Mi primera vez en Guatemala

I am spending four weeks in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala, to attempt to learn as much Spanish in as short a time as possible. I’m mainly doing this because my husband is Puerto Rican, but a lucky side effect is that if I manage to get pretty proficient, I might eventually get the opportunity to research or work in child welfare in Latin America.

On my flight here, I finally read Finding Fernanda by Erin Siegal. What an incredible read. Siegel painstakingly details the way international adoption circa 2008 was carried out, and gives a really damning argument for how the entire system was steeped in corruption. Her book reinforced my opinion that when government systems are so weak, decentralized, and with so little oversight, it’s just not worth it to have international adoption at all, and the problems outweigh the potential benefits to children. In places like this, Western adoptive parents’ cash automatically creates an  adverse incentive systems that will just going to turn children into commodities and create a market of babies.

Siegel described the messy Guatemalan bureaucracy as no branch of government or local court working on one child’s case having any idea if another had processed any documents or received any information about the same child. (Resulting in officials working on Fernanda’s international adoption having no idea that her biological mother had reported her kidnapping.) This, to me, also made a good argument in favor of the Hague Convention’s requirement for sending countries to establish a central authority for international adoption.

Today I had the pleasure of sitting down with some folks I met on Facebook to chat about the status of child welfare in Guatemala. Here’s a little bit of what I learned.

There is a state-run system for removing abused children from their families. During the investigation (which might take months or years), these children reside in hogares temporales (temporary children’s homes). A huge issue is that these homes are “one size fits all” and don’t provide specialized enough services for the youth, many of whom have severe needs (e.g., had experienced sexual abuse by family members, teen pregnancy and motherhood, etc.). The youth don’t receive enough one-on-one service and there is nobody to, e.g., help them navigate the legal system.

After the investigation, the state may decide to place the child with a family or in a hogar permanente, a permanent children’s home. There is a hogar temporal here in Xela. The tragic fire from last year was in a hogar permanente in Guatemala City, which was severely overcrowded.

What changes has the government made since the fire? None really, except they moved the girls from Guatemala City to various other hogares (many of which are also overcrowded or unsafe), including the hogar temporal in Xela. The issue is very divisive in Guatemala, but child welfare is also not a priority to the government. Delinquent children are seen as a problem, not as a symptom of larger societal issues.

What other state programs are there for orphans? The Comité de Adopciones facilitates domestic adoption (familias sustitutas), but adoption is still a new concept in Guatemala, and adoptees are discriminated against. Even so, there are probably 200 families waiting in line to adopt just one child. The waiting lists are long, and the process of adoption is also long – a child adopted at birth will not have true permanency until 11 years or so later, at which point the adoption is finalized. At any time in between the state can reclaim the child, if, e.g., a biological relative wants to take custody of him. (However, apparently the child is the one who can make the decision about whom to live with.)

There is also official foster care (familias temporales), but there are generally not enough families willing to foster children. He’s not aware of any NGOs here that run foster care programs.

The state will also place orphaned children (e.g., children orphaned by the volcano) with extended biological family, or if that’s not possible, in hogares, or orphanages, the vast majority of which are run by churches who are filling in the state’s gaps in services. You can adopt directly from an hogar – my new friend described adoptive parents he knew walking into an hogar where 100 children clamored to be chosen by the parents. In this case, finalization only took a year, since it wasn’t through the Comité de Adopciones. Children in hogares in Guatemala, like in other places in the world, aren’t usually literal “orphans” (where both parents have died).

I’ve heard from one woman here that only rich people are able to adopt. He said, however, that lower middle class folks can adopt just as easily.

And I’ve heard from multiple Guatemalans – three or four at this point – that the international adoption system of the 2000s was literally “selling” children. So far, I believe that’s the general perception in Guatemala, but I’m interested in talking to more people about it.

My overall impression, so far, is that although there is a state child welfare system, the bulk of orphan care is done by local churches running orphanages. I am interested to learn about how much oversight and case management the state provides, but my sense so far is that it is either 1) not doing much or 2) does provide oversight, but only to the limited number of children with whom it works, and not to children cared for in private/religious orphanages.

What do you think? What do you know? If anyone has info that supports or contradicts this, please post in the comments. I have only just started to learn about Guatemala and am eager to hear about others’ experiences!

Edited on June 20, 2018, to correct some information about hogares temporales.

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