Children belong, first and foremost, with their families, not in institutions – that was the central message delivered by Minister of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng yesterday as he announced that 70 orphanages would be closed.
Presenting the findings of With the Best Intentions, a study into attitudes to residential care, primarily focusing on orphanages, Ith Sam Heng announced a new progressive policy on alternative care aimed at keeping children out of institutions.
“Family care is the best option; no one loves children like their families,” he said, stressing that residential care for at-risk children would now be considered only as a last resort.
Only 23 per cent of children found inside Cambodian orphanages had actually lost both parents, the minister said, citing the report.
The majority of parents who sent their children to orphanages did so because they were poor and held the misguided assumption that an institution could provide better care, he said, urging orphanages not to exploit these misperceptions.
“Before you think about gathering children for the centre, please think first about keeping them in their families. And forget that a source of funding is pretending to support the children; this is a kind of exploitation.”
Stressing the need for orphanages to more stringently abide by minimum standards of care, Ith Sam Heng said 70 of the 93 such facilities run by an organisation called Good News would be turned into community centres, but did not specify when. Contact details for Good News could not be found.
Richard Bridle, country representative of the UN Children’s Fund in Cambodia, which provided technical support for the study, said the new policy amounted to three key points.
Proper standards needed to be implemented, child-care institutions held to account and funds redirected from residential care institutions to families to make sure they had the capacity to care for their children.
“What the minister has outlined today are a series of measures with which we fully agree – first, that we should be prioritising keeping children in their families,” Bridle said.
“I have small children, I want them to stay with me. And if I were poor, I would want someone to help me, not take them away, and certainly would not like to have an organisation that is pressuring me to give up my children to go into an institution.”
While Cambodia’s adult death rate dropped between 2005 and 2010, the number of children in orphanages more than doubled – to about 12,000 – during the same period, he added.
The study found that more than 60 per cent of surveyed villagers felt a poor family should send their children to residential care if they could not pay for education, but that young people inside those orphanages felt they lacked love, freedom and opportunities.
In September, the Siem Reap province-based Cambodia Orphan Fund was shut down amid allegations from the Ministry of Interior that staff members had molested children and the revelation that its director, Nicholas Griffin, had been convicted of raping a child in 2007.
That followed the revelation in August that 30 children were unaccounted for at the Australian-funded Hope for Cambodian Children orphanage, which had failed to meet the Minimum Standards on Alternative Care for Children set by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation.
In October, Friends International, Childsafe and UNICEF launched the “Children are not tourist attractions” campaign, urging visitors to Cambodia to think twice before visiting an orphanage.
Sarah Chhin, a program manager at the social welfare group International Cooperation Cambodia, said tourists need to think about what sort of conduct would be acceptable at orphanages in their own countries.
“Having people coming and going constantly doesn’t help them, and actually does more harm than good,” she said.
“Actually, the children within orphanages already have attachment issues, they have rejection issues, they have all sorts of other issues. They have all sorts of other issues that come with the trauma they have experienced.”
Hengchhea Chheav, founder and president of the Siem Reap town orphanage Assisting Cambodian Orphans and the Disabled Organisation, said his orphanage was trying to move away from foreign donations-based funding but was not finding it easy.
“I think from the beginning of when I created ACODO orphanage, I found that the problem was the income, I couldn’t find the income that I would say was sustainable for supporting the children,” he said.
“Some of the local organisations in Cambodia, they couldn’t help themselves, and then they opened to make like a business or something.”