Growing up in the U.S. I dreamed of moving to Africa to start an orphanage. But I met and married my husband at a young age, and in 2008 we moved to Panama City, Panama, with our then three-year-old daughter.
Our new Panamanian church had a volunteer program that involved holding babies and playing with children in local orphanages. When I signed up I didn’t know anything about institutionalization (what a mouthful), attachment disorder, or alternative care. It didn’t take more than a few visits to see the children were not thriving. They didn’t respond like their peers living outside the orphanage—children called me “mama,” asking to be held, but I was a complete stranger who didn’t even speak their language! My weekly visits didn’t provide the attachment and care these children needed; if anything it reinforced a sense of abandonment. I wasn’t trained to handle the trauma related to the physical and sexual abuse and severe neglect many of these children had experienced. Later, reading articles about voluntourism and its effect on institutionalized children made me question the long-term impact of our short-term volunteering.
I stopped volunteering for two years when I became pregnant with our second child. In 2012 Heart’s Cry Children’s Ministry (HCCM), which serves as an advocate for orphaned children, was lobbying for new legislation (Law 46) in Panama. The law would establish a nationwide foster care program as well as clearly defining the process of family investigation and adoption. Partnering with Youth With A Mission’s A Voice for the Voiceless, I produced the documentary Dear Panama. We showed how children were languishing in orphanages without being reunited with their biological families or adopted into new ones. We used the documentary to continue lobbying efforts with HCCM, and in 2013 Law 46 passed.
When the law passed Dave and I immediately applied to be foster parents. In March 2014 we became the first foster family in Panama’s pilot program, accepting a brother (age three) and sister (age eight). Because we were the first, there wasn’t a lot of support or procedures in place. Individual roles weren’t clearly defined and often we felt our concerns, as foster parents, weren’t taken seriously. Our foster children were becoming comfortable in our family. They no longer felt the need to “charm” or manipulate us to love them. On a daily basis we dealt with the brokenness that had resulted from nearly four years of institutionalization, severe neglect and abandonment. We were in the middle of a war zone, fighting for their hearts and minds. Being in a family provided them a safe place to process the trauma and heal.
As time passed, we became more educated and confident in our role. I remembered what a pediatrician told me as a first-time mother: “Everyone will have an opinion how to raise this child, but you are the mother, the one spending every day with her—trust your instincts.” Several months later after seeing countless specialists, we finally had diagnoses to work with and began to see a team form around our foster children. They began to attach better to us as their primary caregivers and we were able to identify and give them the tools they needed to navigate every day life.
Two and a half years later, our foster children are thriving. Children who have experienced trauma need caregivers who are competent at dealing with trauma, in it for the long haul, who will walk this journey with them.
Along the way I learned my limitations, recognizing the effects of secondary trauma, which caregivers often experience. This year’s resolution is to put the oxygen mask on myself first, focusing on self-care and physical health. Our children (all four of them) need me to be happy, healthy, and regulated. Being a foster parent is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. To an outsider, it’s hard to explain what an “average day” looks like and the challenges we face. We need family, friends, church, and our local community. A word of encouragement goes a long way. We are so grateful to those who have come alongside us. My work as an advocate continues in the projects I produce with Seedling Media Productions, recently consulting for Lost Kites and coproducing with producer-director Dianne Becker A World Without Orphans. These documentaries show why we need to look for alternatives, telling personal stories and talking about how we can change and involve the global church as we move forward.
While Panamanian orphanages raise thousands of dollars in funding annually and are partially subsidized by the government, Panamanian foster parents receive no financial support. HCCM and SENNIAF (Secretaría Nacional de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia; National Secretary of Children, Adolescence and Family) are working to change this. Currently, as foster parents we pay for living expenses, education, and medical care. This translates to multiple, often weekly, appointments with developmental specialists, occupational and speech therapists, private tutors, psychiatrist visits, and even for our foster daughter an eye operation. Financial support from our family was the only way we were able to pay for these desperately needed services, but I know other foster families who aren’t as fortunate. There are 12 foster families, and we know cost prevents more from signing up. And while being foster parents is expensive, the monthly expenses related to our foster children are far below the estimated $1,200 USD (per month) budgeted for a child living in a local orphanage. If you want to maximize your donor dollars, funding alternative care initiatives in other countries is one of the best ways you can invest in a child’s future! Investing in alternative care keeps children in families and builds a healthier society.
An alternative care framework supports children in families through family reunification, kinship care, foster care, adoption, and group homes. Globally, alternative care is replacing institutional care in countries such as China, Greece, the Philippines, Uganda, and many more. We need to stand behind and support these movements, financially committing to support children in families whenever safe and possible—whether they are biological, foster, or adoptive. Today, you can choose to take a stand with thousands of advocates around the world who work to support alternative care. For each child who now lives in an orphanage (estimated to be more than 5 million children globally) we fight for their future. Change is coming. Together we will see victory.
Founder and creative producer at Seedling Media Productions, Brittany DeVries produced Dear Panama (2012) a short documentary that lobbied successfully for legislative change related to adoption and foster care in Panama (Law 46). After the new law passed, Brittany and her family became the first foster family in Panama’s pilot foster care program. Birthed out of a desire to educate and promote family-based care Brittany began developing feature narrative, Archivo Pendente and co-produced documentary A World Without Orphans with director Dianne Becker. Nominated for “most inspirational” A World Without Orphans premiered in April 2016 at the International Christian Film Festival in Orlando, FL. Currently Brittany is developing several projects related to advocacy and orphaned and vulnerable children. When she is not creating content you can find Brittany at local coffeeshops taking pictures of her coffee, follow her on Twitter & Instagram @MyLifePanama.