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.

NPR Podcast: Love is a Battlefield

The NPR podcast This American Life is known for delving deep into personal lives to share stories which allow us to better understand our community and our national culture.

In 2006, NPR Mental Health Correspondent Alix Spiegel shared a story about adoption and resilience. On Love is a Battlefield Heidi Solomon and her son Daniel describe Daniel’s transition from a Romanian orphanage into a loving adoptive family in the Midwest. Attachment and love are at the center of the podcast as it details the struggles of the Solomon family as they seek out appropriate therapy, support, and education for their son and themselves at the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio.

The true beauty of the story is shown, both in the parents’ patient understanding of how to bond with their son, and in their firm belief that their son had the ability to move beyond his history of profound neglect.

Listen to Love is a Battlefield online.

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

Farewell to Linda Wright

After 18 years at Spence-Chapin, Director of Development Linda Wright, retires. In a touching letter, she reflects on her time spent in the organization and gives thanks to those that were fundamental in the success of the development department.

646_LindaWrightWeeding through my piles and files these past few weeks has been a trek down memory lane!

Time and time again many of you have demonstrated your commitment to Spence-Chapin. You have supported the agency financially and phoned other families to enlist their support of our Annual Fund. You have served on committees – African-American Parents Advisory (AAPAC), International Parents Advisory (IPAC), and Long Island Families Together (LIFT); May’s Birth Parent Gathering; Annual Theatre and Adoptionship Benefits; 55th Anniversary of African-American Adoptions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, KOREA35 and CHINA20. You have shared ideas, time, energy and connections as we developed outreach strategies and planned program celebrations, family get-togethers, and fundraisers. And, so the list goes on and on and on.

Of course, as a Development professional, I usually measure achievements with numbers, and particularly those preceded with dollar-signs. Over the last 18 years we – you the star performers; me simply stage manager — have kept Spence-Chapin fiscally strong and ready to respond to new opportunities and changing needs with creativity and kindness. The total contributed during this period exceeds $35 million, a sum derived from several initiatives.

The Spirit of Spence-Chapin Annual Fund, launched in the fall of 1996, has raised nearly $10 million for general operating support. Events to fund Adoptionships for prospective families needing assistance with adoption costs produced almost $600,000. The annual Theatre Benefit, which began in the 1950s, continued to draw together new and old friends who contributed $2.2 million to enable more children to come home. Support for our Granny Program and other relief efforts overseas has reached $1.3 million and now 234 children in orphanages in Colombia, China, Moldova, and South Africa get daily one-on-one attention from 82 loving Grannies who were recruited from local communities. And, our historic Campaign for the Second Century garnered $14.5 million to secure Spence-Chapin’s work for another 100 years.

I am grateful to all of you for your generosity and conviction that Spence-Chapin deserves LJW_Retirement (SKasowitz-Director)your support. I believe we have given Mary Connolly, my successor, a solid foundation for advancing Spence-Chapin’s development program. The thread that binds the Spence-Chapin community together is the belief that every child deserves the unconditional love and nurturing that comes from a permanent family. It is a community willing to extend itself to ensure that Spence-Chapin is here to find and prepare the families eager to welcome a child into their homes and hearts.

This magic happened for 3,022 children during the past 18 years. The children traveled from China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia; from Russia, Bulgaria and Moldova; from Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Guatemala; from South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to become part of a family in the USA. Our local babies didn’t journey thousands of miles to reach their new homes but, as their birth parents struggled to plan for their futures, they received tender care from our interim volunteer families – another special group in our community.

Today at least 132 million children worldwide are homeless or live in institutions, many of them orphaned or abandoned. In the USA, nearly a half a million children are in foster care, and over a quarter of them are eligible for adoption. Spence-Chapin is their hope for a family, for a future that will allow them to thrive in a loving, safe home. Our challenge individually and as a community is to find the wherewithal for that to happen. During and before my arrival at Spence-Chapin, more than 20,000 have been touched by many of you – some very directly and very immediately. I have enjoyed watching your children grow up, and I have personally benefited from your generosity and friendship. I take a bit of each of you with me and for that – and so much more – I Thank You!

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Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation

Exciting news.

The Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act of 2012 was signed into law by the President on January 14, 2013. It requires that all ASP handling cases in Hague Adoption Convention Countries to receive the same accreditation under federal standards, giving assurance to families adopting internationally that regardless from where they adopt, the ASP they choose to work with will be in substantial compliance with the same ethical standards of practice and conduct.

You can read more about this on the State Department’s website , and read and download the act here.

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.