Holt’s in-country representative for Colombia, Ana Maria Fernandez, and U.S.-based program manager, Malia Robello, share how the COVID crisis in Colombia is affecting vulnerable children and families and how Holt sponsors and donors help meet their most urgent needs.
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How is the pandemic currently affecting children and families in Colombia?
ANA MARIA: Definitely there is an increase in violence, abuse and neglect. But Colombia had a very long, very strict lockdown. At the beginning of the pandemic, no one was allowed to leave their homes. … So it’s been really difficult to identify cases because children are not going to school. Medical care, unless it’s an emergency, is also reduced. … The two biggest [child abuse] reporters — schools and hospitals — are not seeing kids so it’s hard to know.
Right now, we are seeing an increase in the number of children that are coming into the [child protection] system, but still, it’s lower [than when schools and hospitals could report cases]. … [Due to social distancing restrictions], there’s not a lot of staff going to visit [families]. So imagine the situation of the children that are below the radar.
How are our partners helping to prevent domestic violence among at-risk families?
MALIA: With [our partner] FANA, they’re supporting parents with [virtual] education, nonviolent resolution, communication and different skills to use in order to prevent mistreatment, abuse and neglect. … There’s a lot of concern that since the schools are not in contact with families directly anymore, they’re at risk of home life being really stressful and of using parenting and discipline strategies that are harmful. So it is really important for them to maintain connection and communication with family members.
How have children adapted to online school?
ANA MARIA: Children are all going to school virtually. And most of the vulnerable families and children, they have attention issues. … They have malnutrition issues. So imagine what’s going on with them at school? Even children who have everything are struggling a lot. Imagine families with many, many children that are living in the same space — with extended families, with neighbors. They, first of all, don’t always have the technological means — computers. They sometimes have one phone and they have to take shifts so if they want to really learn it’s very hard. So we are seeing a lot of children behind in their academic development.
How have Holt sponsors and donors helped meet the most urgent needs of families and children?
ANA MARIA: Our partner FANA [doesn’t] have access to a lot of financial support. So the financial support they receive from Holt sponsors and donors, it has become like gold. … Seventy percent of the businesses in Colombia are at risk of bankruptcy. … It’s very hard to find resources now, even from the government. [But] with the support that they’re receiving from Holt sponsors and donors, they are making a big effort to help families.
… The area [that FANA serves] is one of the largest neighborhoods in Bogotá with a very high level of displaced and poor people. They are basically one big group of at-risk families and they really need this support. … [FANA has] been able to continue distributing food packages to the families. And the teachers know they have to be very attentive to the families’ needs right now. They are in direct contact with all of them.
Colombia has also been dealing with widespread and often violent protests against the government. How are the protests affecting vulnerable families?
ANA MARIA: Being confined and out of work, the families are struggling a lot right now. With the protests, even moreso. … Right now, the protests in a way have affected more people in higher needs because things are more expensive. Meat, for example, went up 30-40 percent just last week. There’s less in supermarkets because the roads are closed [by the protestors] so they are not able to bring groceries to big cities.
In May, [FANA wasn’t] able to distribute groceries because of the shortage we have been experiencing with the protests. Sua — the neighborhood [where most Holt-supported families live in Bogotá ] — has been hit very much with these protests. … We have a food shortage, increasing prices and imagine what that plus the pandemic does to the children that are vulnerable.
How are the protests and the pandemic affecting children in our partnering care centers?
MALIA: There’s just a lot of chaos going on around them because of the protests. Maria Gabriela, the projects director at FANA, was adamant that they’re trying to make life as normal as possible. She said that it’s almost been a benefit that they have to stay at home and not go out to school. It’s been hard and taxing on the kids psychologically, but they’re at least somewhat protected from what’s happening politically. And they’re trying to create as many activities and positive experiences as possible for kids in care.
Despite initial setbacks, the adoption process is moving forward for kids in Colombia, correct?
ANA MARIA: ICBF, the adoption office, never stopped working. They received files from day one [of the pandemic] and so they could match many children during the year. And then when we all started to reopen in September, families started to come and they have been coming regularly. So no difference at all — adopted children have been able to travel to the U.S. with their families. Fortunately.
In what ways will sponsor and donor support be critical in the coming months as the spread of COVID in Colombia continues?
ANA MARIA: Right now, we are experiencing a very difficult situation with the ICUs and the number of deaths. … Thousands of people are going out into the streets [to protest] and, consequently, the number of people dying and the number of contagious people has increased. … The level of unemployment in Colombia is rising, it’s 15 percent. We haven’t had a two-figure unemployment figure for a long time. … The number of jobs are diminishing. People right now are trying to find jobs. It’s super hard. … The psychological effects they have been seeing in children and families is super high. … [But for the families], just knowing that they have support gives peace. It gives tranquility. They know they have help. …[Our partner staff] at FANA are like mom and dad for these families and children in sponsorship. Really they are so caring, so loving.
What would you like to say directly to sponsors and donors?
ANA MARIA: Colombia right now is trying to survive the pandemic and in cases of crisis, your support allows us to go beyond the basic needs of support. Families are really in crisis. … It means right now, more than ever, they need emotional and psychological connection — to know that there is a place and there are people who really care about them where they can go and ring the door and ask for help. So we really need your support to continue working with children and families in the best way possible.
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