600,000 Children Left Behind

Venezuela’s collapse has forced the fragmentation of thousands of families, some of which are monoparental. When adults migrate without their kids, a whole array of abandon, mistreatment and tragedy appears.

Photo: El Nuevo Herald, retrieved.

International news outlets have document shortages, hyperinflation, violence and the long lines of migrants, but there’s a less visible side of the crisis, harder to capture on camera: the void that mass migration is leaving in the social tissue, already in tatters after years of economic decline.

The largest migration crisis in South America’s modern history has split thousands of Venezuelan families, when one or more of its members leave the country without the elderly and even their children, in an attempt to contribute from abroad to the survival of those behind. This is happening even in single-parent families, in a country where around 40% of households are under the charge of a woman, not a couple, according to 2011 Census.

The few figures we have are estimates, but they give us an idea of the drama. According to CECODAP, over 600,000 children have been forcefully abandoned by their parents in this context; a study recently issued by the Padre Joaquín research center at the catholic charity Fe y Alegría reported that 4,500 children who study in the movement’s schools were left behind by their parents and are currently under the care of a close relative.

At El Carmen neighborhood, in northern Barquisimeto, about 400 km west of Caracas, there are many stories of children left in the care of people who aren’t their parents.

Katy López works in a high school of that area and leads a cultural dance group. She has four children (a boy, and three teenagers,) and didn’t hesitate to open the doors of her humble home to take care of Francys, a 14-year old girl who saw her mother leave for another country.

María, Francys’ mother, left in August, 2018, to Peru, leaving the girl (and her two little brothers, a 3-year old and a 6-year old) under the care of her step-father. The situation worsened when the step-father also left.

She has four children (a boy, and three teenagers,) and didn’t hesitate to open the doors of her humble home to take care of Francys, a 14-year old girl.

“She was completely alone with her two brothers and she started missing school. Francys was responsible for those children and she scarcely studied because she had to take care of them. The step-father returned and wanted to hurt her,” Katy says. Francys’ mother is still in Peru.

The girl took refuge with a neighbor between October and December, 2018, as a surrogate daughter. She slept on a mattress and relieved her anguish with a temporary mother, developing a brotherly bond with the neighbor’s four children. She’s practically an orphan: her biological father doesn’t recognize her and her mother sends money from Peru. Her mood has declined along with her grades, Katy says: “She was a straight-A kid, she had the second-best ranking, but now she’s failed several courses and left the group. She was a great dancer.”

Karla (10) was also left under the care of three male figures (her dad and two older brothers) when her mother crossed to Colombia. A neighbor had to go and rescue her.

“Her dad worked from time to time and drank too much,” says the neighbor, who decided to remain anonymous. “I picked her from the street, with lice and scabs, malnourished. I took care of her, started taking her to school and then she stayed with me for three months.”

Karla has an uncle, but she doesn’t want to stay with him: “When I asked her why, she cried, she didn’t want to tell me.” Her father didn’t go looking for her, and stopped talking with the neighbor. The mother, aware of the situation, agreed to leaving Karla in the neighbor’s care.

In January, 2019, the mother returned and was reunited with the girl. However, constant travels to Colombia are still there, and the girl’s still alone with her father and brothers, just another of who knows how many stories that show the meaning of the “humanitarian crisis” expression. When is Francys’ mother coming back? Will parents keep looking for a better economy abroad? Are they aware of the wounds they open by leaving?