Tag Archives: social work

Social Workers Bring Hope – Part 2: The Importance of Investing in Child Protection

Social Work and Silos

In the international child protection field, people tend to work in silos. Some may work on child trafficking, intercountry adoption, or cross-border migration, but all of these topics overlap. Events in Guatemala provide evidence of how content-specific interventions don’t go far enough to address root problems. Three critical events over the past 10 years: the closing of Guatemala’s intercountry adoption program, the influx of unaccompanied children to Mexico and the U.S., and the recent horrific fire at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción – an orphanage in Guatemala, all demonstrate that breaking down silos and investing in a comprehensive child protection system is necessary for future generations of children in Guatemala to survive.

Intercountry Adoption Gone Wrong

Intercountry adoption scandals in Guatemala revealed that many children were being adopted in nefarious ways: some were kidnapped from poor mothers, and others were bought in exchange for large sums of money from families to “voluntarily relinquish” said children. Guatemala then passed new adoption legislation to regulate intercountry adoption, implement safeguards of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, and shut down their intercountry adoption program.

Despite funding assistance to improve domestic and international child welfare and adoption practices, Guatemala’s child protection systems remain mired in inefficiencies. Several years ago, International Social Service-USA experienced firsthand the challenges in the country’s domestic adoption system. We worked on a case that involved several U.S. children in Guatemala’s child protection system who were being considered for placement with an aunt and uncle that lived in the U.S. Unfortunately, a series of court delays and hurdles prolonged a placement decision. Nearly three years later, the children remain in Guatemala’s state care, and their fate is still in the hands of Guatemala’s courts. Intercountry adoption scandals and inefficiencies in family court are just one part of the story.

Child Exodus- Child Migration Influx

humanitarian aid

In 2014, the influx of migrating children from Guatemala and other regions to the U.S. hit an all-time high. This was due in part to the prevalence of violence, child abuse, and neglect, as well as the lack of strong child protection infrastructures. The fixes Guatemala made to their child protection systems in response to the intercountry adoption scandals were not close to enough to protect children overall. Large flows of children have continued since 2014, and addressing root causes of migration remains as critical as ever.

The Harm in Institutional-Based Care

Most recently, the world learned of the horrific fire that claimed the lives of 40 girls who were living in an institution run by the Guatemalan government. What makes this horrifying situation even worse is that some parents had chosen to place their children at this facility. They believed that by doing so, they were protecting them from dangers at home and were preventing their children from the violence that many experience on the journey through Mexico and into the United States.

Invest in Social Work – Across Silos & Borders

Unfortunately, investments in the region typically focus on economic growth, foreign investment, and security rather than social work or child protection.

If social work and child protection became priorities, the Northern Triangle and Mexico regions could build the capacity of their local social work systems. This financial support in the region would mean more children would remain with their families, and fewer children would be killed, abducted, trafficked, abandoned, abused, or flee to the U.S. without documentation.

What would it look like if we invested in social workers and child welfare in Guatemala?

  • Families in danger of breaking apart would be helped, trained, and supervised by a social worker who could coordinate services, cash assistance, or family-based care.
  • Children unable to remain with their families would live with other kin or in foster care, where they would be under the careful and regulated supervision of social workers within an organized child welfare system.
  • The child welfare system would be adequately equipped with lawyers and social workers trained in both domestic and cross-border issues who could make timely decisions in the best interest of children. By arming them with knowledge, they could better protect children from trafficking and promote outcomes in the best interest of the child in intercountry adoption and migration.
  • The number of government institutions would decrease dramatically or disappear entirely. Specialized and well-supervised care facilities would remain for certain children who, even under the best of circumstances, are unable to live in a family because they require extraordinary supervision.
  • Guatemala would have a DNA database to help individuals find their biological relatives in Guatemala and overseas. Social workers could provide appropriate support during and after this process while facilitating searches and reunions.
  • Child protection systems in Guatemala could extend their reach and work with entities worldwide to help children and families separated across borders due to trafficking, migration, adoption or abuse and neglect. International Social Service partners could assist by providing case management and linking people to information, legal support, and social services.

children

These different events offer insight into the weaknesses that exist in child protection systems. They also help us understand just how important it is to enhance child protection systems to improve outcomes for all children – whether they are being adopted, living in state care, a victim of human trafficking or migrating to another region.

Social Workers Get things Done, Despite Overwhelming Challenges in Protecting Children

Many recent events have emphasized the need for investment in the social service workforce. My trip to India to participate in the launch of a social work training program was one event that highlighted the importance of this profession and how critical social workers are in making positive changes in child care systems.

India: On the Road to Alternative Care

India children
I recently visited Delhi, India to participate in the International Symposium on Family Strengthening at Jamia Millia Islamia University. This two-day symposium convened professors, social workers, early child development students, and leaders in government and nongovernment sectors who are concerned about protecting children, especially those living outside of family care. The symposium celebrated the inauguration of India’s first National Resource Centre in Foster Care. The Centre is headed by Dr. Meenai, a well-respected social work professor who has a wealth of expertise in the field of child development.

Madhavi, head of the UK-based foster care agency, Liberty Fostering, enthusiastically explained the details of recruiting, screening, and providing ongoing training and support for foster families, as well as the placement of children and the supervision of placements.

I watched the audience pose serious questions such as:

  • How does one deal with foster families that are different castes or religions from the child, the biological family, or the social worker?
  • Could fostering be accepted as a legitimate way to assist vulnerable children, or would there be a stigma associated with it that would prevent families from wanting to get involved?
  • Who and how would we begin to recruit families? Who would be responsible for and supervise them?
  • How could a program like this be funded?
  • Do foster parents get paid to provide care?
  • How would foster care fit into the limited existing child protection framework?

These questions highlighted the perceived challenges of achieving complete child protection systems with a well-functioning foster care component like what Madhavi described based on her work in the UK. These questions also identified how India will need to adapt its current “best practice” models to incorporate the unique challenges that castes, religion, and other cultural nuances pose in the treatment and placement of children and in the development of alternative care solutions.

Limited Options for Children

I also visited a Child Welfare Committee office, which determines outcomes for children who are referred by the police, by a family, or in some cases by a child. In the office, a review panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, educator, special education expert, and lawyer were all discussing different situations with families. That day, I saw two little boys who had been found at a train station who were waiting for their parents to arrive. Another family was there to bring their thirteen year old daughter home, who had run away.

Members of the review panel did their best to understand and assess each child’s unique circumstances, home conditions, and potential risks. Unfortunately, the review panel did not have the capacity to send social workers to visit each child’s home or to gather more information about the child’s home environment. If it was determined that a child should not return home, the only other option was to place the child in institutional-based care. In cases of alleged sexual abuse, girls are often pressured by their families to return home and not press charges, because placing the alleged relative abuser in jail could cause the family to lose their only or major source of income. This experience visiting the Child Welfare Committee Office underscored that in order to develop more family-based care options for children, the system would first need to enhance its ability to evaluate the child’s needs, safety, and placement options when determining if the child should be returned home, placed in a family, or taken to an institutional facility.

Passionate and Dedicated Social Workers Transform Systems of Care

Finally, I had the privilege of visiting the Centre of Excellence in Alternative Care, India, which is led by two incredibly dedicated professionals, Vasundhra, lawyer and Managing Director, and Ian Anand Forber Pratt, National Program Director. Both Vasundhra and Ian’s positions are funded by foreign Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.K and U.S. respectively. However, strict laws in India prohibit the use of foreign funding for programming in India, which means Ian and Vasundhra must use their own personal resources for travel, supplies, and other programmatic activities. Despite these obstacles, Ian and Vasundhra are driven by true passion for their mission to develop alternative care throughout India. They both work closely with the government, Jamia Millia Islamia University, other NGOs in India, and global organizations to encourage the development of tools and resources to help India provide alternative care for children who live outside of families. Ian, an adoptee himself from Calcutta, also counsels Indian adoptees and families searching for their origins.

India will face numerous challenges as it seeks to build its child protection infrastructures, including a quickly growing population of children who need protection. However, change is starting with dedicated people and in particular, driven social workers. Dr. Meenai and his colleagues are training future social workers to understand a broader spectrum of care options for children and families. These future social workers will be the ones to build this needed infrastructure.

Similarly, Ian and Vasundhra are making progress to implement stronger child protection systems and family-based care options by developing systems, working with individuals, and collaborating with legal and government stakeholders. Their tasks seem daunting, but developing systems often begins with a small group of individuals who can roll up their sleeves and get things done. Social workers and partners can make lasting change when they have an unlimited passion for, and vision of, a world where children are protected from harm and can grow up in safe, loving families.

Follow our blog to stay tuned about how social workers are changing and will continue to change the fate of children in Guatemala and the U.S.