The Ministry of Social Affairs yesterday issued a new sub-decree ordering all orphanages to get a permit, submit to inspections and limit the conditions under which children can be admitted.
According to many experts, including Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth, orphanage care does more harm than good to children, who are frequently exploited for sympathy money from tourists.
Many centres are unregistered, leaving the children vulnerable to irregularities and abuse.
What’s more, over three quarters of orphanage residents have at least one living parent, and parents are the better caregivers, said Soth.
“The sub-decree on the management of residential care institutions is a benchmark indicator showing the government’s commitment to keeping children in families,” Soth said in a statement yesterday.
The Cambodian government has been working on the sub-decree for years as part of a UNICEF-assisted effort to get more children out of institutions and into family- or community-based care. In February, Soth announced the “Keep Families Together” initiative, which aims to cut the amount of kids in orphanages by 30 per cent between 2016 and 2018.
“Placement of children without parental care in residential institutions should be the last resort, and only as a temporary solution,” Debora Comini, UNICEF’s representative in Cambodia, said in yesterday’s statement. “The good news is that there is a notable and welcome shift in the awareness among policy makers of the negative impact on children of living in residential care.”
The ministry has conducted orphanage inspections since 2010, but its mandate was limited to institutions that had signed an MoU. The ministry’s records show a total of 228 residential care institutions with 11,453 children living in them, but “hundreds more” are running unregistered, according to NGO Friends International.
One example is the Foursquare Church, or FCOP, which runs multiple children’s care centres. Pol Neareth, an administrative staffer there, said yesterday that the church had asked the Ministry of Social Affairs about approval but was directed to the Ministry of Cults and Religion, which doesn’t handle child affairs.
However, a Ministry of Social Affairs official said in November that Foursquare made a deal with the ministry not to create an overnight children’s shelter, but broke its promise. Confusion over ministry jurisdiction made the insular institution even harder to inspect.
James Sutherland, the communications coordinator at Friends International, said orphanages that run as businesses pressure families to put children in residential care. Poverty often adds urgency to the decision to send the kids away.
“They are told that this is a better start for the kids – families want what’s best for their children,” he said. “They think it’s better for them.”
Sutherland agreed with Soth that children would be better off if donors gave money to family, community-based or foster care programs, rather than residential care centres.
Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng