In Guatemala, Executive Director welcomes steps towards greater focus on child protection systems

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GUATEMALA, 1 April 2013 – Executive Director Anthony Lake welcomes steps towards greater focus on child protection systems.

While challenges remain, Guatemala has taken steps towards improving child protection systems, establishing more specialized Children’s Courts, pledging to resolve ‘transition adoption’ cases, preventing children ending up in institutions, supporting families to keep their children and punishing crimes against children.

During a visit by Executive Director Anthony Lake last week, UNICEF in turn pledged to offer its support to the implementation of these measures.

Such progress will be especially important for children like those in the beds and cribs of Hogar Seguro, one of the largest institutions for children in Latin America. In total 5,800 children still reside in institutions such as this, with little or no access to their families.

Hogar Seguro houses children from 18 years old down to tiny premature babies. Some babies just days old, some reaching out from their cribs and bassinettes, some quietly, others not so quietly, desperate to be held. One toddler, Isios, caught UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake’s eye, crying out as Lake walked by before smiling when the Executive Director stopped and picked him up.

“No matter how good and caring the institution – and this is a good one, the workers here are doing wonderful work – nothing can replace the love of a family,” said the Executive Director.

Work has already started at Hogar Seguro to create smaller homes run by carers. Domestic adoption and foster care are on the increase in Guatemala. But increased efforts are needed to support families so that children can thrive at home.

Mr. Lake expressed particular concern for another group of children who had essentially become bureaucratic victims of the 2008 moratorium on inter-country adoption. When a country takes steps to correct violations in child protection systems, the best interests of children must be paramount. That means a roadmap, with clear targets, must be established and enacted – something that had unfortunately been lacking in Guatemala with the remaining intercountry adoption cases, leaving some 100 children in an administrative limbo.

During the UNICEF Executive Director’s visit last week, the Solicitor General, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Adoption Council announced that a working group had been established to resolve these cases. A goal has been set of three months for the investigation of outstanding cases and another two months for finalisation. This was a critical step, one which the UNICEF Executive Director welcomed while urging that immediate action follow.

Broader protection efforts are also being made. Supreme Court Justices Gabriel Gomez and Gustavo Mendizabal reassured the Executive Director that justice for children would be a priority through the setting up more of specialized Children’s Courts to deal with crimes against children. The Alba Kenneth Alert System, an initiative legislated by the government to address child abduction and disappearance, has also been established.

President Otto Pérez Molina has pledged to provide more government resources to investigate outstanding transition cases and Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz assured the Executive Director of her commitment to child protection in Guatemala.

For its part, UNICEF’s Executive Director committed the organization to working with the Guatemalan government to accelerate progress on child protection and combatting violence against children.

Around the world UNICEF focuses on turning commitments to protect the rights of children into reality, so that children like Isios have more reason to smile.

The Executive Director was accompanied by Chief Child Protection Officer Susan Bissell, and Spokesperson Sarah Crowe.