From international adoption bans to a campaign against orphanage tourism, the ethics of child care are far from black and white. With a new push for children to remain in families where possible, Ellie Dyer looks at the future of Cambodia’s at-risk youth. Photography by Dylan Walker.

Four years ago, while living on the streets of Phnom Penh, Sreypov* was approached by a team of orphanage workers who offered to care for her children. After some soul searching, she agreed to send her two daughters, then aged under 10, to the facility in the hope that they would benefit from a better education.

The decision would prove to be the beginning of a nightmare journey. Sreypov alleges that she saw her children looking worryingly thin while living in the home. “They didn’t care if the children were in a good condition or not,” claims the mother, who launched a two-year and eventually successful bid for their return.

Sreypov’s decision to institutionalise her children is far from unique. Of the thousands of children in residential care in the Kingdom, just 23 percent are estimated to have no living parents. Often youngsters are placed in orphanages by their families due to the strains of poverty. While some are given care in centres with stringent child protection measures, other children are not so lucky.

Family First
Recent research has uncovered a dark side to some Cambodian orphanages. The government-backed With The Best Intentions study, publicly released earlier this year, described children being left illiterate, forced to solicit funding and perform in bars late at night while living in residential homes.

Though not every orphanage is exploitative, for some families the decision to put their child in a home opens the door to risk.

“Some residential care facilities exploit the problem of poverty by actively recruiting children in poor families by convincing, coercing or even paying parents to give their children away in order to attract the sympathy and donations of the tourists,” explains a spokesperson for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which supported the study.

“Many parents believe their children would be better off in care, unaware of the risks involved for children in terms of abuse, sexual and labour exploitation and even trafficking.”

Concerned officials are attempting to change the system. In recent years, the government has introduced improved standards for regulating how vulnerable children are cared for, with focus put on helping children remain within their families.

Non-governmental organisations are also advocating for greater awareness. One such group is Friends-International, which is part of a high-profile campaign warning visitors about the potentially negative effects of orphanage tourism. The organisation also helps homes adapt to provide social care for the community.

“We are trying to work with some orphanages to move away from a pure traditional orphanage —take the child away, destroy the family and create what the Australians call a ‘lost generation’ — to more of a child protection centre for the community,” says Sébastien Marot, executive director for Friends.

“The Friends point of view, and it’s also a point of view shared by the government of Cambodia, is that the family is the best place for children,” adds Luke Gracie, manager of the Friends partnership programme for the protection of children.

A New Era
Gracie believes that “the tide is turning” away from traditional orphanage models, with some centres already pioneering schemes that aim to keep families together.

Such support can take many forms, but one organisation that is at the forefront of providing community outreach is Sihanoukville-based NGO M’Lop Tapang, which has 30 workers dedicated to working with families.

Help comes in the form of business training for parents, counselling, medical care and emergency support such as food, mosquito nets and hygiene supplies.

“Helping improve the poor families’ quality of life and income through social work and other forms of support, whilst keeping families together, is far better than removing the children from the family,” says founder Maggie Eno.

It is a view shared by Tara Winkler, who runs Cambodian Children’s Trust in Battambang province. The trust runs schemes to assist poor families to become financially independent, and sees residential care as a last resort.

“On rare occasions, we’ll come across children who are not safe at home. In those cases, we do take them into residential care,” says Winkler. “I think the bottom line is … that all support needs to share the same vision for long-term sustainability by helping people to help themselves.”

Experts agree that the road to reform may be long and work still has to be done. On a grassroots level, the With The Best Intentions study indicates that there is limited awareness of care alternatives among village chiefs. Minister for Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Ith Sam Heng acknowledged in a statement last October that “the principle that institutional care should be a last resort and a temporary solution has not been fully engrained in the general mind set of Cambodia”.

Funding is also a key concern for many residential homes. UNICEF believes donors should be encouraged to help spur change by shifting monetary allocations to reintegration and prevention programmes that “strengthen traditional community coping mechanisms”.

“The majority of children in residential care in Cambodia could be living with their family or extended family, if basic support was available,” adds a UNICEF spokesperson.

Though a complicated process, signs of change have already been seen. The number of orphanages has decreased in recent years following a boom that saw facilities rise from 154 in 2005 to 269 in 2010.

According to government data supplied by UNICEF, the number of residential care homes fell to 215 at the end of 2011. The number of children in residential care has decreased from 11,945 to 11,102 over last year.

Nevertheless, many contend that there will remain a need for residential care as an option in a country where the social welfare net is limited, especially when it comes to children with special needs, such as HIV/AIDS or disabilities.

A representative of Happy Tree Centre in Phnom Penh, which houses 104 children with HIV, explains that there remains a stigma around the condition. Some children are found abandoned, while others are orphaned by parents who have died as a result of the virus.

Such residential care centres can give children with no other option the chance to be cared for by experienced staff while gaining an education and medical treatment, without tourists watching on. “The centre is not a zoo,” says the representative.

However, even well-run centres can be unknowingly exploited. The Happy Tree Centre spokesperson recounts that a decade ago, pictures of the children were used to raise money in the United States without the home’s knowledge. The cash and the fundraisers were never seen again.

The Last Resort
As Cambodia works toward developing alternatives to residential care homes, other policies related to children are being examined.

In many neighbouring countries, international adoption is considered an option for children in certain circumstances. On average, more than 1,000 children have been adopted from Vietnam each year over the last decade, rising to a peak of more than 1,600 a year in 2007 and 2008.

In Cambodia, the system that many see as the very last resort for children has had a chequered past. Angelina Jolie’s high-profile adoption of a local child in 2002 made headlines around the world. However, human trafficking scandals involving Cambodian adoptees have drawn more negative press. In their wake, the United States, among other countries, decided not to recognise adoptions from the Kingdom.

Similar decisions to end international adoptions in other countries have raised concern from some critics, who suggest such bans may hurt children who might otherwise find loving homes, especially when a nation’s compliance with the Hague Adoption Convention is a consideration.

Drawn up in 1993, and ratified by Cambodia in 2007, the goals of the Convention are to establish safeguards ensuring international adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for their fundamental human rights.

Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet has been working in the field of adoption advocacy for more than 30 years. She recently argued in the Ho Chi Minh City edition of AsiaLIFE that while people who engage in illegal practices should be punished, the Hague rules have been used as an opportunity by those ideologically opposed to inter-country adoption to curtail the practice.

Bartholet believes that in any human undertaking of a certain scale there will always be irregularities, but that should not be cause to discontinue adoptions because all corruption cannot be weeded out.

Nevertheless, efforts are ongoing in Cambodia to regulate the adoption system. UNICEF says Cambodia has made “good progress” to fulfil its obligations to the Hague Convention and a new law governing adoption has been promulgated. Such moves could soon have an effect.

According to the US State Department, Cambodia could accept inter-country adoptions petitions as early as January 2013, opening the door for foreign citizens to adopt.

UNICEF, however, recommends that states “do their utmost” to ensure that competent authorities in Cambodia are not overwhelmed by applications.

NGOs intend to monitor any resumption of adoption. “We don’t want kids to be just sold away, that’s not fair — mind you there are many kids that could certainly benefit  from international adoption, especially kids that have special problems or need special healthcare they would never get here,” says Marot of Friends.

For Sreypov, after her childrens’ experience, home is where the heart is. Now off the streets with her financial situation improved, she is looking forward to a reunion with her children. The mother says that she will now ensure her children are sent to school to study English and Khmer. “I am really happy and excited to have my children back,” she says.

Case Study
Discovering you were adopted can be an emotional and sometimes difficult experience. One adoptee relates how he dealt with the past.

I always take things into perspective and take two sides of a story into account. As a child I was trained to do that by my dad who adopted me. When I suspected that I was adopted, I thought about what my real parents had gone through. Life can be very hard and in my country we have a high percentage of people who live under the poverty line.

I could imagine what kind of daily life they had to go through and couldn’t blame them for giving me away, but it was a very painful thing as a kid. I was always raised to understand that family was very important.

It all boiled up to a point that I rebelled. For me, it was a mix of hatred and rage. I hated my biological parents for giving me away and my adoptive parents for not telling the truth, as I trusted them. But there is a very stark contrast between what I thought then and what I think now.

My relationship with my adoptive parents is very good and I got everything from my dad, who passed away. It’s something I treasure to this day. The only difference is I didn’t come out of my mother’s womb.

Parents should try and understand as much as possible that accepting that responsibility of a child also includes the responsibility of telling the truth. The truth is hard, but for me it’s the only way to get peace of mind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children