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Border Charity Seeks to Educate Others About Mexican Bureaucracy

Officials with a Texas-based nonprofit operating a binational charity learned a difficult lesson about running a facility in Juárez, Mexico. What happened to them, they said, could happen to others if they are unprepared.

An aid worker and Aaron Sanchez, who is 3 years-old and has Gastaut syndrome, walk through the living area of the Los Ojos de Dios Center on June 3, 2014 in Juarez, Mexico. The center opened in 2008 and serves special needs children who are orphans.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — When 40 children with special needs were removed from an orphanage here last month, officials at the facility said that employees looked on helplessly, unable to get a clear reason.

After several meetings with Chihuahua’s child welfare and social services agency, the orphanage learned that miscommunication and a lack of checks and balances were to blame.

The children are now being returned to the Los Ojos de Dios orphanage, and officials at the facility are using the experience to teach similar charities about the challenges of operating in Mexico. What happened to them, they said, could happen to others if they are unprepared.

“It takes time, and it takes a lot of learning,” said Patricia Silis, the director and founder of the Texas-based orphanage, whose nonprofit status is recognized in both countries. “What happened was just a part of the process.”

When funding plummeted, the orphanage had no contingency plan, and the Chihuahua state government did not offer any guidance on how to keep the children’s center running.

“We didn’t have enough knowledge, but I would not discourage anyone” from working in Mexico, Silis said.

The country ranks near the bottom worldwide in charitable contributions per capita, and any philanthropy is crucial to helping the needy.

Oscar Cantú, the president of the Los Ojos de Dios board of directors, said that as a result of the incident, a coalition of private and public officials was being formed to create guidelines to prevent future mistakes.

“We now know that what happened to us is a blessing. It united all of the rest of the organizations,” Cantú said. “We need to work together.”

The orphanage, which has housed children for six years, has an aquatic center, a horse corral, a dormitory and a medical center.

It is partly financed by the Chihuahua government, with all other money coming from private donations. But after the Mexican government recently enacted a 5 percent tax increase in border cities, private donations to the orphanage dropped sharply last year.

Years of violence in the border city also affected the economy and stymied contributions. So the orphanage reached out to the Chihuahua government to step up its aid.

“In September we started talking to the government and said, ‘Listen, we need you to participate with a larger amount,’” Cantú said. “‘Because of all of these situations, we can’t get all this money to be able to continue working in the standards that we’d like to work.’”

After months of uncertainty, the state government in March agreed to increase its payments to the orphanage, but the money did not continue.

Last month, Cantú said, the Los Ojos de Dios treasurer sought assistance from Chihuahua’s social services agency, saying the center was running low on medicine, and that triggered the removal of the children.

The children were sent to various hospitals in the state, and orphanage officials were subsequently contacted by medical personnel asking for guidance on how to treat the children.

After a series of meetings, state officials determined the children at Los Ojos de Dios were receiving adequate care and would be returned.

“As a result, the decision was made to continue to rely on the support of Los Ojos de Dios children’s home, and we herein establish a new working relationship focused on maintaining and improving child protection and welfare,” state officials said in a statement. “We declare that the children were never at risk given the medical attention they received from pediatricians, nutritionists, nurses, autism clinics, child-care specialists and the constant supervision of the Secretaría de Salud.”

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