PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Max Fernando de Paiva Oderich travelled from São Sebastião do Caí to Porto Alegre on Aug. 17, 2002, to buy a suit for his college graduation - and never got to turn his tassel.
Oderich, who was a week away from receiving his degree in business administration, was fatally shot, dying outside a shopping mall 60 kilometers (36 miles) from home.
He was 26.
“My wife and I decided we had to go get his diploma,” says Max’s father, Luiz Fernando Oderich, 60, who works as a construction manager.
More and more families are losing loved ones to random attacks of violence. The Sustainable Development Indicators of 2008, as compiled by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), indicate the number of homicides per 100,000 residents rose from 19.2 in 1992 to 26.9 in 2004.
Several states, in response to the data, have created programs aimed at assisting victims of violence in their recovery. São Paulo, Minas Gerais and the Federal District have initiatives that have set the standard nationwide.
The three programs operate in similar fashion, employing multidisciplinary legal, psychological and social support teams to assist victims.
In Minas Gerais, the Center for the Assistance of Victims of Violent Crime (NAVCV), which was established in 2000, receives, on average, 40 cases monthly in the state capital, Belo Horizonte. In 2008 alone, more than 2,400 received care in Minas Gerais. In 2009, the number jumped to 3,100.
For more than a dozen years, the government of São Paulo has provided the Center of Reference and Victim Support (CRAVI), a program administered by the Department of Justice and Citizen Protection.
Victims of robbery, sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as those who have had a loved one murdered, receive top priority in getting help. Services are provided by social workers, psychologists, public defenders and administrative officers. CRAVI has assisted 16,354 since its inception in 1998 through November of this year.
“The first visit is conducted at the Central Criminal Court of São Paulo, and from there the case is transferred based upon its specifics,” says Shigueo Kuwahara, CRAVI’s coordinator.
CRAVI’s reports are very complex since they are working with victims of violent crimes, Kuwahara says.
“Victims have had their lives altered, their daily routines derailed by brutality,” he says. “They need a lot of help in order to get back on track; that’s why they need multidisciplinary support.”
A primary goal for many victims is seeing their attackers brought to justice.
“In the overwhelming majority of the cases, victims seek punishment for the criminals, so we have to work together across three areas of operation: legal, social and psychological,” Kuwahara says.
Ceará and Rio de Janeiro also are developing assistance centers for victims of violence, Kuwahara says.
Innovative solution in the Federal District
Today, Pró-Vítima, in the Federal District, operates by starting with the police report, finding victims and offering them services.
“People are surprised, some even suspicious, but in the end they’re quite thankful, because they are in the moment of greatest need, weakness and confusion and need our help,” says Valéria de Velasco, the undersecretary for the protection of victims of violence of the Federal District’s Secretariat of Justice, Human Rights and Citizenship.
Pró-Vítima, which was founded in April of last year, is a program that provides help for victims of robbery, kidnapping, missing persons and human trafficking, domestic, sexual and familial crimes, as well as for families of murder victims.
In addition to in-home visits, cases may be opened at the request of the prosecutor’s office, criminal courts or through referrals from schools.
From Jan. to Nov. 15, Pró-Vítima has assisted 1,388 victims.
“In most cases, we see victims recover through simultaneous efforts across three disciplines, but the prospect of a chance to bring about justice is of primary importance,” Velasco says. “It’s the prospect of some form of resolution that changes these people’s lives.”
But Pró-Vítima also wants to affect public policies. Based on data from the victims, Velasco says officials will draw a map of the types of crime most common in each region.
“We’ll know if an area is more prone to homicide or rape and then decide which public safety proposals should be adopted there,” Velasco says.
Pain turns to action
The loss of Max was a trauma for his family.
But shortly after his graduation ceremony a week after his death, Luiz Fernando Oderich decided to create something positive out of his son’s tragedy.
He created Brazil without Bars, an NGO that develops programs to prevent crime.
“We realized that we could no longer hide behind the bars we put on our doors and windows, hoping to escape crime; we have to face it head on,” he says.
People are living increasingly “sequestered lives,” reducing their social commitments and experiencing feelings of helplessness that lead to changes in their life decisions because of violence, says psychologist Heloisa Schauff.
But Oderich didn’t want to lead his life this way.
Instead of hiding, he chose to develop a program aimed at creating a safer future.
The focus is on family planning and conscientious parenting, since, as Oderich said, the breakdown of the family is a major cause of crime.
“It’s not just economic inequality that causes people to steal,” Oderich says. “Unwanted children are abandoned to whatever fate awaits them in the streets. This too must end.”
Brazil without Bars’ Responsible Fatherhood program, for example, seeks to increase the fathers’ involvement in their children’s upbringing.
“A good relationship between father and son has been proven to greatly reduce crime rates,” Oderich says.
Problem has public health consequences
Narcotics trafficking is one of the main causes of the violent attacks that are sending victims to seek help from Cristo Redentor Hospital, in Porto Alegre.
“There are so many lives lost and shattered from trauma caused by gunshot wounds to the head,” says Dr. Andrea Regner, assistant coordinator of the center for outpatient results at Cristo Redentor Hospital.
About two million nationwide are hospitalized with severe trauma in public hospitals annually, according to the Ministry of Health.
Severe trauma is the second-leading cause of death, across all age groups, and the leading cause of death among those between the ages of 1 and 44 years old in Brazil.
“Nationwide, an estimated 300 people die each day due to severe trauma, with about half of these deaths being severe head trauma,” Regner says. “We’re talking about emotional as well as financial losses for thousands of families who lose loved ones and often lose the person responsible for supporting the household.”
The social cost is high, too, as many survivors resort to Brazil’s public health system for their rehabilitation and treatment, says Regner, an advocate for the creation of public policies that deal with long-term rehabilitation to provide a measure of patient autonomy.
“There’s no point just investing in primary care,” she says.