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Orphanage closures touted by gov’t, but issues continue

The founder of an unlicensed orphanage in Siem Reap province
The founder of an unlicensed orphanage in Siem Reap province is placed in a car after being detained by authorities last year for illegally running an NGO, fraud and trafficking children. GEORGE NICKELS

Orphanage closures touted by gov’t, but issues continue

At a ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday, Minister for Social Affairs Vong Suth said 11 orphanages had been closed nationwide since 2011 for not meeting acceptable childcare standards, a figure experts said showed progress despite an abundance of still-worrying statistics.

Speaking at an International Children’s Day event, Suth said there were 208 orphanages in Cambodia, with 22 state-run facilities among them, caring for more than 10,000 children nationwide.

The director of the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Child Welfare Department Um Sophan Nara said that all of the 11 centres that had been shuttered were NGO-run. Sophan said children at the closed homes had suffered sexual abuse, violence and forced labour, while some orphanages had also closed down of their own accord due to lack of funds or an inability to meet expected standards.

“We found there were centres that had no money, but were still open to earn funding,” he said.

Children from homes that were closed were either found new facilities to live in, or returned to family members if they had living relatives.

More than three-quarters of children in Cambodian orphanages have living parents, according to UNICEF, which has registered 228 orphanages caring for nearly 11,500 children throughout the Kingdom.

“Out of this total, only 23 per cent of children are orphans who need alternative care options such as foster care, kinship care, group home, independent living, domestic adoption and permanency placement,” said Bruce Grant, UNICEF Cambodia’s chief of child protection.

Grant said all of the 228 facilities were inspected by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2014, but found only 147 were properly registered. Fifteen had expired registries, while 66 were found unregistered.

“It is understood that 32 institutions out of the 228 are currently providing services below minimum standards. Further, the number of non-registered institutions remains unknown,” said Grant.

However, Grant said the closure of 11 institutions “sends a signal” that the government is strengthening the alternative care system.

That sentiment was shared by Vuthy Sokhna, a communications officer at NGO Friends International, who said while the number of orphanages not meeting acceptable standards remains high, the number of closures shows the government is “doing their job, even if it’s only a small number”.

Vuthy was also keen to point out that the extremely high number of children in such institutions with living relatives was unacceptable, and that major changes are needed to make sure children remain with family members whenever possible. She said many impoverished families choose to place their children in orphanages because they believe they will get a better education. Sometimes, Vuthy said, that notion is fed by unscrupulous administrators eager for extra funding.

“That money doesn’t all go to the children, it goes to the director,” she said.

Meanwhile, according to Lim Mony, deputy head of women’s and children’s rights at NGO ADHOC, there are also a handful of centres that remain open despite not meeting minimum standards because they enjoy the patronage of corrupt high-ranking officials.

On top of all of this, UNICEF says the preliminary results of a report they are currently working on in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs and other NGO partners, which maps residential care institutions in five provinces, suggests there are hundreds of unregistered orphanages that have never been inspected.

“This means that thousands of children are living in institutions where there is no oversight of their operations,” said Grant.

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