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Children from Central America Fleeing Violence and Poverty: POC’s Dr. J. Mark Eddy’s Work is Relevant to Current Humanitarian Situation

The U.S. is currently facing what’s being called an “urgent humanitarian situation”. More than 57,000 children from Central America have been taken into federal custody as they attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since last October. These children are coming alone – some to reunite with their parents or close relatives who have already safely made it to the U.S. and others just to flee difficult realities in their own countries. Largely, these children are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In Washington State, more than 200 unaccompanied children who attempted to immigrate are currently in federal custody, and most are being placed in federally contracted homes and facilities. The majority will likely be placed with relatives, and their status in this country may not be resolved for years. While there will likely be little impact on the local child welfare system, there may be an impact on the schools – but it’s hard to predict how everything will unfold.

Their reasons for coming are many. The most publicized reasons are to escape gang violence and some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Sadly, many of the homicide victims and perpetrators are young people themselves, so it’s no surprise why these children and their families want to leave before it’s too late.

Less acknowledged, but key to this issue, many parents and their children want to escape the extreme poverty throughout the region for the hope of a better life in the U.S. Other relevant factors include the lingering and multiple effects of the wars that ravaged the region during the 1980’s and the many troubling impacts of the illegal drug trade.

Regardless of what our state and federal governments do next, one thing is for sure: many families and children in these countries are in dire need.

POC’s director of research, Dr. J. Mark Eddy, has been entrenched in this issue long before it became the popular media’s hot topic. For many years, Dr. Eddy worked with colleagues in Oregon developing and testing family-based prevention programs that target youth problem behaviors and youth positive adjustment, specifically for immigrant Latino families.

During the past two years, Dr. Eddy has been working with GIZ, an international development corporation that works around the world on behalf of the German government, as well as regional, federal, and local governmental and non-governmental collaborators in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The team is developing a community-level, culturally competent violence prevention program called PREVENIR (“to prevent”) for youth in Central America.

“I’ve visited Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador multiple times in the past few years, and after each visit, I return feeling even more strongly of the potential for a multiple component intervention program like PREVENIR that is based within communities,” said Dr. Eddy.

“Preventing the emergence of violent behavior among these children and their engagement in deviant peer groups is one way to make a real and lasting impact in the region. Since young children are most often found at home and school, the PREVENIR team is working with teachers, administrators, caregivers and parents to develop and strengthen their skills in guiding and connecting with the children in their care. Ultimately, we hope this work will put children on track to a prosocial, rather than antisocial, life.”

The program includes components designed to address risk and protective factors for youth violence at multiple levels – within the community, the school, the family and among peers. The program also builds knowledge and skills among youth participants. Along with a team of staff and faculty from the University of Oregon’s Center for Equity Promotion, as well as other faculty from various research centers at both the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, Dr. Eddy provides support to the Central American developers of the school and family-based components, collectively known as Miles de Manos (“Thousands of Hands”).

Miles de Manos is grounded in the principles of relevant evidence-based programs in the U.S., but is also influenced by practice-based wisdom from each of the countries. Currently, Miles de Manos is being pilot tested within the elementary schools in both rural and urban areas within Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. If proven to be effective in Central America, if could also be adapted to be used with immigrant families and their children in Washington State.

Other PREVENIR teams are working with leaders in both the public and private sectors within municipalities to form teams that initiate and direct local activities related to youth violence prevention, as well as with local police on community policing strategies and job training opportunities for youth.

“Change will require the concerted efforts of each adult in the community, at every level of the community, doing whatever he or she can do to support positive youth development and limit avenues to delinquency and crime.”

If you are interested in learning more about PREVENIR or Dr. Eddy’s research, please email us atinfo@partnersforourchildren.org.