What can be done in Colombia to help children in care as they move on to independent life?

B fotoLast month, our partner FFF, hosted  the 5th National Meeting of Care Leavers in Colombia (ENSEP). We already reported on some of the positive aspects of this meeting. In this blog Barbara, our Cali Field officer, shares her impressions about the current challenges for children growing up in the care system in Colombia. She also shares some insights from care leavers themselves about what support would be most useful to them.

The care system in Colombia is still very much about “packing it all in” while a child is in care, a kind of “fast-forwarding” of child development so that by 14 they are ready to start working and saving money for when they leave care.

Worryingly, with a few exceptions such as our partners FFF and Fundamor, there seems to be an almost passive acceptance on both the part of care home staff and children in care with comments like: “children who don’t have family to return to after leaving care, have to accelerate their whole process, their life, because otherwise they won’t be ready for independent living.

For me, the message from ENSEP’s first day was clear: the way the system is focused now, children in care in Colombia are not allowed to be children; they have to become adults in a hurry, and in the hurry many of them stumble. Who looks out for those that stumble; the children who don’t “make the grade” to be able to access a scholarship to study at University? The children whose start in life has meant that defining “life goals” isn’t so simple and clear cut (did you know your life goals when you were 16?)

ENSEP 2012

The panel of care leavers and children in care, discussing their experience of care and post-care, one of the highlights of the event

Right now, for 10,000[1] children that are currently in care across the region, the only organization looking out for their future is FFF and as such, there can be no doubt about the enormous value of COTA’s support for such a pioneering organization: through our support we really are reaching some of the most vulnerable and “invisible” children of Colombia.

Here is a question I asked the participants and the responses they gave:

Q: COTA believes that care leavers should receive support in the transition between the care home and independent living, and that the State should be active ensuring this support is provided. What would you, as children in care or as care leavers, recommend that the State include in its provision of support for care leavers in Colombia?

Answers from children/young people:

  • Funding to be able to continue studying after leaving care, and advice/ personal guidance to accompany this funding to help us with our decisions and the challenges that further study may bring.
  • Facilitate access into numerous educational establishments of different kinds (not just universities)
  • Facilitate the libreta militar [2] process, and thus ensure that no young men leave care without their libreta.  This is key, because without our libreta we cannot get formal employment, and have to continue with informal jobs that offer no security
  • Care homes should seek to empower children more, about their rights, the opportunities available to them.
  • Facilitate accommodation (either directly or by supporting programmes like the one at FFF) to enable care leavers who have no family or anywhere to go when they leave care to get on their feet and move on.  It could be for 3 months, while the care leaver sorts themselves out, looks for a job and has time to look for their own accommodation.
  • Support more organizations like FFF and not just in Cali. We are thousands of children in care and FFF can’t support us all.

COTA and its partners seek to raise awareness of the issues affecting children and young people in care in Colombia. This group is highly vulnerable and neglected. You can help ensure that the voices of children and young people from care in Colombia do not go unnoticed by sharing this blog or making a donation here.

[1] Figure quoted by ICBF-Valle’s “Welfare Coordinator” – Leonor Estrada during the event. 

[2] A certificate of having checked in for military service, which all Colombian males are obliged to have. Not processing this certificate on time also results on fines (see source).

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