Sophea* watches TV at home.
© UNICEF Netherlands/2017/Marco De Swart
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, January 2018 — “I feel so happy to be at home” said Sophea*, a 14-year-old boy with a shy smile.
Sophea was one of thousands of children reported to be living in residential care institutions (RCIs, commonly known as orphanages) in Cambodia when a nation-wide survey was conducted in 2015.
He was living in an orphanage for about a year together with his older sister Kim Srey* until he was reunited with his family in 2016. “I always wanted to come back. I missed my family terribly and cried every day thinking of my mom. I am so glad that now I can stay together with my family”.
Sophea and Kim Srey’s parents sent them to the orphanage believing that it would allow their children to receive better care, which is a widespread misconception in Cambodia. The family was in desperate need of special support for Kim Srey, who survived sexual abuse committed by a foreign stranger who was strolling around their community.
“We thought it was important for our daughter Kim Srey to stay away from the scene of the incident for her mental well-being and safety,” said Savy*, Sophea’s mother. “The orphanage was near the counseling facility that offers psychological support for sexual abuse survivors. We decided to send Kim Srey to the orphanage to help her deal with the traumatic experience,” Savy continued.
Sophea was put into the orphanage with Kim Srey to remain close with her. The mother also admitted that she thought sending two of her children to the orphanage would reduce the burden for her family to raise five children.
“I felt it was difficult for us to take care of our four children at that moment, as I was pregnant with my fifth child. Providing adequate care for our children, especially the special attention needed for Kim Srey, seemed impossible with our limited capacity.” However, Savy was not aware of the negative impact institutionalization can inflict on the child’s social, physical, intellectual and emotional development.
Research has shown that children raised in residential care can suffer negative impact on their intellectual, physical and emotional growth and a higher exposure to disease, neglect and abuse. Children in residential care can also experience discrimination from members of their community. Despite the counselling assistance Kim Srey received at the facility, she was always in a state of deep grief because of the separation from her family.
Constant turnover at orphanages of caregivers, including volunteers, can harm children’s development. Many caregivers in residential care institutions only stay for a short period of time, which can negatively impact a child when the volunteers leave.
During his one-year stay at the orphanage, Sophea received regular visitors and volunteers, most of whom were foreigners who either came for a day visit or worked for few months there.
“They came for a day with toys and played with me. I liked them. I was happy and I wanted them to come all the time” he said. “Some stayed up to two months and left. I missed them and wanted them to come back,” he added.
Children require healthy bonding and attachment to a care-giving figure that is established at birth and continues throughout the child’s life, which simply cannot be offered by residential care facilities due to high staff turnover and a low ratio of staff to children.
To prevent unnecessary family separation and ensure a safe and protective environment for children in Cambodia, UNICEF is working with the Government of Cambodia and NGOs to reintegrate 30 per cent of children who are in residential care back to their family and communities. In Cambodia, four out of every five children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. Their family members should be supported in order to care for their children, like the case with Sophea and Kim Srey.
In November 2015, a government social worker, Samnang Heng, visited Sophea and Kim Srey’s family to assist with the reunification and reintegration of the children back to their home, after the orphanage announced its closure due to financial reasons.
Ms. Heng interviewed and assessed the family’s ability, as well as home environment, to ensure the safe return of the children. Four months later, Ms. Heng reunified the children with their family after she concluded that the family had the ability to provide adequate care for all five children.
While the target of safely reintegrating 30 per cent of children living in orphanages back with their families is important, the case management of each child, including follow-up and monitoring of their situation even after reunification is crucial to protect the best interests of the child.
Social workers like Ms. Heng play a key role in this, but currently, there are not enough social workers in Cambodia. The recruitment of more social workers and Government investment in this are needed for an effective implementation of the national and provincial commitments and plans.
“UNICEF supports the training and recruitment of social workers to help Cambodia’s Government in its efforts to return children back to their families and communities.” explains Mr. Bruce Grant, Chief of Child Protection with UNICEF Cambodia.
“Placing children in residential care institutions should be considered only as a last resort when there are no other options, and only for a short period of time. They are not a permanent solution for children.” He added.
According to their mother, Sophea and Kim Srey’s performance at school has seen improvement since returning home.
“Sophea encourages his sister and assists her with her studies. With her brother’s help, Kim Srey is now keen to attend class,” explained the mother. “Sophea is a clever boy. He does better now in school, but he still loves to play!” she said with a loving and affectionate smile.
*Names changed to protect identities