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Violence is not fate

Founded in 2008 by psychologist Neusa Sauaia, the NGO Núcleo Espiral restores faith in human beings, one of the most affected in children and adolescents victims of abuse.

The center provides assistance to vulnerable children and adolescents victims of violence. What is the focus?

Neusa Sauaia Our mission is to develop resilience skills through socio-educational work, which prepares children for life, with autonomy, so that they can break the cycle of violence. We use the "Espiral" method, which I developed in my master's thesis, with interventions that activate protective factors and allow us to reduce the damage caused by physical and emotional abuse. The method improves personal performance and helps the child to transform.

Considering that a large part of child abuse is by adults, especially within the family itself, isn't it too much to expect that a child will be able to self-defend from an adult?

NS I agree, it's too much to expect. In reality, children expect the adult to be the one who protects them, who cares for them and won't act violently. It is very difficult for a child to be able to protect herself from the adult who should care for her. What we do is a pedagogy of resilience, we try to activate aspects such as autonomy, self-esteem, social competence, self-perception, and faith in the future, which are greatly harmed by violence. In the beginning, we ask children how they imagine themselves five years from now. Many respond that they will be imprisoned, or dead. The future, for them, is very hopeless. At the end of the work, they feel more important, more optimistic, with an attitude of I can do it, of protagonism. This changes their perspective. At the same time, we give families lectures that offer theoretical and/or emotional support to adults. This allows transforming individuals into more respectful and respected citizens, so violence doesn't take place.

What does it mean to say that the "trauma is in the body"?

NS It means that the trauma is mostly physiological. It gets imprinted on a part of the brain, the limbic system, which is not cortical—that is, not rational, not intellectual, and you can't reach it through speech. It's no use just talking to a child about the violence she suffered because often she doesn't even know how to explain it in words. Of course, if she is able to express herself, it is very important to have someone who listens to her. But the body keeps everything, and the trauma manifests itself through pain, tension, physiological difficulties, etc. We do not approach the abuse itself, we work with the child who suffered the violence. It is a work of re-signification, of remaking the sensations of the body through the interaction with a welcoming, respectful adult, warm-hearted adult. Thus, the child can transform the relationship with the body, can discover that it is not just to be beaten, but that it is linked to life, to pleasure, and not fear, pain, and displeasure. From this positive experience with other adults, that child who was abused, neglected, mistreated, manages to restore positive bonds, security, trust, and faith in human beings.

Could you give an example of how the therapeutic intervention is done?

NS We don't separate them by the type of abuse they suffered, but by age and stage of development. All activities begin with the body. For example, we propose to create a group of characters, which gives the child the possibility to invent an identity that can be very useful symbolically. The kids make the rules for this group, what they can and can't do, and they know exactly what they want. At that moment, they stop being victims and become protagonists. They chose that it would be a group of animals, and each one would be an animal. A girl who was very visually impaired, for example, decided to be an owl. Look at the symbolism of this! There is another activity where we tie them, and they have to move their little legs until they let go of the rope. Of course, we don't tighten too much, just so they can get loose. They love this activity, they ask to be tied up again.

And what does this activity enable?

NS Think of the somatic experience of fight, flight, or freezing in the face of danger. By untying themselves, this activity allows them to make the escape that they were unable to do in situations of violence. They complete the action that was once prevented from being completed. It is a process of strengthening socio-emotional skills, which minimizes the effects of abuse and prevents it from reproducing.

How is violence prevention work with children's and adolescents' families who take part in the project?

NS We consider that all those who have direct or indirect contact with children are caregivers. They are all important to the physical, cognitive and emotional development of children — families, technicians, cooks and employees in general. Everyone undergoes training before interacting with children. In the case of families, we focus on violence prevention. We work with fathers and mothers to identify violent behaviour, to provide support and information about the child's developmental stages, for example. They need to understand their responsibility as a father, as a mother, because not assuming that is also a form of violence. Once they are aware of the damage that violence causes, they have a choice.

What are the criteria for knowing that the child has improved? Is an outcome evaluation carried out?

NS We monitor results with graphs of all indexes. The answers to the same drawings they made at the beginning, for example: instead of answering that in five years they will be imprisoned, or dead, they say that they will be studying, making friends. We have a team that works directly with children, and another with adults. For the children, we asked for the human drawing, we worked with modelling clay and questionnaires to identify violence. We asked them to draw their neighbourhood and point out which places are dangerous and which are safe. They say the bar is dangerous because there are drunks and the school and church, for example, are safe. They learn to identify risk, and this is very informative for them. What changes most is autonomy and social competence. In the beginning, the children hit each other, bully each other, and at the end of the work, the coexistence is far more harmonious, more respectful.

We give adults a questionnaire on what they understand as violence. Many do not know that yelling at their children, or calling them stupid, is a form of violence that can be very harmful. Some results are parents with less violent attitudes than before, with more awareness, discrimination and a greater level of responsibility for the child's development. We lecture on the stages of development, about what to expect from each stage, that a four-year-old is very different from a ten-year-old, and that's the adult's responsibility to protect them.

Speaking of a cycle of violence, it is common to hear that abused children reproduce violence. How do you see it?

NS To say that the person is reproducing the violence they suffered is an oversimplification. We all have a dark side. Violence works within us, activating this side, and this "daemon" goes around abusing people. The person is actually doing what was activated within them because they don't know how to do it differently. Our work is precisely to awaken transforming protagonists of individual and collective stories. KS

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