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  • Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, known as Mama Rosa, founder of La Gran Familia foster home.

    Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, known as Mama Rosa, founder of La Gran Familia foster home. | Photo: EFE

Published 4 June 2018

Opinion in Mexico is still divided over the case of La Gran Familia foster home.

Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, who as head of the controversial “La Gran Familia” (The big family) foster home took care of thousands of children for four decades in Zamora, Michoacan state, passed away Sunday due to brain hemorrhage.

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Verduzco, who was better known as “Mama Rosa” or “La Jefa” (The Boss) started to take care of children in 1947, when she was only 13 years old. Years later, when the shelter was legally constituted as a civil association in 1973, she was named as the head of the Gran Familia home.

For decades, governments and associations, including ex-preisdents Vicent Fox and Felipe Calderon, donated money to the association and recognized her work, until a controversy broke out.

In 2014, authorities found a series of irregularities in La Gran Familia, in which about 500 children were living in “inhumane conditions,” including child mistreatment, isolation, exploitation, overcrowding and sexual abuse cases, and shut it down.

While the shelter was still open, thousands of children came in and out, some of them thankful of Mama Rosa and others escaping from what they called “a nightmare.”

La Gran Familia shelter in Zamora, Michoacan, Mexico. July 17, 2014. Photo | Reuters.

Many supported Mama Rosa because she gave shelter to children that wouldn't have it otherwise. Some of them were even able to get educated there, as the organization hired teachers to give the children basic education and now enjoy a prosperous adult life, but others did testify against her and her collaborators.

Reports say that some children were forced to beg for money in the streets and were poorly fed, besides having to sleep on the floor since there were not enough beds for everybody. Those who violated the rules were punished and put in “Pinocchio's room,” something that Mama Rosa denied.

In some of the interviews she gave after the shelter was searched, Verduzco said she was “tough” because that's the way life made her. “I'm not only regretful if I failed in taking care of the children, I'm in pain. I ask them for forgiveness,” she said.

She revealed that in recent years her strength wasn't enough to take care of all of them, given her old age, and that she couldn't keep an eye on everything, in reference to the sexual abuse allegations her and some of her collaborators faced.

Authorities got a search warrant after a couple failed to recover their children from the shelter, even though they weren't underage anymore, and found out about the conditions almost 500 children were allegedly living in.

One of the teachers working there revealed that she wasn't aware of the living conditions of the shelter, due to strict policies for employees, and that she didn't understand why Mama Rosa kept some of them even after they were 18 years old.

A group of people take part in a protest in Zamona, Michoacan, in support of Mama Rosa after her shelter was shut down. The pink sign reads "I'm also a child of Rosa." July 17, 2014.

“It's more a mother the one who rears than the one who gives birth,” said Verduzco after admitting she held some of the children even after they were over age.

Jesus Murillo Karam, who at the time was Mexico's Attorney General, said that Verduzco showed “symptoms of senility.”

A total of 278 male minors, 174 female minors, 6 babies and 138 adults, between 18 and 40 years old, were rescued from the shelter. Some of them were put back in contact with family members, but others ended up in state-run foster homes.

Mama Rosa was arrested for kidnapping, human trafficking and organized crime along with eight employees and assistants. Her charges were soon dropped due to her advanced age.

She was 84 years old and died in Mexico City of “natural causes” after a recent fall she recently had, aggraviated by her diabetes. She will be incinerated in the capital city but her ashes will be buried in a private ceremony in Zamora, to which every member of La Gran Familia was invited.

“Let's recognize her extraordinary achievements and reconcile with the mistakes she committed. The testimony of her life and work has left a mark in the history of Zamora and the region,” reads the invitation to the funeral services.

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