18 October 2016

Building momentum in Latin America

Author: Victoria Martin, Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean

Hope and Homes for Children first started work to identify new partners in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2012, in line with our organisational strategy to build partnerships in key regions across the globe. In 2015, after taking part in extensive meetings, conferences and exchanges to share good practice and identify the best people to work with, Hope and Homes for Children was delighted to sign a partnership agreement with RELAF, one of the most respected children’s rights organisations in the region.

Victoria Martin is Hope and Homes for Children’s Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Argentina. She has ten years’ experience in international development and child protection reform and has worked with us in both Eastern Europe and East and Southern Africa. Here Victoria describes the challenge we face in ending the institutionalisation of children in Latin America and the exciting developments that have taken place in our work there this year.

Today there are at least a quarter of a million children confined to institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean, forced to live without the love and protection of a family. The true figure is likely to be much higher but no one knows for sure because of a lack of reliable statistics (in itself, a telling sign of the extent to which these children are marginalised and overlooked).

The institutions that we do know about, cover a very broad spectrum – from small, privately run facilities to orphanages housing 800 to 1000 children. Some are run by the state, some by faith groups or charities but whoever is in charge, these facilities are rarely registered or monitored in any meaningful way.

I recently visited a residential centre which houses 38 children, although it was built to accommodate up to 100. There were far more staff than children with 98 employees in total – but only two of whom were qualified to work with children. The rest of the staff were there to cook and clean and take care of the building and the grounds. Some attempt had been made to improve the physical appearance of the place. The communal bedrooms I saw were freshly painted but there was no way of telling who slept in those rows of beds; no soft toys, no photographs of friends or family or any of the other personal treasures that fill the rooms of children who live with their families. All the new signage, new bedsheets and new paint work in the world makes no difference in a place where children are denied individual love and attention; it’s just papering over the cracks in a failed system.

Many people still believe that disadvantaged children are better off living in orphanages and similar institutions than with their parents or extended families. That’s why advocacy and awareness-raising are such a fundamental part of my work. We need to work with communities to show that no institution, however well intentioned or well resourced, can nurture a child in the way that a loving family can.

“Today there are at least a quarter of a million children confined to institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean, forced to live without the love and protection of a family.”

The good news is that, when it comes to governments, in many countries in this region, we are pushing at an open door. On the whole, the authorities here do see the value of family based care and of building strong child protection systems. The challenge comes with putting policy into practice. For example, there are lots of policies and plans for setting up foster care systems here but it’s very hard to get to the next stage and actually implement those plans. This is where Hope and Homes for Children come in. Our experience in other parts of the world means that we are able to support reform here and help make it possible to move children out of orphanages and into family based care, with better results for everyone.

As in the other countries where Hope and Homes for Children works, we can only hope to achieve our goals in Latin America and the Caribbean by building partnerships with like-minded national and international organisations that share our vision and our high professional standards. For example, we are working in close partnership with UNICEF in the region, who have a particular focus on ending the institutionalisation of children under the age of three.

Our main partner organisation here are RELAF (Foster Family Latin American Network). They support governments across the region to develop foster care and proper adoption processes, to move children from orphanages into family based care and to prevent family breakdown. RELAF are a highly respected organisation with real impact on the ground, which is why our partnership with them is so important.

The main focus of our work with them this year has been to set up what we are calling a “Centre of Excellence” for Latin America and the Caribbean. The Centre will act as a training and information hub for child protection professionals and others with a role to play in child protection reform across the region. Establishing the Centre is a major undertaking but we hope that it will be launched by the end of 2016.

The second major project that we have undertaken this year, is working with RELAF, Maestral International and UNICEF in Mexico to help the authorities develop and deliver their own foster care system. In April, along with Otto Sestak, Hope and Homes for Children’s Country Director for Romania and Galina Pourcheva-Bisset, our Technical Advisor, I travelled to Mexico to help to deliver the first part of a training course designed to equip a group of childcare professionals to recruit and train foster parents. It was a great week! The group proved knowledgeable, interested and passionate and, best of all, they came with an honest desire to learn and get things going on the ground.

Foster care is still quite a new concept in Latin America and the Caribbean, but it’s an idea that fits really well with the focus on the family and on collective and community responsibility that exists here. And things are beginning to change. As more people foster children and provide them with that alternative family, their friends, their relatives and their neighbours see how fostering works and begin to understand that it is possible for a child who is not a relative to become part of their family. That’s the best way to change hearts and minds in Latin America and around the world and that’s how we will build the momentum we need to bring everyone on this journey together.

Update: Recently, both Victoria Martin and our CEO, Mark Waddington, took part in RELAF’s “Seminario 2016”, a 3 day conference in Panama City held to discuss deinstitutionalisation, prevention of separation, and how to protect children without parental care.

During the visit, the Centre of Excellence for Children, a joint initiative from Hope and Homes for Children and RELAF, was launched. The centre will provide training and support for child protection professionals across the region, building their capacity to deliver alternative care and eradicate orphanages.