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

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!

Adopting a Child with HIV

Last year we were thrilled to announce the opening of our South Africa adoption program.  Since then, we have learned more about the process, the children and the needs of the South African child welfare community.  We have learned that in South Africa, the number of children in need of families continues to grow and that these children are AIDS orphans who need families that can care for them properly.  In all, there are an estimated 3.7 million orphans in South Africa: children who are no longer babies, children with special needs and children who are part of sibling groups often remain in orphanages for years, waiting for a loving family to change their lives.

Soon after opening this program we met Megan and Cameron.adoptive family Already experienced parents (2 sons adopted from Ethiopia and Uganda), Megan and Cameron felt their family was still not quite complete.  As the couple started to look into their options, one theme kept rising above the rest; in blogs and forums and from their own hearts came the idea of adopting a child with HIV.  As Megan put it, “We did not know much about HIV – I knew that Magic Johnson had HIV. That’s about it.”  But soon they learned more – a great deal more.  They learned that with the right medication, children can have happy lives with a normal life expectancy.  They even learned that, despite the stigma the disease still carries, the CDC (Center For Disease Control) has actually removed HIV from its list of communicable diseases. Knowing this, the couple approached Spence-Chapin to adopt a child from South Africa diagnosed with HIV.  They are now in the process of completing the paperwork and hope for a child match soon.

Megan and Cameron know that in the future, their choice to parent a child with HIV HIV Quotewill be questioned.  They know they have a journey ahead to educate their community and to line up the resources their child will need to live a full life.  When asked what it is about their family that led them to this choice, when so many others tend to overlook these children, the couple seemed surprised by the question.  Says Megan, “I don’t think our family is any different; I just think we have been given the proper education.  We have the information, so we do not fear the HIV stigma. This is something all families can learn!”

As with many of the other international programs in which we work, we see children who are waiting for a family longer than any child should have to.  Children born with the HIV virus have the opportunity to lead long, full and healthy lives, but only if the child welfare and medical communities join forces to provide the care and permanency that every child deserves.  As we grow our South Africa program, our commitment to these children is stronger than ever.  With education, advocacy and adoption, we hope to provide every child with what Megan and Cameron hope for their future child: “We want people to love our child as a person first.  We want them to see that our child is in no way diminished or stigmatized and with no asterisk beside his or her name.”

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Adoption from South Africa

Megan and Cameron now… 2 sons from Ethiopia and Uganda, and a daughter from South Africa.

 

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.

South Africa Adoption Program: Our Partner Jo’hburg Child Welfare

Our momentous trip to South Africa this summer was inspirational in a number of ways.  Jo’burg Child Welfare (JCW) is a highly respected, 100+ year old NGO that does amazing work on behalf of the vulnerable children in Johannesburg.  Spence-Chapin is honored to partner with this historic agency whose mission is aligned with ours.

Jo’burg Child Welfare provides services to over 4,000 children and families annually and adoption (domestic and international) is only a small part of their work. They have four centers that house and provide for children of all ages, from infancy through the teenage years.  One of their centers also provides short-term housing to pregnant women. In addition, they recruit and train foster families, plan and prepare for children to be reunited with their birth families and provide intensive treatment to survivors of sexual abuse.

South Africa is home to more that two million orphans and JCW’s work makes a difference in the lives of some.  All of this and more make JCW an agency that is highly respected among its peers in the field as well as with the governing bodies of South Africa.  When the South African Ministry of Social Development’s Central Authority (the governing body that oversees adoption) was looking to expand their international adoptions, they received an overwhelming number of applications from agencies across the country.  Jo’burg Child Welfare was one of only two agencies approved for adoption to the United States.  During Spence-Chapin’s meetings with the Ministry, it was clear why they chose JCW.

The passion of the employees, from the Executive Director to the receptionist who greets you, was always apparent.  While visiting their sites, it was clear how each employee felt about their commitment to the well being of the children and how seriously they took the mission and purpose of their work. The vulnerable children of Johannesburg have a champion in Jo’burg Child Welfare and now Spence-Chapin.

Visit our Flickr set to see pictures from this trip.