Sean Callahan, chief operating officer for Catholic Relief Services, recently traveled to Central America to meet with government officials, members of marginalized communities and Church partners to discuss real solutions to the realities children face.
“I not only heard of, but witnessed the increasing desperation of families due to inescapable violence for many children, degrading poverty and family separation,” Callahan said. “In the long run, we must help to provide security and opportunity in their home communities to stem this migration.”
As part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual conference, Callahan participated on the panel Unaccompanied Central American Minors: Long-Term Solutions. He presented five fixes to help youth in the region:
Revitalize rural agriculture: Rural Central American economies have struggled to compete in the globalized marketplace. Public-private partnerships, investments in technology and training can help small farmers significantly increase their incomes and stability. CRS’ ACORDAR program in Nicaragua has more than doubled incomes for more than 7,000 coffee farmers by helping them form 107 cooperatives, and invest in technology and business know-how. With coffee production at its lowest levels in a century owing to coffee leaf rust, farmers need ACORDAR and other investments to provide for their families and stay on their land.
Invest in youth: Nearly half the population in Central America is under 20 years old. Many teenagers never finish 9th grade and are unemployed. But there is hope. The YouthBuilders program has reached 5,000 youth in just 4 years; 80% of the graduates returned to school, found jobs or started microenterprises. Such programs should be scaled up and replicated throughout Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Protect children: The child protection systems in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are weak. Schools must be established as safe zones, and their quality must be increased. Law enforcement personnel should be better paid and better trained. Robust child welfare services, including foster care, family reunification and family reintegration services must be established. Increased interdiction in Mexico only shifts the problem; the United States must help protect children there and in Central America.
Strengthen families: Families are being torn apart by violence, poverty and migration. They have few support systems. Programs that help families communicate effectively, manage conflict without violence, and bond can reduce the incidence of domestic violence and help prevent children from eventually looking to gang life for answers. Community centers, day care, and other family support programs can keep families together and provide opportunity.
Interrupt the violence: Repressive policies don’t work. It is possible, however, to stop violence by working with youth in gangs, and incarcerated youth and their families. This will help reduce repeat offenses and help gang-involved youth begin to lead healthy and productive lives. As Father Greg Boyle of Los Angeles says, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
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