Visiting our Partners in South Africa

Arriving in South Africa one is immediately struck by an intense color contrast never seen walking the streets of New York City.  Bursts of purple are framed against the blue sky, the green landscape, and the white exteriors of buildings.

(1)SOUTH AFRICA-PRETORIA-JACARANDA-BLOSSOM

We are told by our hosts that we have fortuitously scheduled our visit during the brief window of time that the Jacaranda trees are in full bloom.  We have come to Johannesburg to learn from our South African counterpart, Johannesburg Child Welfare (JCW).  JCW is a vast child welfare agency providing services within Johannesburg and its surrounding areas.  The work they do spans from child abuse treatment to family integration.   It is a privilege to see the broad range of their work and to hear from the adoption team about the realities that inform our shared effort to find homes for children where no domestic adoptions exist.  For one week, against the colorful backdrop the Jacarandas have provided, we will make visits to the various institutions and shared group homes where many of the children JCW advocates for reside.

Our first stop is Othandweni, a JCW-run institution located in the township of Soweto.  Othandweni has the capacity for about ninety children, thirty children live in the nursery and sixty older school age children  live in five cottages that are segmented by age.  There are close to fifteen full time staff.   The environment at Othandweni is lively, bright, and loud.

Africa 2012 274 Part of the reason why this welcoming and safe atmosphere exists is the presence of the Grannies.  Othandweni is the site of our Granny Program, which we first established in 2011.  Fifteen women from the local community dedicate their time to visit with the thirty children who live in Othandweni’s nursery.  They come Monday through Friday for at least 4 hours a day, dividing their time between caring for two children.  The children they are working with are between birth and 6 years of age and have a range of significant special needs, from HIV to cerebral palsy.  The dedication, consistency, and passion of the Grannies bring to life a specially-designed curriculum that helps these children meet their developmental milestones.  The visible impact this program has had on the children who have benefitted from a relationship with a granny makes it easy for everyone involved to wholeheartedly buy into this program.  It is a model that JCW hopes to implement in other institutions as its benefits have proven to extend beyond its original goals, the “gogos” speak of the sense of enfranchisement this program has brought them – as one gogo puts it, the program “has given me a new lease on life”.

animal mosaicOver the next two days we visit three other institutions.  Princess Alice is a JCW-run home for infants and is located in a particularly affluent neighborhood of Johannesburg.  The focus at Princess Alice is on providing a nursery and pediatric services to infants who have been abandoned or orphaned.  Many of the children at Princess Alice have special needs and are on medication regimes that need to be strictly monitored.  There are between twenty and thirty infants residing at Princess Alice and a combination of full time staff and community volunteers who are a constant presence.  We next stop at Cotlands, which is an institution caring for infant and toddler age children.  Cotlands had recently reduced their capacity at the time of our visit and was focused on expanding its community-based family services while still providing care for around fifteen to twenty infants and toddlers.  Like any other institution in Johannesburg there are many special needs infants.  Learning about the particular profiles in the care of these institutions continually reinforces why Spence-Chapin is doing the kind of focused work it is doing in South Africa.  The population of special needs infants and toddlers is significant in size and growing domestic options for these children is a work in progress for JCW.

Africa 2012 015Ethembeni, a Salvation Army-run institution within Johannesburg, is our last stop.  Ethembeni has the capacity for close to fifty or sixty infants and toddlers.  There is a nursery and separate living areas for the toddlers.  Ethembeni is a longtime presence in the child welfare landscape in South Africa and has done a lot of important work on behalf of vulnerable children in Johannesburg.  Continuing the theme of the trip, we met many toddlers with significant special needs including children with a combination of cognitive disabilities and physical disabilities.  There is a sizeable population of children with minor to severe cerebral palsy and also Down syndrome.  Part of the normative mindset of caregivers and administrators at these institutions is that finding homes for these children is a near impossibility, an idea that we have seen be  defied time and time again by families who possess the expertise and resources to responsibly provide homes for children with these specialized needs.  Sharing our optimism with them will hopefully encourage them to continue their active advocacy on behalf of these children.

kid and granny do puzzleWe return to Othandweni on our final day in Johannesburg to meet some of the older children who live in the cottages.  We are greeted with a performance of music, dance, and poetry.  As the older children at Othandweni come from a variety of tribal backgrounds their presentations are cultural fusions of their different backgrounds, combining the features of Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and other cultural traditions.  We met many children whose legal statuses were not settled and/or they still maintained connections with their birth family through visits and other forms of communication.  However, there certainly are children who desire to be part of a permanent family and Spence-Chapin hopes to be able to work on their behalf.

It was a poignant time to visit Johannesburg as the one year anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing was approaching.  His work on behalf of the marginalized is an evident influence to the incredible work that JCW does on behalf of children who are vulnerable.  Spence-Chapin is privileged to be working with such an ethical and altruistic organization.  I returned feeling energized about the focused kind of work we are doing and with a deeper sense of accountability to the children who we met.

By Ben Sommers, Associate Director of International Programs, Spence-Chapin

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.

Waiting Children in Bulgaria

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The Bulgarian Ministry of Justice maintains a waiting child registry that lists over 1,800 older children, siblings, and children with special needs who are eligible for international adoption but have not yet found families. Bulgaria prioritizes finding families for the most vulnerable children and updates the waiting child registry monthly.

During our recent visit to Bulgaria we were struck by how many healthy sibling groups are waiting for families. Children are primarily Roma, an ethnic minority within the country, and are typically cared for in institutional settings although foster care is increasingly more common. Families open to adopting siblings recognize that sibling groups have diverse histories and ages, with the oldest child being at least 8 years old. It is our hope to find homes for many of these children with loving American families. In addition to siblings, there are many children with significant special needs who are waiting for families. In Bulgaria, some of the most common special needs include hydrocephaly, moderate or severe cognitive delays, down syndrome, and spina bifida.

Due to the priority of the Ministry of Justice to place the most vulnerable children with adoptive families, we expect families to experience a quick match time – between 6-12 months. Families open to adopting siblings may be matched within a few months of submitting their paperwork to Bulgaria. Once a child has been identified, the inter-country adoption intermediary, ANIDO, has the opportunity to visit the child to gain more information and to take photos and videos. When a family’s paperwork has been submitted to Bulgaria, their application is prioritized and the legal process of finalizing the adoption comes into effect.

Families interested in learning more about the history and trends in Bulgarian adoptions can see up-to-date statistics from the US Embassy in Sophia or the Department of State. The Bulgarian adoption program has seen an increase in placements in the past few years, showing the country’s commitment to de-institutionalization and finding permanency for the children in their care.

Spence-Chapin is committed to finding permanent families for the world’s most vulnerable children. We are reducing financial barriers for adoptive families who open their lives and hearts to a school-age child/sibling group with special needs.

Learn more about Spence-Chapin and our Bulgaria program.

 

In Remembrance of Flicka Van Praagh

flicka 3Spence-Chapin offers its heartfelt remembrance of the life and spirit of Flicka Van Praagh.  Flicka had served as the agency’s Director of the International Adoption Department from 1992-2004, having first joined the organization in 1958.

With an early interest in adoption, Flicka chose to come to Spence-Chapin for her student placement, a requisite for her MSW from Columbia University, and was offered a position after graduation. She started as a case worker in foster care in 1958 and was department head from 1961 to 1964 when she left to become Director of Social Services at Woman’s Hospital, a division of St. Luke’s Hospital Center. There she met her husband and they became the parents of a daughter and two sons. She returned to the agency in the early 1970’s on a part-time basis doing intakes and home studies that could be completed while her children were in school. She eventually came back full-time working in the international department.

Flicka made the first of many trips around the world in 1975, traveling to Seoul, Korea to implement the founding of Spence-Chapin’s first international program. She traveled extensively in Latin America in the 1980’s, working to establish programs in Chile, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia and Guatemala.

In 1992, Flicka became the director of the international department. She said, “In joining Spence-Chapin, I was able to see the world and visit so many wonderful places. I went to twelve countries trying to set up new programs; opening Russia, China, Moldova and Bulgaria. I found it thrilling to help waiting children from all around the world find their forever families.”

Understanding the critical impact that physical and emotional contact has during a child’s early stages of development, Flicka had the vision to establish Spence-Chapin’s first Granny Program in Bulgaria in 1998. This program’s success saw its replication in China, Moldova, Colombia and South Africa.

Flicka was loved by the many families that she helped bring together. In the New York Times online Guestbook Marth Volcker wrote, “Flicka was a wonderful person, and I am forever grateful to her for the important role she played in the adoption of our daughter. We adopted our daughter from China in 1999, and Flicka was a wonderful guide through the complete adoption process. We saw Flicka about a year and a half ago at a Spence-Chapin function, and her ability to remember and her interest in all the children she had placed in forever families was amazing.”

“We, the parents of two of the ‘in excess of 500 children’ Flicka helped place in adoption while at Spence-Chapin, would like to express our condolences to her family as well as our thanks, once again, to Flicka for guiding us through the 14 months that led up to the arrival of our then six-month and now 32 year old twin daughters, Jessie and Corey. Her spirit lives on in all of us,” wrote Jon Silbert and Bonnie McHale.

The Meo family added, “We are forever grateful and blessed to be parents because of Flicka. We were part of her last group to China. She was an amazing woman. May she rest in peace knowing the love and joy she brought to so many.”

At her retirement party in 2004, Flicka said. “In all the years that I worked with Spence-Chapin, I always carried a case load in addition to my other responsibilities because of the great pleasure and joy in working with clients and seeing them turn into families.”

For Ann Hassan, our current Director of Adoption, Flicka was more than a humanitarian. Flicka“To me, Flicka was a mentor, advisor and friend. As a young worker I idolized her, and she in turn invested in me, encouraged me and molded me into the social worker I am today. She combined grace and confidence in a way that made her a superb leader and a truly unique and special woman. She had true affection and commitment for the hundreds of families she worked with over the years, stemming I think from the immense love and pride she had for her own family and a core belief that everyone deserves to experience that kind of love. Flicka guides me in my work, and in life, and will forever live on through me and my many colleagues who learned from her for so many years.”

As parents and child welfare professionals, many of us are inspired by her work and her legacy.  As we reflect on her achievements, we struggle to find the balance of a tribute and a call to action – not to just mourn Flicka, but to learn from Flicka and continue her work. In doing so, we could elevate our focus of our common goal – that every child deserves a family.

If you would like to make a donation to continue Flicka’s work, we would welcome a tribute gift in her honor or call Mary Connolly, 212-360-0204.

 

You can read our remembrance to Flicka online at the NY Times.

 

A Sister’s Gift

There are many ways to give back to Spence-Chapin. Maya, daughter of Spence-Chapin adoptive parents Jill and Keith, donated all the money from her bat mitzvah to Spence-Chapin in honor of her brother Jaden. Director of the Modern Family Center Stella Gilgur-Cook describes her experience with Maya and her family:

Many, many years ago I had the pleasure of supporting Jill and Keith with the adoption of their son, Jaden. As a home study social worker, I found Keith and Jill warm, open, positive, and managing their international blended family with grace and maturity.

In that process, I learned a great deal about them, and one of their favorite topics was Keith’s daughter Maya. Living overseas with her mother and visiting Keith and Jill as often as possible on school breaks, I had to wait a while to meet her, but in the meantime was regaled with stories of their smart, sweet daughter, and how much she wanted a little brother or sister.

maya lender and famFinally after much calendar wrangling and perhaps an alignment of the moons and stars, I was able to go out and meet Maya. Now it’s hard to say if this really happened or I just felt like it happened, but I seem to recall that about 30 seconds after meeting Maya, I was getting one of the warmest and sincerest hugs I’ve ever received. She struck me then as a child who was wise for her years, and understood the reality that children face when they do not have parents. When I heard about the work that Maya did on behalf of Spence-Chapin and the children we support, I immediately thought back to that kind, sweet, caring girl I met all those years ago, and could see the influence her parents and her brother’s adoption had on her.

It has been a pleasure knowing this family and knowing Maya. We thank Maya for the special gift that she has given that will support more children in the years ahead.

 

December 2nd is Giving Tuesday, a global initiative to inspire people to give back to the charities and causes that they celebrate. At Spence-Chapin, we work to connect children with permanent homes, deep parental love, and a lifelong sense of security. We can help more children find homes by alleviating all financial barriers to families looking to adopt – but we cannot do this without you! Please participate in Giving Tuesday by making a contribution to the Spence-Chapin Annual Fund

Family Profile: Scott and Tari

Scott and Tari knew shortly after they were married that they wanted to build their family through adoption. After giving birth to two girls, they began the process of adding to their family. They are now the parents to 12 amazing children; 4 biological and 8 through adoption!

Some of their children have learning challenges and require extra help, but for the most part, they had never thought of parenting a child with special needs. However, in the summer of 2012, they learned about a baby that was to be born with severe disabilities. They knew in their hearts that he was meant to join their family. A day after their family was selected by the birth/first mother, they were told that their baby boy had been born.

Their sweet baby boy would only live 3 months before he passed away. During his short life, he endured many surgeries and medical procedures. Caring for this baby instilled in Scott and Tari’s hearts a desire to adopt another child that may have special needs. As their broken hearts began to mend, they once again began the process of adoption.

Tari came across Spence-Chapin’s website and saw our program for special needs adoption. On the waiting child page was Olivia, a baby girl with severe medical disabilities that was in need of a family who could care for her properly. After discussing it with Scott, they started the application process, and this past winter they brought Olivia home. Today, Olivia is thriving in her new home surrounded by her loving parents and brothers and sisters.

“Working with Spence-Chapin has been the best experience,” Tari says. “We have worked with many different agencies and the staff at Spence-Chapin have been the most compassionate and caring that we have ever worked with. We could tell they truly love what they do…helping children!”