Venezuela eco­nomic cri­sis takes toll on fam­i­lies

Des­per­ate par­ents leav­ing chil­dren at or­phan­ages.

Dayton Daily News - - WORLD - By An­thony Faiola

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — “Would you like to see the lit­tle ones?” asked Magdelis Salazar, a so­cial worker, beck­on­ing me to­ward a crowded play­ground.

We were at Venezuela’s largest or­phan­age, just af­ter lunch. The yard was an ob­sta­cle course of aban­doned chil­dren. A lit­tle chunk of a boy, on the cusp of 3, sat on a play scooter. He was called El Gordo — the fat one. But when he was left here a few months ago, he was skin and bones.

He zoomed past a 3-yearold in a pink shirt with tiny flow­ers. “She doesn’t talk much,” one of the at­ten­dants said, tou­sling the girl’s curly hair. At least, not any­more. In Septem­ber, her mother left her at a sub­way sta­tion with a bag of clothes and a note beg­ging some­one to feed the child.

Poverty and hunger rates are soar­ing as Venezuela’s eco­nomic cri­sis leaves store shelves empty of food, medicine, di­a­pers and baby for­mula. Some par­ents can no longer bear it. They are do­ing the un­think­able. Giv­ing up their chil­dren. “Peo­ple can’t find food,” Salazar told me. “They can’t feed their chil­dren. They are giv­ing them up not be­cause they don’t love them but be­cause they do.”

Ahead of my re­cent re­port­ing trip to Venezuela, I’d heard that fam­i­lies were aban­don­ing or sur­ren­der­ing chil­dren. Yet it was a chal­lenge to ac­tu­ally meet the tini­est vic­tims of this bro­ken na­tion. My re­quests to en­ter or­phan­ages run by the so­cial­ist govern­ment had gone unan­swered. One child-pro­tec­tion of­fi­cial — warn­ing of dev­as­tat­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing a lack of di­a­pers — con­fided that such a visit would be “im­pos­si­ble.” Some pri­vately run child cri­sis cen­ters wor­ried that grant­ing ac­cess to a jour­nal­ist could dam­age their del­i­cate re­la­tions with the govern­ment.

My Venezue­lan col­league Rachelle Kry­gier in­tro­duced me to Fun­dana — an im­pos­ing ce­ment com­plex perched high on a hill in south­east­ern Caracas. Her fam­ily had founded the non­profit or­phan­age and child cri­sis cen­ter in 1991, and her mother re­mains the head of its board. Rachelle re­mem­bered vol­un­teer­ing there a decade ago, when she was a stu­dent and the chil­dren were al­most ex­clu­sively cases of abuse or ne­glect.

There are no of­fi­cial statis­tics on how many chil­dren are aban­doned or sent to or­phan­ages and care homes by their par­ents for eco­nomic rea­sons. But in­ter­views with of­fi­cials at Fun­dana and nine other pri­vate and pub­lic or­ga­ni­za­tions that man­age chil­dren in cri­sis sug­gest that the cases num­ber in the hun­dreds — or more — na­tion­wide.

Fun­dana re­ceived about 144 re­quests to place chil­dren at its fa­cil­ity last year, up from about 24 in 2016, with the vast ma­jor­ity of the re­quests related to eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” said Angélica Pérez, a 32-year-old mother of three, near tears.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, she showed up at Fun­dana with her 3-year-old son and her two daugh­ters, ages 5 and 14. She lost her job as a seam­stress a few months ago. When her youngest came down with a se­vere skin con­di­tion in De­cem­ber and the pub­lic hos­pi­tal had no medicine, she spent the last of her sav­ings buy­ing oint­ment from a phar­macy.

Her plan: Leave the chil­dren at the cen­ter, where she knew they would be fed, so she could travel to neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia to find work. She hoped she would even­tu­ally be able to take them back. Typ­i­cally, chil­dren are al­lowed to stay at Fun­dana for six months to a year be­fore be­ing placed in fos­ter care or put up for adop­tion.

“You don’t know what it’s like to see your chil­dren go hun­gry,” Pérez told me. “You have no idea. I feel like I’m re­spon­si­ble, like I’ve failed them. But I’ve tried every­thing. There is no work, and they just keep get­ting thin­ner.

“Tell me! What am I sup­posed to do?”

Venezuela de­scended into a deep re­ces­sion in 2014, bat­tered by a drop in global oil prices and years of eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment. The cri­sis has wors­ened in the past year. A study by the Catholic char­ity Car­i­tas in poorer ar­eas of four states found the per­cent­age of chil­dren un­der 5 lack­ing ad­e­quate nutri­tion had jumped to 71 per­cent in De­cem­ber from 54 per­cent seven months ear­lier.

Venezuela’s child wel­fare min­istry did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on the phe­nom­e­non of chil­dren be­ing aban­doned or put in or­phan­ages be­cause of the cri­sis. The so­cial­ist govern­ment pro­vides free boxes of food to poor fam­i­lies once a month, although there have been de­lays as food costs have soared.

For years, Venezuela had a net­work of pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions for vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren — tra­di­tion­ally way sta­tions for those need­ing tem­po­rary or long-term pro­tec­tion. But child-wel­fare work­ers say the in­sti­tu­tions are col­laps­ing, with some at risk of clos­ing be­cause of a short­age of funds and oth­ers crit­i­cally lack­ing in re­sources.

So, in­creas­ingly, par­ents are leav­ing their chil­dren in the streets.

In the gritty Su­cre dis­trict of Caracas, for in­stance, eight chil­dren were aban­doned at hos­pi­tals and pub­lic spa­ces last year, up from four in 2016. In ad­di­tion, of­fi­cials there say they logged nine cases of vol­un­tary aban­don­ment for eco­nomic rea­sons at a child pro­tec­tive ser­vices cen­ter in the dis­trict in 2017, com­pared with none the pre­vi­ous year. A child-wel­fare of­fi­cial in El Lib­er­ta­dor — one of the cap­i­tal’s poor­est ar­eas — called the sit­u­a­tion at pub­lic or­phan­ages and tem­po­rary care cen­ters “cat­a­strophic.”

“We have grave prob­lems here,” said the of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity out of fear of reprisals from the au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment. “There’s def­i­nitely more aban­doned chil­dren. It’s not just that there are more, but also their health con­di­tions and nutri­tion are much worse. We can’t take care of them.”

With the pub­lic sys­tem over­whelmed, the bur­den is in­creas­ingly fall­ing on pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties run by non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions and char­i­ties.

Leonardo Ro­dríguez, who man­ages a net­work of 10 or­phan­ages and care cen­ters across the coun­try, said that in the past, chil­dren placed with his cen­ters were al­most al­ways from homes where they had suf­fered phys­i­cal or men­tal abuse. But last year, the in­sti­tu­tions fielded dozens of calls — as many as two per week — from des­per­ate women seek­ing to give up their chil­dren so that they would be fed. De­mand is so high that some of his fa­cil­i­ties now have wait­ing lists.

To man­age the surge in de­mand at Fun­dana, the or­ga­ni­za­tion opened a sec­ond fa­cil­ity in Caracas with the aid of pri­vate donors. But it still had to turn down dozens of re­quests to take in chil­dren. At Bambi House, Venezuela’s sec­ond-largest pri­vate or­phan­age, re­quests for place­ments surged about 30 per­cent last year, said Erika Pardo, its founder. In­fants, once in high de­mand for adop­tion or fos­ter place­ment, are also lin­ger­ing longer in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s care.

“Fos­ter fam­i­lies are ask­ing for older chil­dren be­cause di­a­pers and for­mula are ei­ther im­pos­si­ble to find or too ex­pen­sive,” she said. The num­ber of preg­nant women seek­ing to put their chil­dren up for adop­tion is also jump­ing.

José Gre­go­rio Hernán­dez, owner of one of Venezuela’s main adop­tion agen­cies, Proad­op­cion, said that in 2017, his or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ceived 10 to 15 re­quests monthly from preg­nant women seek­ing to give up their ba­bies, com­pared with one or two re­quests per month in 2016. Over­whelmed, the or­ga­ni­za­tion had to turn down most of the women. It ac­cepted 50 chil­dren in 2017 — up from 30 in 2016.

ALE­JAN­DRO CEGARRA / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Kids nap at Bambi Home, Venezuela’s sec­ond largest pri­vate or­phan­age.

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