13 October 2020

Life after the orphanage: Listening to care-leavers in Latin America

Cover of Más Autonomía, Más derechos (2020)

For any child growing up in an orphanage, it’s not just their childhood that suffers. At an age when they’re old enough to leave the orphanage behind, care-leavers often find themselves totally unprepared for independent living. A regional research project we recently undertook encouraged care leavers across Latin America to share their own experiences—in their own words—and to help shine a light on the path to change. Victoria Olarte, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, reflects on its impact.

Victoria Olarte

At the very heart of our work at Hope and Homes for Children is the desire to achieve quality for children. Putting children themselves at the centre of child care and protection systems is a seemingly obvious way to do this, but it is a challenging one. Children in care, and those who are leaving care to start independent life at the age of 18, are among the most disadvantaged and invisible in our societies.

 

“Putting children themselves at the centre of childcare and protection systems is a seemingly obvious way to [achieve quality for children], but it is a challenging one.”

 

To this end, we joined forces with the Red Latino Americana de Egresados de Protección (Latin American Network of Care Leavers), Doncel and UNICEF to raise the voices of children and young people who are living in, or have left, care in Latin America and the Caribbean—where an estimated 189,000 children live in institutional care. Our aim was to shine a light on their lives in care and their transition to independent living, all expressed through their own words. After all, these children and young people are the experts in their own lives.

The research took a deep dive into Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia to generate insights into the situation of young care leavers; the process of ageing out of formal child protection systems; and the policies, strategies and actions aimed at supporting this transition.

 

“Children leave the care system simply because they reach the age of 18. They wait for this moment, neither supported to be reintegrated into family… nor prepared for independent life”

 

Courageous and often forgotten children, adolescents and young people who have been separated from their families and lived in care bravely shared the challenges they faced, both while living in institutions and then during the transition to independent life at age 18.

“We aren’t prepared to face life. We are kept in a bubble and in reality that’s not how the society works”
Young woman in care, Colombia

“I entered the institution when I was 11 months old, I mean, I was a baby. Nobody told me anything… when I was growing up they didn’t tell me anything either, I just knew it. When the girls turned 18, they were gone”
Young care leaver, Mexico

 

 
As one care leaver explains in this video, children leave the care system simply because they reach the age of 18. They wait for this moment, neither supported to be reintegrated into family or alternative care before this age nor prepared for independent life when they reach adulthood.

 

“Children [were involved] throughout the research process—from research design to focus groups and developing the research recommendations”

 

With its membership of local NGOs and care leavers themselves, the Latin American Network of Care Leavers was in the ideal position to involve children throughout the research process—from research design to focus groups and developing the research recommendations. This participation drew on their unique knowledge about their lives, needs and concerns, and encouraged expression of their own ideas and views based on their direct experience. We know that such engagement also pays dividends in terms of personal development, tolerance and respect for others, and accountability… which all help to strengthen the capacity of children and young people and the social structures around them.

This culminated in August with the launch of Más Autonomía, Más Derechos (2020) (‘More Independence, More Rights’), the resulting report that brings the voices of children and adolescents to the fore. The virtual launch of the research saw young members of the network contribute to the discussion on public policies that support the transition from institutional care into independent living, and reflect on the contributions of this research in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic and the renewed challenges that alternative care systems face in Latin America.

 

“The idea that children and adolescents have nothing to tell us needs to be eradicated” Luis Pedernera, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, United Nations

 

The research process helped young care leavers find their voices. Now, together with UNICEF and local NGOs, these powerful advocates are speaking directly to their governments to make their experiences visible and to make a change. Their perspectives must drive the urgency and priorities for deep reform to child care and protection systems in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia; across Latin America; and indeed, globally. Their experience shows that institutional care does not meet the best interests of the child and must be phased out as we move towards family strengthening and family and community-based solutions.

This research brings life to the urgency of upholding children’s rights and implementing the UN Guidelines on Alternative Care. Luis Pedernera, the Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, spoke to young care leavers during the launch to highlight how the UN seeks to improve child protection and care systems. His message was clear: “The idea that children and adolescents have nothing to tell us needs to be eradicated.”

Having spent the past five years working with governments and NGOs across Latin America to build new pathways for the care and protection of children, I know all too well that children and young people are often left out of the debate. The courage of these children and young people to speak up has inspired me. They are orienting their national governments and other decision makers on the way forward. It is our responsibility to listen.