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Separation anxiety

Sreypao wipes away tears yesterday in Phnom Penh as she explains how her child was taken from her by authorities
Sreypao wipes away tears yesterday in Phnom Penh as she explains how her child was taken from her by authorities. Hong Menea

Separation anxiety

No one will tell Sreypao where her 8-year-old son is.

The last time she saw him was almost two weeks ago, when he was playing along the riverside in Phnom Penh as she sold lotus flowers. She heard him scream, and then the boy, along with three others, was gone; taken, she said, by police.

Despite her pleas and protests, none of the city’s officials will reveal where they took the children, she told the Post.

“I have asked so many people, ‘Where is my son?’ But they won’t tell me. I just want to know that he is OK.”

Sreypao’s son is one of seven children between the ages of 5 and 11 collected from their parents and put into a private shelter as part of the ongoing investigation of an Australian teacher suspected of pedophilia, according to Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a child rights NGO.

“It was determined that these children could go through the healing process better [in the shelter] than at home,” said Khoem Vanda, APLE project officer. “I believe the authorities checked with the parents, and that there was a meeting to tell the families.”

But mothers of three of the boys said they were not part of any consultation process, were not asked for their consent and have been repeatedly denied visitation rights.

“[On Monday], authorities came and asked if I would allow my sons to be witnesses. I said I would if they would let me see them first,” said Chanthan, 54, the mother of two boys, 5 and 8, taken into custody. She claimed she had received no response to her request and had been stonewalled when she asked for her sons’ whereabouts.

Despite national frameworks and international conventions securing parents’ custody rights in all but the most extreme exceptions, child rights lawyers said it is common in Cambodia for victims and witnesses under 18 to be removed from their families and placed in a temporary shelter, orphanage or residential care facility.

“When officials see children in danger or facing potential abuse, they can remove them from the situation. But the law says that parents must be informed, even if they are suspected of a crime,” said Op Vibol, a child protection lawyer at Legal Aid Cambodia.

“In principal, the government should only use shelters as an absolute last resort, but the policy and the practice don’t match up.… I often see that when the families are very poor or the case is complicated, that the children get taken away. I think that is wrong.”

Investigators allege that the forced separation of the vendor parents and their kids is in large part due to fears of parental complicity in the abuse as the families received monetary goods from the suspect, something none of them deny. In question is whether those goods came in exchange for sexual favours from the minors.

According to the International Justice Mission (IJM), more than five children have been identified as possible victims of sexual abuse by George Moussallie, a 51-year-old teacher and longtime resident of Phnom Penh.

But the families in question attest they knew Moussallie as a patron saint of the Royal Palace area’s poor, a benefactor who generously rained presents and food.

“I think maybe he was just a man who had sympathy for the poor,” said one of the area’s vendors. “The mothers he helped were not very beautiful, but had many, very small children they struggled to feed.”

Sreypao said Moussallie has been paying her family’s rent since 2006.

“I met him when I was selling outside the FCC. My son was almost 1 year old and I was pregnant. I asked if he would buy something and he asked me why we slept on the street. I said because we are poor.”

APLE has been investigating the teacher since 2009, when they noticed the suspect’s “suspicious, intimate relations” with children he was not related to. He was arrested on August 31 while emerging from his apartment with two young boys.

“He took different children, at least six boys and one girl, in and out of his apartment,” Vanda said.

Chanthan admitted that she frequently permitted her young sons – the two that were found with Moussallie on the day of his arrest – to stay overnight in his apartment.

“We slept under the sky, with no tents and no blanket. I was happy when he offered them a place to sleep,” she said, not adding why she was not also invited.

The Municipal Department of Social Affairs declined to provide the Post with figures on how many children are currently being held in facilities during pending criminal investigations, adding that the seven children in Moussallie’s case are safe, but “needed as witnesses”, before telling reporters not to ask about the case again.

According to UNICEF, about 300 child victims of abuse and exploitation are rescued and assisted every year. Many of those spend time in temporary victims’ shelters that are obligated to “permit victims to communicate with family members and friends through visits, written correspondence and, if necessary, phone calls.”

According to the IJM, the shelter looking after the suspected child victims has communicated with all but one of the families, whom they cannot reach. But the mothers outside the Royal Palace tell another story.

“I want my son back. He has done nothing wrong,” said Sreypao.

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