Friday, September 6, 2013

Creating alternatives to residential care for children in Cambodia

Siem Reap, CAMBODIA, July 2013 Two month old Veha* was abandoned at birth at Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap province, northern Cambodia. It was not the first time a child had been deserted there. Some parents see it as a ‘safe’ place to leave children anonymously when they cannot raise them for health, financial or family reasons.   

©UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Rui Nomoto
Abandoned at birth, 2-month-old Veha* is now 
cared for by foster mother, Som Yai* (*names changed).   

The hospital brought baby Veha’s situation to the attention of Kaliyan Mith (meaning ‘good friends’ in Cambodian) a programme run by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Friends-International with UNICEF support. Kaliyan Mith runs a short term foster care programme which provides an alternative to residential care for abandoned children. The programme places children with foster parents who care for them in a safe family-based environment while more permanent options are explored, such as reunification with birth parents or placement with relatives.

Foster parenting

Just twenty minutes by motorcycle from Kaliyan Mith’s office in Siem Reap, Veha now lives with Mrs. Som Yai, 53, a short term foster parent. Yai, a grandmother with two adult children, registered as a foster mother after hearing from her neighbours that Kaliyan Mith was looking for short-term foster parents. She was selected following a rigorous screening process including several interviews, home visits and background checks. She looks after Veha with as much caring and affection as she gives to her three grandchildren.

“I regard him as my real family member,” said Yai, “I feel upset for the family who abandoned him…but I am so happy taking care of him and really hope he will be reintegrated with his biological family soon, receive a good education and get a job in the future to lead a happy life.”
Kaliyan Mith runs a 24-hour hotline which foster parents can call if they encounter any problems related to the children in their care. Foster parents are also invited to attend regular training events and workshops to learn about nutrition, hygiene and how to look after the infants.

While Mrs Yai cares for Veha, Kaliyan Mith is continuing to assess the situation of his immediate family and to trace other relatives. This is not always easy, as Kaliyan Mith social worker, Kong Sith, explains. “Veha’s mother is only 14 years old and got pregnant after her stepfather raped her. The stepfather ran away to avoid facing arrest. It is very difficult for the young mother to accept Veha as her son and she told us that she cannot raise him.”

Kaliyan Mith social worker, James Farley, says this case demonstrates that poverty is not the only reason for child abandonment in Cambodia. “Besides poverty, one of the biggest barriers to reintegrate Veha into his family is strong social stigma that exists in the communities. If Veha lives with his biological mother, the family may have to keep facing rumours from neighbours in relation to the rape,” said James.

Committed to family- and community-based care

Kaliyan Mith is providing Veha’s mother with on-going counseling to help her cope with the trauma of her situation in the hope that in future she will want to visit Veha. UNICEF supports these efforts as part of its commitment to family- and community-based child care options for abandoned and vulnerable children.

In a country where the lack of social welfare measures and family support mechanisms has led to an increase of unregulated residential care facilities, UNICEF is building capacity for organizations like Kaliyan Mith to promote family reintegration. Without the foster care network, children like Veha would likely end up in residential care.

With funding from the German and French Committees for UNICEF, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the USAID Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF), UNICEF is working in collaboration with the Royal Cambodian Government, 'Friends International' and eight other NGOs, including Kaliyan Mith, to strengthen and coordinate civil society’s involvement in the child protection system. The partnership advocates for national policies to protect children, and raises awareness on child protection issues at local level in an effort to improve the quality of child protection services. Together, UNICEF and partners are improving case management for children like Veha, and creating ways for them to benefit from the care and attention that only a family can provide.

*Names changed to protect identities.

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