04 January 2018

Reflections on Guatemala

Guatemalan institution fire. Photo: Nómada/Carlos Sebastián

In 2017, the news of the deaths of more than forty girls in a fire at a children’s home in Guatemala focused world attention on the fact that, far from protecting children, orphanages and similar residential facilities put children in danger.

At the time, Hope and Homes for Children joined calls for governments to commit to a world without orphanages. Since then we have been working with UNICEF to help the Guatemalan Government ensure that its response to the tragedy marks the beginning of a fundamental change in the way it cares for vulnerable children. Here Victoria Martin, Regional Director of Hope and Homes for Children in Latin America and the Caribbean, gives her assessment of the changes that are needed:

On the night of March 8th 2017, 41 girls aged between fourteen and sixteen died in a fire at a crowded institution for teenagers in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. The tragedy reverberated across the region and around the world. Since then, many questions have been asked about who should be held to account for the fire in a facility which was built to hold 400 children but, on the night of the fire, housed many more. For many of us striving to uphold children’s rights in the region, another question that we have been asking ourselves is whether this tragedy can become a powerful motivational force for change and growth?

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, official statements were made, civil society rallied, new funds and programmes set up. Justice for children and families, accountability and change were all demanded by communities close to the institution and further afield.

Alongside the urgency to ensure the immediate welfare of children and families at Hogar Seguro, my hope was that the Guatemalan government and other governments across Latin America and the Caribbean would recognise that this was not an isolated incident and children will continue to suffer as long as the institutional care system remains intact.

Three months after the fire, I visited Guatemala together with Delia Pop, Hope and Homes for Children’s Director of Programmes and Global Advocacy.  We were there to support longer-term strategic planning for the reform of the national child protection and alternative care system.

At the invitation of UNICEF and together with Relaf, CHEMONICS, Secretaría de Bienestar Social de la Presidencia, la Procuraduría General de la Nación de Guatemala, and the Consejo Nacional de Adopciones, we explored in depth the ideas, inspiration, challenges and opportunities for change as Guatemala considers its future path towards realizing children’s rights. Reflecting on our visit, it seems to me there are a number of key elements that need to be in place for genuine reform to take root in Guatemala and then grow and spread to other countries in the region:

High level political commitment

To drive systemic reform of child care and protection systems, high level political commitment is needed to stimulate and sustain change. Real political leadership for child care system reform in Guatemala could provide the vision, cohesion and impulse that transforms the system and acts as a beacon for the region. Securing this kind of leadership is not an easy feat but, having been involved first hand in reforms where political leadership had the power to make or break a vision for the reform of child protection systems and alternative care, its importance should not be underestimated.

An integrated approach

Successful, system-wide reform depends on effective integration. In my experience, discussions on child protection systems are often isolated and decontextualized from the broader context that surrounds a family and we must foster intentional collaborations with other sectors like education, health, early childhood development, social protection and justice. Alongside this, maintaining a dedicated space for dialogue, learning and collaboration is absolutely critical to build and sustain momentum. During a week of workshops, seminars and learning sessions in Guatemala, government and civil society came together in a safe space to build capacity and collaboration where we could talk frankly about our visions, drive and strategy for DI. Progressive voices could flourish and real concerns could be aired. That intentional space needs to be nurtured if momentum is to continue and to influence the politicians and decision-makers who can ultimately realign child protection systems at the national level.

No Child Left Behind

Every single child who lived in Hogar Seguro, and those living in institutions across the region, must be supported and transitioned safely into suitable long-term and permanent (family-based?) care. In a time of turmoil, attending to the individual needs and appropriate care and placement of each child and leaving no child behind means paying special attention to vulnerable populations such as young children, children with disabilities and teenagers with challenging behaviours who so frequently get pushed aside. In the longer term, with UNICEF estimating over 5,000 children currently residing in institutions in Guatemala and 240,000 children across LAC, alternative care and prevention services must be developed as a priority and funding must be redirected to make this a reality. An appropriate continuum of care services across the region needs to be based on local and national evidence and include gate-keeping, family and community strengthening and alternative care services.

With inequality of opportunities, incomes and outcomes across Latin America and the Caribbean, and with the far-reaching implications of violence and migration in countries such as Guatemala, services must address risk and vulnerability if children are to be supported in strong and safe families and communities. Support to single mothers to prevent their separation from children, services to address the risks of separation in the context of violence, and support for adolescents and young people who have spent most of their lives in institutions or away from their families to transition into adulthood and independent living are just a few examples.

In Guatemala, I saw first hand one of the smaller group homes where adolescents with disabilities from Hogar Seguro now live. It is a far cry from the horrors of that institution, yet the staff we met there still expressed the challenges that they face in providing the love and support that a family could give. As one of the emergency and interim residential care services being established in Guatemala whilst a critical mass of family-based services is developed, it highlighted just how important it is that small scale and temporary residential care is used only as the last resort and as a stepping stone in returning to community life. Large scale institutional care has no place in a system that values the best interests of the child.

Faith-based organisations brought on board

Meeting with faith-based organisations in Guatemala reminded me of the critical role that faith-based donors play. My previous child protection work in Africa introduced me to the immense value of faith-based networks community level, as well as their role in funding or managing many residential institutions. In Guatemala, they are responsible for funding and running over 50 of the country’s institutions for children. The attitudes and aptitudes of faith-based groups taking a progressive path for deinstitutionalization must be harnessed to affect positive change in both children’s lives and financial flows towards family-based and alternative care. The efforts of aid agencies, civil society, diplomats, foreign representations and other donors to coordinate and align their funding with the principles of the UNCRC, the UN Guidelines on Alternative Care and best practices to support children’s right to a family, could also be a game changer in the drive for systemic reform, putting family and community based care and social workforce capacity in place, in the ever increasing and counterproductive flow of funding to institutions.

A strong social workforce

This is perhaps one of the most critical parts of the jigsaw which I have intentionally left until last because I also want to talk about the work of Hope and Homes for Children in helping to build a strong social workforce across LAC. It is imperative that social workers, psychologists, service managers, community workers and the many dedicated staff who work with vulnerable children and families right across Latin America and the Caribbean must have the basic skills and capacity to work in the best interest of the children. This means having the knowledge, experience, reflective practice, resources and toolkit to ensure quality of care in any context, to prevent and respond to crisis, to make excellent decisions in the best interests of the child and to positively contribute to the transition of children from institutions into families and communities.

Recognition and incentives for the social workforce remains a global challenge, yet opportunities to learn and exchange practice will not only increase the quality of services for children and families but will also help build the evidence of why and how the social service workforce must be supported to uphold the realisation of children’s rights which rests very firmly in their hands every day.

CEN Victoria Martin

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, people having been telling us that they need very specific, targeted support to understand the systemic framework and daily realities of deinstituionalisation. Hope and Homes for Children and our regional partners RELAF recently launched the Centro de Excelencia por la Niñez. This is  our new initiative to contribute to catalysing the process of deinstitutionalisation in Latin America and the Caribbean and lead to the development of child protection systems that keep children in safe and loving families.  The CEN is a highly specialized capacity building space that is training, supporting and strengthening the child care professionals and practitioners involved in the provision of alternative family and community based care. Personally, I am proud of the CEN’s regional knowledge, track-record, experiences and training methodologies for DI, alternative care and child protection system reform. In Guatemala, Sully Aracely Santos Contreras de Uclés, Deputy Director of Guatemala’s National Council on Adoptions, has herself been involved in training and capacity-building delivered by the CEN and has a vision for strengthening the social workforce at the heart of Guatemala’s child protection reform efforts, in the wake of the tragedy at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción.

In the first six months of the CEN, we have already contributed to professional development across 8 countries. This demand shows that governments and other stakeholders are recognising that effective human resources offer one of the most powerful pathways to change.  My hope now is that, by combining this kind of capacity building with political commitment and vision for reform, the development of continuum of care services which prioritise children’s best interests and respond to the diverse contexts across Latin America and the Caribbean, and by  harnessing the powerful resources of  allies in the faith-based organisations, Guatemala and neighbouring countries, whose child protection systems share many of the flawed practices that contributed to the tragedy at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, have an opportunity to change the story for children in the future.

Since the disaster, Hope and Homes for Children has been working with UNICEF to advise the Guatemalan Government on its response and ensure that that the tragedy marks the beginning of a fundamental change in the way the country cares for vulnerable children.

Read about our call to action, one year on from the fire, where we joined with other children’s organisations across the region to honour the victims of the fire by calling for an end to institutionalisation of children, and for the urgent reform of child protection systems worldwide to ensure that the tragedy is never repeated.