Guatemala faces child welfare crisis

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The Voices of Hope/Las voces de La Esperanza: Poems, Stories, and Drawings by the Children of La Esperanza, Guatemala/poemas, cuentos y dibujos de los niños de La Esperanza, Guatemala
Published by Newsday, 10/24/05


GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- When the trees, boulders and mud cascaded down the side of the volcano and into the village of Panabaj about three hours west of here, the children at first were terrified by the noise.
Vicente Chumil, 8, was inside his house when he heard the rumble - "like an airplane," he said Wednesday in an interview arranged by Red Cross workers and local government officials.
But Vicente doesn't remember what happened next - only that he and his 5-year-old sister, Anabela, survived. Their parents, who were also in the house, did not.
A boy Red Cross workers identified only as Antonito in nearby Sololá remembered similarly haunting sounds, "something strange coming from the earth," he said through the relief agency translator. Then, he said, it suddenly became very dark and his parents and other family members were gone, along with 600 other villagers who are still not accounted for.
The relentless rain of Hurricane Stan caused some of the most massive mudslides and floods in Guatemala's history, leaving hundreds of bodies still buried 15 feet below the earth, by rivers of mud, in an area that stretches across the western part of the country. The storm killed more than 2,100 people in four Central American countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Orphaned by storm
At least 23 children were orphaned in Panabaj alone, according to Red Cross Guatemala's national secretary, Manolo Morales, who is helping coordinate relief efforts in the affected areas and set up the children's phone interviews.
"TheNearly three weeks after the storm, the disaster has created a crisis in the country's already overburdened child welfare system. The Guatemalan attorney general's office and UNICEF, the United Nations' children's agency, estimate there could be as many as 1,200 new orphans, adding to the thousands in the country who already live on the streets or in orphanages. There are no official figures because the government doesn't know how many children are living on the street or in some rural areas, but officials say there are anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 orphans. In a country that approves only 3,500 adoptions a year - most to other countries and not all of them orphans - child advocates fear the new numbers could overwhelm the system.
About 80 percent of adoptions are to American couples, according to Guatemalan social welfare officials. The country considered more stringent adoption laws last year to prevent widespread child trafficking, which relief workers are afraid will happen with the newest orphans if they aren't properly protected.

A vulnerable population
The country's newest orphans also face widespread illness like dysentery and hepatitis because of unclean drinking water and the close quarters at shelters. There already have been cases of scabies and at least two cases of cholera.
Relief workers and government officials say the ultimate goal is quick reunification with extended family because they fear the children could become victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation. "They're in a high-risk, vulnerable situation," said Karen Hickson of UNICEF's Office of Child Protection.
Dr. Arturo Monsanto, a Red Cross surgeon, said the children "are damaged and will need a lot of psychological counseling." He said some cannot speak; some stare blankly ahead. Many don't have toys to play with - to them, medicine dispensers or bottles of water are toys.

Lost in translation
Communication is a problem, too. Many of the children are of Mayan descent and speak their native language rather than Spanish, making translation difficult. If no one comes forward for them, they will be freed for adoption and probably wind up in a new wave of government-run children's "protection" shelters or established, church-run orphanages, several of which are in Guatemala City, officials said.
One of them is the Hogar Rafael Ayau, one of the city's oldest orphanages and home to 100 children. There, Madre Inés Ayau, a Christian Orthodox nun, waits for children of the disaster.
The walled, ochre-colored orphanage rises up in one of the city's worst neighborhoods, past the shop that sells toilet fixtures, past the prostitutes on the corner and past the public buses spewing black smoke into the air. But inside is an oasis of green space, dormitories and a chapel.
Ayau said she has empty cribs and beds waiting. "At first the community will try to keep the children, but they will say 'we cannot feed so many mouths.' They will eventually come" to the orphanage "after the government shelters can't deal with them," said Ayau, who says the shelters are far more institutional than homes like hers run by the church and private agencies.
Still, it is a constant scramble for financial help. "We're professional beggars," she said of the orphanage, which costs a half-million dollars a year to run. "We don't have a lot of funds but we have a lot of children."
On a recent afternoon, the children prayed and sang at a religious service. The boys played soccer and the girls played on a jungle gym before eating a dinner of rice and frijoles fritos, black bean paste spread on bread.
Astrid Carrillo, 12, has lived there for six years with her brother, Jember, 7, after barely surviving on the streets with their mother, a pickpocket who made her children part of her scheme, Ayau said. "I would like a home for my brother and for me," Astrid told a visitor over dinner.
Ayau said Astrid's is the wish of many, and will only be compounded with the onslaught of new orphans. She paused and then added, "It's a never-ending story."

09:56 Gepost door Jeronimo | Permalink | Commentaren (1) |  Facebook |