By Evelyn Rupert and José Granados
December 4, 2018
TEGUCIGALPA — When Rosa Romero was asked to bring her two young grandsons before the government agency that oversees juvenile offenders, she feared her family would be pulled apart.
“I thought, ‘Dear God they’re going to take them away from me,’” she recalls. “I started praying silently and crying. But then someone patted me on the back and told me not to worry, that everything would be OK.”
At the meeting, the family was instructed by a judge to go to Casa Alianza, a nonprofit organization that supports juvenile rehabilitation and reentry into society. When they arrived, Romero sat nervously in the waiting room while her grandsons Axel and Jordan spoke with Casa Alianza staff in another room.
“I was praying and praying, ‘Please don’t take them,’” she says. “Then I was asked to come in, and they told me that we were going to do a one-year program at Casa Alianza. ‘But they’re not taking my boys away?’ I asked. They said, ‘No, they’re going to come here for therapy and training on Saturdays. They’re good kids,’ they told me. ‘They just made a mistake.’”
Casa Alianza works with youth exiting the justice system or who have been recommended for programming as an alternative to detention. It’s a resource hub where youth can come and receive services like counseling and job training. And for youth struggling with homelessness, it’s also a place to stay, with dormitories, a dining hall and 24/7 support for dozens of young men and women.
Axel, 17, Jordan, 14, and their grandmother have been working with Casa Alianza since January, welcoming instructors and counselors into their home and visiting the organization’s facility in Tegucigalpa on Saturdays for workshops on topics like drugs, sex education and the importance of family.
Casa Alianza receives support from the Proponte Más secondary violence prevention project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency of International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International in five of Honduras’ most violent areas.
“Before, nothing really mattered to me. But now, I’ve learned how to value things, value time with my family,” says Axel. “I see that the instructors care for us, they’re like a family. They don’t just tell us to do our homework, they worry about us, they’re involved, they come visit us at home, they ask us how we are, they bring us what we need. It’s been a great experience.”
As the brothers participate in their workshops, Romero is also taking parenting classes aimed at helping her create a home environment in which Axel and Jordan can thrive.
The goal is to ensure that the two teenagers have the tools and support they need to become successful adults – and keep them from returning to the justice system.
Finding Alternatives to Detention
In Honduras, where a gang ecosystem draws children and youth into engaging with crime and violence, minors are often both victims and perpetrators. From January to June 2018, nearly 600 minors were processed through the juvenile justice system – some 200 of them convicted.
But increasingly, the Honduran justice system is turning away from sentencing minors to juvenile detention facilities – using so-called “alternative measures,” which can include probation, community service, or working with a program like Casa Alianza.
“We know that detention centers are not the most suitable for the reintegration, re-education and rehabilitation of youth,” says Belkin Díaz, a judge in the juvenile court system. “At that age, sometimes the youth have already gone through very difficult experiences, and you have to put yourself in their shoes to understand the situation in their communities.”
Díaz is a member of the Proponte Más Juvenile Justice Technical Committee, a group of judges, prosecutors, juvenile defense attorneys, nonprofit organizations and civil society groups working to reduce the number of youth in detention and strengthen alternative measures.
The committee is already seeing success in encouraging the juvenile justice system to take a closer look at alternative measures.
This year is the first time in several years that the juvenile detention population in Honduras decreased, from about 550 in 2017 to 475 in 2018. At the same time, the number of juvenile cases culminating in alternative measures has risen – from 371 in 2015 to 625 in 2018, according to the Institute for the Care of Child Offenders (INAMI in Spanish), a government agency created in 2016 that oversees juvenile justice.
Proponte Más is contributing to a referral system through INAMI to direct youth to services and resources like Casa Alianza. The pilot referral system has allowed Casa Alianza to assist 81 youth through INAMI referrals.
And the Juvenile Justice Technical Committee is set to take on a more formal role in policymaking as it transforms into the Advisory Board for INAMI.
“I know that without this committee, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Claudia Pereira, a committee member and public defender working in the juvenile court system. “Before the committee, we all worked separately – defense on one side, prosecution on the other. But with the committee, we found each other and we all started to think more about the youth.”
Spurring System-wide Change
As Pereira and Díaz talk about the committee’s work in the main juvenile court building in Tegucigalpa, families anxiously wait for their appointments with clerks, lawyers and judges several floors below.
Even though they sit on opposite sides of the bench, Pereira and Díaz both say the hardest part of their job is seeing children and youth who are often victims of crime and violence become perpetrators themselves and have to face a justice system they often don’t understand.
“We have to raise awareness among others in the justice system that we can’t just look at the infraction that brought the kid here, we also have to look at the situation that led him or her to become an offender,” says Pereira. “To give youth an opportunity to keep their freedom and not just look at the crime with which they’re charged, but also the personal circumstances. That’s the challenge we face every day.”
As the Juvenile Justice Technical Committee spearheads the use of alternative justice measures, some of its members and others working in the juvenile justice sector are expanding their expertise and knowledge through a master’s degree program developed by Proponte Más with the University of Málaga.
Proponte Más has awarded 25 scholarships to justice operators, government officials and staff from Casa Alianza to pursue a master’s in Child Protection and Juvenile Justice.
Both Díaz and Pereira are enrolled in the program and say it’s given them a better understanding of children’s social and psychological development and how their actions are affected by the context in which they live.
“That’s been important for me, to understand how much youth are influenced by the situation in which they’ve grown up,” says Pereira. “I’ve learned in the master’s program how that child arrived here, learned to see that maybe that child didn’t have the same opportunities that others have had.”
A Family Moving Forward
Back at Casa Alianza, Axel and Jordan grab a seat at a lunch table with other kids as their grandmother Rosa talks warmly with their instructor. Despite their three-year age gap, the brothers sound more like twins. They both aim to graduate from high school, dedicate themselves to missionary work for a few years and then study engineering at a university.
And both say that their family has become stronger through their work with Casa Alianza.
“My family has seen a big change. We always communicated, but not as much as we should have. But now, with everything the instructors have taught us, we’ve become more united and we talk about everything,” says Axel. “They’ve helped us enjoy spending time as a family and to take care of the things we have.”
Casa Alianza Family Integration Instructor Nolvia Aguilar, who has been the family’s primary instructor since their first day at Casa Alianza, says when Axel and Jordan arrived, they were timid, reserved and not very engaged in the workshops and classes. But over the past several months, she has seen the family flourish.
“What keeps us going is the growth of the family, to be able to help them out of that hole they find themselves in,” she says. “They have changed a lot, and for me it’s rewarding to see as their instructor … These are the stories that stay with us. Now they’re a family that’s sharp, active, excited, enthusiastic.”
Díaz says that with the coordinated support of Proponte Más, justice operators, government officials and nonprofit organizations, many more youth can find the same success as Axel and Jordan and avoid time in detention – which has the potential to reinforce gang engagement and a cycle of violence.
“We hope that INAMI’s work and increased alternative measures will benefit the boys and girls of our country,” she says. “We hope that we can help, even if it’s just this one grain of sand, because between all of us, we can make a change for children.”