“I think that the parents are more than happy to send their children here, instead of keeping them at home. They don’t know me, they have never even seen me before, yet they still send them; it is not a problem, it is one less mouth to feed.”
Elizabeth, a European woman who has lived in Bolivia for over eight years, discusses the particulars of being a child guardian in South America’s poorest country. “Some children grow up in a place that really has nothing, no running water, no electricity, nothing at all,” she says. “When it rains, it rains on their beds; the beds they share by the half-dozen.”
This is one of the reasons Elizabeth brings children in from the village. She stresses that there are children living here that already lost every opportunity in life. Many can barely read and write, and the majority begin to work at an early age.
When I ask her how many children she has taken in over the years, I am surprised by her reaction. She took a length pause to count them all. “Well, eight, I think.” (She had miscalculated and later in the interview she revised her answer to eleven.) “One per year,” I joke with her.
“No,” she says. “Sometimes I had two or three at the same time for a few years.”
Elizabeth began helping children immediately upon arriving in Bolivia. In fact, she came to Bolivia to be closer to her own grandchildren after her daughter moved here nine years ago. But taking children in was something she had done back in Europe.
“I had many children come stay with me for their summer vacations from the program Feu et Joie in Paris,” Elizabeth explains. “Also, many of the poor children from Marseille through the program La Grande Arena.”
When Elizabeth arrived in a small village in Bolivia’s wealthiest department (the equivalent of a regional association of states), Santa Cruz, it was nothing new for her to witness a large population of people living on the margins of society in great poverty.
When asked what she provides these children, besides eliminating most of the hardships they encountered with everyday life in their real homes, she replies, “I think that the kids I have had have also loved me. I wasn’t after them with a stick, a belt to hit them with, because at their house that’s how it is. All the liberties they have are here. They can mostly do what they want, besides their education, because I am very strict about that. School first, everything else after.”
Not long ago, Elizabeth filed the papers for a legal adoption for the first child that moved in with her. “It was lots of paper work. It’s faster when you are a resident of Bolivia, but it took two years. She wanted to change her name to Sara, so on her passport her name is Sara with my last name,” Elizabeth says, with a hint of pride. “They also changed the date of birth. Being over fifty, I am not allowed to adopt a child who is younger than eight years old. They changed her age so there wouldn’t be any problems with the adoption.
“For me it was all the same, it was the little girl that counted.”
Elizabeth never plans to move back to Europe, but I ask her what would have happened if she did. “If I wanted to bring her to Europe she would need a visa. The adoption wasn’t recognized internationally, only locally,” Elizabeth explains. “It is much easier to adopt when the child will stay in Bolivia.”
Curiously, Sara no longer lives with Elizabeth. “I had Sara for two years, adopted her, and then afterwards, her grandmother was always in the background. It wasn’t good for the little girl, being split between two families. So I decided to let go, and told her to return to her family. After that I would never see her. I don’t know what happened to her. But I’m sure she began living like before: going to work at the restaurant, helping out around the house, taking care of her siblings. Her mother has five children, all from different fathers. The mother was all in favor that I keep her, but it was the grandmother who caused problems. Sara was one of the older kids, so she could help out in many ways, and it was for this reason more than any other that the grandmother wanted her back.”
Sara’s fate at home was not as bright as it was with Elizabeth. “Already at five years old, they put her to work in the restaurant,” Elizabeth says sadly. “Her grandmother wanted someone to work for free. So they put her up on a chair and she washed the dishes all night.”
That was Elizabeth’s first and last experience with adoption. Now, as a guardian without any legal status with respect to the children, she works with only verbal agreements that she will care for the children. She only asks for a copy of the child’s birth certificate to avoid any problems with the authorities, for both her sake and the child’s.
“The difference is that when you adopt, the child is yours in the end.” Elizabeth pauses to reconsider and then adds, “Normally.”
“It is your child, she has your name and you can envision a future together. But it is also the same feeling with the others. Although, I know that one day their parents could show up and take them back,” says Elizabeth. “But that doesn’t change anything. With the children from France I became habituated to children leaving after I became attached. Maybe in two, three years the parents of Carlos [the nine-year-old boy living with her now] will come get him for work, simply so he can bring home some money.”
Dealing with this possibility comes with the territory of being a guardian of impoverished children. “The first days are difficult, but then you accustom; I think I know how with eleven children already,” says Elizabeth. “It’s possible this might happen with Carlos, but for the moment his father has told me as long as he wants to stay he stays. He doesn’t want to go back. To visit sure, but even that he doesn’t do often. He doesn’t even ask about them. One time we saw his mother at the market and he didn’t even say hello; he was afraid she would take him back.”
“In Bolivia it is like this, children aren’t attached to their parents,” Elizabeth says. “In principle, a child will run to see his mother, but not Carlos.”
One would think that in principle parents are also attached to their children. But Carlos’ parents, though they can visit him whenever they want, have only come by Elizabeth’s house a few times in over a year.
Elizabeth’s daughter Diana explains the phenomenon: “The parents don’t occupy themselves with their children because they don’t have any interest, money, and probably they lack the maternal instinct. And there are too many children!”
Carlos does not seem particularly homesick. Does he miss them? “Not much,” the little boy says. “I like almost everything here. All the animals, the cat Asterie I like to wrestle with. I don’t know if its better; at home I watched more television, but had less toys. There I would wake up and first thing in the morning watch cartoons.” Now he wakes up at six to prepare for school.
Carlos takes on more responsibilities here, as well. “Elizabeth has taught me how to feed the animals, how to prepare their cages. With school, she makes me practice my writing because I don’t write well.”
Clearly, he must be aware of the situation, but this is not the case. “For now, I think he doesn’t realize the opportunity given to him,” Elizabeth tells me. And he doesn’t know what to say when I ask him how long he thinks he will be here for.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to leave, but maybe later if more children come I will have to go. Because before we were three, and two left.” I ask him if he knows why they left. “One, I think her father picked her up. The other because he stole many things from Elizabeth.”
Carlos is unable to make the connection between his behavior and the consequences that follow.
Elizabeth had this to say about those two children Carlos spoke of: “With Gabrielle, a street kid from Santa Cruz, a friend asked if I would take her. He said she was a good kid, very calm. I said I would, and they brought her the same day. They were very happy to drop her off because she was a very difficult child. She misbehaved at school, and was really a child that breaks everything. That’s a result from problems at home: her father didn’t want her, and her mother had left. But I wasn’t going to live with that reaction. I let her finish the school year and then she went back to Santa Cruz.”
Benevolent and committed to helping children, Elizabeth was less tolerant of the other child: “With Noel, he wanted to stay, but he began stealing from everywhere. He stole $80.00 USD [about 560 Boliviano] from a friend. That wasn‘t going to fly.”
It is difficult for children to adapt to a new environment like Elizabeth’s home. Even at early ages they learn a hard way of life. It is difficult for them to change, to have foresight, because they have been raised on a day-to-day basis with everything being temporary.
A man named Geduld, Director of a local children’s shelter, describes the general situation for many of the children he encounters.
“Here, almost none of the children are from the streets. Instead, we mostly encounter children from families that have been destroyed,” Geduld says, speaking soberly about the children he cares for. “Always a father or mother is missing, by abandonment or death, and sometimes there are problems at home with drugs.”
“For example, sometimes the problem is with alcohol. We have a case where the father of three children died and the mother was an alcoholic. The two oldest were mandated here after a two-year-old [in that family] died of malnutrition.”
Just like at Elizabeth‘s home, the doors at Geduld’s shelter are open for the children‘s parents to visit, but they don‘t come to see the children. “We have many cases where the parents hardly ever visit, and they can,” he explains. “Two kids have been here 14 months, and not once have their parents visited to see how they are, how they are growing. Only two or three parents visit every Sunday.”
Government lawyers mandate children that need to be removed from their families, and look for homes to place them in. “We work with lawyers who advise us of situations and we can only take children they mandate,” Geduld says. “We have thirty children and almost every week they ask us to take more. The majority will stay for their whole adolescence, until they finish school. Sometimes they leave earlier.”
In Bolivia, the legal situation is obscure when it comes to children. Parents willingly give their children away. This unburdens the lawyers to pursue all the necessary legal procedures, but then you have parents that later on want their child back, there is nothing to protect the rights of the foster caregiver.
“We had a situation where a mother of four showed up and wanted them back,” Geduld says. “And though the lawyers didn’t give permission, the mother still had rights to have them. It was difficult because two wanted to go, and two didn’t, though in the end they all left.”
Since the government was involved in the process, one would think they help the shelter. This is not the case. “You have to be immensely patient to work with these lawyers,” he says. “They mandate but then don’t help financially. There are programs, its just a very difficult and long process to collect money from the government. As of now they have not given one cent. For now, we are operating quite well with only the help from one church in Germany.”
The government, that after all is socialist, does pay out in one program dedicated towards children. Juanetecito Pinto is a program that pays cash incentives when a child completes a year of school.
“The children can get the money by themselves by bringing their identity card, going to school and waiting,” says Elizabeth, the de facto foster mother of 11 children. “The government pays 200 Boliviano [about $28.00 USD]. School is free. But the books, crayons, uniforms, all that you need to buy. Until the fourth grade the money should be enough, but afterwards there are more supplies to buy, and it costs around 350 Boliviano [about $50.00 USD].”
“They say to put the kids in uniforms in order to bring equality to the rich and poor, after all uniforms are something very socialist,” says Elizabeth, smirking but not joking, revealing the irony in her statement. “But I don’t think so when the poor have trouble affording it. If they have four children they need four uniforms. How will they pay for it? And every year?”
Geduld supports the perspective offered by Elizabeth. “[The government officials] give the money for school, but the problem is that [the parents] spend it on other things. Sometimes they take their parents out to eat; they spend it once they receive it.”
“It would be better to give the children school supplies,” asserts Geduld. “At the beginning of the year.”
Diana, the daughter of Elizabeth, considers this alternative to supporting the educational pursuits of poor children in Bolivia. “What would be better is to buy them the uniforms, the school supplies at the beginning of the year. Instead of going out for a chicken at the end of the year, the money would be truly for the education,” she says. “It would create new distribution and manufacturing jobs in the country. Think about it, 1,000 children in this village alone; it would create work for the whole country.”
Currently the program remains unchanged, as Elizabeth explains: “It will cause more work for the officials. It’s easier to just give money.”
They all admit that the incentive does at least motivate parents to send their children to school, regardless of how they spend the money afterwards. Many families are very poor. “If the two parents are working, about 1,000 Boliviano [$148.00 USD] a month is what they‘ll bring home,” says Elizabeth. “You can’t get very far with that. So if they have five children that could be an extra 1000 at the end of the year if they all finish school.”
But if they earn so little money, how come so many homes have more than four children? “It is not a problem to have many children, if they can raise them, give them education, everything they need,” says Geduld, reflecting on his years of experience with children from poor families. “But then the problem is with work. Sometimes the father is lazy, and does not want to work.”
Elizabeth goes further with her conception of the overabdundance of children among the poor in Bolivia. “Because they don’t take the pill. The large majority don’t even know what it is, or condoms for that matter. They lack education.”
Diana confirms to her mother’s sentiments: “Because they don’t have the education. They do not accept contraception, even though there are campaigns and posters in hospitals; the people are too closed-minded and don’t take them. There are condoms that are free. They have begun sexual education in high schools, for sicknesses and prevention. But at home, there’s very little.”
“There aren’t good connections, relationships between the mother and daughter,” says Diana. “And the guys, well they just don’t care.”
Elizabeth shares a story of another child she took in. “I had Noemi for a year and a half, from when she was twelve. When she left here, she did not stay long with her mother before moving to Santa Cruz to live with her sister. But then her sister died accidentally, and she came back,” recalls Elizabeth. “Shortly after she became pregnant, and about two weeks ago she gave birth to a baby boy. She has a bad relationship with her mother, though you wouldn’t notice when they visit here. It’s difficult for her when she can’t light a candle [a pack of candles is about $0.70 USD] when her baby is crying because it is too expensive for them.”
Diana adds to her mother’s story: “Even Noemi doesn’t really know what to do with her child. If her baby’s daddy would come and ask for him, she would give him up. She doesn’t care, there is not an attachment. And she was not informed, she did not take precautions, and now she has an undesired baby. And she is still very young.”
There seems to be a vicious cycle in the poorest areas of Boliva, where poverty sweeps families downward, and chains them through a lack of education. Parents are either unwillingly or unknowingly trapping their children with them.
“We have a girl in the second grade who cant read or write,” says Geduld, who runs the shelter for children. “She doesn’t know her numbers. They learn how to study here. The children work together and help each other out here. We are practically like a huge family. They are better off here. I have seen their houses, so much is lacking, like cleanliness, but mainly education.”
Elizabeth knows this is true for Sara, her adopted child. “When she came to live with me, she did not know how to read or write. Her grandmother did not know either how to read so how could she help her with her homework? She was all alone to study. After two years here, she was one of the first in her class.”
It is not just the lack of education at home that hurts these children. Geduld says this about the schools. “The education system lacks many things. For example, in the first grade they learn their letters, but nothing with numbers, no mathematics. Everything they learn is through copying, repeating. The teachers are not trained properly. I have spoken with many teachers; it is difficult to teach in poor conditions. There is no discipline. All the kids are screaming, and the teacher either calmly continues, or sometimes leaves. And if they were drunk the night before, then they don’t show up, or if they do, it’s at 10:00am [but classes end at noon].”
“There are very low standards here,” says Diana. “They lack all pedagogy. Last year my son had to copy the book of national songs, this year he is doing the same thing. That’s music class.”
How can Bolivia begin to fix the system, so that the poor children of the country may have a bright future? Diana thinks she knows. “They should start by training the teachers, you can’t blame the children for not doing the homework they’re assigned,” she says. “It’s all copying, there are no exercises that make them reflect, to fill in the blanks with their ideas.”
Whether or not poverty is the main cause, there still remains a glaring contrast between the attitudes towards education held by people like Elizabeth, and some parents. Education won’t put food on tonight’s table.
“At his house Carlos doesn’t have any opportunities, they don‘t have money. With me, he will have all the opportunities,” says Elizabeth. “As long as he studies hard he will have the chance to learn whatever he wants to in life.”