Children at risk, an “invisible problem” in Barcelona

As part of our ethical and social commitments we, together with Proinfants, are financing a new project of emotional education which aims to help socially excluded children who live with violence, abandonment, bullying and abuse.


5 June 2019 |

We spoke to Juan Antonio Pons-Serés, the president of Proinfants, about the programme, about what’s happening in Barcelona that no one wants to see, and about how we can stop being indifferent and become a part of the solution.

What is Proinfants?

  • It’s an association legally constituted as an NGO; we’ve been working for 18 years collaborating with projects and programmes in Mumbai, Medellín, Dakar and Barcelona, that aim to rehabilitate socially excluded children. It’s a private entity formed by 160 families from Barcelona. It can currently support new projects thanks to businesses like Withfor, which have an ethical and social approach to dedicating part of their resources and profits to social projects.

How did the idea of this new emotional education project come about?

  • We have a great deal of experience outside Spain, we began in India with a project called “street children”, a problem that is paradoxically now being reported in Barcelona’s newspapers.

5 or 6 years ago we began to turn our attention to the local area. In Barcelona there are what are known as “invisible problems” or the 4th world, child-related problems that are seldom addressed because they are not wanted in the limelight, exposed for all to see.

Two years ago, Julie, Withfor’s founder, showed an interest in what we were doing in Barcelona and decided to collaborate in the creation and development of this new programme.

How does the programme work?

  • The programme takes place in the Horta district, in a centre that takes children from 7 to 14 years old with difficulties relating to nutrition, sanitation, education, lack of family support, lack of mentors, pre-addictions, activity deficit problems, dropping out of school, etc. The centre takes 120 socially excluded children and each case is handled with a preventative approach.
  • Group workshops and individual sessions are organised under the supervision of 10 practitioners and a psychologist to reach the root of the problems and offer general support for remedial education.
  • For the first time in Catalonia, family-related problems are being dealt with from a psychological viewpoint; adaptation (or failure to adapt), bullying, and violence inside or outside the family. The practitioners carry out the monitoring of each child, using one-on-one workshops in the most serious cases and those with the least integration. They interview the parents, and look for the roots of the psychological difficulties, always trying to work together with the families.

“Children never have problems; the problems are with their families”.

What problems do the practitioners and the psychologist encounter?

  • Absent parents; abandoned children being “looked after” by others, brothers, sisters or flatmates; children subjected to highly stressful situations; abuse. Sadly, this last year the number of violent situations has increased, and not just men against women, but also involving children themselves that end up being admitted to hospital following being beaten by their mother’s partner or older sibling. Not by the neighbour down the road, but by their own family. Several cases of extreme violence were not reported by the newspapers. It’s very difficult for a child to study in this environment.
  • The causes of all this are buried deep but they relate to the family; parents who don’t want their children or are unable to support them properly.

What kind of workshops do they run?

  • Educational support, fun activities, IT, and individual therapy sessions. The children spend the evening with the practitioners or the psychologist, and it is they who detect emotional or behavioural problems, or physical injuries and call the family to talk to them and establish or change some guidelines.

“A few weeks ago, one of the practitioners went to a child’s home, in the hills, at 11pm to find the child’s mother; but she was doing other things and the child was at home alone. No two cases are the same. But all are extremely complex”.

Why doesn’t anyone do anything if there are so many children in this situation?

  • Currently the public administration does not assign resources of any kind to these types of therapies as they are incapacitated with problems of pre-delinquency, delinquency and mental disorders. They aren’t looking for the causes.

The Government of Catalonia and local administration are concerned with the crimes, but not with the origins of these crimes. Placements in government centres, if there are already problems of drug addiction or violence, are attempts at correction that come too late. 

  • Individual treatments, which are those that really work to rehabilitate children, are very expensive for the public administration… And they don’t take notice because this is happening mainly in the poorer neighbourhoods of Barcelona where we don’t usually go: La Teixonera, Horta, Vall d’hebron…
  • Really, we’re not interested in criticising politicians or the media, we just want to make it known that the problem exists and that we can offer a solution. But for the time being, the public administration is not involved.

And are people or businesses helping?

  • There are groups within society that bother people, people know they are there but would rather ignore them. The MENAS (unaccompanied minors), for example, 70 children sleeping in the gardens of Montjuic, as you might expect to see in Mumbai or Medellín, or worse, because they end up excluded, in the streets, living in groups, and promptly called delinquents, thieves, but no one does anything to solve this problem.
  • There are tens of thousands of cases of children in exclusion, I’m not talking about hunger or poverty, I’m talking about problems relating to the family, lack of housing, and violence. It’s happening more than ever.

I work in the slums of Medellín and there’s not much difference in what happens there and what happens here. The difference is that there, there are a lot of volunteers involved and here there are few.

What progress or results has this new project in Horta achieved? 

  • We give children food when they arrive and we stimulate them so that they return. Because that is the key to the programme: continuity. When they come day after day, do you notice improvements in their behaviour?
  • The practitioners tell us of their evolution, cases of children who were being beaten at home and had dropped out of school, that have now returned to school and come to the centre every day.

As well as continuity, what would you say are the keys to the programme?

  • Integration, because we’re working with the context of their families and schools.  Support, because a child receives stability from a secure environment. And fundamentally, prevention, because it’s taking place at the time when change is possible, in childhood. On the other hand, there are children who end up in gangs, on the street, as addicts or delinquents. And the children say, “so young, 18 years old, and already picking pockets” THIS KID WAS NOT BORN PICKING POCKETS. You have to look at it from another perspective, at 6 years old he wasn’t picking pockets… Perhaps his parents were, and as a result of being put down, ignored and not having anyone who understood him, he began imitating their worst behaviour.

“But they were not born delinquents. They learned how to be delinquents, and they learned very well…”

  • It’s very difficult to reintegrate into society after having experienced the easiness of these “alternative ways”. It’s very difficult for them to look for work, or to study… Action is needed from childhood to break the chain.

What do you mean by “break the chain”?

  • When you have a successful case, you are breaking the chain and changing the path they choose to take. By educating a child, you are passing on values and saving the next generation. It’s a long-term investment. These rehabilitated children will have families, and perhaps they will even become teachers.
  • We’ve only been working here in Barcelona for 2 years, but in other countries where we’ve been for longer, we’ve seen how the chain can be broken. These children are now mothers and fathers that know what they want for their children, they know how to support their emotional development and give them a proper education.

“It’s an imperceptible value that it is enormously important. You break the cycle. You save a child and all the following generations”.

Are there any plans to expand this project to other neighbourhoods?

  • We’d like to do more but we don’t have the resources and there aren’t many businesses with a social conscience. They don’t realise that helping could be beneficial for them, for their business communication, for their employees, for society in general, and for their reputation as a business. There is very LITTLE CONSCIENCE. There´s a lot of profit-seeking and very little involvement with local social problems. And in this respect, I think that Withfor is really advanced and pioneering because it concerns itself with not only finding accommodation for the people on its payroll but also with resolving problems for people with no resources. There is a real shortage of businesses like Withfor, who are really involved in their surroundings.

Can people or businesses donate, participate or volunteer for these programmes?

  • The practitioners in our centres are qualified professionals, they’re social workers with university degrees. There are volunteers, but it’s very important that people who want to get involved, do so regularly, every evening from 5pm to 8pm. They need to have training, experience, and enthusiasm. Do they need to be prepared because the children attending are children with problems? It’s not just painting, drawing and ceramic workshops.  It requires an eye for detail to discover these children’s problems: why they’ve dropped out of school, or why they’ve failed everything (and there are brilliant children!) To become a volunteer on this project you need vocation, preparation and time.
  • As for businesses wanting to finance projects, they would be helping us change the lives of many children. We ask all such businesses to visit our website or our office in Paseo San Juan 95, and register as donors, partners or collaborating businesses. It may seem like a grain of sand, but between all of us, we can build an entire beach. 

Thank you to Juan, to Proinfants, and to the entire team that works day after day helping children. We are proud to be a part of this project that wants fewer children on the street, fewer hungry children, fewer children suffering from violence or abandonment, and more children in school. If you have a business, or simply find that this article has touched your heart, we implore you to help us to help them. Are you interested?

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