Students at a community school in El Salvador. Photo by: Michael Bisceglie / Save the Children

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador is working with Save the Children to increase the capacity of its child protection system by implementing a pilot foster care program with the goal of strengthening families of origin so children can be returned to them.

Such a system is a challenge for a developing country with traditionally weak institutions that have little public trust, and a culture where blood relation is considered important.

“If you can reinstate a child with foster care temporarily and we do not work with the original family, that child will never be able to return with them.”

— Ruth Anabell Martinez Agreda, child and adolescent judge, EL Salvador

El Salvador joined the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, but United Nations observers from the Committee on the Rights of the Child found in 2009 that the country’s child protection system was not successfully meeting its requirements. A new foster care system in the country is the result of a 2011 law, the Comprehensive Protection for Children.

“Before 2011, as a response to the large number of institutionalized children, the system started ordering measures of foster care families,” said Ruth Anabell Martinez Agreda, a child and adolescent judge. “Based on previous experiences, the belief was that if a child had an original family, that child was supposed to stay in an institution to avoid adapting to a foster family. However, studies indicate that a child — especially in early childhood — placed in an institution for a long period of time suffers greatly from normal development.”

The Salvadoran government recognized that changes needed to be made to the original foster care system as it became clear that most children that were processed entered a de facto preadoptive state even when families they were placed with were not qualified to adopt. This created a situation in which children remained permanently with families that had not passed all of the checks required, so the state was not meeting its obligation for complete protection of children under the convention.

The Salvadoran Institute for Child and Adolescent Development, known by its Spanish acronym ISNA, is the government agency charged with implementing the foster care system launched in 2017. It began working with Save the Children to improve the way the country handles children who cannot remain with their family of origin and to increase capacity to eventually return them to that family.

The concept of foster care is a difficult one in a society where those looking to take in a child who is not a blood relation want to be able to keep the child permanently. Gloria Cecilia de la Rosa, the head of the Family Services Department at ISNA, said that many families who are initially interested in the foster care system do not continue with their applications once they realize that it is not a mechanism through which they can permanently adopt a child.

“Right now, we have 17 families that came to us asking about this program during this trimester. These 17 families received an application to be part of the program. Out of these 17, only six presented their application, and in the end, for accreditation purposes, only three remain,” de La Rosa said. “So it is very complicated because it is voluntary without the option to adopt and they want to adopt. The majority of people coming to us want to adopt, so this dynamic is complicated.”

Consequences of poverty, violence, and migration that reverberate across Salvadoran society can play a role in the need to place a child in foster care. Before a child is moved formally to the foster care system, the state does what it can to keep the child with their biological family. If a child cannot remain with their parents, ISNA looks to extended family members that may be able to be caregivers.

“Unfortunately, we find more willingness from foster families than from biological families. Many of the children entering the system come very low socioeconomic status. For families, this means another mouth to feed, another responsibility, and on top of this, there are people coming to supervise, to check what they do with the child,” Agreda said. “This is why biological families refuse to take the child in because it complicates their lives.”

If it becomes clear that a child cannot stay with their family, the protection boards of the Council of Children and Adolescents, or CONNA, work to find a solution for that child.

“We all are looking for ways for children to be deinstitutionalized, right? Sometimes it can be done, sometimes it cannot be done. It is very complex,” said Dionisio Ernesto Alonzo Sosa, head of technical assistance at CONNA’s social protection board. “In some cases, yes, we are able to support and strengthen families, and the child is reinstated. Because that is the main concern, to reinstate the child in its family nucleus. However, this is not always possible.”

A key part of the program Save the Children helped develop focuses on strengthening the Salvadoran system’s ability to increase capacities of families of origin so children can be returned. The pilot system mandates the development of an action plan for each child in conjunction with the involved state institutions to facilitate return.

ISNA’s De La Rosa said that previously, the system did not have much experience in addressing the root causes that mean a family must give up custody of a child. The program also strengthens collaboration between ISNA, CONNA, and the judicial system to ensure a child’s right to protection is fulfilled.

“If you can reinstate a child with foster care temporarily and we do not work with the original family, that child will never be able to return with them,” Agreda said. “This means that the right to a family is not granted to these children — these rights mean living with their original family.”

Families who take foster children are not currently compensated, although that is something the program is discussing. They are wary that offering financial incentives would lead people to participate in the program just to receive extra money, without truly wanting to provide a welcoming home to a foster child.

Cultural attitudes around fostering and adoption are slowly changing in El Salvador, Agreda added.

“In regard to the cultural beliefs, traditions, many people only believe in biological principles, meaning, ‘if I cannot have a child of my own blood, I’d rather not have a child at all,’” Agreda explained.

“But many in our society are now open to the idea, as a sign of solidarity, to both adopt and become a foster family.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.

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