05 Oct, 2015 | Rafael Bertoli-Mitchell

Social issues

Abandonment and Adoption in Bolivia

Alfredo is nine years old. He enjoys spending time with his friends, playing outside with his toys and wants to teach sport when he’s older. Three years ago, he was abandoned by his aunt and arrived at Fundación Arco Iris, an NGO whose mission is to fight the social exclusion of poor and homeless children in La Paz. But the orphans at the foundation never speak to each other about their pasts. It seems some things are best left alone.

According to UNICEF, nearly 10% of all children in Bolivia are orphans. Thousands of women choose to abort or abandon their children every year out of poverty, shame or fear. With abortions remaining illegal and expensive throughout Bolivia, often the choice to have the baby is a necessary – and much safer – evil. In spite of this cruel reality, most deserted children in Bolivia survive.

Caring for these children is of primary importance for organisations such as Arco Iris. Founded in 1994 by German priest Father Jose Maria Neuenhofer, the organisation is divided into three parts: social projects, which encompass a number of orphanages and rehabilitation schemes; productive units, including a bakery, artisanal and carpentry shops; and a hospital, one of the best-known free healthcare centres for minors in the region.

‘The intention has always been to work with the most vulnerable sectors of the population,’ says Jorge Toledo, a senior psychologist and the foundation’s Executive Director. ‘We work with children from dysfunctional families, victims of abandonment and sexual abuse, as well as those in extreme poverty and illegal labour.’

Infant abandonment in Bolivia can take many forms. Policemen who find an abandoned child rarely attempt to return the baby to its birth family; a trip to the orphanage is less futile. For Mr Toledo, the ever-increasing abandonment rate relates to a worldwide crisis of familial values. ‘Economic problems are one of the main things that jeopardise family unity and lead to desertion, but the sense of family as a whole is broken,’ he explains. ‘Many couples are incapable of having a discussion and arguments now lead to separation, with each parent thinking the child to be the responsibility of their partner.’

Even after settling into their foster homes, children like Alfredo often remain stigmatised for the rest of their lives. As Mr Toledo reveals, the reality for orphans is longstanding. ‘They are branded as people who are not responsible for their actions and who have no one to look after them. Many people mistreat them when they leave Arco Iris, exploiting their vulnerability.’ 

Learning of some of the cruelest experiences of abandonment quickly revealed the harsh realities of the life of an orphan. Mr Toledo tells me of babies left in rubbish tips and nylon bags. It was his next story, however, that I found most affecting. ‘A nine-year-old boy walked here all the way from Santa Cruz,’ he tells me. ‘His stepmother beat him with a hammer and made him eat rubbish. When his father, a policeman, found out, he said nothing. There is a hardness in the boy’s gaze unlike anything I have ever seen.’  

Arco Iris is clearly much more than a foster home. Healing these psychological wounds is at the top of Mr Toledo’s agenda. ‘Many children come to us with a nihilistic view on life, without dreams or anyone whom they can call Mum or Dad,’ he says. ‘We try to give them a new lease of life and renew their sense of family.’

This process seems to be helping even the most damaged orphans. The young boy I learn about is now seventeen, and has gone from a state of feeling nothing to one of emotional discovery. ‘We are teaching him to laugh, cry and – above all – feel.’

In spite of the efforts of orphanages, the sense of family remains almost impossible to replicate outside of the birth home. For the children, it can be difficult to live with more than 100 “siblings”, and foster homes must deal with issues such as teenage pregnancy and underage sex. Infants at Arco Iris’ homes may be physically held on a daily basis, but parental love and belonging are hard to reproduce.

Furthermore, a lack of funding continues to threaten the existence of orphanages in Bolivia. Financial aid from the government has been stagnant and insufficient since the 1950s, but the number of orphans and the rate of inflation – which rose 14% in 2009 – keep growing.

To make matters worse, the Bolivian adoption culture is one of hope and frustration. In other countries, changes in its public perception have made adoption a viable way to start – or make – a family, but here there is still ground to be made. Finding families for orphans is a challenging feat, and many children's hopes at adoption are shattered by a flawed system.

Mr Toledo recognises the need for reform. ‘The adoption process lasts years,’ he explains. ‘We have children who come to us after having stayed at previous foster homes – they have lived a completely institutionalised life.’

International adoption was banned in Bolivia in 2002. Today, U.S. parents wishing to adopt here must first become legal residents, which lengthens the process drastically. Such was the case of the Wieseman family from Colorado, who recently made headlines for waiting over three years to bring their adopted HIV-positive daughter home. Visa issues and other obstacles have resulted in five times fewer US adoptions from Bolivia over the past decade.

For the lucky few who find a home abroad, adopted life is not as blissful as one might hope. Former Bolivian Express interns, Catey and Christof, both wrote personal articles mapping the search for their birth parents, admitting to feeling caught between their Bolivian and adopted identities – ‘a limbo of sorts’, as Catey put it.

For all 320,000 orphans to find homes with Bolivian families, one out of every 13 people aged 15 to 62 (who live above the poverty line) would have to adopt a child. With limited foreign adoptions and too few families in Bolivia to adopt, many orphans will never find a home.

Yet the children I meet at the foundation seem untouched by these issues. Shouts of ‘¡Mano! ¡Mano!’ ring through the playground and into the suburbs. A group football match on a pitch nearby follows my conversation with Alfredo. I realise that he is not an exception. All of the orphans here possess a zest for life unlike others of their age. Years of hardship and abandonment have left them with a unique vivacity. Families come in all forms, and surely these brothers form part of one.

Photo: "Creative Commons BEAUTIFUL ORPHAN" by James Southorn is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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