In El Salvador, thousands of children are being taken out of orphanages to instead live with their families in often-dismal situations.
By: Lindsay Boyle
Produced and edited by: Leisha Lininger
For 31-year-old Juana Espinoza, life has been a rollercoaster.
About 11 years ago, she, her 2- and 3-year-old sons, her newborn daughter and her husband — an alcoholic — lived with her aunt and uncle, who were also alcoholics.
After one particularly bad, physical fight, Espinoza’s uncle cast her whole family out of the house for good.
With nowhere else to go, Espinoza took to the streets with her children, crying and uncertain of her future. Although her husband reassured her they would be able to start new, it was his reputation that prevented them from doing just that.
Living in a cardboard house under a mango tree, Espinoza used a gas station’s faucet to bathe her children and wash her clothes, and often depended on others’ donations for clothing, food, diapers and more.
Although she had begun gardening and selling vegetables for about $6 a week, it was not enough to provide food for her children. She decided to take her then 3- and 4-year-old sons to a protection center — somewhat similar to an orphanage — where, after a bit of adjustment, they ended up having help getting the things they needed. She visited them every Sunday.
Eight years later, the Salvadoran government asked Espinoza if she wanted her boys back, and asked her not to worry about her ability to provide resources because the only requirement was to have a house. She did not have much of a choice — instead, she had three months to figure out how to use the same salary she had been living on for years to provide for three children instead of just one.
Because of one article in El Salvador’s LEPINA law, there are countless other stories just like Espinoza’s.
The LEPINA law, or the Law on Protection of Children and Adolescents, was signed in March 2009 and consists of 260 articles based on the human rights standards set by the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Although most articles of the LEPINA law are considered helpful and outlaw things such as sex trafficking and child labor, Article 13 states that it is a family’s responsibility to care for its children, which justifies the government to remove children from protection centers.
While on the surface the article may not sound bad, the issue is that the law is designed for developed countries, where families receiving children from places such as protection centers can turn to social programs such as welfare or food stamps for help. No such programs exist in El Salvador.
In El Salvador, the term “protection center” is more common than “orphanage” because only about 10 percent of children in centers are actually orphans. The rest ended up in centers because they were placed there by the government because of familial violence and or neglect, or because their families took them there voluntarily after being unable or unwilling to take care of them.
Often, those children have family members who are gang members, abusive, drug addicts, mentally handicapped or living in extreme poverty.
According to Kara Wilson, a San Antonio native who founded Project RED, although the term “orphanage” can carry a negative connotation in the United States, that is not usually the case in El Salvador.
“Orphanages here are wonderful places compared to (children’s actual homes), because they have three meals a day, they have beds to sleep in and they have an education — a private education, usually,” she said.
Gloria Daysi Abrego, a psychologist and social worker who has been with Project RED since it started as a pilot program in July 2011, called the LEPINA law contradictory.
She said that, although the law states that children have the right to live in a healthy home, they are often ending up in situations with little or no access to nutrition, health care, education and more — things she considers basic rights.
“For the majority of the children who are being reintegrated, all of these rights are being violated,” Abrego said.
El Salvador has experienced drastic changes since Article 13 of the LEPINA law began to be implemented in January 2011. In 2009, there were more than 3,000 children in protection centers. Now, there are about 700.
In El Salvador, there are about 60 private centers, which are usually funded by Christian, catholic or other organizations often outside El Salvador, and nine public centers, funded primarily by the government.
Children are being taken from both private and public centers and given back to their families, often with only three months’ notice.
There has been almost no national or international media coverage about the issue, which a source familiar with the LEPINA law said is mostly because Salvadoran media place little or no importance on children and their rights.
“Almost no one here in El Salvador has any idea that this is going on,” Wilson said. “Every time I tell people about what (Project RED) is doing and the problem behind it, people are shocked because they have never heard of the law.”
Project RED works holistically with families that have been reintegrated with their children to help them transition based on their individual situations. The project imparts counseling sessions, parenting school sessions and youth programs; provides beds for children; builds houses and bathrooms; registers children for school and provides them with school supplies and bus fare, and hands out monthly food and hygiene bags.
|Project RED volunteers build a new|
house while family members look on.
Provided by Kara Wilson
“Currently, the population that we work with doesn’t even represent 10 percent of the children in El Salvador that are being reintegrated into their families,” Abrego said. “But, we can see individually what the impact is through our work with each and every one of these families.”
Abrego emphasized that Project RED does not merely hand things out to families.
“Not only do we provide things for the families, we educate the families in order to take advantage of all the potential they have and empower them,” she said.
It was nine months before Juana Espinoza heard the Project RED field team knock on her door — nine months of living on her mother-in-law’s property in a shack with no walls and an open bathroom area, struggling to feed three adolescent children — now 11, 13 and 14 — with $3- $4 a day and no support from her mother-in-law.
“When I got the news that I was going to receive my children again, I was really worried,” Espinoza said. “I told them that I didn’t have any resources, I didn’t have a way to support them both.”
Since Project RED started working with Espinoza, it has been able to provide a new, enclosed, wooden house for the Espinoza family, which includes a stove, a latrine, a place for beds and a place to wash clothes. Espinoza endearingly calls the house the “little cabin.”
Without Project RED, Espinoza said things would be “a lot more complicated.”
“Through all of my difficulties, all of the things I’ve been through, I haven’t had really anybody to support me,” she said. “I see Project RED as a support.”
Like Espinoza, 34-year-old Ana Silvia Cardoza also voluntarily took two of her children to a private protection center when she realized she could not take care of them. With a total of five children, parents who were sick, and no support from any of the children’s fathers, things had become dire.
At the center, Cardoza said her two children received everything they needed. However, in October 2011, she was notified that she would be getting her children back, and that she would then have to attend six sessions of parenting school led by government social workers and psychologists in San Salvador to learn about her responsibilities as a mother.
Abrego explained that, often, the six parenting sessions do not do enough to equip parents to properly care for their children. She added that each session covers the exact same material, and that the parents almost always attend the sessions after they already have their children back.
According to Abrego, in many cases, parents explicitly say they are not ready to receive their children, yet the government still gives them back.
“The government is claiming that these families who have objections to receiving their children are just trying to avoid having any responsibility for their children, so they don’t take that into account,” she said.
Although Cardoza said the government was nice during the court hearing and did visit her house to complete a checklist before giving her children to her, she said they never offered any further suggestions or advice, even though the LEPINA law says the government will provide follow-up visits.
“I was really happy to be with my children again because I love my children, but I didn’t have any support,” she said. “The same problems that were there before were still there.”
She said her biggest issue was trying to provide food for five children with the $20 she received each week from her eldest son, who works in a brick-making factory.
Cardoza was only alone with her children for a week or two before Project RED started working with her. First, the project gave the family bags of food, but since then, they have given more.
”(Project RED) has given us many things,” Cardoza said. “Our whole life, our whole bathing aspect is totally different. We have a sink, running water, a shower.”
Project RED also gives weekly psychological counseling sessions to Cardoza and her 11-year-old son, who has had some behavioral problems as a result of the transition from the center to his home.
“Without this help, I’d be so much more worried,” Cardoza said. “Through this help, my life has gotten so much better.”
|Project RED volunteers pose with the Cardoza family.|
Photo provided by Kara Wilson.
In one case Project RED worked with, government workers returned four of six children to a house they were taken away from because of negligence, extreme poverty, some sexual abuse and mentally handicapped parents.
“Extreme poverty doesn’t even come close to describing what kind of conditions they’re living in,” Wilson said.
She described the home as a one-room, mud house in the jungle, with three string beds piled up with trash, and feces and molding food scattered throughout the house.
Although Project RED has reported the case to government authorities in the past, Wilson said the children continue to “live like savages.” She explained that authorities said they cannot take the children back to a protection center without actual proof that they are being sexually abused, regardless of the other conditions the children are living in.
Countless other families have not been reached by Project RED at all.
Wilson, who has been visiting El Salvador occasionally since she was 14, started a pilot program in July 2011 in order to assess what families’ needs were and what could be done to meet them. It worked directly with ISNA, the branch of government that oversaw child protection at the time.
Wilson said that when she discovered what the law was doing and decided to try to help the families affected by reintegration, she was kicked out of ISNA by the branch’s sub director, who told her not to try to do what the government is already doing well. She was forced to stop working with ISNA.
“I was really discouraged at the time, but that discouragement turned into motivation,” she said. “I realized it meant that really, no one wants anybody to expose what’s actually happening.”
The source familiar with the LEPINA law explained that the law is not yet complete. It is written in the law that the government is supposed to partner with NGOs and other organizations that would act as flag raisers when aspects of the law are not being implemented properly. However, that is not yet happening.
Project RED is part of a tax-exempt Salvadoran nonprofit organization that became legal early in 2012. Right now, Wilson raises all of its funds by taking fundraising trips and working with individual donors, and through donations made via Project RED’s website, www.projectredelsalvador.org.
For Abrego, the hardest part of working with Project RED is recognizing the true implications of Article 13 of the LEPINA law.
She added that even more families are struggling to make ends meet without the help of Project RED.
“The number of families we’re working with is a small sample of the reality that’s happening on a larger scale in this country,” she said.