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.

Congress Supports the Action Plan for Children in Adversity

Please help us garner Congressional support for ensuring that the US government leads the way in ensuring children live within safe, permanent family care by contacting your Members of Congress today!

What’s Happening      With the support of Senators Mary Landrieu and John Boozman, Representatives Trent Franks and Barbara Lee have authored a letter commending USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Administrator Donald Steinberg, and Special Adviser Neil Boothby on the launch of a “National Action Plan on Children in Adversity.”

What We’re Asking You To Do      We need you and your families and supporters to contact their three Members of Congress asking them to co-sign the Franks/Lee letter. Courtesy of our colleagues at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a sample ‘ask’ is attached (Children in Adversity_MOC_Letter)  (be sure to tell your Members to contact Franks or Lee’s office for more info on how to cosign). Please make your calls and then spread the word!

Why It’s Important        For the first time ever US government policy makes children living in safe, permanent family care a priority of our foreign assistance. And intercountry adoption is also a specific part of the plan for the first time! Getting Congress involved in ensuring the plan has adequate resource and implemented successfully is critically important.

The bi-partisan letter clearly supports the goals of the Action Plan including one of the key pillars – ensuring children live in safe, permanent family care. It also asks for further discussion on two important elements; funding and the selection of pilot countries. We need your help to make Congress aware and to solicit their support. Again, please make your calls and spread the word! The deadline for Members of Congress to cosign the letter is Wednesday, February 13th, so we need the calls to be made now!

Russia’s Ban on U.S Adoption

On Friday December 28th Russia’s president Valdimir Putin signed Federal Law No. 186614-6, dubbed the Dima Yakovlev Law, named after a Russian-born child who died in the care of his U.S. adoptive parents. The law prohibits the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families and will go into effect on January 1, 2013.

Tom Difilipo of the Joint Council on International Children’s Council summarized the bottom line of this action well: “The closure of Russia to intercountry adoption follows what is now an all too familiar strain of tragedies.  Children in Vietnam, Nepal, Romania and too many other countries suffer the life-long effects of institutionalization due to the elimination of intercountry adoption as a viable option.  However unlike other closures which were generally based on child protection issues, the Russian ban is particularly stinging in that it is an act of politics, pure and simple.”

The politics he refers to are the string of events that started in 2008 when Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney, was arrested after alleging large-scale systematic theft from the Russian Government sanctioned by officials. He died in prison in 2009 having been refused medical treatment and apparently beaten to death.

Magnistsky’s death was met with outrage throughout Russia, and human rights organizations around the world. Russian officials believed to be connected to his death had their assets frozen and were banned from entering European countries and Canada. The Magnitsky Act affects the same sanctions, and also includes other human rights violations and corruption components, for the United States. The act was signed into law on December 14th.  The Dima Yakovlev Law is a retaliatory law that also includes sanctions for individuals violating fundamental human rights and freedoms of the citizens of the Russian federation.

Although the Russian adoption ban is signed, we do not know now if it may or can be altered in the future, so it is important to share your opinions and thoughts of this situation with your Senator and U.S.  Representatives. Visit to find your representatives. President Obama and his administration also need to know of your concerns.  Ask them to continue to advocate for the thousands of young Russian children left languishing in orphanages.

While Spence-Chapin supports all efforts to place children within their country of origin, we worry about the thousands of children in Russia who will not find permanence in that country and due to this series of events, will not have the opportunity to be placed within a loving home here in the United States.


For on-going updates visit the U.S. State department website.