Changing course for children: The story behind Buckner foster care in Peru

By Claudia Leon, Buckner Peru director, as told to Chelsea Quackenbush
Photos by Scott Collins

Editor’s note: The expertise Buckner has in foster care is spreading from the United States to our Latin American ministries. Peru is our first country to change the way people care for children in a society that relies heavily on institutions and orphanages. It’s been a seven-year journey but a small team of specialists have taken huge steps in change the way Peru cares for neglected and abandoned children. In fact, the staff is sharing their work with several other countries in central and south America.

In the beginning, we had no idea of the magnitude of what we were doing; we just started doing it. But then we realized this is what we need to do. It’s changing the reality of Peru. You can have a nice program, and it’s a very good thing, but we need to change the reality.

I’ve been working with homes and kids for almost 10 years and I have seen so many lives that are lost, in a way. I have seen so many children without hope. I have seen so many children who won’t become who they were meant to be, basically because of lack of love, lack of affection, lack of care.

You always read about how important is a family for a child, but then when you live it firsthand, you understand so much about how important it is.

You see how much a child can change – mentally, psychologically, spiritually, intellectually – with the love of a family. It’s amazing how they can change. And that make us more committed to the program. We know kids need it. We know it’s hard, but we are committed that we need to keep working this.

We started having conversations with the government for signing the agreement for foster care in 2006. At the time, every impoverished child in Peru who might have been affected by violence or abuse was sent to a home. That was the solution.

And that was amazing because in most countries, everybody now talks about how bad institutions are for kids, of how important family care is for them. But that’s the way it was.

Buckner decided it was really important to sign an agreement with the government to start foster care, so we finally signed it in 2007, and in March 2008, we had the first small group of boys join the program.

It’s been hard because some Peruvians think it’s good to have 200 children in a home and sometimes people assume if you give them food and a roof, that’s all they need. They don’t understand how important is to have affection more than anything. Lack of affection is one of the worst things that can happen to a kid. And it’s so difficult to be one person, to be an individual, when you live with a hundred. You have to share everything, sometimes even underwear, so it’s really hard.

We say all the time these kids are really, really more vulnerable when they grow up in institutions because they are deprived of freedom. They don’t have any possibilities to develop themselves like other children. They have this stigma, they are an abandoned kid, they are unloved kids. And when they turn 18, they are asked to leave, and they have no idea how to live outside, and they are way more vulnerable. So that’s why foster care for us is so important.

In the program, we work very hard with the birth family because we know that’s a place the kids should stay. And it’s amazing to see how much they want to be there. They want to be back with their families.

We know if the families received the help they needed, at the moment they needed it, the kids could have stayed with them and that’s the idea. That’s why we are so passionate about preventive work.

Every child deserves a family. The idea is they stay in their own families, but we know there are so many situations why they cannot stay there. So if they cannot stay, they need another family.

People don’t understand foster care yet and that’s a huge challenge. When you’ve seen enough realities like in the States, everybody knows what foster care is. You may want to do it or not, but you know what it is. Here people don’t know. So we work very hard to help them understand.

We have other challenges as well. One is the political challenge, because we are the only organization that was able to sign a contract with the government to start it, and it’s because of our expertise.

And on the other hand, in the execution of the program, implementing the program, one of the biggest challenges is that people think it might be a shortcut to adoption. So at least 50 percent of people who come are trying to adopt, and we don’t do foster-to-adopt here. We can’t. That’s a big challenge.

We are a sensitive society. We all have a relative who took care of us at some point, and that’s foster care. This is just making it legal. And we also talk a lot about social responsibility; people should start thinking that kids in the street or thousands of children in institutions are their problem. It’s maybe not your problem in your house, but it should be, as a society, as a Peruvian. So we work a lot with that idea, social responsibility and solidarity.

In March of this year we published a book. It’s called “Foster Care,” and it systemizes experience we had, because we also have learned that if you don’t write your experience, if you don’t have evidence of what you have done, it may just pass.

We have learned a lot. I would say one personal thing I have learned – and we talk a lot about this with the team – is we need to stay focused. You know, there are so many things on the side, so many problems and sometimes you just want to give up, but we don’t – we want to stay focused.

We work for the right of the children to live in families, and we don’t give up. We just go and go. I remember at the beginning, we could get discouraged so easily. We learned to be very persistent.

It’s a blessing we’re a part of it, but God opens the doors because those are doors are not open for everybody. I mean, it’s just us coming and talking and sometimes – you know, sometimes it’s really hard, but we know we have to do this and that’s why we persist. We want to be part of this change.

There are 22 children in foster care right now. The biggest challenge we have is the political thing because when we have the political system in place, everything is going to be smoother. And that’s why building the system is so important for us.

The idea is to start teaching in all Peru so the program can become a national thing. This year, so far the foster care team has gone to three different places, and they have trained six homes, the staff from the homes. So that’s the idea, keep going outside and training people so they can do it on their own.

This year we signed the contract with the Dominican Republic government. It was signed by the CONANI, which is a welfare program there, and Buckner-Dominican and Buckner-Peru, so I think it’s a very nice opportunity because we are transferring the program we developed here in Peru to the government so they can implement it.

We also had a call from Ecuador; I went there two weeks ago. They found our book online and they were real excited about it, so they want our methodology as well. It’s very flattering, you know. We feel so good about that because people from another country really appreciate the work we’re doing.

You feel good because you know you have done the best you can do. This staff is so professional and so committed, and to have people from other countries calling and recognizing it, it’s the best thing you can receive, people appreciating your work.

Those are amazing opportunities that also help Buckner to place their name not only as a very good organization that provides services, but also building policies, because when you think you want to change the reality of a country, you need to build policies. And that’s what we are doing and we really enjoy it.

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