Colombia wants him adopted. But he has a family — and they want him back.

Children play a game in front of a Guanipa family home in Punto Fijo, Venezuela, on July 28.
Children play a game in front of a Guanipa family home in Punto Fijo, Venezuela, on July 28. (Andrea Hernandez Briceno/For The Washington Post)

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The boy had been in the child-welfare system for nearly two years, and his court-appointed guardian was running out of options.

Brought to Bogotá by his Venezuelan mother and abandoned, the brown-haired child had spent more time in the custody of Colombia’s Institute for Family Welfare than the law here allows. Agency officials had told the country’s highest court that they had done all they could to find the mother and had come up empty. Nor could they locate relatives in Venezuela to care for him.

Now the boy’s guardian ad litem was asking the court to make him a citizen — a first step toward putting him up for adoption.

But in the boy’s Venezuelan hometown, members of his extended family — an aunt, a great-grandmother and a cousin who watched him when he was an infant — say they were never contacted by Colombian government officials. None knew about the court case.

The boy, now 6, is one of about 1,200 Venezuelan children trapped in a child-welfare system that has proved unwilling or unable to find their families, under a government that has no diplomatic relations with their own.

Colombia has now settled on what it sees as a solution: It wants to begin making these children eligible for adoption. With a judge’s approval, about 235 children in similar circumstances could be placed permanently with new families.

But a Washington Post investigation calls the government’s claims into question. Officials told the constitutional court that they had exhausted all means of finding relatives who could care for the boy. Judge Jorge Enrique Ibáñez Najar agreed, writing that “the maternal family has no interest in being contacted or taking care of the child.”

It took Post reporters using Facebook less than a week to identify and contact the boy’s relatives in Venezuela and also his mother in Bogotá.

All said they wanted the child back.

A diplomatic freeze leaves children in limbo

In January 2019, officials of Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry traveled to Colombia with plane and bus tickets for 12 children.

The 12 were part of a longer list of Venezuelan children in Colombia’s child-welfare system who had been identified by authorities in 2017 and 2018, according to documents reviewed by The Post. Colombian and Venezuelan authorities had given the green light for the 12 children to return to their home country, with some going to their families and others to foster homes or government-run care centers.

But during the Venezuelan officials’ trip, Colombian authorities stopped responding to calls, according to people with knowledge of the mission, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. After three days, the Venezuelan diplomats returned home without the children.

Colombian authorities said they had decided not to repatriate them to Venezuela in part because they could not guarantee that they would be safe in facilities run by the crumbling socialist state. Venezuelan officials said the decision was made without their knowledge or input. They accused Colombia of using the children as pawns in the political conflict between the neighboring governments.

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Some of the 12 stayed in Colombia’s child-welfare system until they aged out. In at least one case, a parent traveled to Colombia to look for the child. Others are still in the system.

A month after the failed mission, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro cut diplomatic relations with Colombia.

The immediate cause was Colombia’s refusal to recognize Maduro’s reelection in a 2018 vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Colombia, like the United States, recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader. But the move followed years of antagonism between socialist Venezuela and Colombia, led by the conservative President Iván Duque.

Yet, with Venezuela’s economy in free fall, its citizens continued to pour into Colombia, home to nearly 2 million such migrants, and their children continued to flood the child-welfare system. The Guaidó-led opposition, recognized by Colombia, the United States and others as Venezuela’s rightful government, had no access to state resources to aid in the search for their families.

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“Behind all of this is a complicated diplomatic and political issue,” said Felipe Cortés, a former coordinator for migrant children in the Colombian child-welfare agency who now works with Save the Children. “Venezuela could say we are kidnapping their children. But if we return them, we could also be accused internationally of not looking out for the conditions of those children.”

In 2019, the Colombian government asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to help reunite Venezuelan children with their families. But the organization has made little progress. It says it has established contact with the families of 64 children and has reunified five.

The ICRC searches for relatives by activating “a network of family ties,” using state databases and checking with churches, community leaders and others who might have clues, said Rafael Barrantes, a deputy protection coordinator for separated or missing persons in Colombia. The success of a search can depend on the information a child can provide about his or her family.

Scores of Venezuelan children have stayed in the child-welfare system longer than allowed by Colombian law, putting pressure on the agency’s overburdened workers, according to interviews with advocates and current and former local officials. Guardians ad litem, lawyers with the welfare agency who represent the interests of children in court, are obligated to close cases within 18 months.

This has caused some government officials and employees to take matters into their own hands, tracking down families on Facebook — even though they’re prohibited from using social media in government offices. Some told The Post they have personally walked children across a bridge over the Venezuela border to meet their relatives.

Other guardians are so disheartened that they are opting not to admit Venezuelan teenagers into the child-welfare system, advocates said, instead allowing them to continue living in Colombia on their own.

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Lina María Arbeláez Arbeláez, the director general of the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare, said her agency has increased investment in Venezuelan children. It has recently launched a webpage called “Do you know me?” that features their photos.

“Let me ask you a question,” she said. “If we return those children, knowing the conditions Venezuela is in, who will guarantee the well-being of that child? … International conventions tell us that whenever there is a gap, or a risk, do not return that child.”

Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro, who is to be inaugurated Sunday, has taken steps to reestablish relations with Venezuela. Advocates say this could help in the search for children’s families across the border.

The Duque administration, for its part, advanced a bill in Congress that would grant Colombian citizenship to migrant children in the welfare agency. An agency spokesman said lawmakers did not intend to put the children up for adoption. But analysts warned that granting them citizenship could open the door to that possibility.

The bill has since failed. But Cortés, the former child-welfare official, said the citizenship plan had shown the administration’s urgent desire to “fast-track” a way out rather than address the root issue.

“The underlying problem,” he said, “is how do you find these families in Venezuela?”

Left in the care of a foreign country

When the boy was born, his mother was herself a child.

Pregnant at 16 by a neighbor more than a decade older, she relied on her mother to raise her baby. But four months after his birth, her mother died in a car accident. Her death in 2016 hit the family just as Venezuela’s economic crisis was spiraling out of control. The young woman decided to join the throngs crossing the border into Colombia.

She found occasional work in the nightclubs of Bogotá but often didn’t make enough to pay her daily rent, said the woman, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. It was no life for a child, she said, so the baby often stayed with his father, who lived briefly in Colombia. Then the mother became pregnant again.

In late 2019, she left the boy, then 3, with a friend, Sorleidys Alcalá, while she worked at a bar and saved up money for rent. A month and a half later, Alcalá said, the mother had sent no money and stopped answering her phone calls and messages. The bar staff told Alcalá that the woman hadn’t shown up for work in weeks. A social worker urged Alcalá to give the child to authorities.

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On a morning in November 2019, Alcalá carried him to an office in Bogotá and watched as a small white van took him away.

“I wanted to help you more,” she wrote in a Facebook post with a photo of the boy, a last-ditch effort to reach his mother. “But it was out of my hands.”

The post worked. Across town, a friend showed it to the mother, letting her know her son had been handed over to Colombia’s child-welfare system. It was her 20th birthday. Her daughter later entered the system as well.

If she wanted the boy back, a child-welfare worker told her, she would need a relative to come to Colombia to prove she would have a support system to help her care for the child in the country, the mother said. She called an aunt in Venezuela, Neyda Josefina Guanipa, and asked her to meet her in Colombia for an appointment with the agency.

But the aunt never made it. After Guanipa took a bus to the Colombian border, her niece stopped answering her calls, and she never sent the money she had promised to pay for the trip, the aunt said. Guanipa returned to Venezuela, devastated.

The mother did not return to the child-welfare agency, and Guanipa says she has not heard from her since.

“Nothing will be in my favor. I don’t have family here. I live in a place that’s not apt for a child,” explained the boy’s mother, now 22, tears running down her face. “In that moment, I thought maybe it would be better for him.”

The boy’s father said that he tried once to visit a child-welfare office in Bogotá but that his name was not on his son’s birth certificate and he was unable to find information about the case. Then the pandemic hit.

A pathway to adoption

The boy had spent nearly two years living with a foster family and in a group home when his case reached the constitutional court.

His court-appointed guardian told the judge the lack of diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela made it “impossible” to reunite the boy with his family.

The guardian had filed a lawsuit asking for the boy to be granted Colombian citizenship. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said it asked the Guaidó-led opposition, which occupies the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogotá, for assistance tracking down the child’s family. The ministry said the opposition never responded.

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Reached by The Post, the legal adviser to the embassy, Zair Mundaraín, would not say whether it had received an official request from the Colombian Foreign Ministry.

The constitutional court in July gave the child-welfare agency three months to exhaust all resources to find the family. Otherwise, it said, the boy could be placed in the adoption system.

But officials in Colombia and around the world have struggled to define what it means to exhaust all resources — and to decide whether the burden of reunifying families should fall on the child’s family or on the government.

José Ángel Rodríguez Reyes, a member of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, said adoption should be considered a last resort, for “when it is known with a significant level of certainty that, in fact, the child does not have relatives.”

This is especially true when there are political barriers to identifying families, he said, such as in Colombia and Venezuela. “As long as these difficulties are not overcome, I believe that adoption may not be adequate,” he said.

One advocate with knowledge of the constitutional court case, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to comment on a sensitive issue, argued that parents or other relatives should be responsible for looking for a family’s children.

“The question is, what did that family do all year? Why didn’t they show up? Why weren’t they looking out for the child? Why didn’t they call [the child-welfare agency] to ask?” the advocate said. There is no mother, no father that wouldn’t cross an ocean, even with no money, to find their child.”

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Ibáñez Najar, the judge, wrote that “the behavior of the mother, and even the grandmother,” showed that the maternal family had no interest in caring for the child. Child-welfare officials said in court documents that the boy’s maternal grandmother is in Colombia and once appeared at an agency office. In fact, the boy’s maternal grandmother has been dead for more than five years. It is unclear to whom the judge and officials were referring.

The boy’s mother, living in a cramped apartment in a low-income neighborhood of Bogotá, was unaware that her son was the subject of a case before the country’s highest court until informed by The Post. She lives with a 43-year-old partner and their 9-month-old, her third child. The names of her two other children are tattooed on her arms.

She said she had assumed her son had been adopted — perhaps by an American couple. She said she didn’t know there was still a chance for him to remain in her family, “with his own blood.”

Across the border, a family waits

Three generations of the Guanipa family were born and raised in the small town of Punto Fijo, in Venezuela’s western coastal area.

The family’s houses, which take up an entire block, look alike: one-story structures with three rooms, a kitchen, and a patio where the families hang their clothes to dry in the sun.

In one family home on a recent afternoon, children were curled up watching a movie in a bedroom, the one room with air conditioning. The matriarch of the family, Yoleida Guanipa, held two great-grandchildren in her arms.

One great-grandchild was missing. The 67-year-old woman couldn’t bring herself to speak about him without breaking down in tears.

The boy’s aunts, cousins, great-aunts and great-grandmother say they wished they could have done more to keep him with the family, but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to contact his mother. Money for travel was limited. The pandemic made everything more difficult.

“Who is going to get in touch with us from Colombia, knowing we’re Venezuelan?” asked Yoselyn Carolina González, the mother’s cousin. “They probably think we’re bad people, or that we just went back to Venezuela and forgot about that boy. But we didn’t.”

Neyda Josefina Guanipa, who had made the trip to the Colombia border, recently remembered that the boy’s birthday was coming up, on Aug. 15. When she said his name, the boy’s 12-year-old cousin asked where he was. “He’s still in Colombia,” she replied.

The boy’s great-aunt felt confident that she could care for him. Guanipa now works cleaning houses and says she makes enough money to cover everything she needs. She has a spare room for the boy. The many children in the extended family all go to school just a block away.

Another great-aunt took out her cellphone and pulled up a photo of the boy on Facebook. She pointed out a comment she had left on the photo recently.

“God bless you my child,” she had written, “wherever you are.”

Mariana Zúñiga in Punto Fijo contributed to this report.