Earlier this month, a fire at an orphanage outside of Guatemala’s capital caught international attention. Forty children died of carbon monoxide poisoning and burns; the tragic event drew worldwide condemnation.
But the aftermath of the fire has given hope to those who work with the Central American country’s orphans. As the government turns to evangelicals for help, it seems the tragedy may spark the breakthrough many have been praying for.
In some ways, the tragic blaze—set intentionally by children locked in the overcrowded facility—was not unexpected by evangelical experts. In 2006, Orphan Outreach founder Mike Douris told the Guatemalan government that the orphanage’s design wasn’t a good idea.
The government went ahead and built it anyway—another link in a chain of wrong moves. For decades, Guatemala has had some of the worst child welfare practices on the planet.
In 2015, the country had the second-highest rate of child murders in the world. Of the crimes against children that get reported—including murder, rape, kidnapping—most go unpunished (88%). An estimated 2 in 5 children are malnourished. Among indigenous children, that rises to 4 in 5. Tales of overcrowding, abuse, and malnutrition leak out of orphanages like the one near the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, where dozens died in the recent fire.
The infamous orphanage, the Virgen de la Asunción, was built for 400 children but housed about 750. Inside, orphans were physically and sexually abused by staff and by other children. There were complaints about water leaks and poor food quality. Only 3 of the 64 security cameras in the building were working.
The conditions resemble fellow public orphanages, which house about 1,200 children in Guatemala. At least three times as many live in private orphanages (about 4,000), but that’s still a small fraction of the 370,000 orphans that UNICEF estimates live in the country. Since Guatemala has no foster care system and very few domestic adoptions, virtually every child removed from a neglectful or abusive situation is sent to an orphanage. Many more live on the streets.
“The public orphanages generally have too many kids and not enough funding,” said Douris, an evangelical leader who has been working in Guatemala since 2001. “So you have numerous children in places that are massively understaffed. The directors just do the best they can with what they have. They can request more staff and more money, but it doesn’t get allocated.”
When Guatemala’s then-First Lady showed Douris the map of Virgen de la Asunción before it was built, he told her it was a bad idea. “They were mixing all the populations [such as children detained for criminal behavior, taken from abusive families, or abandoned],” he said. “We already knew how bad public orphanages were, and we knew the mixing of the populations wasn’t going to be handled well. It was a recipe for disaster.”
He was right; Virgen de la Asunción has been one disaster after another. One employee is on trial for rape; another has already been convicted. Between 2012 and 2016, 45 instances of abuse were reported. Last fall, the orphanage was ordered to begin moving children back home or to other shelters in preparation to be shut down. It wasn’t the first time a shutdown was recommended; and it also wasn’t the first time nothing happened in response. The secretary of social welfare, Carlos Rodas, appealed the decision. Without anywhere else to go, the children stayed.