Waking up on a Saturday morning in his large dormitory at 6.30 a.m. is the most challenging part of living at the care institution, says 12-year-old Rafael, picking at his cuticles.
“They turn the lights on to wake us up but I would like to sleep more.” His Saturdays are spent cleaning, watching TV, and playing football. He recently helped paint a colourful mural on the walls around the yard with some young volunteers who help at the care institution.
Apart from the volunteers, Rafael has had no visitors nor has he spent a weekend away since he was first brought by social workers to the care institution in La Paz three years ago. According to his records he was found alone in the streets of a rural town in Los Yungas, some 200 kilometres away from La Paz.
His family remains a mystery. “Maybe he was abandoned,” says the director of the care home, who preferred to remain anonymous. “He does not mention his parents; the only information we have is that his grandfather sells water melons in Santa Cruz.” The director points out that the care institution is meant to be a transit centre for children aged 6-12 years, not a permanent home. “So we will soon have to move Rafael to another institution where he can stay until he is 18.”
This care institution currently has 53 children, 17 boys and 36 girls. Rafael has stayed there the longest. “Most of the children have been abandoned or abused; some are victims of sexual violence,” says the director.
The chances of Rafael having a family life are remote. “We have been trying to trace Rafael’s grandfather, but we have not yet got any information about him,” says the director. “If they find out he has no living family member, adoption or fostering is also unlikely. Most Bolivians prefer to adopt babies or young children.” The legal process is also long and complex. In the past three years, no child has been adopted from the institution and international adoptions have been suspended while procedures are being reviewed by the Central Authority.
Meanwhile to develop the best type of care for the many children without family care, UNICEF in collaboration with the INGO Amici dei Bambini, is providing technical assistance to the Ministry of Justice to gather data. “It is essential to have a better picture of how many children are in care institutions so that we have a basis to develop standards,” says Rosana Vega, UNICEF Child Protection Chief in Bolivia. “Children should not end up living in institutions. All children have the right to a loving, caring family life whether it is with their relatives-- there is often an aunt, uncle or cousin–or a foster family. Alternative family based care needs to be promoted and there needs to be more awareness about the impact institutionalization has on a child’s development. Scientific research shows that institutionalizing children can hinder their brain development, affecting their abilities to socialise, learn, play and to take care of themselves.”
The last adoption from Rafael’s care institution was in 2010 when a nurse, a single woman, had wanted to adopt a 3-year-old boy who was living there with his brothers aged 5 and 15. Their parents had died in a car accident. “We told the nurse that the brothers couldn’t be separated, so she took all three of them. They all seem happy and so is she. We follow up on children who are adopted or fostered for at least two years,” explains the director.
By contrast Rafael only gets a taste of “normal life” outside the institution when he attends school. “Mixing with other children is important for the children’s mental health,” says the director, who adds some of the children become too institutionalized. “We try to take an integrated approach, building their educational and social skills.”
Their efforts are evident. The library is packed with books and the TV room is cozy and full of toys. However, Vega points out, “Material provisions should not seduce people into thinking that putting children into a care institution is a solution to their problems. In Bolivia, poverty is sadly a common justification to separate children from their families, but no material intervention can replace the love, care and attention that a child receives from his or her mother or carer,” stresses Vega. “Children in care homes often suffer neglect, lack of affection and stimulation as institutional carers have to look after many children at the same time.”
The director is well aware of this. It is also apparent that there is a sadness and insecurity in Rafael’s demeanour. Yet Rafael is making huge efforts to fit in. “He is doing well in school and always does his homework,” says the director. “We only have to push him a bit with his domestic duties.” She looks fondly at Rafael, who has a charming smile. He has changed into smart football gear and shows off his nifty football skills in the yard within the walls of the institution. “I love football,” he says. “I like to play it every day.”
He also loves school. “I want to be a doctor,” Rafael says resolutely. To achieve his dream he knows he has to study hard at school, but Rafael concedes the school break times are his favourite. “I get to play with other children.”