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Government shutters 56 shelters

Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth speaks at the Ministry’s annual meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth speaks at the Ministry’s annual meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Government shutters 56 shelters

Cambodia's government closed 56 shelters last year, the majority of them or­phanages, amid a major push to get thousands of children back into homes and out of institutional care after years of criticism, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced yesterday.

The closures, announced at the launch of the ministry’s annual report yesterday, represent an eightfold increase from 2015, and 9 percent of the 639 registered shelters operating in the Kingdom last year. Of those, 406 were specifically for accommodating children, the report revealed. The shelters housed 26,187 individuals, nearly two-thirds of whom were underage.

“The ministry is very actively reforming orphanages by strengthening the quality of inspections and reducing the number of children in centres,” Minister of Social Affairs Vong Soth said yesterday.

Officials said the closures were prompted by efforts to improve the standards of shelters and reintegrate homeless children back into their families, which experts say better promotes their long-term well-being. An estimated 70 percent of children in Cambodia’s orphanages have at least one living parent, and the government has pledged to return 30 percent of orphanage residents back to their families by 2018.

According to Chan Kanha, deputy chief of the ministry’s child welfare department, of the 56 centres closed, 20 were closed because the residents had been reintegrated into their families. The other 36 were closed for not meeting the minimum requirements of care.

However, sending children back to their families can have complications of its own.

Mike Nowlin, executive director of the NGO Hagar International, said yesterday that the government will need substantial assistance from the non-profit sector if it’s going to ensure the children in Cambodia’s centres are sent to safe homes.

“The government has openly acknowledged that they don’t have the resources to deal with all of the social care issues the country has now,” Nowlin said, noting that some children have been “improperly reintegrated" by some non-governmental actors.

“They are trying to change the predominant care model, and there are so many pieces of that … How do you stop a parent from deciding a kid will be better off in an orphanage?”

Still, Nowlin says there is momentum behind the government’s push to find safe homes for homeless kids.

Hagar recently teamed up with the government and about 40 other non-profits to launch an initiative called Family Care First, which aims to improve the quality of social work in the Kingdom. As of 2015, Cambodia’s government employed just 14 social workers for the entire country.

“It takes a strong community-based care model to assess a family’s needs and make sure the kid is going to be safe and not exploited,” Nowlin said, adding that NGOs “are going to help with that”.

James Sutherland, of Friends International, which partners with the government on a child protection program, echoed this sentiment, stressing his organisation’s commitment to reintegrating children back into their families and “creating protective environments within their communities where children can thrive safely”.

“It’s very encouraging that clear progress is being made toward ending the exploitation of children who have been unnecessarily institutionalised,” Sutherland said.

But despite the NGO’s sector’s willingness to offer support, the government has its work cut out for it. With some 97 percent of shelters privately run, the government exercises direct control over only 22 state-run institutions.

What’s more, a survey published by UNICEF and the ministry in March revealed that about half of the orphanages operating in Cambodia are unregistered.

Prior to the start of the recent reintegration push, only registered operations were being inspected by the government, and it’s been difficult to verify what goes on behind the closed doors of private entities, some of which are religiously affiliated.

Speaking yesterday, Soth acknowledged the long road ahead, saying the ministry is “facing our challenges”.

But, he said, “We will continue to strengthen child welfare.”

A previous version of this story inadvertently implied that the government had "improperly reintegrated" children into their communities. The person quoted was referring to an organisation from the private sphere. The Post regrets any confusion caused by this.

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