In our work with Casa Viva, we have the privilege of interacting with a variety of people around the issues of children separated from their first families. We are deeply aware of our shared calling and common motivation to care for children in need. As people have come to us seeking insight on the particulars of 24/7 care, a list of reflective questions to consider has been slowly taking shape. We share them with you as a way to begin the dialogue on what is best for children when they need a safe place to sleep. These are not necessarily hierarchical but are presented as thoughts for consideration and discussion.
Are we listening to the children? It’s quite important that we begin with the children, and that we listen when they talk to us about their hopes and dreams. Where would children like to be? Where do children want to live? Time and again in the work of Casa Viva we have heard children wanting to return to their mothers or begging for a Casa Viva family of their own.
Are we studying the research? As care providers it is our duty and responsibility to study and utilize the research being done on our behalf. We need to continually build bridges between our daily practice and the vast supply of theoretical knowledge. We need to engage in ongoing dialogue with the research and allow it to bring shape and texture to our work.
Do we understand the need? Caring for children and families in distress requires patience and a diligent study of each child’s particular needs. It is no small thing to assume the 24/7 care and responsibility for children. Our decision to do so will have lifelong consequences that must be considered. As we evaluate each child’s individual needs, we need to remember that poverty is never a reason to separate a child from his or her family.
Is there a full continuum of care alternatives in place? We see the process of working with children and families as fluid and particular—it is not one size fits all. We work to keep children as close to family as possible, with few disruptions. We owe it to children to fully explore the possibilities of reunification with their biological families. If they are declared in abandonment, adoption into a family is a permanent answer. Foster care makes sense while all the exploration is taking place, with a residential facility being the final resort. We are all in the alternative care business—prevention and intervention. We are not a children’s home director or the director of a foster care agency. We are people who work on behalf of children’s best interests.
Are we going local? It is far too easy to create “third culture” environments in our projects. Our solutions need to stay as organic and local as possible. After many failed tries at ordering a cheeseburger in Latin American restaurants, we have learned over the years to order what is close to the terrain—a hearty plate of rice and beans has amazing texture and flavor. Together we must consider how best to keep children close to their culture—the sights and smells and tastes and sounds of local life.
Are we engaging local churches? Casa Viva believes the local church is the hope of the world. Local churches are filled with families that might consider caring for a child in need. The process of forming government partnerships, finding professional staff, and so on, may seem daunting to a church, but if we come alongside pastors and invite them to engage on behalf of children, our impact spreads and fills the land. We have found countless churches that never considered children separated from their families to be their problem or their responsibility. As they have stepped forward into the process, they have seen beneficial changes in their church culture.
Are we connecting children to family? One of our goals in Casa Viva is to build a strong memory of family for children. We learn family by being in one. Children need adults and safe, protective environments. It is critically important that we understand the long-term ramifications of children who do not attach to an adult; child-to-adult connection should be the lifeblood of our work.
How are we investing Kingdom dollars? Together as colleagues we share a common responsibility for the financial investments of our collective work. We need to consistently review the true cost of caring for each child in our protection. In some places we have millions of dollars flowing through the support of on-the-ground missionaries and the steady stream of mission teams. All those dollars are Kingdom dollars and worthy of discussion. We all benefit from educated donors, and together we must hold the needs of both the one and the million, which is a daunting task.
Are we planning for 50 and 100 years from now? The plight of children is often clouded with urgent needs, and so our solutions have the distinct feel of immediacy. It is difficult to climb the mountain and view the landscape, but it is essential. Local families and churches anchor the land; their roots spread and have staying power. Ultimately, solutions that are still in place 50 and 100 years from now are the goal. We see the child, but we must also see the young woman on her wedding day, her little family enjoying the birth of their first child. Who will be present in those moments cheering them on and blessing their future?
Are we trusting God to act on behalf of children? True, this turns our list of 10 into 11, but this is a question we must ask ourselves often. When we enter the chaos of broken families and distraught communities, it is easy to say, “Where is God in all of this?” The answer is that God is ever present among us. We don’t bring Him anywhere—wherever we go, He is already acting on behalf of children. We can trust His mighty hand to shelter our work if we will only stop and listen. Casa Viva has stood in dark places of abuse and neglect, and we have also witnessed and can testify to God’s abiding presence and deep love for children. We can trust that God is active and present tense.
Casa Viva believes that generous questions facilitate healthy dialogue, which is why we encourage colleagues to stop by for cafecito and conversation with us. We don’t have all the answers, and these questions only serve as a platform to delve into our common quest to meet the needs of children separated from their families. After years of working side by side with dear colleagues, we remain convinced that we are better together than apart.
Casa Viva founders, Philip and Jill Aspegren, started their journey of working with children separated from their families in 1994 when they moved to the Dominican Republic. For six years, they co-directed a children’s home and served as field directors overseeing various children’s projects, schools, and day programs. In 2005, they transitioned to Costa Rica and started Casa Viva with the goal of creating a new prototype model of care based in local families and churches. Celebrating ten years of work, Casa Viva Costa Rica now has 35 participating churches with 120 families that have welcomed over 422 children into their homes. The Aspegren family has lived and worked in Latin America for almost two decades. Philip enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee with their three sons, and Jill’s favorite spot is sharing a cafecito with friends on the back porch.