Volunteering in Mexico
Regular readers will know that my volunteering has taken me to many far reaching locations. I have worked with a variety of different organisations assisting in many different areas - except for one area in particular - working with children. I’ll be honest, I was quite uneducated about the complexities of volunteering with children however I would never accept a placement if I was not confident that I could be of benefit to the organization in question. This is how I found myself in children's refuge located in a small regional city at the southernmost point of Mexico a short drive from the border of Guatemala, called Tapachula.
I had been unsure what type of opportunity I wanted to experience after my sabbatical at the silent retreat until a community discussion in our group raised the topic of the harm one can unintentionally cause by volunteering with children. This was something that I was largely unfamiliar with, I hadn’t considered that volunteering with children could have negative side effects however many community members highlighted concerns regarding the ethics of these orphanages and/or children's homes. It is an extremely unfortunate reality that there exists widespread exploitation of children in orphanages, primarily for the monetary gain of the homes operators.
After the community discussion I started researching the subject more thoroughly and discovered that there is a difference between an orphanage and a children's home, typically an ‘orphanage’ is referring to an institution run by the government, or at the very least subsidised by the government. A ‘children's home’ typically implies a non profit or NGO which is established to run more like a foster care system. The idea of a children’s home is to have a smaller household than an orphanage, which in some extreme cases can home hundreds of children and lack personal attention likening them more to a factory than a home. Whereas with a children's home, which adopts a foster care model will house a smaller number of children - such as at the refuge where I am volunteering which homes twenty-two children in total - making it much easier to attend to the children's individual needs.
Other concerns that have arisen are whether this actually the best place for the children in question. Advocates for the ban on orphanages claim that the best response would be to make sure the children are returned to their parents or placed with a close relative. However then the question raised is what do you when that is not an option? For example some community members in our group state that in Africa there is no other option and children either end up in an orphanage or out on the streets, and of course other countries have their own unique social and economic complexities to deal with.
Mexico is no exception, in this case the children in the refuge have been removed from their families by the National System for Integral Family Development (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de le Familia) also know as the DIFF. The children in the refuge have been separated from their family for a variety of reasons ranging from sexual abuse, neglect, to their only living parent being incarcerated. In reality there is only one true orphan in the refuge. These children are forcefully removed from their home often with the courts involvement in their rehoming to a “safer space”. In most cases children end up in a government run orphanage or “institution” but if they are lucky they end up in a living situation such as the children's refuge.
There have been many arguments made in favour of putting these kids up for adoption, which in theory sounds like a great idea. More often than not, when family members are called upon to take children in, care has been refused because the families lack the financial resources to be able to take care of the child in question. So you would think that in these cases this would open the door for someone outside the family to adopt them? Unfortunately however due to Mexican law if they still have a living relative they are not allowed to be adopted, which puts these children again with no other option than to end up in an orphanage and or children's refuge.
A major positive attribute about this current children's refuge is that it houses both males and females unlike many other orphanages in Mexico which are only single sex. This difference means that family members such as brothers and sisters are prevented from growing up together so this refuge helps alleviate that additional setback with several siblings and even cousins residing together.
On the following post I will discuss some of the things they are doing at the refuge to make sure that this is run like a family rather than an institution, I should also note that this is not a short term volunteering opportunity and I would never recommend as one. The concern over short term volunteering with children being harmful to children is a very valid one, with the constant emotional connection made with each new influx of volunteers only to be torn away a short while later is detrimental to their development and well being. I have committed to seven weeks with the option to extend my stay, I wanted to make sure that I could adapt to the children and be well received, I assumed that knowing Spanish should be a good amount of help for me!