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.

Spence-Chapin presents child welfare training to ICBF and Colombian child advocates.

In order to ensure the successful placement of older children and sibling groups it is critical that all professionals involved in the adoption process are informed by the best current research and are all working out of the same paradigm to maximize success.  Spence-Chapin licensed social workers traveled to Bogota, Colombia at the end of September to present trainings to Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar/Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF)  staff and Colombian child welfare advocates who are key in facilitating domestic or international adoption of older children and sibling groups. The training focused on maximizing potential success of placement for older children and sibling adoption. adoption training

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 professionals involved in the adoption process have an important role in preparing the child and the people involved with the child before the child is adopted. The extent to which the child is prepared for adoption has significant impact on easing the transition and maximizing successful incorporation into the family. Using available resources and strategies based on the child’s developmental levels, and current psychological understanding regarding attachment, have been found to be successful in alleviating the child’s anxieties, minimizing the stress associated with change and maximizing incorporation into a new family.

The Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar/Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF), established in 1968, provides care services for children, adolescents and families, especially those under threat, insolvency or violation of their rights, and is Colombia’s central authority for adoptions.

Colombia Program January 2012 Update

Two exciting updates from Instituto Colombiano de Beinestar Familiar (ICBF): Spence-Chapin was re-accredited by ICBF this past summer and the organization has recently appointed a new Director General, Diego Molano Aponte. Molano Aponte was the Presidential Advisor for Social Action and has been one of the pioneers of the Social Action Programs and Red States in Colombia. In addition, he leads the Government’s efforts to eradicate poverty.

Spence-Chapin is currently exploring a unique summer host-to-adopt program for children 8 and older.  If you believe that an older child (or siblings) would be good fit for your family, this could be an opportunity for you.  We believe in the resiliency and adoptability of older children who are in need of permanent and loving homes.  For more information, please call 212-400-8150.


Cultural Events

Dia de los Reyes Magos (aka Epiphany) is celebrated on January 6, 2012.  This is a national holiday celebrated in Colombia and officially marks the end of the holiday season.  It is a commemoration of the day when the three kings arrive with their gifts.