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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Orphan cages dumped after WFP threat

Orphan cages dumped after WFP threat

A state orphanage in Phnom Penh has removed the wooden cages in which three disabled

children and one adult were being held after learning that the World Food Programme

would suspend its quarterly food delivery until the situation changed.

Reaching out: CIAI said San (above) is not normally kept locked up.

WFP's country director Rebecca Hansen told the Post July 2 the Nutrition Center's

care of the four was "absolutely shameful". As a UN agency which subscribes

to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said, it could not be seen to support

such behavior. Her staff would carefully monitor the situation.

"We heard these disturbing reports and had them confirmed by a staff member,"

said Hansen. "We recognize the Nutrition Center does valuable work and that

they face constraints, but as a UN agency we cannot support that.

"I have subsequently heard that the cages have been removed," she said.

"If those steps are confirmed to me in writing then we will have no problem

continuing our assistance."

The WFP's decision came after the Post investigated claims from several people the

four were kept in wooden cages with board flooring for much of the day and every

night. The Post learned that they have been kept in those conditions, allowed out

for a few hours each day, since at least October 2000.

Hansen explained WFP provides rice, fish and cooking oil on a quarterly basis. The

second quarter, she said, has just ended.

Orphanage director Sun Sovanna said a WFP official told her July 3 to remove the

cages or the agency would not supply food for the orphanage's 133 children.

"We have had a lot of difficulties getting the [four] children to sleep [outside

their cages], but I am trying," she said. Sovanna added that the children were

kept in the cages because they would hurt themselves or others if they were allowed

out, and claimed they were only locked in at night.

However when the Post visited the orphanage around 10am on June 21, three children

and 20-year-old Sok Thy were confined in three cages. Others have told the Post that

they found the same situation on their visits, which were mostly in the late afternoon.

"It is not really clear how long these children have been kept that way,"

Sovanna said, adding that funding problems were to blame. "We have fewer staff

now because we don't have enough money from our donors."

Sovanna said the children received treatment twice a month at a mental health clinic

in Takhmau, which had helped their development. She said the Disability Action Council

(DAC), one of two major NGO partners, had given no special instructions on how to

deal with the caged children.

One of the cages at the Nutrition Center. Its director blamed funding and staff problems for the situation.

DAC's executive director, Ouk Sisovan, said his organization had known that children

were being kept in those conditions for only a few months

"My information is that those four children are not kept in their cages for

the whole day, just after lunchtime," he said. "But I agree that the way

they have kept them is not appropriate."

Martina Cannetta is the childcare coordinator for the center's other NGO partner,

Italian children's charity CIAI. It provides medicines, food and milk to the orphanage

and training to staff.

She estimated the children were let out of their cages for between six and eight

hours during weekdays, but did not know what happened on weekends as the NGO had

no representative present.

Both DAC and CIAI said the problems stemmed partly from a lack of funding and partly

from staff attitudes towards disabled children, although they felt the latter had

improved. Both NGOs agreed that caging the children was untenable.

CIAI, which spent around $180,000 last year constructing two buildings for the orphanage's

children, said that once it signed a new agreement with the municipality it would

move the children from their current cramped quarters into the new buildings.

The agreement was meant to have been signed in May, said Cannetta, but has been delayed

because the orphanage and the municipality insisted CIAI also pay the running costs

of the orphanage.

"[The center] wants us to pay things like water bills, electricity bills, and

staff salaries, but these are Cambodian children and the municipality should be taking

care of them," she said. "In our first agreement [in early 2001] we were

not paying for these."

Sovanna said the orphanage was struggling financially, but would not delay the signing

because the center needed CIAI's help to continue. It would be signed in the second

week of July by the municipality's social affairs head Chea Son, whom the Post was

unable to reach. The request to cover basic costs was made as the municipality had

no budget allocation to cover them.

"We appealed to CIAI to help with funding because we need more carers for the

children," she said. "We have not delayed the signing over this issue,

but we do need good cooperation with CIAI. Without them there will be no support

for the children."

Cannetta said CIAI wanted assurances that once the NGO left Cambodia, the center

would not send the children back to their old quarters, something she said Sovanna

had threatened. CIAI also needed a guarantee the orphanage would not lease the buildings.

"CIAI is here to try and give something more, such as training for the staff,"

she said. "We cannot take charge of the center. We would need the help of more

NGOs, and most of all the help of the municipality."

Sovanna said she had no intention of leasing the buildings as that would be illegal,

and she was scared of committing any mistakes that could jeopardize the center.

CIAI and DAC said both the government and the mun-icipality's social affairs department

bore some of the blame.

"The Nutrition Center needs a lot of money, and the government is giving very

little," said Cannetta, explaining that the ministry gives a monthly allowance

of only $4 per child for food, many of whom have special dietary needs. It also pays

$10 a month to 20 carers, which represents only a third of the center's workforce.

WFP's Hansen said she felt the situation stemmed from a lack of resources rather

than negligence.

Sok Thy, who is 20 years old.

"The issue is that many of the children are [suffering physical and mental disabilities],"

said Hansen. "More and more children are left at the center and the director

is not being given enough means to deal with them."

Rachel Smith, a technical advisor at the Nutrition Center for DAC, said staff told

her the behavior of the children, two of whom are severely epileptic, meant they

would hurt themselves or others.

"I have been trying to find different ways for improved behavior management,

so we can help care for the children better," said Smith, adding there is a

room at the center for children with more severe mental disabilities.

Cannetta said a proposed network of specialist support NGOs would improve the children's

lives. CIAI did not have the means to solve all the center's problems.

Smith said one of the saddest aspects was that many NGOs knew of the situation, but

were wary of the long term commitment.

"The more severely disabled will probably be there for the rest of their lives.

Who will make that commitment?" she asked. "What would help is more staff,

but showing them that children with disabilities have needs and wants is also important."



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