It is this answer which is driving many communities to a new understanding of how they can more effectively care for orphaned children. In Cambodia this is reflected in the changing direction of many NGO programs toward alternative care models. But it's not only the NGOs who are taking action for better care for the nation's children; in an historic and progressive move, the government has also revised its laws and processes in a strong shift towards alternative care models. In 2006, the National Multi-sectoral Orphans and Vulnerable Children Task Force was established and made a number of recommendations for signifcant change to Cambodia's Child Protection Policy. Under the new framework, when a child is referred to an orphanage, the organisation is required to comprehensively explore options for placing the child in some form of alternative family care before accepting them into institutional care. The desired outcome is that more children will find long-term placements in a caring, family environment. Of the 197 registered orphanages in Cambodia, 160 have now signed up to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation to see that this happens.
A new hope: Alternative family care
So what does alternative family care look like on the ground? I met up with Annie, who is the principal social worker with CIF, to find out. Leaving Phnom Penh we took a long taxi ride out to visit one of the villages that supports placements organised by CIF (a regular journey for Annie as part of her job to support families who are caring for children). During this particular visit Annie was also assessing other potential families in the village who were interested in becoming carers, delivering supplies including baby formula and ensuring the medical, educational and other needs of both the fostered children and their families were being met.
Over lunch, as all the families gathered and we shared a meal together, I was amazed at the community that had so obviously formed around the care of these children. With institutional care exploding after the country's devastating war, foster care or kinship care is new to the Cambodian mindset. However, the people of this village had opened their hearts and their homes to children from outside their community to embrace this new concept. With some support from CIF they were starting a revolution of culture, life and faith in this small village hundreds of kilometres from the orphanages of Phnom Penh.
How does it work?
In most cases, a Social Worker like Annie will facilitate the process. When a child is referred to CIF (or similar organisation), the referral will be assessed against three different types of care, ordered here in priority of the most desirable outcome.
1. Supported parental care. The first option is to investigate if children can remain with their existing family. I was told the story of a single mother, who, having lost her job at a local factory, could no longer afford to support her child. In situations such as this, for a small amount CIF can step in and support the mother to provide food, clothing, education and health needs for the child.
2. Extended family care. This second option will see the child supported by extended family in what is referred to as kinship care. In this situation CIF will support the extended family members to provide ongonig care for their relatives. One example of this was a grandmother who was being supported by CIF to care for four of her grandchildren after both parents had passed away.
3. Foster care. If there is no viable extended family option for a child, CIF will assess the potential for foster care. In this situation a child will be placed with a foster family and supported with a worker to ensure the provision of care in the areas mentioned above.
Dollars and sense
Now the question must be asked: With limited financial and human resources, can we be sure that institutional care is not still a better option to meet the great need these communities face? Importantly, the new emerging alternative family care models prove to be an excellent, if not entirely superior, option in terms of not only outcomes, but also efficient use of financial and human resources. For example, families in villages often struggle to find the funds to send their children to school locally. As a result, many feel they have no choice but to send their children into institutionalised care in the city so that they can subsequently have access to an education. For as little as AU$5 a month per child, CIF can support families in this situation to send their children to a local school - a far more cost-effective and beneficial situation for everyone involved.
At the other end of the spectrum, support for high-needs or disabled children in families can cost around AU$40 per month. This is still a small amount considering the specialised care and medical needs a placement of this nature can require. When it comes to administration and human resource costs, the CIF model also yields significant benefits. For example, having no need to invest in buildings, offices and associated expenses results in substantial savings, which can be then be put directly towards programs and developing services. Social workers such as Annie can also effectively support 30-40 children in a case load, while the staff-to-child ratio in more tranditional institutional environments is much higher.
Most importantly, while social and welfare workers assist in facilitating, monitoring and supporting the care of orphans and displaced children, the day-to-day care of these children is provided by stable, caring families.
It is certainly my opinion that an amazing opportunity exists in Cambodia. Some people I spoke with estimated that 90% of children in orphanages could be placed with families if the alernative care system were expanded. I will share one last story. About two years prior to my visit to the village, a worker with CIF had gone to an orphanage to pick up a little boy to be placed with a foster family arranged through CIF. This little boy had a physical disability and was struggling in the institutional environment. The worker had witnessed him beating his head against the wall in frustration - an action thought by the staff to be indicative of a mental handicap as well. The volunteer and this young boy took the same long taxi ride out to the village that I had taken. As they made their way closer to the village the worker become more and more concerned as to how this new family would react to the young boy's disability. However, upon arriving in the village the boy was met with open arms by his new mother and father. I am very happy to say that two years later, as I shook this young boy's hand, he was full of energy and life and very much at home in his new family and community. More than anything, this is why I wish to see many more children living in families.
Article by DevA Director - Nathan Sullivan, September 2010. Nathan visited CIF Cambodia in June with DevA Operations Committee Member, Amy Williams. Amy worked with CIF in Cambodia for two years and has a passion to see family-based care become the preferred model for caring for orphaned and displaced children across the globe.
Further reading and information: If you'd like to read more about the benefits of alternative family care in Cambodia, take a look at this report by Friends International >> Myths and realities about orphanages in Cambodia.
Development Accord is committed to supporting Children in Families Cambodia. The DevA team believes that the sustainable giving model provided through our fund is the perfect fit for the long-term, sustainable funding requirements of providing alternative family care.If you'd like to be involved in providing family-based care for Cambodian orphans, join us by becoming a DevA Member.
Note: DevA will never use donated funds for travel or visiting partner communities. Every DevA Board Member has made a committment to personally meet all expenses related to their operations as a Director or member of the Board, as well as any other promotional and general administrative costs associated with DevA operations.