Overcoming the invisibility of care leavers in Colombia – inspiration from the UK?

Last month, COTA hosted a Skype call between The Who Cares Trust (TWCT) and our partner Fundacion Formacion d’ Futuros (FFF). The meeting was a great opportunity to exchange ideas, draw parallels between the care system in the UK and in Colombia, and get inspired about what the future holds for children and young people in care and care leavers in Colombia.

IMG_0689It was the second meeting between the two organisations, building on a previous exchange between young people. This time, the discussion involved staff from both organisations. From TWCT Stephen Norman (Projects Officer) and Victoria Hull (Head of Policy, Projects & Participation), and from FFF, Carolina Escobar (Director) Connie Abril (care worker and personal advisor to 6 care leavers aged 18- 20) and Jhon Eduar Angulo (Chair of FFF’s Board of Trustees). Angie, who has been in FFF’s Supported Housing programme for two months, also participated. Jhon Eduar and Connie also attended FFF’s Supporting Housing programme when they left care in 2005.

Transforming decision-makers’ perceptions of the needs of children and young people in and leaving care can take a very long time. In Colombia, children in care and care leavers are rarely considered as a priority group by decision-makers.  In the UK, the situation is different and FFF was eager to learn about the process in the UK that led to children and young people in care becoming a more visible and important group for policy makers. Victoria (TWCT) highlighted that in the UK it has been very important that care experienced children and young people can both talk to each other and speak directly to government officials about their experiences, their wishes and ways in which the care system can be improved.

In the UK, this process began in the 1970’s and has taken nearly forty years. Victoria gave examples such as NAYPIC (The National Association for Young People in Care), ANV and The Who Cares magazine as vehicles for care-experienced young people to discuss issues that affect their lives. She also shared examples of TWCT’s Don’t write us off campaigning project that seeks to enable young people to influence professionals’ practice and policy. In turn, FFF shared details about FFF’s annual ENSEP (the National Meeting of Care Leavers in Colombia), which has been running for 5 years and serves as the only forum for the young people to express their opinions about the care system. ENSEP is also attended by the Colombian Social Services and care homes. Changing the care system and how the needs care leavers and children in care are perceived by decision makers in the UK has been a gradual process. This emphasised to FFF and COTA just how much FFF has managed to achieve considering that they have only been running for 10 years and are the only organisation in Colombia dedicated to the issue of leaving care.

One noticeable difference between the two countries is that while young people in the UK lobby politicians to enable the improvements they want to see in the care system (for example through the APPG), in Colombia the focus currently is on lobbying practitioners – whose actions have an immediate effect on young people’s lives. FFF explained that their approach has been on three levels:

1)    With the children and people themselves, seeking to build their capacity to interact with decision makers, in order for them to be active participants in the care and leaving care debate, and not just to be consulted.

2)    With government, FFF’s approach has been above all directed at the Colombian Social Services because this is the leading government agency responsible for all matters related to the protection and welfare of children in Colombia.  But lobbying politicians in Colombia, with regard to the issue of leaving care, is a complex process.

3)     With care homes and staff directly involved in the care of children and young people, they the best placed to support the development of children and young people’s communication, participation and leadership skills, needed if they are to be able to give voice to their concerns and wishes regarding the care system.

Another key aspect to improving the quality of care is to nurture young people’s skills for discussions with important actors and decision makers at both local and national levels. By providing the young people with information on how the system works, facilitating their consultations with other care experienced young people, nurturing their confidence and enabling them to attend relevant meetings, professionals can support young people to raise awareness of the difficulties they face and necessary changes to improve care services.

IMG_0687Connie says: “We have no say, nor are we consulted. At first they say ‘you will be here for one or two weeks’, and then they say ‘you will be here until you can get adopted’, which means that if you don’t get adopted you are not leaving.” Children and young people in care in Colombia are very under informed about their process or indeed about the system as a whole – with most children and young people having little to no idea about the different care modalities that exist in Colombia to date. Furthermore, if a children or young person does speak out or take a leadership role in evaluating the care system and proposing changes, they tend to be seen as a “trouble-maker” and are moved on from one care home to another. However, Stephen (TWCT) says that is important for young people in Colombia to know that they are changing the system; even if the change is slow, it will help younger generations.

Victoria (TWCT) asks the young people from FFF, “what would you most like to change about the care system in Colombia?” John Edward replies that he would most like to change is preparation for leaving care, so that “when we leave care we don’t return back to square one”. FFF has also taken significant steps to tackle this; among them it has imparted training for leaving care, a programme called “Conectados”. Conectados consisted of training five young people from five different (one young person from each home) for leaving care. They have in turn replicated their training to other young people in their care homes who couldn’t participate in Conectados.

FFF was inspired by TWCT’s experience and with lots of new ideas as to how to strengthen their advocacy and promotion of leaving care issues in Colombia.  For COTA the meeting made it even clearer that FFF is a key partner, full of dynamism and expectations and very much in need of our support to enable them to build up their important work and benefit even more children and young people in the future.

If you would like to support these young people and help FFF continue their vital work to improve opportunities for children leaving care in Colombia, please donate today.

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