Vandy, a cheeky 13-year-old boy, jokes excitedly with visitors. Despite his mental
handicap he's happy, well adjusted and adored by his mother. Giggling, he runs to
hug her before scrambling outside to play.
Her face beaming with pride, it's clear Mom Rong cherishes her son-but she is not
Vandy's real mother. Rong is one of many foster parents in a program known as Hope,
Assistance and Love for Orphans (HALO). The new initiative works to ensure children
orphaned by AIDS can still grow up in loving homes and caring families.
HALO is one of several parenting programs now receiving technical support from the
government and UNICEF. The campaign promotes alternatives to institutionalizing children
who cannot be cared for by their immediate families. In a policy released last year,
the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran's and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) advocated
"family care and community care as the best option."
It's a new approach for a society that has for many years looked to children's centers
and orphanages as a way to alleviate poverty. The Stockholm Declaration of 2003 on
Children in Residential Care, states that institutional care should be used only
as "a last resort and as a temporary response."
Nim Thoth, MoSVY secretary of state, said that Cambodian society has always provided
a child protection network of relatives and monks that provide care for orphans.
Monks provide education for those who can't afford it, and food and lodging for those
without relatives. According to Thoth, these traditional means have allowed children
to stay within their own communities.
Thoth said the new government policy promotes this kind of community care as the
best environment for a child. For families separated by poverty the aim is to "empower
parents to care for their children (at home) in order to avoid placement in residential
According to the demographic health survey of 2005 there are 565,000 single orphans
and 62,000 double orphans (children under 18 who have respectively lost one or both
parents) living in Cambodia. Despite this high number, in 2005 a USAID-funded report
found that only 47 percent of the estimated 11,000 children living in institutions
were either full orphans or did not know the whereabouts of their parents. Thirty-three
percent had lost one parent, and both parents of another 20 percent were alive and
in many cases still in contact with their children.
Haidy Ear Dupuy, advocacy and communications manager for World Vision, said poor
parents sometimes place children in orphanages because they believe they will be
better provided for than at home.
"Culturally, it's necessary for people to have children because they want to
be looked after when they are older," she said. "But many parents don't
want to do the work in between."
Dupuy, said that traditionally in Khmer families it's common to give children to
other relatives to raise. Traditional roles for boys and girls are strong, so if
a rich relative has no daughters to do domestic work they will often accept a niece
or cousin to live with them. Dupuy also noted that grandparents often raise children
while the parents work and send back money.
"People are used to giving children to extended family," she said.
"Giving them to an institution is only one step away. Especially when they really
believe they can provide for them in a better way than they can."
Tracy Sprott, coordinator of the Mith Samlanh foster care program, said that even
if given the best care and education possible, institutionalized children still experience
According to Sprott, one-on-one family care giving cannot be replaced. Family education
is extremely important as children are provided role models for parenting, relationships
and social responsibilities, she said.
Foster care communities
The government's new policy includes foster care housing projects where no more than
15 children live together under staff care, Thoth said. The government also co-operates
with NGO foster care programs with particular emphasis placed on children orphaned
by HIV/AIDS. HALO has been working with AIDS victims in impoverished areas of Phnom
Penh since 2002. They've helped parents facing death to plan for the future of their
"At first, many parents requested that their children be cared for by an NGO,"
said HALO project manager Hok Phearom. "They think that in an orphanage their
children will receive better care and be educated. They believe it's better for them.
They don't think about the disadvantages and the effects it will have on them in
The HALO team, one of seven foster care programs now operating in Cambodia, works
with these parents explaining the importance of keeping the children within their
own family and a familiar environment particularly during their grieving period.
Ideally, the team will find a home for the children within their extended family
in the same community. If this is not possible, often a close family friend or neighbor
is willing to take on the responsibility of foster parenting. The last resort is
to find a foster family that may not have known the child before, but like Mong,
are ready to welcome the child as their own.
"In reality, we can provide far better care for them within the community as
long as we follow up and monitor their care. This way they get a good education,
family care, and community connections" Phearon said.
Because adjustment can be difficult for both children and new parents, foster care
programs provide parenting advice, grief counseling for the children and ongoing
home visits. For many families with children of their own, providing for foster children
can be a burden.
In these cases practical support is offered though tuition costs, school uniforms,
books, household items and in some cases money to help them care for the child. Sun
Chetre, 17, lost both his parents to the AIDS virus. Now, he and his two younger
siblings are cared for by an aunt, a widower with one son.
"It was hard [when my mother died] but we could be happy because we all stayed
together," Chetre said. "If I lived in an orphanage I would be sad every
day because I would miss my family."
The co-director of Maryknoll's Seedlings for Hope program, Father Jim Noonan, told
the Post that the benefits of foster care over formal adoption is the ongoing support
provided to children and parents.
The Seedlings program is currently assisting 900 children orphaned or impacted by
HIV/AIDS, and 320 children living with the virus.
According to Noonan, adoption can be especially disruptive to older children who
find it hard to accept anyone as a replacement of their own parents.
Sun Phanna, Chetre's foster mother understands this. "I wish they would call
me mother," she said, "But it is difficult for them because they miss their
own mother so much."