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Foster Care in Cambodia

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to delve more deeply into some of our current programs. These blogs are going to be a bit longer than social media experts would tell me to write. Since our supporters are such an essential part of our work with children, I want you all to better understand not only the incredible impact you’re making possible, but also the very real issues we face in doing this life-changing work in different countries.

Today I’m starting with foster care, as we believe so strongly that EVERY child deserves to grow up in a family environment versus being raised in an institution.

For the last 15 years, LWB has had a successful foster care program in China. When we decided to expand that work to Cambodia in 2016, we knew we could draw on our significant experience to build a program from the ground up. We now have two foster care projects in Cambodia, and in this blog I’ll be discussing the one which serves orphaned and relinquished children.

The very first thing you need to know about Cambodia is that the situation regarding “orphans” is a lot different than in China. In China, the vast majority of children who end up in orphanage care come through abandonment, which is often done in secret since it’s still considered a crime to relinquish a child. These children are mostly placed into official government-funded institutions, and the birth parents usually remain unknown. 

Google “Cambodia + orphans,” however, and you will see abundant newspaper articles and studies about the large number of orphanages which have been set up for-profit and which house children who have known living family members.  Here’s just one as an example from a newspaper in Australia (and trust me…there are a lot).  Poverty is definitely the main reason children end up in Cambodian orphanage care.

I’ll admit that when we first made the decision to expand our programs to Cambodia, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with orphanages here since the system is just so murky.  Most of the hundreds of orphanages which have been set up in the last decade are based in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, high tourism cities, and throngs of visitors (or voluntourists) cycle through to come and play with the kids. It’s actually one of the reasons we began our Cambodia projects on the complete opposite side of the country, in a region with no real orphanage system and where few charities are open to working.

Our first projects in Cambodia were building elementary schools for impoverished villages, but then very quickly we had to face the reality that the orphaned and abandoned children in this region were often left in extremely unprotected situations.  Soon our director was receiving phone calls from the police and local village leaders asking if we could possibly care for children whose parents had died or children who’d been left completely on their own.  It’s impossible to look the other way when you are getting photos of three-year-olds scavenging for food in dumpsters, or when a week-old baby is left all alone at our school.

I soon learned that most of the shelters in this region will only accept older children (ages five and up), so babies and toddlers are especially vulnerable. They’re often sent to the larger cities in Cambodia to enter the orphanage system. With our knowledge of implementing well-monitored foster care in China, we decided that it was time to get government permission to expand this program to Cambodia as well.

Now two years later, I can say without reservation that this is both a highly successful and also ESSENTIAL program in this region. We’ve taken in children from newborns to school-age, and every one of them has made remarkable progress with their foster families. I send my deepest thanks to everyone sponsoring a child here for family-based care. You’re keeping children out of an often corrupt orphanage system, and that is an enormous blessing.

Despite its success, this program has also faced many significant challenges. Unlike in China, where we partner with the government to provide foster family support, Cambodia offers no financial assistance for family-based care. A severe lack of social workers in the country and an overworked government system means that the funding and case management for foster care usually falls directly on individual charities. We are also given full legal guardianship of the children in our care, which means when we accept a child into foster care here, we’re making a long-term commitment to their health, education, and well-being, to ensure they have the most promising future possible.

Another challenge we’ve found with this program is that Cambodia still has no clear-cut path for domestic or international adoption, and so we worry that the wonderful children in our care have few options at the moment for permanent homes. The roadblocks start at the very beginning, as even getting an abandoned child legally registered for a birth certificate can be quite difficult. It is often a very long process, which we’re thankfully now navigating successfully. 

Despite the national government releasing guidelines in 2017 encouraging Cambodian couples to legally adopt, a severe lack of government case managers and disagreements about the process in different locations makes adherence to the laws quite uncertain. We have several children in our program whose foster families would love to domestically adopt them, but we continue to get different answers from various government departments on the correct process. Our director in Cambodia will be meeting with several groups in March to gain additional information on how the children in our care can be adopted 100% legally and ethically.

I am praying for definitive answers. Every child deserves permanency, so we will not give up searching for complete clarity on this issue.

Another major challenge we face with this program involves birth parent searching. In a small country like Cambodia, with good detective skills, relatives are often able to be found. In the cases where we’ve managed to locate a birth parent, however, many don’t want their children back.

When a divorced or widowed parent remarries in Cambodia, for example, it is very common for the new spouse to refuse to accept children from a prior marriage. We’ve seen repeated cases where a mother has chosen her new spouse over even her infant or toddler, resulting in the child being abandoned. These are such complex cases. Of course, we want family reunification whenever possible, but what should be done if a child is at risk of re-abandonment if they’re returned to a parent who doesn’t really want them? With the government having so few social workers on staff, it often falls to the charity to decide when it’s safe to return a child whose birthparent has been found.

This same challenge applies to extended family as well. In one case, we took in a child whose parents had died, making the child legally an orphan. After searching for extended family, however, we identified an older adult sibling who only wanted the child in order to use them to beg. So there are continual discussions with Social Affairs, law enforcement, and amongst ourselves on how to ensure that every child is best cared for while working towards reunification when safe.

These are rarely black and white issues in Cambodia, especially in a region where problems such as domestic abuse, alcoholism, and drug use are rampant due to extreme poverty.  Our managers frequently call me to say their worries and concerns keep them awake at night, which I think is inevitable when we’re so committed to every child’s individual case.

But despite a myriad of challenges, this program has proven to be extremely successful. The children in our care are thriving with stability, access to education, and medical care. The newborns we’ve taken in have never known the inside of an orphanage — just the support and love of a devoted mom and dad. The abandoned children who have come into our hands malnourished or shut down emotionally are now healthy and happy, and our local managers follow their progress closely. 

Our hope for this year is to expand foster care to another region of Cambodia so that even more children can experience the benefits of being raised in a home setting. We’re planning an in-country conference for later this year, inviting other charities working with children to discuss what they see as the greatest needs and to share best practices for those of us providing family-based care.

I remember once reading a quote that said something along the lines of “A smooth sea doesn’t make a skillful sailor.” Those words have come to mind more than once over the last few years as we’ve navigated the logistics of working in a region with so few child services in place. And while challenges can be extremely frustrating at times (my desk may or may not have an impression of my forehead now), I know they’re also what makes each of us stronger.  It’s been wonderful to watch our incredible local team on the ground in Cambodia brainstorm together to tackle any issues that arise to ensure that every single child in our foster care program gets the love and nurturing they so richly deserve.

Next week I’ll be discussing our Safe Haven foster care program in Cambodia, which provides caring homes for children who have been trafficked or severely abused. Until then, thank you for standing with us to make sure every child possible is shown just how wonderful and important to the world they are.

~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer

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