Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A social worker inspired to solve injustice against children

By Luka D'Amato

Heng Samnang sits, laughing with one child
she helped reunite with her mother.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 2017 – Growing up, Heng Samnang loved crime movies. They inspired her to study psychology and then to become a social worker. For Samnang, her work ‘solving crime’ means helping disadvantaged children thrive and keeping them safe from harm.

“In a crime movie, people don’t know the killer. We don’t want the killer to kill more people, so you must observe everything. You have to talk to the witnesses and find fingerprints,” Samnang says.

In her work, she is a detective as well as a social worker—she must see everything, ask the right questions, make sure that the children are safe from violence, and will also have opportunities in their futures.

“I look to see if [the parents] are taking care of their kid. I see if they are eating three times a day, going to school, and if they have time to study when they are home. I make sure there is no violence. I see the neighbours to make sure there is no discrimination—that they don’t blame the kid or family,” explaining a part of her process in identifying and solving problems that children face. Institutionalized children are often stigmatized by community members, which is why Samnang works to ensure that their neighbours do not look down on them for their pasts.

Samnang takes notes as she observes
a family working outside their home.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

One of Samnang’s primary goals is to reunite children living in residential care institutions with their families, and find foster homes for those without family that can take care of them. Reintegrating a child requires a lot of work because she must talk with the children, parents, community members, local authorities, residential care institutions (RCI), and NGOs to ensure the best future for children.

“After I see that a kid’s family is okay, I can help the child go home. That is my favourite part,” Samnang said.

This boy’s mother teaches him her trade, making floor mats which she sells.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato 

However, this process takes a lot of work. Even when the child returns home, her work is not finished. Samnang must regularly follow up with the family for at least two years to make certain the children are doing well, integrated back into their family and community, working towards a positive future, and not subject to abuse.

Samnang visits one family which she helped reunite, she is checking up on them to ensure that their reintegration is going well. The family consists of two girls and their mother—their father is absent. They are very poor, which is why the mother sent her kids to live in an RCI.  Many poor families have resorted to sending their children to RCIs because they saw long-term residential care as an opportunity for their child, thinking they will have a better life and access to education. However, long-term institutionalization can negatively affect a child’s development, which is why Samnang works so hard to bring families back together.
Samnang sits on the floor with the two girls and their mother. They laugh together as Samnang tries to make sure they are comfortable. The girls seem happy and confident, touching Samnang affectionately. Samnang returns their affection with warmth, showing the strong bond and trust that they have developed.

Their one-room apartment is small, with just enough space for them to lie down in. There are no windows, no bathroom, and some necessities. A shelf, some cooking utensils, a portable burner, sheets, and some school supplies sit in the corners, making room to sit on the floor. Despite being small, the apartment is clean. The girls’ art and schoolwork decorates the walls—adding life, hope, and a sense of pride to their home.

The family decorates the wall of their one-room
apartment with pictures and drawings. 
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato 

The mother is a factory worker, earning a small monthly salary. “It is not enough, but they can live on it. The girls’ school supports them by paying for their uniforms, study materials, and for English classes,” Samnang says. “They live in a small room, but they live happily. . . They’re happy because they live with their mother,” she adds.

After they are all comfortable with each other, Samnang begins to address why she is there with them. She is making sure that the girls are safe, happy, well-fed, healthy, going to school, and preparing themselves for the future.

Samnang spends most of her time watching them, “I observe a lot. If we don’t observe, we cannot find the problems,” Samnang says—showing her detective side once again. She asks the girls and their mother questions, letting them talk freely amongst each other. Even then, she observes how the girls express themselves and how the family interacts—looking for ques, trying to understand how they are doing.

“When I see the kids, I can understand them. Sometimes the kids want to keep information to themselves, so I spend a lot of time with them, talking to them about their life,” Samnang says.

The tone becomes more serious as she asks them questions about their lives. They respond solemnly at times, and although the atmosphere is heavy, it remains positive. It is clear they still face adversity, but they continue to smile and laugh together, showing their strength.

The family, especially the girls, trust Samnang. Despite the weight of the visit, they are happy to have her there. Life is not easy for the family, but they are getting support. Both the girls stay fed, are healthy, attend school regularly, and appear happy. Samnang seems pleased with their progress.

Once Samnang has gathered all her information, making sure she understands what they have and what they need, she begins to make a case plan by talking to them about their future and what they want to do. The girls are still young, and they want to stay in school, making Samnang smile. As they say goodbye, the girls hand Samnang a portrait of her that they had drawn themselves. Samnang blushes. Her influence on these girls’ lives is inspiring, and it is clear how strongly she cares for them. They hug and say goodbye.

Samnang and the family discuss their life together.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato 

Long-term institutionalization of children can be damaging, and because of the prevalent belief in the benefits of RCIs, four out every five children living in residential care have at least one living parent that, with the proper support, could take care of them. Living in institutions not only negatively impacts children’s long-term development, but can also expose them to various forms of abuse and exploitation.

“Sometimes the centres are bad. They keep the children for business. They pocket the money they collect and never help the child develop,” she says. Children study the same amount when they live at home as they do in centres, according to Samnang—dispelling the myth that long-term institutional care is beneficial.

“When the kid lives at home, they live with freedom. They can go to school and play with their friends, they get warmth from their mother and family members. When they live with their family, they don’t need to be scared,” Samnang says.

Social workers’ main role is to interact with and assess families and children to identify risks, help families find solutions to their problems, refer to them to social services, and ultimately to improve children’s lives. The immense responsibility and impact that social workers have on children make them an important investment for Cambodia’s future. However, there is a severe shortage of social workers in Cambodia, and Samnang works fifty cases at a time in ten different provinces.  With challenging caseloads spanning wide areas, social workers face many obstacles in their work. But, for Samnang, this does not stop her.

“I like my job. I like kids and I want to see them grow up well. I like seeing children happy with their families,” she says. “We need to find solutions and take care of [children]. We need to cooperate with residential care centres to return kids to their families,” she says, identifying how they need to continue their fight to protect children.

After two years of being a social worker, Samnang’s drive to help is still strong. Her work is difficult, but she continues to fight for children, taking joy in seeing them living happily. She does not want to keep seeing crimes against children, so she must continue her work helping children.

Samnang discusses with the family, the tone is serious,
but they maintain a positive attitude.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Luka D'Amato

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