Responding to complaints of beatings, poor living conditions and suspected human trafficking, authorities working in collaboration with NGOs shut down the unregistered Love in Action (LIA) orphanage in Phnom Penh on Friday, rescuing 21 children, representatives from NGOs SISHA and Mlup Russey said.
NGO representatives said yesterday that the joint action, combined with the arrest of a Siem Reap orphanage president the same day on sexual abuse allegations, demonstrates the continuing issues plaguing the Kingdom’s often-unregulated childcare industry.
The Phnom Penh raid followed the escape of five children from LIA on February 26 and seven more on March 14, said SISHA communications officer Gratianne Quade.
The unprecedented escape and the children’s reports of physical abuse, disappearances, overcrowding and inadequate food prompted speedy action from authorities, she said.
“This shutdown is a massive step forward, demonstrating the Cambodian government’s increased capacity to deal with abusive orphanages,” Quade said.
Although it took 18 months before another allegedly abusive orphanage, Children’s Umbrella Centre Organisation, was closed in November, LIA was raided and shut down three weeks after complaints first surfaced, she said.
SISHA and Mlup Russey officials said a police investigation was ongoing but that they believed Ruth Golder and Tracey Golder, the mother and daughter in charge of LIA, had not been arrested as of yesterday.
An Australian Embassy representative told the Post that while “the Australian citizens involved in the case are being offered consular assistance,” the orphanage had received no government funding.
According to LIA’s now-defunct website, the orphanage was largely funded by Christian groups in Australia, said Quade.
Meanwhile, anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection police said yesterday that the president of the Angkor Orphan & Education Organisation was arrested on Friday and charged by the Siem Reap Provincial Court on Saturday with committing indecent acts on two girls, ages 11 and 12, living in his orphanage.
Duong Thavery, chief of the provincial anti-human trafficking office, said that according to the girls, fundraisers and other witnesses, Mon Savuth, 36, had been sleeping in the same room as the girls and sexually abusing them for four months.
“The suspect took the victims to sleep with him every night. He hugged one girl and he removed her clothes, touching his penis with the victim’s sexual organ,” she said.
The police immediately began investigating the case after receiving reports of abuse from Licadho, she said, adding that Savuth denied the charges.
“These tragic incidents serve to reinforce UNICEF and RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] policies that family and community-based care are the best options for the care of children,” said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, chief of communication for UNICEF Cambodia, via email yesterday.
“Children are at increased risk of physical and sexual abuse in residential care because there are orphanages using staff and volunteers who have not undergone any background checks... and have no specialised training.”
Making matters worse, the “vast majority” of children in orphanages actually have families, said Quade.
Indeed, Quade said, “from preliminary investigations, it seems the majority of the children [from LIA] have families. It’s unclear if any are actually orphans. We’re working with DoSVY [the Department of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation] to trace their families.”
While that search goes on, the 33 children who escaped or were rescued are currently staying with other institutions, and authorities and SISHA are still searching for seven children that, according to LIA’s Ruth Golder, were sent back to their families, Quade said.
Likewise, the two girls allegedly sexually abused by Savuth in Siem Reap also had living family members, said anti-trafficking chief Thavery.
Neither orphanage, nor their respective heads, could be reached for comment.