Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The best for children: UNICEF supports the reintegration of children from residential care institutions to their families

By Buthdy Sem

Arun is reading book at his house
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Buthdy Sem

Ten-year-old Arun lived in an NGO-run residential care institution in Siem Reap Province for three years. Arun’s mother was approached directly by the director of the institution. He told her that his ‘orphanage’ could provide Arun with a good education, English language training, food, and clothes. Arun’s mother knew that other people in the local area had also sent their children to stay at the same place. As a widow, it was not easy for her to care for Arun and his three siblings. The family was living in poverty. Eventually, she made the difficult decision to send her little boy to the orphanage. She thought Arun would receive good food, shelter and an education, and would have an opportunity to learn English from foreigners. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination, and is also home to high numbers of volunteers from abroad.

Arun’s mother is a construction worker who earns around US$80 per month, but the work is insecure and her income is irregular. Arun’s father died five years ago.

In November 2014, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation inspected the institution where Arun was living. It did not comply with the Minimum Standards of Alternative Care for children. The institution was under-funded and there was not enough food or services for the 36 children living there. Ministry staff and local authorities started the process of identifying appropriate care solutions for the children. Family tracing was conducted to locate the children’s parents or wider family members. The institution was eventually closed down in January 2015.

UNICEF supported provincial and district social workers to manage the reintegration of the 36 children to their families and communities. This included leading the coordination of case management and family integration, technical support to ensure that systems were followed correctly, and financial support. Arun was reunited with his mother on 28 January 2015. Social workers worked closely with the local Commune Committee for Women and Children to facilitate the process, and the committee’s focal point made follow-up visits, provided counselling, and arranged for Arun to re-enrol at a primary school in the commune.

“I am very happy to be back with my mother and sisters as she takes good care of me. I like my teacher and my friends in school. I am doing very well in Khmer literature now,” Arun said during a recent visit from the social worker.

Social workers gathered support for the family from local organizations, including material support from the Provincial Orphans and Vulnerable Children Task Force. Arun’s family received blankets, two mattresses, two school bags, stationery, fish, soy sauce, noodles and 100 kilograms of rice.

Social workers will continue to work with local authorities and NGO partners to help the family with income generation opportunities, such as pig farming. NGO partners will also support Arun to make sure that he doesn’t have to separate from his mother.

With tears in her eyes, Arun’s mother said she would never send him away again.

“I will not send my son to live in any orphanage again and I stopped believing those who persuaded me to send him away. They do more harm to my son and me,” she said. Since Arun’s return, his mother explains that her brothers-in-law have tried to persuade her to send Arun away to an institution again. She says that they look down on her because she struggles to earn a living. But she is determined that she will never again send any of her children away.

UNICEF is working with the government and local partners to prevent unnecessary family separation and ensure a safe and protective environment for children in Cambodia.

Most children in residential care institutions in Cambodia have been unnecessarily separated from their families, with an estimated 77 per cent of children still having at least one living parent. UNICEF and partners have conducted an awareness raising campaign aimed at Cambodian families, advocating parents not to send their children to live in ‘orphanages’. Living in residential care can harm a child’s social, physical, intellectual and emotional development with long-term impacts on their adult life. Research has also shown that children in residential care tend to develop dependencies on staff and are unable to fully develop the social skills needed for integrating into society.

UNICEF provides technical and financial support to partners to ensure that the minimum standards of care in residential institutions are respected and to promote the reintegration of children with their families. Where they cannot be placed with families, other appropriate family settings are sought, in the best interests of the child. So far in 2015, thanks to UNICEF support, the Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation in Siem Reap has assisted 46 children previously living in residential care to be reunified with their families and reintegrated to school.

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