Nearly 10 percent of Bolivian children have been abandoned by impoverished mothers out of shame, taboos and fear. A spin of el torno offers a new chance at life, but overcrowded orphanages struggle to provide for these children, and regulatory obstacles make the adoption process difficult.
By Ellen Jean Hirst
This baby’s name would be Gracey, but her mother would never know. The year was 2004. The fourpound baby, conceived when her 14-year-old mother was raped by her cousin, was born outside of Oruro, Bolivia. In her first moments of life, the baby was laid under a bush without a name and left to die.
Indigenous women who live in rural areas usually give birth in their homes, with help from mothers, sisters or aunts. If they cannot afford or do not want to keep their babies, they have two options: abort or abandon. Abortions are illegal in Bolivia and are much more risky for the mothers. Seventy-four percent of Indigenous people in Bolivia live below the poverty line, but even if they could afford an abortion, they would have to travel to the city. Having the baby is safer and less expensive, so that’s what many of these women do, whether they are ready, whether they want it or whether they will have help once it comes.
And the unwanted baby lies under the bush.
Forgotten to found
Even though this is the fate for some abandoned Bolivian babies, the 2011 UNICEF report shows at least 320,000 of these forgotten children have survived. Bolivia has a population of nearly 10 million, with 3.5 million under 15 years old. Slightly less than 10 percent of the children in Bolivia are orphans who most often live in orphanages in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz. A 2009 study done in Bolivia called the German Technical Assistance program, or its Spanish name, Cooperación Técnica Alemana, estimates that more than 2,500 children live on the streets of Bolivia, unaccompanied.
Infant abandonment in Bolivia is high and has many forms, according to Caridad Sánchez, an educator at the Carlos de Villegas Home, or its Spanish name, Hogar Carlos de Villegas, in La Paz. If police come across a homeless or abandoned child, they carry the child to an orphanage — a search for their families would be too exhausting and useless. Sánchez has witnessed babies being abandoned in garbage dumps and deserted in nylon bags on the streets. When women come to the orphanage to drop off their children, the most cited reason is poverty. Sánchez said she believes that impoverished people, especially women, need to be educated about sex and its consequences. Ovidio Suárez, a private doctor in La Paz agrees, saying that because it is not talked about in schools or at home, young women don’t know the consequences of unprotected sex.
“It is still considered taboo to talk about the use of contraceptives or to give sexual information about sex before marriage,” Sánchez said in Spanish. “Unfortunately the consequences are undesired pregnancies and, logically, abortions.”
Abortions are illegal in Bolivia unless the baby presents harm to the mother’s health or is the result of rape. Abandonment is the legal option for women who cannot take care of their babies. When shame and embarrassment are too great, mothers who come to this orphanage can leave their babies in el torno.
El torno is a physical, rotating chamber at the Carlos de Villegas Home that welcomes Bolivian babies abandoned by their mothers. This cylindrical, lifesaving mechanism spins full circle, embedded in the wall of the caretakers’ quarters. Mothers slide open the door, say goodbye, and with a spin, the babies’ fates are forever changed. About a quarter of the orphans at the Carlos de Villegas Home have been left in el torno, which serves a similar purpose to the United States’ safe haven laws.
“They come and say, ‘I cannot keep going on; I cannot raise my child,'” Rosario Arnao, director of the Carlos de Villegas Home, said in Spanish.
In Spanish, el torno is used to describe a turn or a bend in a river. When the caretakers hear the creaking of el torno, they know a new baby is coming to their sleeping quarters, turning to them for a second chance at such a young life. Sometimes there’s a note, and sometimes there isn’t, but at least they are safe. They have reached the bend in the river.
But the bend in the river doesn’t necessarily bring happiness and joy. These orphans face a multitude of obstacles children with families can’t fathom. These children have no families to love them, little financial support from the government and a lengthy, uncertain adoption process in which to invest their hopes.
Gracey was adopted into a family who could afford to support and love her. After being found abandoned under a bush outside Oruro, she spent a few days with her biological mother, who was convinced by a Bolivian missionary woman to nurse Gracey until a home could be found. During that time Gracey’s biological mother fed her pesticides, fearful that she had been tricked into keeping her child. After Mike and Bonnie Timmer, founders of the International Orphanage Union of Bolivia, agreed to take care of Gracey, she had to spend months in the hospital with complications from pesticide poisoning. After an emotional struggle to keep Gracey alive, the Timmers, who came to Bolivia as missionaries from Holland, Mich., knew that she would not be the first addition to their orphanage, but a new addition to their family. Increasingly few Bolivian babies share this fate.
Only days or weeks old, these babies face an uncertain future, even after they are found. IOU Bolivia hopes to open 50 orphanages by 2012. Even though there are more orphans than ever before, the Timmers try to limit each orphanage to 10 children so they can grow up with a sense of family.
But limiting the population of an orphanage is not a luxury director Rosario Arnao of the Carlos de Villegas Home has — it’s a luxury she refuses to have. With el torno, Arnao’s orphanage becomes easily overpopulated. Arnao said that adoptions have decreased “dramatically and scandalously,” while the rate of abandonment has increased during the past three years.
Finding adoptive families for Bolivian orphans is like trying to clasp a handful of sand. For one reason or another, many children’s hope at adoption slips through the crevices of a flawed system. This ratio is further depressed by the fact that adoption by foreigners is exceedingly difficult. In 2002 under President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the Bolivian government halted foreign adoptions due to concerns that foreign agencies responsible for sending followup reports about these children were not doing so adequately.
Under the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption, foreign governments assume responsibility for follow-up reporting. The Convention aims to protect children from abduction and trafficking by setting strict regulations on intercountry adoptions. Although the U.S. and Bolivia are both Convention countries, adoptions between the two countries still meet obstacles. U.S. parents wishing to adopt Bolivian orphans must first become legal residents of Bolivia, which elevates the process’s time frame to several months or more than a year.
The U.S. averaged about 38 adoptions per year from Bolivia between 1992 and 2001; that number dropped to seven adoptions per year between 2002 and 2007, after the adoption process became more difficult.
The Carlos de Villegas Home keeps a lawyer on staff to deal with issues that arise with adoptions. Eva Paredes said she advocates the rights of children — particularly the right to a family and the privileges associated with family life.
“We can provide many things,” Arnao, director of the Carlos de Villegas Home, said, “but the love of a family, there we are limited. That is the greatest pain these kids are being inflicted with — the wait. The bureaucracy.”
Orphanages face financial challenges in providing for orphans, especially since many children come there in poor health, both physically and psychologically.
“Most of them come here very malnourished,” Ethel Saavedra, a psychologist at the Carlos de Villegas Home, said in Spanish. “Girls who are older look underdeveloped because since their gestation they were not fed right.”
Money for food can help reverse the effects of malnourishment, but things money cannot buy — love and belonging — are harder to ensure. Although Arnao said the 28 babies in her orphanage receive physical touch stimulation for two hours every morning, which has been shown to help babies develop more normally, sometimes psychological damage is deep and hard to heal.
“Institutionalized children do not have the love that other babies have from the arms of their parents,” Arnao said.
A 2-year-old girl came to a Cochabamba orphanage for babies physically, mentally and emotionally broken. She was born in the outlying countryside of Cochabamba to an alcoholic mother, blind as a result. Her tiny body had been chronically malnourished and sexually abused when she reached the orphanage, House of Love, or its Spanish name, Casa de Amor. She was diagnosed with Failure to Thrive Syndrome, a condition associated with severe emotional neglect.
Affection and stimulation are as vital for healthy physical growth as food, developmental psychologist Laura E. Berk wrote in her book “Exploring Lifespan Development.” The syndrome from which the 2-yearold at House of Love suffers is present as early as 18 months of age. Babies ill with this condition appear physically wasted and are withdrawn and apathetic. No organic cause for their failure can be found. It is literally a lack of love.
The girl at House of Love continues to have problems with self-aggression and motor skill delays. She shows no signs of speech and has a limited appetite. Days after joining the “baby home,” as Jennifer Thompson, director and founder of House of Love, calls it, she was admitted to the hospital for dehydration and malnutrition. She is doing better today, but life still won’t be easy for her. She has experienced many poisons, even before she was born. Many orphans have similar beginnings.
Our Home Orphanage, or its Spanish name, Hogar Albergue Nuestra Casa, is a home for 16 girls between the ages of 7 and 18. The youngest girl, María Elena, lives there with her sister, displaced from her home because of neglect. Some of the girls who live there ran away or were removed from abusive homes. Although director Yusla Roa said the ultimate goal is to reunite the girls with some sort of biological family, the girls all agreed: “We are like sisters, it’s just the same. We are family.”
Financial aid from the government has been stagnant since the 1950s, but the number of orphans and the rate of inflation — which rose 14 percent in 2009 — keep growing in Bolivia.
About 100 orphans live at the Carlos de Villegas Home, an orphanage supported largely by charities and public fundraising events. There are nearly as many baby orphans at House of Love supported similarly. Although there are fewer orphans at the Timmer orphanages and Our Home Orphanage, financial strains were the top of every orphanage director’s concerns. The government provides financial aid, about enough to buy 50 children a 1.5 liter bottle of water each day and too little to buy them each a loaf of bread.
“The government pays for 50 children, although the population is 100,” Arnao said. The six Bolivianos it provides daily is about 87 cents.
Arnao said that since she arrived at the Carlos de Villegas Home in 1973, she has struggled to raise money for the children at the orphanage.
“I have always had to extend my hand and beg for my girls, and I am not ashamed if I have to keep doing it,” Arnao said. “I will, because it is necessary.”
Gracey is now 7 years old. She is fully integrated into the Timmer family and is the inspiration for the Timmers’ plan to open 50 orphanages by 2012. Her luck, or whatever it was that saved her, will spread.
It cannot possibly reach all of the orphans in Bolivia, however, which is why Arnao, Thompson and other orphanage staff agree that the only real solution to saving an orphan from psychological scarring is adoption.
It would be ideal to improve on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies as well, through government education programs or sex education in schools.
For all 320,000 orphans in Bolivia to find homes with Bolivian families, one out of every 13 people aged 15 to 62 who live above the poverty line in Bolivia — making more than $2 a day — would have to adopt a Bolivian child. But this age range is very large, and even those who make more than $2 a day cannot always afford to take care of another child. With limited foreign adoptions and too few willing and able families in Bolivia to adopt, many Bolivian orphans will never find a home.
“There needs to be a political body to deal with this; the government has to keep it practical,” Arnao said. “It is ridiculous because it can be solved so easily. The government needs to foster awareness so the kids can be quickly and easily adopted, so they can have a family, a family life.”