Paraguay’s fresh approach to foster care


“Who knows what level of influence our children might have in the future? When a child grows up in a safe and loving family this not only impacts that one child but also a whole generation.”

As we talk in her backyard, Veronica tells me with great conviction about her role as a foster mother. She and her husband Roberto live in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. For the past four years, they have fostered Jeremiah: a livewire lad who loves outdoor activity (as I discover when I almost collide with his bike and avoid him spraying me with water!)

“Jeremiah has been a joy to us in every way. It’s really been one of the greatest blessings in our lives.” Veronica beams.

Jeremiah’s start in life wasn’t easy. Soon after he was born, his mother was unable to care for him because she was in prison. The authorities became aware and got in touch with Veronica and Roberto, who had two older sons of their own, and had been on the waiting list to receive a foster child.

Jeremiah is one of the fortunate few: I’m told that 97 per cent of children in Paraguay who are separated from their families are living in Child Care Institutions. A variety of social issues, rooted in poverty, force many parents to abandon their children; teen pregnancy rates are among the highest in South America, according to the UN, with five per cent of girls aged under 20 having given birth.

Lengthy judicial processes mean it can take years for children to be matched to appropriate foster carers – but, even then, there are not enough available, trained families in the system to receive these children. Institutional care therefore becomes the default choice.

For almost six years, the National Secretariat for Children and Adolescents (SNNA) in Paraguay has been actively increasing the number of children moving from institutions into families, with crucial support from civil society and community organisations – including our partner network Red Viva Paraguay.

The network has been raising awareness of alternative care for children in churches, and holding training workshops. Some couples such as Veronica and Roberto took the next step, and were approved by SNNA to become foster parents. Now the network has momentum to do more thanks to a new national Christian movement called Paraguay Protects Families (PPF), facilitated by lawyer Anja Goertzen, a former Red Viva co-ordinator (right).

“Our movement is creating a platform to make the protection of children in families possible,” Anja says. “As well as awareness-raising in churches, we have identified specific organisations such as Red Viva to develop foster care programmes, which is one of the main gaps in our system.”

Red Viva Paraguay has selected the city of Ñemby, a short journey from the capital, as the place to focus its foster care programme next year. Network co-ordinator Isaac Saldívar (right), tells me: “We can be more efficient by doing this locally – it will be run by a professional team, with the support of volunteer professionals and with the network already established. A local system is well-structured where everyone knows their role, meaning we can become more efficient and effective in ensuring the protection of children.”

“What we as a network especially bring is a focus on the local community but with the possibility of impacting the national situation. Our local churches can both identify families that are interested in becoming foster carers and help channel them into that programme, and also work in communities to identify children that are likely to need alternative care placements.

Isaac adds, “Collaboration with government is very important because it establishes what the procedure and best process needs to be and then we implement it to ensure best practice. Our participation in PPF is crucial because it connects us with other faith-based organisations who are like-minded, so that together we have a stronger voice to make a bigger impact.”

PPF is the national embodiment of the World Without Orphans movement, which Viva partners with. Anja took action in Paraguay after attending its Global Forum in Thailand in 2016. She says, “I was inspired to see active examples of how to move towards family-based care and sensing the Spirit of God at the centre of this movement.

“And when I first drew together 15 different organisations in Paraguay in June 2016, we agreed that, in spite of the challenges and disagreement towards how the government is doing things, the Church is key in making a difference.”

The role of the Church should not be underestimated. Lilian Roca, a child psychologist and advisor for Red Viva Paraguay says, The churches and the faith-based communities are the only groups that actually remain there over time whereas services that are offered by state and civil society organisations will suffer many changes. I believe that there is huge potential for Red Viva to help strengthen the capacity of churches in influencing local communities.”

The transformation that a foster family can bring to the life of a child can be remarkable. Miriam and Adolfo, together with their five biological children, have fostered two children in recent years, with Red Viva’s support. One young boy, Edgar, spent two years with them. There is emotion as I interview them.

Miriam tells me, “The first day he was placed with us was a shock: he was three years old but only weighed 11kg, and very different to all the children we knew. Now that I remember this, it hits me again because it was very hard to see him in that condition. Having a foster child, we learned about the love you can give without receiving anything in return.”

Adolfo adds, “Over time he opened up with us, primarily in showing his feelings. At first, he wouldn’t cry and was very fearful. With time we explained to him that we were his family for now. The physical contact we had and love we shared with him as a family was important.”

What of the future of Red Viva Paraguay’s work with families? With a grin, Isaac tells me he is a dreamer! “Next year, we hope to have the programme working in Ñemby and in at least two cities within two years. I truly believe this model will be a paradigm shift for our approach to foster care. We ask for prayer that we can be a visible force and for wisdom to make a real impact for children’s protection and development.”

Andrew Dubock is Viva’s Communications Manager


This article first appeared in Life magazine, issue 8