Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Fostering a better future: Children at risk given safe haven with foster parents

By Buthdy Sem

Nita* plays with her favourite toys as her foster father Sorya looks on.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Buthdy Sem

A family goes about their daily business in a traditional Cambodian rural village. Like many of their neighbours, they have domestic chores to complete, schools to attend, money to be made. However, this family is different from many in the community. The children have been exposed to hardship, potential sexual exploitation and the threat of violence. Now, they live happy and safely because of the caring intervention of others.

Sona*, with one-year-old Nita* placed on her hip, walks down the stairs of her wooden house to welcome Ms. Saran, a social worker from Kumar Rikreay, a UNICEF-supported NGO.

Sona, along with her husband Sorya*, have been fostering Nita and her five siblings since January 2016. Sona and Sorya also have a four-year-old son of their own.

All the other children are at school, while Sorya, the foster father, works in the vegetable garden behind their home. Little Nita is smartly dressed and she has cooling powder on her cheeks, legs and arms. Under the instruction of her foster mother, Nita puts her two little palms together to greet the visiting social worker with a traditional Cambodian Sampeah.

The children return from pre-school on
the back of their foster father’s motorbike.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Buthdy Sem

Sona serves Nita boiled banana for breakfast and later the little girl plays with her toys on the wooden bed. She likes the blocks, connectors and her kangaroo doll the most. Nita looks healthy and actively moves around as she plays.

“Nita was skinny when she first started to live with her foster parents. However, she gained one kilogram of weight within six weeks of her arrival and she is very healthy now with a good appetite,” says Ms. Saran.

At 9.30am Sona goes shopping for food and Sorya ends his work in the garden in order to take care of Nita.

He is in a very joyful mood and plays with the baby until her foster mother returns from shopping. Nita appears to have bonded well with Sorya as she plays with his beard and playfully taps his chest. Upon her arrival from the market, Sona gives Nita a little jelly which she enjoys a lot.

Sorya continues to take care of Nita as Sona prepares lunch for the seven children.

All the children except Nita, who is too young, attend nearby public schools.

At 10.30 am, Nita’s other two siblings return from pre-school with Sorya.

“We are back from school!” they joyfully exclaim as they jump off Sorya’s motorbike and greet their foster mother and the visiting social worker.

Soon after, two young boys from the neighbourhood come to join in the fun.

There is a very good relationship between the foster children and the biological son as well as local children from the community as they play, eat, and go to school together.

The children help their foster parents in their free time,
such as picking lettuces at a local farm.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Buthdy Sem

“We are very glad to foster these six children because we get an opportunity to provide good care for vulnerable children as we both used to be orphans,” say Sona and Sorya, revealing the true motivating factor behind their decision to take up fostering.

Sona received her land and house from her adopted father and she says she wants to emulate him and do similar good deeds for others.

The Kumar Rikreay organization first engaged with the children in 2013 when it received information about them via their hotline. The biological father of the children had got drunk and beaten them and their mother while they were living in a rented room. The attack resulted in serious injuries to their mother and one of Nita’s siblings. The police arrested the father and imprisoned him.

While in prison in 2014, the father attacked some other inmates which resulted in an additional year of imprisonment. He is due for release in December 2016.

Ms. Saran, the social worker, reveals that the children’s biological mother was an alcoholic who exploited her children by making them beg for money in the markets of Battambang town.

The children had no access to education or proper care during this dark time. Ms. Saran says the limited capacity of their biological mother to look after them, combined with their association with other street children, including drug users and street sex workers, exposed the children to serious risks such as sexual exploitation, drug abuse and the dangers of gang culture.

Kumar Rikreay worked with their mother through their outreach programme and provided food support on a monthly basis as well as counselling support to help her stop her alcohol abuse.

Sadly, the children’s mother was unable to overcome her alcohol addiction and she became seriously ill in early July 2015. Her health gradually deteriorated and she died at the start of January 2016.

Within a month, the children were placed in their current foster care. Intervention programmes such as foster family support, with the close supervision of trained social workers, are essential measures to ensure vulnerable children receive protection and support in a loving home.

Access to timely family-based alternative care such as this is important to prevent children without parental care being exposed to other forms of harm, or placed into institutionalized situations, a worrying trend that is increasing in Cambodia.

It is important to place very young children such as Nita in family-based care as decades of global research have shown that living in residential care can harm a child’s social, physical, intellectual and emotional development. This could have long-term impacts on their adult life and is particularly more damaging for children under three-years old who are at a critical stage of their cognitive development.

Ms. Saran says: “The children’s emotional and mental well-being is good as they are living in a family environment. The children also support their foster parents’ daily activities and improve their own life skills during the process. The foster parents are very good and supportive and treat these children as their own.”

As part of reintegration support to vulnerable children living in alternative care, the family receives food, clothes, bicycles, personal hygiene products and health care services from Kumar Rikreay. The NGO will continue to assess the situation of the children, their foster family and their original family and this detailed evaluation will be used to plan for their permanent placement.

UNICEF is working to strengthen the national child protection system of Cambodia so that the most vulnerable children in the country are better protected from violence, abuse and exploitation. This is achieved through collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children (known as 3 PC). This initiative includes the reintegration of children who are in residential care institutions, or who are separated from their parents in other forms, into family and community-based care facilities.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the people described in this story.

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