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.


Illinois Outreach Trip

Associate Director of Outreach Katie Foley describes her recent trip to Illinois to meet with FamilyCore, prospective adoptive families, and a current Spence-Chapin family. 

As the Associate Director of Outreach, my favorite part of my work is getting to meet incredible communities of families across the country. When I travel I’m always reminded of the dedication of adoption professionals to their families and how remarkable adoptive families are! This October, I drove over 200 miles in just two days and it was worth every mile to meet the committed staff at FamilyCore, prospective adoptive families, and a current Spence-Chapin family.

On Tuesday, October 22nd, I had the opportunity to meet with the adoption staff at FamilyCore, an agency which serves families in the Peoria, Illinois greater area. FamilyCore serves parents and families with a diverse range of services, including counseling, adoption, and foster care. FamilyCore’s professional counselors and staff provide a wide selection of expertise to help meet the special needs of the community, including a special focus on single parents. Spence-Chapin is thrilled to partner with FamilyCore for international adoption services.

During our meeting, we focused on Spence-Chapin’s international adoption programs in Bulgaria, Colombia, and South Africa and how Spence-Chapin is working to eliminate traditional barriers to adoption, including agency fees. FamilyCore staff shared how they prepare families for international adoption with a balance of in-person meetings and online education. After our afternoon together, we headed to the Forrest Hill United Methodist Church for an information meeting. The meeting was a unique opportunity for prospective adoptive families to hear from both the home study agency (FamilyCore) and the placing agency (Spence-Chapin) about the current landscape of adoption and the children most in need of a loving family – older children, their siblings and children with special needs.

On Wednesday, October 23rd, Tracy, a parent in the process of adopting from the Spence-Chapin South Africa program, agreed to partner with me to be an information meeting HOST.  Host Outreach for Spence-Chapin Together is an opportunity to introduce Spence-Chapin adoption programs to your community and to help find loving and permanent families for the most vulnerable children waiting around the world. HOST families are an integral part of Spence-Chapin’s mission to find families for the waiting children around the world.  Tracy and her son Isaac welcomed me into their home on Wednesday for dinner before the information meeting. It was fantastic to meet them both! It was an honor to spend the evening with Tracy and to learn more about her family.  As a HOST, Tracy helped me organize the meeting in Urbana, IL on the 23rd. She emailed an invitation to local adoptive families, posted on facebook, and sent the meeting details to adoption professionals in her community, such as adoption attorneys. Thank you Tracy!

Although I’ll be taking a break from traveling for the holiday season, I look forward to my next trip in the New Year.  Stay tuned for my next destination- maybe I’ll be coming to visit your community!

Colombian Host-to-Adopt Program

Spence-Chapin Services for Families and Children announces the launch of a Colombian host-adopt program for the tri-state community.

Spence-Chapin and Foundation for the Assistance of Abandoned Children (FANA) in Colombia are partnering to present a special host-adopt program in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area. IMG_8665The program allows families interested in adopting an older child the opportunity to host a child in their home for three (3) weeks prior to making the commitment to adopt.

School-age children, those who are 8 years old and older at time of placement, are the most overly represented population in orphanages worldwide. However, the fears, unknowns, and myths surrounding the adoption of older children discourage many prospective parents from exploring this option. Currently, close to 8,000 children in Colombia, ages 10 and older, are waiting for a family. The goal of this host-adopt program is simple: to join those older children and sibling groups in need of parents with families who are ready to adopt.


Having a child in a home before adoption finalization offers many benefits; aside from simply getting to know the child, a hosting period allows families to best prepare for the child’s homecoming – from favorite foods, familiarity with their routines, understanding the child’s personality, interests, and hobbies, families are better able to provide a child with a smoother transition into family life.

For the child, a host-to-adopt program allows for reflection on and a commitment to their adoption process. Children selected for hosting have expressed an interest in adoption; a hosting program offers the child not only a voice in their future, but also a choice. The adoption is a process of mutual selection – the family commits to the child, and the child commits to the family. Because of this, host-adopt programs have been very effective at placing school-age children.

For over 100 years Spence-Chapin has been the leader in adoption in the New York, New Jersey and across the USA finding homes for more than 20,000 children. Spence-Chapin also supports families with a variety of services including counseling, support groups, parent coaching, mentorships, and more. Similarly, the Foundation for the Assistance of Abandoned Children (FANA) has been caring for thousands of children for over 40 years. Through their host-adopt program more than 9,000 children have found fulfilling futures with loving families.


Championing the Waiting Child

This summer we traveled to Colombia, South Africa and Uganda to explore opportunities to expand our reach to help more children. Visiting these countries and meeting with their child welfare representatives solidified our resolve to find adoptive homes for children there. During our trips, we witnessed the love and care these children receive but also were acutely aware of the staff making do with what little resources they had. In each country we clearly observed the changing face of adoption and saw the many school-aged children, sibling groups and children with special needs who are waiting for a family of their own. Because we feel that that every child deserves a home, championing the adop­tion of these children is part of what Spence-Chapin does.

Our time in Colombia was inspiring, encouraging and sobering. Having met with the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF – The Colombian Institute of Family Welfare within the Ministry of Social Protection), our staff was impressed by the level of care provided to the approximately 9,000 children in their custody. In each adoption house visited, we encountered psychologists, social workers and other professional staff helping children prepare for adoption, and yet no forever families were on the horizon for these children.

In South Africa there is no question about the number of children needing permanency; by 2015 there will be more than 5.5 million orphans in South Africa. As one of just two U.S. agencies approved by the South African Central Authority to place children with American families, we are delighted to partner in this initiative with Johannesburg Child Welfare Society (JCW). Our similar mission and history of having worked together on our Granny program, make this partnership a natural fit. We have officially launched this program and are eagerly accepting applica­tions for adoption. We are excited about placing children with black families as well as families who will open their hearts and homes to the children most likely not to be adopted in South Africa because of their age or medical needs.

In Uganda, we learned about the millions of orphans and their extremely limited options. When parents die some children are taken in by relatives but many others try to survive on the streets. While there, we established a strong relationship with MIFUMI, a Ugandan international aid and development agency. MIFUMI is opening doors for us to explore child welfare and adoption needs in Uganda, and while program development can take some time, we are already looking at opportunities for James, a 5-year-old boy who does not have family to care for him, who does not have a local children’s home to care for him, and with no other option, is living in a domestic violence shelter among women and chil­dren experiencing repeated trauma. We see James and the difficult situations he has already had in his short life, and we are moved to create something better for him and the millions of other children in situations like his.

In the past year, we’ve talked much about the changing face of adoption, but what we know has not changed is the number of chil­dren, particularly older children, sibling sets, and children with special needs, waiting to be adopted. Spence-Chapin has refocused efforts to help all families afford adoption by offering Adoptionships and specialized pre-adoptive parent preparation and training that will enable families to feel more confident about opening their homes to these children. It is with your ongoing commitment and needed support that we move forward with passion and dedi­cation as we refine our vision and enhance our services to these resilient children and their adoptive forever families.

Visit our Flickr page to see pictures from this trip.

Read more about Waiting Children on our site.

Dia Del Trabajo

With the exception of a small number of countries, America included, Labor Day or Workers’ Day is a holiday celebrated on May 1st of each year, dedicated to the struggles and success of working class people.

In Colombia, this day is called El Dia Del Trabajo. Walk down the usually busy streets of Bogota on this day, and you’ll find them deserted! Like in America, on our Labor Day, held in September to mark the end of summer, almost all businesses, post offices, banks, and stores are closed. Instead of working, people protest and parade across the country in solidarity with the working class.

On el Dia Del Trabajo in Colombia, workers from all industries make it a point to stick together and peacefully demand rights for the working class. Traditionally, they dress up in bright red, which stems from the holiday’s socialist origins. El Dia Del Trabajo isn’t only celebrated in Colombia, actually, notable celebrations happen all over the world.

There aren’t many celebrations in America, since our Labor Day is September. However, the origins of Dia Del Trabajo are a great history lesson to teach children. While it is a very somber topic, there are many great themes you can focus on: Human Rights, Equality and Fairness, Solidarity, and Tradition.

Here are some resources to get you started:

The Gaurdian – The History of Mayday – A Short History of May Day

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.