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Rio's Cops Round Up Crack-Addicted Slum Kids

Controversy in Brazil over forced detention and treatment for children of the "cracolandias."

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"Collected"—from the wrong side
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By Will Godfrey

08/05/11

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Rio de Janeiro is running an experimental crack program of police "collections," forcibly taking addicts off the streets and sending them for treatment. According to the LA Times, over a thousand people have been rounded up since May—including hundreds of children. Adults can leave if they want—and often do—but children are confined to treatment shelters for at least three months until authorities decide to release them. The action is focused on Rio's "cracolandias": extensive slums that house many users of crack or "oxi," a cheaper, deadlier cocaine derivative that's produced using gasoline. Apart from the human suffering involved, they represent an image problem for the South American nation, which will host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Crack came relatively late to Brazil, but has boomed since 2006: authorities estimate that over 600,000 people are now addicted. Rio's social services are assisted by police in catching often-homeless users in "very dangerous and sometimes hostile" communities. Critics say holding minors without their—or their families'—consent is unconstitutional. Judge Siro Darlan wrote that children "should be respected as citizens and not collected like human trash." But the city's secretary for social services Rodrigo Bethlem supports the program: "I think what I would want done if it were my child."  Forcing people into treatment is illegal elsewhere in Brazil, but Rio's local government has successfully argued that crack-addicted minors lack the capacity to give or refuse consent. Once released, cleaned-up kids are placed with a responsible relative—if there is one—or a foster family. "We're still not exactly sure what will happen to the children after they finish," admits social worker Daphne Braga. Debate continues to pit civil liberties against child welfare.

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