DOURADOS, Brazil (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a judge, Brazil’s Zaloar Murat Martins de Souza is used to making tough calls. More and more, he finds himself having to make one of the toughest of all - whether to separate a child from its family.
De Souza works in Dourados in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where large numbers of indigenous children are growing up in care, raising questions over who is best placed to look after vulnerable young people.
He said poverty was fuelling drug and alcohol abuse and violence among the tribal communities of Dourados, home to about 220,000 people, including 10,000 from Brazil’s indigenous minorities.
“The vast majority live in a state of misery. And this deprives the family,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his office as he stared at a pile of lawsuits.
“Alcohol and drugs are the two great evils of our indigenous villages.”
According to local social worker Ana Liege Charao Dias Borges, the number of indigenous children in care has doubled to 38 in the past four years.
Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency that represents indigenous people’s interests, has raised concerns about children being wrongly removed from their parents.
In a report last year, FUNAI said it had received complaints of children being taken from their families “without notice, motivation or time for farewells”.
Once in children’s homes, they are forced to adapt to a new and unknown way of life that can make reintegration into their community difficult, the report said.
“(They) forget customs, their mother tongue ... taking children from their tribes deprives them of a collective future.”
Charao Dias Borges said more than half the children in shelters in Dourados were indigenous, up from a third two years ago. Overall, indigenous groups make up about 5 percent of the local population.
Among them is Ana, a Kaiowa Indian girl who was taken into care after she was raped at her home two years ago when she was just nine. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
At a children’s home in Dourados, Ana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation her mother regularly got drunk and left the house, leaving her and her younger sister alone.
“He hurt me ... He closed my mouth and I could not breathe,” she said of her ordeal, sitting on a bed surrounded by dolls in a dimly lit room.
Court documents list her father as the main suspect.
Ana now lives at the Santa Rita home, where children removed from their parents stay until a judge decides whether they can eventually be sent back to their families, or should be referred to adoption authorities.
It includes a school and houses where the children live with full-time adult supervision, surrounded by toys. For many, life there is better than at home.
Under Brazilian law, children should only stay for a maximum of 18 months. But FUNAI said some remain for years - and the longer they stay, the harder it is for them to go home.
Monica Roberta Marin de Medeiros, director of the Santa Rita shelter, said rising levels of violence and abuse were a major obstacle to sending them home.
Under national law, indigenous children can only be adopted by non-indigenous parents if all options have been exhausted within their own community, said de Medeiros.
Elida Oliveira, a Kaiowa Indian, said her son had been taken away from her just a week after she gave birth in 2015.
“They (health workers) called the guardianship council saying that they had to take the child because I wasn’t able to raise him,” she said, referring to a panel of experts who work on child protection issues.
Oliveira, who has five other children including a young baby who still lives with her, denied this, saying she had always been able to feed her family.
“I want my son back. I’m alive, not dead,” said the 39-year-old outside her home in an informal indigenous settlement in Dourados.
Judge de Souza, who ruled on the original case, said he would decide whether to send the child back to its mother or for adoption.
“We’ll have to see how their ties are because it’s been three years (since they were separated),” he said.
Diogenes Cariaga, an anthropologist based in Dourados, said taking young children into care should always be “a last resort”.
“Indigenous people cannot be all profiled as agents of violence,” he said.
Instead, he said, authorities should focus on addressing the root causes of child abuse and neglect - such as poverty, addiction and unsanitary conditions.
When Ana entered the shelter in 2016, the first thing she remembers is that “all girls were clean and I was dirty”.
Yet she was eager to return home and said her mother regularly visits her and no longer gets drunk.
Others prefer their new life, among them 10-year-old Carolina - also not her real name - who has been living in the children’s home since 2016 when community leaders and health workers reported she was neglected by her mother.
“Here is better because there is a bed to sleep, food to eat and we sleep warm. I felt cold there (at home),” she said.
Reporting by Karla Mendes, Editing by Zoe Tabary and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.