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Nearly 10 percent of Bolivian children have been abandoned by impoverished mothers out of shame, taboos and fear. A spin of el torno offers a new chance at life, but overcrowded orphanages struggle to provide for these children, and regulatory obstacles make the adoption process difficult.

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   This baby's name would be Gracey, but her mother would never know. The year was 2004. The fourpound baby, conceived when her 14-year-old mother was raped by her cousin, was born outside of Oruro, Bolivia. In her first moments of life, the baby was laid under a bush without a name and left to die.
   Indigenous women who live in rural areas usually give birth in their homes, with help from mothers, sisters or aunts. If they cannot afford or do not want to keep their babies, they have two options: abort or abandon. Abortions are illegal in Bolivia and are much more risky for the mothers. Seventy-four percent of Indigenous people in Bolivia live below the poverty line, but even if they could afford an abortion, they would have to travel to the city. Having the baby is safer and less expensive, so that's what many of these women do, whether they are ready, whether they want it or whether they will have help once it comes.
   And the unwanted baby lies under the bush.

Forgotten to found
   Even though this is the fate for some abandoned Bolivian babies, the 2011 UNICEF report shows at least 320,000 of these forgotten children have survived. Bolivia has a population of nearly 10 million, with 3.5 million under 15 years old. Slightly less than 10 percent of the children in Bolivia are orphans who most often live in orphanages in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz. A 2009 study done in Bolivia called the German Technical Assistance program, or its Spanish name, Cooperación Técnica Alemana, estimates that more than 2,500 children live on the streets of Bolivia, unaccompanied.
   Infant abandonment in Bolivia is high and has many forms, according to Caridad Sánchez, an educator at the Carlos de Villegas Home, or its Spanish name, Hogar Carlos de Villegas, in La Paz. If police come across a homeless or abandoned child, they carry the child to an orphanage — a search for their families would be too exhausting and useless. Sánchez has witnessed babies being abandoned in garbage dumps and deserted in nylon bags on the streets. When women come to the orphanage to drop off their children, the most cited reason is poverty. Sánchez said she believes that impoverished people, especially women, need to be educated about sex and its consequences. Ovidio Suárez, a private doctor in La Paz agrees, saying that because it is not talked about in schools or at home, young women don't know the consequences of unprotected sex.
   "It is still considered taboo to talk about the use of contraceptives or to give sexual information about sex before marriage," Sánchez said in Spanish. "Unfortunately the consequences are undesired pregnancies and, logically, abortions."

A toddler at Hogar Carlos de Villegas leans over the window of a playhouse. Many of the children at the orphanage were dropped in a turnstile outside the building that shuttled the children inside. [patrick breen]

   Abortions are illegal in Bolivia unless the baby presents harm to the mother's health or is the result of rape. Abandonment is the legal option for women who cannot take care of their babies. When shame and embarrassment are too great, mothers who come to this orphanage can leave their babies in el torno.
   El torno is a physical, rotating chamber at the Carlos de Villegas Home that welcomes Bolivian babies abandoned by their mothers. This cylindrical, lifesaving mechanism spins full circle, embedded in the wall of the caretakers' quarters. Mothers slide open the door, say goodbye, and with a spin, the babies' fates are forever changed. About a quarter of the orphans at the Carlos de Villegas Home have been left in el torno, which serves a similar purpose to the United States' safe haven laws.
   "They come and say, 'I cannot keep going on; I cannot raise my child,'" Rosario Arnao, director of the Carlos de Villegas Home, said in Spanish.
   In Spanish, el torno is used to describe a turn or a bend in a river. When the caretakers hear the creaking of el torno, they know a new baby is coming to their sleeping quarters, turning to them for a second chance at such a young life. Sometimes there's a note, and sometimes there isn't, but at least they are safe. They have reached the bend in the river.
   But the bend in the river doesn't necessarily bring happiness and joy. These orphans face a multitude of obstacles children with families can't fathom. These children have no families to love them, little financial support from the government and a lengthy, uncertain adoption process in which to invest their hopes.

Adoption obstacles
   Gracey was adopted into a family who could afford to support and love her. After being found abandoned under a bush outside Oruro, she spent a few days with her biological mother, who was convinced by a Bolivian missionary woman to nurse Gracey until a home could be found. During that time Gracey's biological mother fed her pesticides, fearful that she had been tricked into keeping her child. After Mike and Bonnie Timmer, founders of the International Orphanage Union of Bolivia, agreed to take care of Gracey, she had to spend months in the hospital with complications from pesticide poisoning. After an emotional struggle to keep Gracey alive, the Timmers, who came to Bolivia as missionaries from Holland, Mich., knew that she would not be the first addition to their orphanage, but a new addition to their family. Increasingly few Bolivian babies share this fate.
   Only days or weeks old, these babies face an uncertain future, even after they are found. IOU Bolivia hopes to open 50 orphanages by 2012. Even though there are more orphans than ever before, the Timmers try to limit each orphanage to 10 children so they can grow up with a sense of family.
   But limiting the population of an orphanage is not a luxury director Rosario Arnao of the Carlos de Villegas Home has — it's a luxury she refuses to have. With el torno, Arnao's orphanage becomes easily overpopulated. Arnao said that adoptions have decreased "dramatically and scandalously," while the rate of abandonment has increased during the past three years.
   Finding adoptive families for Bolivian orphans is like trying to clasp a handful of sand. For one reason or another, many children's hope at adoption slips through the crevices of a flawed system. This ratio is further depressed by the fact that adoption by foreigners is exceedingly difficult. In 2002 under President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the Bolivian government halted foreign adoptions due to concerns that foreign agencies responsible for sending followup reports about these children were not doing so adequately.

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  • Story by Ellen Hirst
  • Photos by Patrick Breen

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