After a day of cheering on fighters at boxing matches in Phnom Penh, Champei* was ready to head home to Takeo province when a woman approached her as she was going back to her car.
Her face was covered to hide her identity. The woman asked Champei if she would hold her baby while she bought milk.
“[She said] she would return quickly,” Champei recalled.
After waiting for the baby’s mother to return, Champei returned home with the child, but she later returned to the capital and reported the incident to police. Authorities, however, had received no report of a missing infant and could not find the mother.
That night, 11 years ago, was the first time that Champei held the boy she now calls her son.
Adoptions from abroad have long been debated, but while the manner in which Champei came about raising her son may seem unorthodox, the concept of parents giving up their children to be raised by others in Cambodia is not a foreign one, and courts are often left out of the loop.
“They don’t have the ability to care for the kid, so they give them away to be taken care of by someone else on behalf of them,” said Chhan Sokunthea, head of rights group Adhoc’s women and children’s rights section.
Factors such as poverty, divorce and a dysfunctional family life typically drive parents to give up their children, Sokunthea said. In order to legally adopt a child, the new parents must file a petition in court and prove either that it is “difficult or inappropriate for the birth parent[s] to care for the child”, or that a special circumstance exists making the adoption necessary, according to a Ministry of Social Affairs handout on domestic adoption.
But many adoptive parents – largely rural and often poor – sometimes cannot afford the court fees or live too far away to make repeated trips to the courthouse, Sokunthea said. Many of these parents skip the process and simply raise their new children as their own.
Aun Maly*, 29, adopted her daughter from a Phnom Penh hospital after a doctor she had met years earlier told her that a newborn baby’s mother had refused to keep the infant.
“If I did not take her to live with me, she would be abandoned or would be sent to an orphanage,” said Maly, who never met the girl’s biological mother.
This relaxed attitude towards child custody, however, can open the door to child abuse, Sokunthea said.
Adhoc responded to three cases in the first half of 2014 in which children out of their birth parents’ custody suffered abuse at the hands of their guardians.
In June, the NGO responded to a complaint lodged by villagers in Koh Kong who said a woman who shared a house with them chained up her 4-year-old “adopted daughter” inside the house eight hours per day while she worked.
When police found the child – the woman was keeping her as collateral from her mother, who owed money – she recalled being chained up and deprived of water for so long that she drank her own urine.
Two months earlier, the wife of a well-known tycoon was tried in absentia on charges of brutally beating and torturing her two adopted daughters. Both victims, who had been given up by poor rural families, recounted years of abuse in which they were treated as little more than slaves.
“The government should [enforce] the law for adopted children,” said Sokunthea, who believes that the authorities, courts and the Ministry of Social Affairs do not do enough to protect them.
Officials from the Social Affairs Ministry refused to speak with a Post reporter about the issue, saying they required an official letter requesting comment.
The act of taking in someone else’s children when they are unable to raise them is a tradition in Cambodia that grows from the country’s Buddhist roots, said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who said his father’s friends adopted him in 1954, after his father passed away, leaving only his widowed mother to care for him.
“We are Buddhist, we try to help each other,” Siphan said. “Cambodians are very close with each other.… I don’t think it’s complicated like it is in the West.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities