Benedicta Bywater, 29, is the founder and CEO of Safe Haven Children’s Trust, a UK-based charity that funds Mlop Children’s Home just outside of Phnom Penh. The home focuses on transitional care for children and prioritises keeping families together where possible. Benedicta decided to set it up after volunteering at an orphanage five years ago, after realising what damage institutional care does to young children. She spoke to Emily Wight about the problems with the orphanage business in Cambodia and why it’s so important for children to be brought up by families rather than institutions.
What was your experience of volunteering at a Cambodian orphanage?
I came here five years ago to volunteer at an orphanage. I was 24 and didn’t know anything about any of it. I wasn’t asked for a criminal records check, and my passport wasn’t checked when I arrived there. I could easily have been alone with the kids. There were 45 kids to two caregivers. They had drop-in volunteering where anyone could just turn up, so they had a constant stream of unvetted volunteers. Also, many of the kids weren’t orphans. People called them “economic orphans” when their parents were poor. That’s not an orphan. These parents are just poor and want their children to have an education, which just sounds like boarding school to me.
What are the problems that arise from children being taken care of in orphanages rather than by their families?
More and more research shows that the impact of institutional care on a child, particularly bad institutional care, is very strong. It causes issues with attachment and bonding later in life. It can also have an impact on IQ, and the psychological and neurological development of the child. In order to have a happy and healthy new generation, you’ve got to give them a happy and healthy start, and that, sadly, is something that does not happen in orphanages. We do have residential care, but I would still rather see them happy with their families, and I also don’t think a dependence on charities and international NGOs is the best way – I think where possible, being self-sufficient is the best way.
How did your experience lead you to open up Safe Haven Children’s Trust?
I thought, “this is not OK.” You could see the changes that needed to be made. I spoke to the manager, Pheakdey, about it – he’s now my co-director – and he agreed, he said he was new and that he would like to be somewhere that did things properly. I suddenly said, “I’ll do it with you”.
Are there rules and regulations here in terms of social work and child protection?
Yes, but they’re not enforced enough. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation has guidelines on minimum standards for alternative care, and they are supposed to be adhered to, but they aren’t. If organisations were sticking to them they’d be quite high – I’ve got quite a lot of time for the guidelines, I think they’re pretty solid and well-researched. Ultimately [child protection] should be primarily a government responsibility.
At Mlop Children’s Home, how do you assess the needs of the child in question, to ensure they really need residential care?
We’ll investigate their cases. Pheakdey will have case files that are just one sentence long, and he’ll drive around, and he can ask questions and he’s found a lot of families that way. We found cases where actually the child hadn’t been abandoned. Had we not chosen to seriously investigate these cases ourselves, desperately trying to chase families, there would be a lot of children in orphanages with no families. Over the past two years we’ve had at least half of the children back with their families.
What would you say to someone in the same position as yourself five years ago, wanting to come over and help in an orphanage for a few weeks?
Don’t do it. I think an orphanage is not the place to go, and certainly not a short-term orphanage placement – it’s not the right thing for the children. Also, if you’re going to volunteer somewhere and they don’t ask you for sufficient checks, don’t go. And don’t make drop-in visits to orphanages part of your tour. If you had a kid, would you let somebody come into your house and play with them for an hour and a half if they gave you enough food for an afternoon? If you wouldn’t let a stranger come into your house and play with your kid, you shouldn’t let it happen in an orphanage.