Safe Haven Foster Care in Cambodia
Last week we began our series on foster care by highlighting our program for orphaned and abandoned children in Cambodia. Today, I’d like to discuss our Safe Haven Foster Care program in Cambodia, which was created to help children who have experienced trafficking or severe abuse.
While the Cambodian government has been taking additional steps to prosecute human traffickers, Cambodia remains a prime source country for the trafficking of children. Many are taken illegally across the border to Thailand and live through things no child should ever experience. Those who are fortunate enough to be freed in Thailand are usually repatriated back to the western Cambodian town of Poipet, where large wagons full of adults and children are dropped at the border transit center each day. Many of the children face a very uncertain future, as most government agencies lack both the funding and capacity to offer even the most basic assistance.
Before I highlight LWB’s program, I want to share some information from the US Department of State regarding trafficking in Cambodia as of 2018:
- Children most at
riskof trafficking are from severely impoverished families who are vulnerable to forced labor, often with the complicity of their parents.
- Trafficking can include forcing children into sex acts, domestic servitude, harsh labor (such as working in brick kilns), and street begging.
- Some Cambodian orphanages purchase local children from poor families and subject them to malnutrition and unclean living conditions in their facilities for the purpose of attracting and profiting from charitable donations.
- Traffickers in Cambodia are most commonly family or community members or small networks of independent brokers.
- The Cambodian government relies heavily on NGOs to protect trafficking victims.
In 2017, LWB expanded our foster care program in Cambodia to help wounded children have a safe place to heal. We had learned that the majority of children who have experienced trafficking or severe abuse are primarily cared for in orphanages or shelters. We wanted to create a program which would allow children to find safety in a home environment instead, as we believe having a caring and dedicated family can help address both their physical and emotional needs. We have been truly humbled by the compassion and concern that our supporters have shown to this critical program for extremely vulnerable children.
I have been doing this work for 16 years now and have seen so much sadness when it comes to children’s lives. Too much sadness, honestly. I’ve seen firsthand the pain that results when adults put greed above the well-being of
The only way to move forward with a program such as this is to continually remind ourselves of the good being done, despite all the bad that the children have endured. The team members and volunteers in this program are incredible people, dedicated to making sure the children have the best chance possible of finding wholeness and peace again. Through their efforts, I’ve watched the children in our care make remarkable progress. The bonds that are being formed within the foster families are very real, and I’ve seen extremely withdrawn children slowly bloom once they realize they’re finally safe.
But of course, there are lots of challenges as well, and today I want to highlight a few of them so you can better understand some of the complexities involved.
1. We are working with extremely traumatized children, and there is a severe lack of social workers, counselors, and trained psychologists in Cambodia, especially in the region where LWB is working. In fact, Cambodia on the whole has one of the lowest numbers of mental health professionals in the world, with only one psychologist available for every 400,000 people. And that’s in a country where it’s estimated that 1/3 of the adult population suffers from PTSD following the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, along with countless others suffering from substance abuse, domestic violence, and exploitation. To sum it up succinctly, there are no ready services in the region where we’re located.
What this has meant for LWB is that we have had to build this important piece of the program from the ground up. To date, we’ve sent professors and therapists from the US to conduct trauma training with our staff. We’ve sent our team members on the ground in Cambodia to counseling courses and training in the capital city of Phnom Penh. We’ve consulted with trauma experts from both clinics and universities who have offered advice and concrete steps we can take to help these children heal. We’ve created training sheets for our foster families so they can better understand the behaviors they are seeing in their foster kids.
What we’ve been told repeatedly by experts in the field, however, is that 90% of the healing comes from simply getting these children into safe homes. Many of the children have suffered extreme physical and mental abuse, starvation, and the continual fear of punishment. So just getting them into a protected space is the most important thing we can do for them. Having regular meals, their own clothes, and a chance to go to school…these are ALL critical components to their well-being.
We’ve also had in-depth discussions with experts on trauma about resiliency, and how each person handles painful experiences differently. We must create a program where support and help are always available while at the same time respect that not every child who goes through something traumatic will have lifelong effects. Our role should be making sure the children know there are safe people to come to – whenever they desire. We want the children to know that there is always someone they can talk to in a way where they will never be judged or forced. We hope to have a program where every child knows, “I’m here if you ever want to talk, and I promise I will listen.”
Because trauma is stored in the body in many different ways, an additional part of this program is helping each child in Safe Haven learn where they find calmness. For some, it’s exercise and movement, and so we’ve established regular swimming trips and access to soccer and dance. For others, art can help to calm, and we’ve provided mandala coloring books and other similar activities.
Some children find therapy through caring for pets, and that option is available to children in our programs as well. Several have adopted cats and dogs which have proven to be loyal friends. In a region where there is a severe lack of psychological services, I believe we’re doing everything we can to help our team members and foster parents understand the behaviors and issues that children might have after
2. Another issue we soon discovered in Cambodia is that when siblings are rescued from difficult situations, they are often separated at the border. Many shelters only accept children ages 5 and up, and so if there are younger siblings, they are often moved long distances to enter orphanage care. In several cases, we were asked by authorities to take in young children, and after they were in our care we learned they had older siblings who had been referred to different shelters.
Another sad reality is that sometimes older children are forced by traffickers to become addicted to drugs such as crystal meth, and so those children need to enter drug treatment facilities often far away from their younger siblings. We believe strongly that children need to be together whenever possible, and so we’re taking active steps to make sure LWB can be given entire sibling groups versus just the youngest children. We are partnering with the local trafficking center to ensure that separation of siblings will no longer happen except in rare circumstances. In the cases where we’ve learned of older siblings, we’re committed to reunifying them in foster care at the earliest possible time. For now, while they are apart, LWB team members are taking the younger kids in our foster care program to visit their siblings regularly.
3. With regards to reunification, a major challenge we face is reintegration with birth family once they’re identified. As we mentioned in the blog from last week, Cambodia is not a huge country, and so with some detective work, it is often possible to identify a child’s extended family. We often face difficult and agonizing decisions about whether it is safe for a child who was trafficked or severely abused to return home. Remember my notes above from the State Department which found that children are frequently trafficked with the full complicity of their parents.
Many impoverished families migrate to Thailand on a continual basis without documentation, putting their children at high risk of exploitation. When parents are arrested and jailed in Thailand for engaging in illegal activities, their children are often placed into crowded shelters commonly called “child jails,” which hold them for 90 days. The children are then brought back to Cambodia, often on their own, and need care until their parents are released from prison. For children like these, reunification often means the cycle of neglect and abuse just repeats itself.
Without going into a lot of details, I’ll just say that the situations of the children in our care are often like a tangled labyrinth, but we are 100% committed to every child’s personal safety. Their needs must always come first, and so we’re continually evaluating the reintegration process to make sure there is adequate oversight by government agencies and preparation by LWB. We never want to reintegrate a child, only to have them be trafficked or severely abused yet again.
While I could keep listing the myriad of challenges working in this field entails, I’m sure that everyone reading this blog understands that there are rarely simple answers. I think that when charities are candid about the complexities involved with trafficking and severe abuse, however, we can have open and honest discussions on how to provide the absolute best care possible.
I’ll end today by saying that our Safe Haven program is a critical new field for LWB. Each and every day the children’s stories break my heart, but each day I get to see the restorative power that comes from the dedication of our team and foster parents on the ground. No one is going to give up on these kids, and I want to thank you for making this program possible.
While we never show the faces of the children who are enrolled in Safe Haven, those of us who work with them each day know what a huge difference having a family is making in their lives. Every single child is so important to us, and I want you to know we’re doing everything we can to make sure they get the individual attention and services they need to thrive.
Next week I will discuss our foster care program in China which has undergone significant changes over the last few years. Until then.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer