? 100.000 children lived in the Romanian orphanages in 1989 and Romania made huge efforts to change this system. In 2014 we celebrate 25 years of from the fall of communism. Ceaușescu’s children are now adults, but how many of them started initiatives like Agevolando? How come they are invisible, as a group, in the Romanian public life? We started off with 100.000, but many more joined their ranks in these last 25 years. How many are they all in all? 150.000? 200.000? What’s this silence around such a big social group? Is it serving some purposes? What about other countries in the region? How many ‘friends’ do our child protection systems have?
PS: A few friends read this piece and they were completely puzzled? Why am I not saying the obvious: that these people are pedophiles? Why am I not using harsh words to criticize the situation? Why am I suggesting that these people are even helpful to these children? I guess I wanted to tell this story for the kid’s perspective. The pedophiles never told him they are pedophiles and nobody was there to warn him about the dangers of having such ‘friends’. The kid just knows that these are probably the only people who ‘helped’ him, the only ones who provided something concretely needed for his physical survival after the life in institutions. Isn’t this ironic? And isn’t it ironic that we are puzzled when the buzzwords are not used?
 Deinstitutionalisation is the process of reforming child care systems and closing down orphanages and children’s institutions, finding new placements for children currently resident and setting up replacement services to support vulnerable families in non institutional ways.
 ChildPact is the Regional Coalition for Child Protection in the Wider Black Sea Area. ChildPact represents 600 organisations who work with more than 500.000 vulnerable children in countries such as Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia. More about ChildPact: www.childpact.org.