Colombia’s Changing Adoption Landscape

Associate Director of International Programs Ben Sommers recently had the opportunity to visit Bogota, Colombia to meet with our Colombian representatives and visit institutions. Here, he shares his perspective on the changing landscape of adoption in the country.  

To those individuals and entities working within child welfare, “changing landscape” is an oft-repeated refrain referring to a generalized way to understand the broad shifts that have taken place in the field over the last several decades. In more specific terms, one of the most significant developments is the ballooning number of older children, children with special needs, and sibling groups who are living in institutionalized care. For Spence-Chapin, our own organizational shift is focused around taking a proactive approach to addressing the realities of this new landscape.

Colombia offers a compelling illustration of what the new landscape looks like. I recently had the privilege of traveling to Bogota to visit with our Colombian representatives and see firsthand how the rhetoric of changing landscape translated into reality. Bogota is Colombia’s most populous city, being home to approximately eight million people. Similar to any child welfare system in any nation on the spectrum of economic and social development, stories of children coming into the protection system due to poverty, violence, neglect, and substance abuse are commonplace.

The Colombian central authority on child welfare, Instituto Colombiano de Bienstar Familiar (ICBF) has approximately eleven thousand children under its protection in the Bogota region. Of these eleven thousand children, approximately eight thousand have a legal status that allows for international adoption. The vast majority of this population of eight thousand children is made up of older children, children with special needs, and sibling groups. While international and domestic policies prioritize domestic options, the children in protection institutes grow older, explaining the growing population number. Colombia’s domestic policies are admirable in their focus on family preservation and domestic options for these children but as these long processes unfold, or when they fail to yield legitimate options, the children get older.

Colombia San MauricioWhat I saw during my visits to four protection institutions clearly illustrated this reality: the former nurseries converted to dormitory-style housing, large outside play areas with soccer fields and basketball courts, varied facilities and extracurricular programming, and large staffs of child psychologists focused on the mental well-being of the growing number of children in each institution. It should be noted that the four institutions I visited are exceptional in terms of the resources available enabling them to turn into well-run, holistic facilities. Nonetheless, despite their summer camp-esque exteriors, the children in their care almost exclusively come from difficult backgrounds where abuse, transition, and disappointment have been present. Hence, the clinical focus on mental health and the socializing focus on creating structure, routine, and normalcy.

Again, the protection institutions I visited had the resources that allowed them to create these safe and structured environments. The institutions in rural, lower income areas that are home to thousands of children are not as fortunate. Also not as fortunate is the population of children with special needs who are living within the protection system. I heard numerous stories from child welfare professionals of misdiagnoses combined with bureaucratic indifference that has led to hundreds of children being placed in institutions that are inappropriate for their specific needs. Sadly, these children lack the advocates to help them find a more appropriate environment.

Ultimately, the children I saw are being productive. They take art classes, sing Disney songs, and idolize Lionel Messi. But for them, the notions of “permanent family” and a life free of foreseeable transition are still painted in somewhat vague colors. Many of the children are able to express the agency they feel over their futures by vocalizing either directly or indirectly their desire to be a part of a permanent family. There are challenges that exist for our adoptive families who hope to adopt these children, and these children will face challenges as they navigate the most significant transition of their lives. The limited snapshot of the Colombian child welfare system I was able to glimpse shows that the “changing landscape” rhetoric is grounded in the reality of individual anecdotes and that while the specific institutions I visited have constructed environments where children are able to progress, the key element of permanency is still missing.

A Closer Look: Adoptions from Colombia

Last month, Helene Lauffer, associate executive director, and Samantha Walker, assistant director for international adoption, traveled to Colombia to meet with staff from all the adoption houses with which Spence-Chapin works to place children. Here, Helene shares the highlights of their trip.

For Samantha and I, it was our first time visiting Colombia. Upon our arrival, we were met by our Colombian representative, Manuela Fonnegra de Michelsen, who whisked us into Bogotá. Dedicated, resourceful and charming, Manuela tracks all of our cases, coordinates the process with the government, adoption houses, lawyers, translators and families. She is highly organized and a problem-solver extraordinaire. She cares deeply about the children, and she is tireless in her efforts to move our cases along.

Early the next morning, Samantha and I flew to Cali, a city southwest of Bogotá. We visited Chiquitines, an adoption house that we have worked with for over 16 years. Home to 80 children ranging in age from infant to 12 years old, Chiquitines is led by Agatha de Leon, a charming, warm woman. The orphanage is outside the city of Cali, in a suburban setting with a large lawn, lush greenery and a pool. The children’s rooms were spotless; and the many caregivers active and supportive. With Agatha, as with all the other adoption houses we visited, we discussed trends, adoption timeframes, costs and specific cases. We also reviewed our humanitarian aid support to Chiquitines which goes back many years. Agatha also shared with us her challenges in maintaining a high-quality children’s home in the face of enhanced regulatory oversight and increased operating costs.

Samantha and I said goodbye to Chiquitines and shared a traditional Cali lunch with Magnolia, our local representative. Magnolia has served as a guide, translator and surrogate grandmother to the many families who have adopted from Chiquitines over the years. As soon as we met Magnolia, we could see how her patience, calmness and local know-how would be reassuring to families as they go through the adoption process so far from home.

The next morning, Samantha and I returned to Bogotá and met with staff from Instituto Colombiano Bienestar de Familiar (ICBF), the family welfare institute that oversees adoptions. With them, we reviewed our accreditation (which is being renewed), our in-country humanitarian aid efforts and our experience with specific cases. ICBF is especially keen to promote the adoptions of older children, sibling groups and children with special needs, as well as adoptions by families with Colombian heritage. Spence-Chapin has been moving forward with a number of such cases and learning a great deal in the process.

Next, we visited La Casa, the first private children’s home to be established in Colombia. We were extremely impressed with this homey, yet beautiful, clean and well-laid out orphanage set in a lovely neighborhood in central Bogotá. Samantha and I met with Ines Elvira Cuellar, the head of adoptions for La Casa, and she was as warm as she was clear and committed to finding homes for both typically developing as well as special needs children. As we toured La Casa, we saw newborns, infants, toddlers and older children. The toddlers were especially eager to see us and to share hugs. Most memorable was when a small, Afro-Colombian girl saw Samantha, who is a tall and striking black woman. The child’s face broke into an expression of wonder and joy, and she ran to Samantha with outstretched arms. It was a moving and a heartbreaking moment.

Afterwards, we headed to the outskirts of Bogotá to visit Ayúdame (translated as “help me” in Spanish). Founded 34 years ago, Ayúdame is home to 50 children, most of whom are under age seven. Maria Clemencia Marquez Gutierrez is the energetic, determined and caring woman who directs the home and the maternity shelter that is also operated under the auspices of Ayúdame. Ayúdame works with only a few agencies, and we are pleased that Maria Clemencia is adding Spence-Chapin to that roster. She makes it a point to visit the agencies with which she collaborates for adoptions every few years so that she can be assured that their assessment and preparation of families is thorough and skilled. Since Spence-Chapin takes the same care in reviewing the adoption houses with which we collaborate, we think it will be an excellent partnership.

Ayúdame operates out of a private home on three floors. The perimeter of several of the bedrooms was lined with cribs for infants; other rooms have toddler beds and bunk beds. Samantha and I were greeted by gleeful children playing and singing.

That evening, we had dinner with the full Spence-Chapin team: Manuela, Jorge Ivan (an attorney who is our deputy representative), Nora (who assists Manuela in putting together the documentation for the cases), and Marie Elena (an attorney who use to direct adoptions at ICBF and who handled a recent case for us). We heard more from them all about some of our recent cases and we shared with them news of the families now that they are back in the U.S.

On Friday morning, we drove to Chía, a rural district in Bogotá surrounded by mountains, about 45 minutes outside the city. This is the setting for Fundacion Niña Maria, the adoption house where Spence-Chapin started a granny program a year and half ago. Niña Maria has two sites in Chía: one that houses older boys, and the other that houses all the young children, as well as the older girls. Altogether, Niña Maria is home to approximately 90 children—many of whom are under the protection of the state and not available for adoption.

We were warmly greeted by Marlena, the founder and director of Fundacion Niña Maria, as well as many of the staff. After introductions, we were led into the building where our granny program is operated. We were all amazed and moved by the incredible sight of 12 grannies paired with 12 children, sitting at small tables or on the floor, completely engaged in their tasks together. Some were reading, some playing with blocks, some doing puzzles, some practicing forming letters or calculating sums. The children were full of smiles, hugs and affection for their grannies. These are all children who, without their grannies, would rarely get any personal attention. Because of the granny program, they spend two hours a day, five days a week, with someone who they know cares a great deal about them and who rejoices in their accomplishments. They are all thriving with the attention of the grannies, and they are making real progress in their social, emotional and physical development.

After the children left, we spoke to the grannies to thank them for their dedication to this program and to tell them that we consider their work to be extremely important. I was so filled with emotion (and so flustered) that I said, “Buenos noches” instead of “Buenos dias,” but they had a good laugh and seemed to forgive me! We met with the program staff, who have been putting great effort into planning activities for the grannies and documenting the progress of the children. They are eager to have Rita Taddonio, our director of post-adoption services, return to Chía to provide more training to the grannies and the staff (so start packing your bags, Rita!).

As I sat on the plane to return to New York, I felt satisfied and hopeful. The satisfaction comes from knowing that we have a wonderful and a dedicated team representing Spence-Chapin in Colombia: a team that understands the process of adoption and has the skills to see it through. It also comes from the knowledge that we have partnered with some very well-run, ethical adoption houses that are committed to the children in their care. We have the respect and support of ICBF. And, we are finding homes for children who need them. Now that we have laid and reinforced this foundation, the hope is that we can continue to find families (Colombian and non-Colombian) who will see this program as a viable route to building their families, who will enjoy spending time in Colombia during their adoption process, and who will embrace the process of incorporating Colombian culture into the life of their family going forward.