Lisandra Fariñas Acosta
THERE are no walls, no bars, no perimeter guards. No criminal records, because those who arrive here come as young people who need help, counseling and guidance to become upstanding individuals. There is no mistreatment; there are no children’s prisons in Cuba.
This November 20, the 24th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, the José Martí Comprehensive Development School opened its doors to the national and international press. The institution is one of 12 centers of its kind in the country providing comprehensive attention to minors who have participated in activities which the law defines as criminal, or who exhibit serious behavioral disorders.
Interaction proceeded slowly. As trust was established, distant, evasive looks gave way to more openness. The students conversed and laughed with reporters, told us their dreams. I learned that Talía hopes to become a manicurist. Eduardo likes agriculture and reads Martí avidly.
In the therapy room, some students played checkers or Pachisi to reduce tension. A girl smiled when I proposed that her friend and partner in the game, Julio, make her a cake for her 15th birthday, since he enjoys baking and was learning the trade at the school.
NO DISTINCTIONS ARE MADE, LOVE IS KEY
Developing the good in every soul, based on the love shared between teachers and students, is the mission of the José Martí Comprehensive Development School (EFI). Efforts are directed toward students’ strengths, promoting their development by meeting their specific educational needs, and thus facilitating reintegration into society.
The center serves the provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque, as well as the Isle of Youth special municipality. Most students are between the ages of 14 and 16 and approximately 70% have been involved in property crimes, such as aggravated burglary and robbery, with the remainder implicated in physical attacks, in their majority resulting in injuries.
Major Isabel González Benítez, psychologist and school principal, explained to the press that attention to minors with behavioral problems is governed by Decree-Law 64/82, and provided by the Ministry of Education in conjunction with the Interior Ministry’s Directorate for Minors.
González indicated that Centers for Evaluation, Analysis and Guidance for Minors (CEAOM), conduct analyses of an adolescent’s personality, the nature of his or her behavioral disorder and educational needs, to develop plans for correction and redevelopment.
"This is precisely how elements which favor change are identified and steps to be taken are recommended accordingly. These centers have multi-disciplinary teams composed of psychologists, educators and legal experts,” she said.
Individualized guidance is afforded families during the process of evaluation via parents’ classes and group or family therapy, she reported, and is considered one of the most important functions of the centers. The evaluation process includes all relevant persons and addresses all issues and conditions which affect minors, including significant facts surrounding the antisocial behavior and activities which the law defines as criminal.
Among the measures recommended by the CEAOM is the treatment regimen which the minor will follow. This can be afforded in the adolescents’ own community, described as ‘external,’ or ‘internally’ within a residential center.
It is precisely the Comprehensive Development Schools where minors receive the latter, which includes differentiated, individualized educational strategies for each student, implemented by a team of psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, health care professionals and educators.
Major Isabel González Benítez explained that also participating in the effort along with the teachers are student organizations and parent councils, which express concerns and offer suggestions.
Colonel Idais Borges Barrios, head of the Interior Ministry’s Directorate for Minors, reported that, generally, “About three professionals work directly with each child.”
During their stay at an EFI, students move through three different stages of comprehensive treatment, based on the evolution of their conduct – an initial adaptation stage, then a development and consolidation phase, and finally the exit-transition period.
González explained that, to advance to the next stage, students must transform and stabilize their conduct; adhere to the schools disciplinary expectations; complete their studies; and participate in educational activities and others which prepare them to reenter the community.
Establishing healthy social relations with other students and the staff, as well as maintaining a positive attitude toward school work and learning a trade, are also required.
“During their time at the school, students receive instruction in all content subjects as stipulated by the Ministry of Education for secondary and vocational schooling. We have a multi-purpose workshop where they can learn gastronomy, mechanics, welding, tile work, shoe repair, hairdressing and barbering. In the case of the latter, they can even be certified to assume this activity once they leave the institution,” the principal explained.
The school also offers vocational guidance and development by way of ‘interest circles.’ González mentioned clubs which address environmental issues, like the Friends of the Bay, along with those devoted to chess, health, painting, dog training, firefighting, dance with the Lizt Alfonso Company and traditional dancing lead by middle school arts instructors. The students have the opportunity to participate in recreation, sports, cultural and patriotic activities, she said. Many students who spoke with the visiting reporters recalled their excursion to Villa Clara, to Che’s Memorial and a fun trip to Lenin Park. Others talked about the recently held collective birthday celebration, emphasizing that no one’s special day is overlooked. Students also enjoy vacations, planned according to requirements of the three program stages.
Our visit to the EFI coincided with one being made by students from the University of Havana’s Communications Department, who have been working at seven EFI for a number of years now, implementing a project entitled Escaramujo, devoted this year to gender violence.
Communications professor Rodolfo Romero explained that the project seeks to promote communication and participation skills based on a popular education model, to support the development of students, educators and officers working with minors.
"The majority are attracted by the audio-visuals. They are anxious to tell their stories and that of their families, and the difference between this school and a prison, since many of their parents have been incarcerated."
A SOCIAL NECESSITY
All human beings need understanding. In a word, love, and in the first place the love which comes from the heart of a family. Behind every evasive look, in the majority of cases, lies an unaffectionate or dysfunctional family, a story of distancing which has scarred the lives of these children.
That is why, as a matter of principle, the family must be included in the minor's educational treatment, from the moment he or she enters the institution.
"We investigate the causes of the inappropriate behavior. Many times we find that parents do not have the tools they need to control and educate their children.
"We attempt to prepare the child to reenter this environment. This a transitional school, where the minor stays about a year, although that can be extended a little longer. In every community there is a minors' officer charged with providing follow-up to the family, and others in the environment where the child lives, for a year, as part of the educational strategy. When the child leaves the school, he or she is not alone. We have achieved a 75% reinsertion rate," González Benítez said.
Nationally, more than 80% of minors in the program successfully return to their communities, according to Colonel Borges Barrios.
"The EFI may extend treatment for a minor until 18 years of age. There are cases in which, as exceptions, Decree-Law 64/82 establishes that we may continue our efforts until that age. Options exist to cease treatment, and if necessary extend it. We have the authority from the legal point of view for interventions for a period of up to five years, in a distinct, differentiated treatment center within the penitentiary system. It has been more than five years since this measure has been implemented in the country. We always attempt [to ensure] that these schools meet educational needs and allow for reinsertion," Borges Barrios added.
Lieutenant Colonel Alfredo Aradas, head of the Directorate's evaluation and supervision body, said that in a few, isolated cases, the law stipulates that those families which hinder the normal development of a child, failing to provide protection, care and sufficient food, may lose parental rights. In this event, the state takes responsibility for care of the child, providing everything needed in children's homes.
The community is not always fully prepared to reintegrate a minor who has been involved in inappropriate activity, and work must be done to encourage support of returning youth. The community must give them the chance to show that they have changed and understand that they are Cuban children, worthy of the same rights and opportunities available to all children in the country.
A reporter visiting the José Martía EFI asked if any students wished to stay on at the school. The principal responded that, yes, it had occurred
One more reason to emphasize that the family must be the foundation and the example. Educating parents, educating children who will be the parents of tomorrow, continues to be critical.
The Cuban strategy of social, pedagogical and psychological intervention to address the problematic behavior of minors - who are, as all human beings, capable of self-improvement – demonstrates how much can be accomplished when work is guided by love, without distinctions or stigmas.
“We learn from them, as they learn from us. They are diamonds in the rough,” González said.
Therapist-educator Francisco Sosa Tamayo, who is responsible for teaching Cuban History, Social Communication and basic agricultural skills within the trades program, described the school’s key to success with students.
“It is our responsibility to find the good in their hearts, make up for lost time. Love is all they need.” •
System of attention to minors with behavioral disorders
Attention provided these children is guided by Decree-Law 64/82.
Ministry of Education
· Behavior Schools
· Diagnostic and Guidance Centers (CDO)
· Ministerial Council on Attention to Minors
Ministry of the Interior
· Prevention Activities for Minors
· Protection Centers for Girls, Boys and Adolescents (CPNNA)
· Ministerial Council on Attention to Minors
· Centers for Evaluation, Analysis and Guidance for Minors (CEAOM)
· Comprehensive Development Schools (EFI).