The Invisible: Addicted Street Children


The term is too sterile; it doesn’t capture the tragedy.

But researchers call them “street children” – those young, often abandoned kids who live in the squalid slums of the poorest countries, and on the streets of the richest as well. Destitute and with little hope of escaping their fate, many turn to drugs.

A press release from the journal Addiction reported on a meta-study which combines data from 22 countries, some more affluent, others less so. Where they can afford it, street children turn to heroin or other illicit drugs, preferring injections. In impoverished countries, they gravitate toward inhalants. Gasoline, acetone or paint thinner are relatively cheap and legal. A second tier of substance abuse follows behind these substances: alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.

Whatever the choice of drug, there’s no doubt it causes more damage in this population than in adults. The children are still developing, and their brains may never recover from the harm, even if they manage to get off drugs.

A Hidden Epidemic

In the report, it’s called a hidden epidemic. These children are largely ignored by the societies around them, a kind of human garbage – cast aside as having no value and an inconvenience. What this research shows is just how prevalent the problem is – ranging from 14 percent drug use in Nigeria to 92 percent in Brazil among street children. According to the report, the most common reasons for using drugs are “peer pressure, escapism, pleasure, curiosity, and increasing courage and strength for life on the streets.”

The UN estimates there are 150 million children living in the streets worldwide. The study authors think this number is too low.

One of the critical results of this study, other than the widespread nature of the problem, is how little is actually known. There doesn’t seem to be much concern for this demographic. In many countries, even when they acknowledge the problem, they’d just as soon ignore it and hope it goes away on its own.


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