In Guatemala, when a child becomes an orphan, is a victim of abuse or exploitation, or is separated from family-based care, the primary response, historically, has been to place that child in a residential care facility. In 2013, UNICEF reported that 5,800 Guatemalan children were living in orphanages with large disparities of caregivers and children. Unfortunately, research shows that there are long-term, and sometimes permanent, negative effects institutional care can have on a child physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially. Buckner International, a Christian organization working with orphans, vulnerable children, and families, is helping to change those prospects for many children by working in partnership with the government of Guatemala to provide more family-based care options including reunification with biological parents, kinship care, foster care, and domestic adoption.

Initially funded by USAID, in 2013 Buckner began to find permanent family care options for children from birth to aged three who were living in residential care. Another primary objective of the project was to enable the Guatemalan government to strengthen the groundwork to proactively support and expand family-based care for vulnerable children at risk of separation or already separated from family. Randy Daniels, Buckner’s VP of International Resource and Program Development, said, “The idea of formal foster care and formal kinship care are fairly new concepts in most places in the world. Guatemala is no exception.” Buckner helped organize a “Permanency Team” of investigators, social workers, and psychologists to work alongside government agencies to investigate cases, make recommendations to the courts, and provide guidance on revising policies, procedures, and regulations of the national foster care program within the social services system. The Bienestar Social de la Presidencia (Social Welfare Secretariat, referred to as SBS in Spanish), the National Council on Adoptions (CNA), and the Attorney General are the three main Guatemalan government child protection agencies working with the Permanency Team.

Kelley Bunkers, an Advisory Group Member for the Faith to Action Initiative, together with Professor Jini Roby, has been a part of developing a training curriculum focusing on social work values and family-based alternatives for the Guatemala School of Justice. The curriculum contains training modules designed to address and build operational capacity and to provide key professionals engaged in child welfare with the skills and abilities to better promote, advocate, and support family-based care. The training modules are formally endorsed by the Government of Guatemala.

The issue of alternative care was relatively new for many of the participants who attended the first training session in June 2015. The participants were inspired and were anxious to go back to their places of work and share the information that they had learned. Several were particularly excited about sharing this information with judges, knowing that these judges were the ultimate deciding factor when determining if a child should be placed in residential care or within a family. The impact of the court system taking on these new policies is profound because the courts are the main body determining alternative care for children. In addition, Buckner has been able to work with the University Mariano Galvez and the School of Judicial Studies to integrate this curriculum for social workers and court officials to learn best practices for vulnerable children and orphans.

Having worked in Guatemala for a number of years, Kelley said, “Involving the government sector is critical to having any kind of subject matter or concept sustained. NGOs come and go and while I believe that they are huge contributors to the larger system, at the end of the day, government has significant decision-making power and responsibility. Buckner realized this and aimed to ensure that the key concepts that their project was promoting would be included within long-term structures like the court system and academia. It’s really a brilliant and much needed move.”

Since September 2013, Buckner has been able to safely transition 168 children from the government orphanage into families. Alongside of these children being placed in safe, loving, and stable families, Buckner has been able to sign agreements with Guatemalan government agencies—SBS, the National Council on Adoption (CNA), the Supreme Court, and the Attorney General’s Office—which allows Buckner to continue to work with each agency to gather information necessary to make recommendations to the courts on the best interests and preferred placement of the child. This level of partnership between a faith-based organization and government agencies is an exciting development in Guatemala and a model for other organizations working to change the landscape of child welfare in other countries. By working so closely with the government and academic institutions Buckner is not just changing the outlook for those 168 children, but creating sustainable change in the way that children’s issues of wellbeing and placement are considered by those in decision-making positions.