Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Keeping children with families and in the community: Efforts to provide loving homes to vulnerable children

By Iman Morooka

Little Bunly* has just woken up from his afternoon nap. He looks sleepy and slightly grumpy, but he slowly gets into his usual post-nap routine: his foster mother washes his face, puts some baby powder on his face and body to help soothe his skin, and gets him dressed. They then sit together on the stilted platform at the entrance of their house and open a book to look at drawings of animals.

Bunly (name changed) and his foster mother sit at the entrance of their house
to look at drawings of animals in a book.
UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Antoine Raab

“Can you tell me what this is?” asks Theavy*, Bunly’s foster mother. “Cat,” he answers. She asks him again pointing to another drawing. “Cow! Fish!” Bunly continues naming animals in the book.

“He has come a long way since I started looking after him one year ago,” Theavy said. “He learned a lot of things. He can greet people, invite guests to have lunch or dinner with us, and many other things.”

Bunly, now 3 years old, had a rough start in life, one that no child should ever have to face. He was taken away from his home when he was only 2 months old by traffickers who wanted to use him to generate sympathy from passers-by while begging for money on the streets of Bangkok.

Luckily, Bunly was rescued, but as the whereabouts of his parents were unknown, he was put in a residential care institution where he stayed until he was about 2 years old. With support provided by the non-governmental organization (NGO), Komar Rikreay, he was placed under Theavy’s care so he could be looked after in a caring family environment. Theavy is a single mother with a 16-year-old son of her own.

Komar Rikreay is a member of the UNICEF-supported Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children, also known as 3PC. This network of partners aims to help strengthen efforts to prevent and respond to various child protection concerns. As part of its key activities, the partnership supports the reintegration of children in residential care institutions back with their families or into family- and community-based care. Komar Rikreay is helping children like Bunly who do not have immediate parental or family care by placing them in the care of foster families.

Today, the NGO’s social worker Tith Sotheary has come to check on Bunly. Theavy says that she often seeks Ms. Sotheary’s advice on Bunly’s health and education. The organization supports the family both financially and through in-kind assistance, such as clothes and medicine for the young boy. 

“When I first saw him, he was pale and quiet. His stomach was swollen. Maybe he was neglected as a baby. Perhaps he wasn’t stimulated enough or maybe he was left alone,” Theavy said. “He is much healthier now, although he still has digestive problems. He has started laughing more, and he likes to play with my son.”

Decades of global research have shown that living in residential care can harm children’s social, physical, intellectual and emotional development, with long-term impacts on their adult life. This is especially the case for children younger than 3 years old.

In addition to supporting foster families, Komar Rikreay supports another type of community-based care for children, which they call ‘group homes’. This model, Ms. Sotheary explained, although not suitable for small children like Bunly, is implemented for older children who do not require close one-on-one parenting.

‘Group homes’ offer care for children without immediate family members or relatives who are able to care for them. Such is the case of Ms. Kan Saan’s family. Ms. Saan is a mother of two and is currently looking after six boys who, until two years ago, lived in residential care institutions. Komar Rikreay provides Ms. Saan and the six boys she is looking after with financial and material support, as well as counseling.

Ms. Sotheary goes to the house where the family lives: a large traditional Khmer house on stilts. When she arrives early in the morning, the family is already busy cooking breakfast and doing other household chores. Some of the boys are helping Ms. Saan and her sister in the kitchen, while others are hanging the laundry. One boy is feeding the dozens of chickens kept in a spacious cage at the back of the house. Having finished their tasks around the house, they move on to more fun activities like colouring books and watching television. Children from the neighbourhood stop by freely and unannounced to play with the boys.

NGO Komar Rikreay’s Social worker (right) visits the family of
Ms. Saan along with supplies of colouring sheets and colour pencils for the boys.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Antoine Raab
“I only have two siblings and two children of my own, so it’s not a burden for me to take care of more children,” says Ms. Saan with a shy smile. It is clear that the six boys have great respect and affection for Ms. Saan. She guides them gently but with authority as they go about their day. “They are good kids so I don’t have issues raising them. Their day is usually busy with school, going to art class, helping around the house, or going to the family farm during the weekend.”

Ms. Sotheary explains that children who grow up in a community environment can receive better care and do not have to face the stigma of having been raised in an orphanage. “They are better able to be responsible for themselves and have more freedom than children who grow up in residential institutions,” she said. “Children in an orphanage wouldn’t call their caregiver ‘mother’, but those who stay with a family do.”

Ms. Saan (right) prepares lunch with her sister and two of the boys she is looking after.© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Antoine Raab

The NGO will continue to reintegrate children back to their families or into alternative care options in the community. Solutions such as foster families or group homes, closely assisted by trained social workers, are necessary to ensure that vulnerable children are protected and supported in a loving environment.

UNICEF continues to work with the Government of Cambodia and NGOs to reintegrate more children who are in residential care institutions into family and community-based care. This includes supporting efforts to strengthen the Government’s capacity to adequately supervise and monitor residential care institutions across the country, supporting community-based care efforts, and preventing unnecessary separation of children from their families by raising awareness and assisting vulnerable families.

*Names changed to protect identities
*The Government of Cambodia aims to reintegrate 30 per cent of children known to be living in institutions to their families and communities by 2018. 

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