As the government pushes towards re-starting international adoptions, questions remain as to whether keeping Cambodian children in the Kingdom is really a priority
Having suffered meningitis while still a baby, eight-year-old Virak* is the size of a boy half his age. Unable to walk, he is held in a colourful wheelchair with a chest strap, but his head still lurches repeatedly to one side.
When it does, Sotheavy*, 48, leans in to reposition his cushion. When he dribbles rice, she mops it up with a tissue.
As she talks, she plays with his arms and legs, which require four physiotherapy sessions at the hospital every week in order to remain mobile.
Their contented interactions inside their corrugated metal shack in Chbar Ampov prompt sentimental reflections: how happiness can be found in the most unlikely of scenarios, and the power of a mother’s love.
But Virak isn’t Sotheavy’s son, or even her relative.
Married but childless, Sotheavy and her husband – a motodop – were matched with Virak four years ago and receive $100 per month from an NGO to care for him.
They are one of only a few hundred families in Cambodia who are acting as long-term foster care-givers for children to whom they have no prior relation.
Much as they would like to legally become one family, the government seems to be dragging its feet on passing laws that would make that a reality, while at the same time doing everything possible to enable adoptions by foreigners to resume.
Care arrangements for children not living with parents or extended family have long been a point of contention in Cambodia.
After decades of unregulated growth, the past few years have seen the tide turning against institutionalised care, with the government moving slowly to shut down orphanages that are poorly run, and where the majority of children have at least one living parent.
And in 2009 the government called a halt to inter-country adoptions, caving to international pressure following a series of trafficking scandals and rampant corruption.
Since then, it has worked hastily to put its house in order so that the international placements may resume.
In 2013, the government announced that it was ready for the reboot, but was forced to pull back when potential recipient countries declared they were not convinced the necessary reforms had been implemented.
In March this year, a similar announcement was greeted with more enthusiasm, paving the way for international adoption agencies to register in the Kingdom – a process that Italy has already begun.
But as the government expends considerable resources on ensuring the resurgence of international adoptions, questions are being raised about its commitment to prioritising domestic solutions.
“We’ve got a waiting list of Cambodian families who’d like to adopt children,” said social worker James Farley from Friends International, the NGO who arranged for Virak to live with Sotheavy and her husband.
Along with a group of 11 NGOs working under the moniker 3PC, Friends recently announced that the provision of “alternative care” – which includes kinship care, foster care and long-term foster placements – would be its priority for the coming year.
They hope that advocating for local solutions will slow the pace of international placements.
“Why do we need international adoption when the domestic options haven’t been exhausted?” asks Farley.
In her house in Chbar Ampov, Sotheavy refers to Virak as “my son” and insist that she will “raise him forever” even if she ceases to receive a stipend for his care.
Her own mother, she explains, believes it is fate, and that Virak is Sotheavy’s son from a former life returning to her.
But there is at present no legislation that could make Sotheavy’s relationship with Virak legally binding: with the exception of a handful of placements arranged overwhelmingly by expats in the civil courts using private lawyers, cash and legal loopholes, Cambodia does not have the capacity to process domestic adoption placements between non-relatives.
Speaking last week at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Oum Sophanara, director of the Child Welfare Department, said that he had lists of adoptable children, and families looking to be matched, but he could do nothing with them.
“I don’t know how to proceed when we complete the children’s documentation,” he said.
“How can I proceed if I don’t know if the court will proceed with my documents or not?”
The situation at the Ministry of Justice – which must first rule to clarify the process if it is to be implemented – is unclear.
According to Sophanara, the ministry is currently working on a “guideline” that will provide a strong enough legal basis to make domestic adoption possible.
But UNICEF, which is consulting on the guideline (which it terms an “explanatory note”) remains doubtful as to its sturdiness.
“We’ve been advocating for the government to introduce full legislation on adoption – that’s in the best interest of the child,” said Bruce Grant, chief of the child protection program at UNICEF Cambodia.
“Unfortunately, the government hasn’t accepted that advice yet.”
The note will, Grant said, help to clarify the process for implementing domestic adoptions based on provisions made in the country’s existing civil code.
But it will stop short of providing a firm legal basis for inter-country adoptions to begin.
Leapfrogging the system
According to international stipulations, inter-country adoption should remain off limits for as long as the domestic system is weak.
“Under the Hague Convention, all the options for alternative care have to have been gone through for children at risk before they can be considered eligible for international adoption,” explained Sarah Chhin, country adviser at M’lup Russey – an NGO that works with families and communities.
But the Ministry of Social Affairs is finding ways to forge ahead with the resumption of international placements without a domestic law in place.
Four months ago, the ministry put out an advertisement in newspapers and on the radio recruiting Cambodian families who were willing to adopt a disabled Cambodian child (the question of how this could have been processed remains unclear).
After four months, Sophanara said, he has received no local response.
Having obtained legal guardianship for the group of 40-odd children, the Ministry of Social Affairs is now readying itself to make them the first to be adopted internationally.
According to UNICEF, it is hard to see how these rushed through international adoptions could comply with international guidelines.
“The Hague Convention is very clear,” said Grant. “Without strong legislation in place, it’d be very hard to argue that Cambodia would comply with that international standard.”
While the lack of response to the advertisements may rubber-stamp the children as “unplaceable” within Cambodia, NGOs who have worked on successful long-term foster care arrangements emphasise the need to offer real assistance to families considering adoption.
“The experience of Friends International and other 3PC partners providing long-term family-based care for children with disabilities is that this work requires an ongoing commitment to support the foster carers with training and emotional and material support,” said Friends' Farley.
Sotheavy can attest to the fact that building successful relations requires commitment.
When Virak first came home with her, she said, neighbours “scolded” her for fostering what they termed the “child of misery” because of the boy’s unlucky start in life.
Now she says she believes that there would be other families like her willing to take on a child long term.
“He’s my child now,” she said.
“I’d love to have them stay in our country,” she said of the possibility of children being adopted overseas. “We can talk to each other, and it’s more warm.”
A powerful lobby
“I could never understand why there was such a strong push for inter-country adoption,” said Farley, pointing out that both the UN and international child protection agencies have deemed that an international placement generally “isn’t in the best interest of children”.
“The more I looked at it, the more I realised there undoubtedly exists a well funded and powerful lobby of people in the West wanting to ‘rescue’ children from poor countries.”
UNICEF echoed Farley’s explanation for the push.
“There are international adoption agencies whose mandate is to source children for their clients,” said Grant.
“Not all of those institutions operate in the best interests of the child. Some of them have a business model that is about profit.”
Even ignoring the international lobby, turning public opinion towards in-family care remains a struggle.
According to Jesse Blaine, general manager of the Cambodian NGO Children in Families, finding funding can be challenging.
“We don’t have kids that people can go hug,” he explained. “We respect their privacy. We want them to form a new identity, that they’re part of a family. It’s hard because we’ve just got to talk.”
“[International donors] see poverty as bad parenting,” added Mlup Russey’s Sarah Chhin. “When has poverty ever meant that you’re a bad parent? It’s not true.”
Chhin said that she had not encountered instances of foster children being used by families as free labour, a concern that is sometimes raised.
“There’s a lot of discrimination against Cambodian families,” she added.
Oum Sophanara said that the government recognised the preferability of in-country care, and was training a group of social workers to carry out assessments.
Sophanara said he would continue to search for local solutions for the current group of disabled children before they are sent abroad.
“We want to implement the domestic adoption,” he insisted. “We’re waiting for the procedure to be clear.”
For now, Cambodian families who foster children are making do, often assuming the responsibilities of parenthood regardless of their legal status.
“I have my own plan,” says Vannarith*, a government employee who has fostered a young boy since he was two months old.
“I will shape him as a good man until he has a wife. I will support him until he graduates with his bachelor’s degree. I will support and encourage him to do whatever he wants in the future. No matter what happens, he’s still my son.”
*Names have been changed.