Tag: Prevention

No easy answers

Written by on July 8, 2014 in The Blog with 2 Comments
The 4-year-old girl chained inside a house in Koh Kong

The 4-year-old girl chained inside a house in Koh Kong

Yesterday I read about a Cambodian “mother” in Koh Kong who chained up a four-year-old girl in her care for eight hours a day while she went to work.  She said it was to protect the girl from drowning or wandering away while she was at work. The girl had been handed over to the woman years ago by her biological mother as collateral for a loan.

When informed of the woman’s arrest, her years of chaining the girl to a post, and the 4-year-old’s move to a children’s shelter, the girl’s biological mother, who lives in Preah Vihear province, said she could not take back and care for her daughter…

The article is about child abuse in Cambodia and an overall lack of concern and awareness. That the girl had been signed over as collateral on a loan wasn’t even central to the story. Variations of that happen all the time, usually involving domestic work in return for food and lodging and, in the best cases, attending school. This was a worst case situation.

After reading about this girl, I turned to another troubling article in The Guardian, Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia’s shocking trade.  This article is about  rich and powerful men who prey on helpless girls.  It’s easy to label that evil and other choice words. But then there are the parents who sell their daughters, desperate for money, presented with a pot of gold. Enough money, some might imagine, to buy a new start for their families. Some don’t seem to comprehend the enormity of what they are doing.


Then I read an article criticizing the wave of orphanage closures starting last year in Cambodia, including efforts to reunify children from the closed orphanages with their natural families.

The author wrote about a Cambodian girl whose orphanage was closed.

Pisey is one of thousands of young people our research team has worked with around the world. She is 17 and working in a karaoke bar in Battambang, Cambodia. There she serves drinks and is required to exchange sex for money. She longs for her loving family.

Pisey had such a family a few years ago, but it wasn’t with her parents. Her mother and father were alcoholics who abused Pisey and her two younger sisters, leaving them to eat from a garbage pile. A social worker finally intervened and persuaded the parents to move them to a local orphanage. The orphanage provided what the girls had been missing: love and security with a consistent caregiver who lived with them, along with food, clean clothes and schooling. The girls found a loving family there.

Unfortunately, not long ago Cambodia began shutting down orphanages to reunite children with their biological families, so the three girls returned home. Pisey was not allowed to continue with school but rather had to begin earning money for her parents and her sisters’ school fees. Being young and without a degree, her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.

 The essentials ring true. Most children in orphanages are not orphans, but they do come from poor families, and many of their families have problems. When an orphanage is closed and the children and youth are sent home, there are obvious risks. The Cambodian government has had organizations working diligently in cases when orphanages are closed to guide and monitor the reintegration process, but it’s extremely challenging work. Many children are smoothly reintegrated, but not all.

But here are a few thoughts.

  1. Very few orphanages have been closed in Cambodia. An orphanage has to have significant and serious issues going on to earn that distinction. To say that Pisey had a loving family in an orphanage slated for closure is leaving out lots of information. It was likely a bad place.
  2. The author says Pisey was 17. Her choice to become a karaoke girl calls into question what was happening with her identity and character during those years in the orphanage. She may have been pressured by her family, or she may have balked at a regular job or wanted more money than she could normally earn.  It’s troubling what she did. Perhaps she succumbed to family pressure and the reintegration failed. Once again, we have the broad outlines of her story without the important details. “Her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.” Give me a break.
  3. It isn’t supposed to happen like this. Nobody wants to close an orphanage and take responsibility for all the children inside. That’s why only the very worst ones are forcibly closed. Closing an orphanage is a worst case scenario and nobody wins. Ideally, to reduce the overabundance of orphanages in Cambodia, responsible orphanages will voluntarily phase themselves out by not accepting new children and finishing the job with the ones in their care. The government has asked such orphanages to transform themselves into non-residential community and family-support centers.

All of these articles are about poverty and families making poor choices. There are no easy answers.

Cambodia has deep-rooted problems affecting children and their families. Orphanages are not easy answers.  Family-based care is not an easy answer either.  Reintegration. Restoring families. Prevention. Not easy. It’s going to take a lot of people working well together to put things right. That includes families and leaders in communities, organizations of all kinds, and government.

One thing is certain: things will get better only as Cambodian families and communities become stronger.


How families are taking care of even the most vulnerable children

Written by on June 19, 2014 in Featured Posts, Voices from the Field with 1 Comment

Read about one man’s journey on behalf of orphans and vulnerable children, including stories you won’t forget.  Will you join in the change that’s coming?


Mick Pease training childcare workers

I heard a story from a man I was training in Myanmar. A number of years before, when his parents were visiting a rural village, his mother happened to use a pit toilet shared by the community. Inside she heard a tiny muffled noise that reminded her of a baby’s cry. The only place it could have come from was down the hole, so she put her arm inside and brought out a newly born baby. The baby must have been in there for some minutes; no one really knew how long. The unknown mother had tried to kill the child, presumably due to shame. Everyone agreed the baby should go to an orphanage.

We’ll come back to this story, but first let me tell you how I came to be delivering training in Myanmar in the first place.

First, an observation: Orphanages are still the default solution for orphans and abandoned children in poor communities throughout the developing world.

Having worked as a social worker in the United Kingdom for many years, in Child Protection and Adoption/Fostering, I had often wondered if the services we developed for children and families would be valid and effective in developing countries. That question was uppermost in my mind in the mid 90’s when my wife and I volunteered for 12 months with a children’s mission in Brazil where the only provision for children separated from family was residential care.

In Brazil I discovered that prevention work in the communities, rehabilitation of parents, kinship care (placing children with relatives), and foster care were rarely practiced or even considered. I asked professionals why ordinary Brazilian families couldn’t look after orphaned and abandoned children. Oh, Brazilian families are too poor, I was told, too emotional, and they have such large families they wouldn’t have room for more.

But it soon became evident to me the problem was not primarily poverty or large families. It came down to a widespread lack of perception about the needs of children beyond immediate relief of their physical necessities (i.e., food and shelter in a children’s home). Most social work was material and practical; rarely did it include dealing with the emotional trauma of being separated from family. Moreover, few professionals showed any inclination to preserve ties between children and their biological families, and few were inclined to do prevention work to keep families from breaking apart in the first place.

Thankfully, twenty years later childcare policies in Brazil have changed. They have a long way to go, but practices today are much more prevention oriented and family-based.

I began a journey starting in Brazil that continues to this day. My wife and I returned home, and in 2002 we founded Substitute Families for Abandoned Children (SFAC). Our mission was to promote and extend family-based care for abandoned children in developing countries. Since then I have travelled throughout the world training government workers, organizational leaders, and care providers in the principles of alternative and family-based care.

Some background

Most parents living in the UK today assume their own children would never end up in an orphanage, not even in the event of their tragic deaths. But many of these same parents assume orphanages are appropriate options for children in poor countries. How can that be?

The truth is that we are still coming to terms with family-based care ourselves, and orphanages are still a part of our recent history and hidden mindsets.

On any given day in UK around 67,000 children are living apart from their families for numerous reasons, mostly due to abuse and neglect. Seventy-six percent are placed with relatives or foster families (almost 100 percent for children less than ten years old). That’s the situation today, but just 30 years ago the majority of such children would have been placed into residential care no matter the age. In one generation we have undertaken a seismic shift in UK public policy as we have moved from residential to family-based care.

The decisive moment was the passage of the Children Act of 1989, and subsequent legislation that prioritises family-based care with residential care only as a last resort. This huge shift in UK public policy and resources was based on overwhelming research and evidence showing that the best place for a child to develop an identity and learn social roles is within a family. Research also detailed numerous developmental problems, social challenges, and personal burdens for children and young people associated with growing up in residential care.

African childcare workers discussing foster care in training group

African childcare workers discuss foster care

This is not the time to review the research, including all the studies conducted since 1989 in both developed and developing contexts. Suffice it to say that almost every developed country, the United Nations, and the largest childcare organizations and their experts have called for family-based care with residential care as a last resort.

But alternative care policies and practices in the developing world have lagged behind for many reasons: disorganization, none or insufficient child care legislation, corruption, lack of training, and funding issues. Even as governments are getting on board for change, a host of smaller childcare institutions and faith-based missions have been slow to change.

A Stop in Central Asia

In 1999 I did some consultancy work in Central Asia. On visiting a large orphanage with many children, I asked the director if I could speak with the children using my Russian translator. I met nine children in groups of three and asked them the same questions: How long have you been here? Do you know why you’re here? Do you see your family? If not, why not? Are you happy in placement and what things do you do?

All replied with similar answers. Yes, they were happy and had lots of friends and did lots of activities. They didn’t really know why they were there, and some saw family occasionally, others never. Some couldn’t remember their family or even where they came from.

I then asked each of them, if they could wave a magic wand and ask for just one thing, what it would be. All of them muttered and thought awhile but eventually said exactly the same thing. I didn’t know what they had said as it was in Russian, and yet somehow I did know. It was like I had understood their hearts even though I didn’t speak their language. “I want my mum,” “I want my family,” and “I want to be like the other children.”

By this time my translator was in a flood of tears and hardly able to speak. She eventually told me, “I had no idea these children felt this way. They looked so happy.” “I did,” I said, “because I see it in all the time in the UK and in other countries. If they were your children would you be happy to see them living in an institution or a group home rather than in a family?” “No”, she replied. “That’s why I wanted to see if over 5,000 miles away, in a different culture, children would still feel the same way.”

How did I know what the children had said? Because it’s a human need; a family is what every child wants even after abuse and neglect. They want to belong to someone, not to an organisation. They want to feel normal, not stigmatized. They want to have siblings and relatives and a community. They want things at home to be safe and right. Poverty is not what matters to a child most; it is being part of a family.

No Magic Wand

Ample research has been done in the UK over many years showing that the longer a child has been separated from his or her roots the harder it is to rehabilitate the child back into his or her family. It’s a significant and growing challenge after just six months, due to changes in family structures and dynamics which the child was not part of. For example, the child’s parents may separate or remarry, the child’s behaviour may change after being in an institution with different rules and standards, or the child’s single parent might start a new job and see the child as a restriction. The longer you wait for rehabilitation, the more difficult (though not impossible) it is to achieve a successful outcome.

We can’t simply “wave a magic wand” and return children from residential care facilities back to their parents or relatives. Alternative care practices are about keeping children out of residential institutions in the first place and, when children are placed in residential care, rehabilitating them back into healthy families as quickly as possible.

Preventing families from being torn apart is easier than rehabilitating them. But rehabilitating families in a safe and timely manner is easier and better for children than raising them permanently in residential care.

For many children living in residential care today, it’s too late to send them back to their families or place them with relatives or foster families. But it’s not too late for governments, organizations, and care providers to start alternative care practices that will transform the lives of countless children who would otherwise be placed in residential care.

We have to start thinking differently. We must stop reacting to poverty by separating children from their families and communities.

Training childcare workers in Africa

Africans are moving toward family-based care

When I started this journey in the mid 90’s, I was pretty ignorant about what would or could work. But today, almost 20 years later, we are seeing significant changes. Governments of developing countries are making major policy changes. Just last year the Government of Uganda launched its Alternative Care Framework, a set of strong policies designed to keep children out of orphanages and in healthy families. We are seeing “green shoots” of small to medium-size kinship and foster care projects happening in South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Uganda, China, Central Asia, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Brazil and other countries. Most of these projects are pioneering prevention and family rehabilitation services as well. And many other countries are expressing interest.

In most of these countries, they are still in need of training as they develop services from the ground up.

Today I can say with confidence that the principles of alternative and family-based care not only apply in developing countries, but they are successfully and positively changing the lives of children and families around the world.

Yes, there is a long journey ahead, but the global movement to develop Alternative Family Care services is underway!

Now what about that baby in Myanmar?

She was placed in an orphanage.

Yet some weeks later, feeling troubled by this, the woman who had found the baby and her husband returned and went to find her. They asked if they could look after the baby girl just as if she was their own child. They had no support or guidance. They took her home, and only then did they discover she was permanently blind due to her eyes having been attacked by insects in the cesspit. Nevertheless, they loved her and sent her to school. Today she works as a qualified and registered masseur in Yangon and lives with her foster brother (the man who I was training) and his family.

Until her foster brother heard me speak about family-based care and foster care, he never realized that he had a “foster sister” or indeed that his parents were foster parents. He went on to say that he loves her just like his own sister!

Can alternative care practices work in various cultures and contexts? They already are! Alternative care practices build on something every culture has in common: a high value for children and families. Residential care is the foreign import.

I have a growing conviction on this journey, and I continue to learn from people and their stories from various countries and cultures. I train government workers, organizational leaders, and care providers to strengthen and restore families. Will you join us?

What about those poor children at the dump?

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

Most people don’t have a good image of the families of “dump kids” of Phnom Penh. Here is one organization that has set out to prove them wrong.

Say Son lives in the Stung Meanchey area of Phnom Penh and has a child studying at Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF). She said that living in Phnom Penh is really hard for her as she was used to living in the countryside. There she lived with her family. They grew what they ate and didn’t have so many expenses. Now she has to earn a salary to cover rent, food, education costs, and healthcare and to pay off some of the debt she has from moving to the city.

She spent two years working as a cleaner with a private company in Phnom Penh for $60 a month. She said that her work at this company was extremely hard as she was required to work full time 7 days a week. She was also put under great pressure, and the employer was not particularly nice to work for. When the stress started to affect her health, she left the job.

In November 2012 (after her child had joined ISF’s program) she learned that ISF was partnering with another local organization that provides training and links to dignified jobs for its trainees. She applied for a course and passed the test. She received further training and was provided with a cleaning job in one of the International Schools in Phnom Penh.

In her new role, she only works in the mornings from Monday to Saturday and gets public holidays and annual leave with pay. She receives $90 per month and says the employer is much easier to work for and the environment is much friendlier. As a result, she has more time to spend with her children at home and more income for her family.


Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF) works with the “dump kids” of Phnom Penh (Cambodia). We have 315 kids who access our two education day centers in Stung Meanchey and Chbar Ampov. No children live at either of the centers. We have one social worker per fifty kids in our organization. We are very familiar with their families and their circumstances, and I believe we have established trust and healthy lines of communication with the families we work with. We have dealt with cases of drugs, gambling, alcoholism and domestic violence with them.

In the last 5 years we’ve only had two cases where a child was at risk to the extent that we needed to call the authorities and have them remove the child. In both cases, we monitored the child (who went to live with relatives), and we worked with the families to deal with the issues with the intention of reuniting family and child. Both cases involved abuse where the child was at risk.  We always work closely with families to alleviate issues they are facing, and we involve other organizations with expertise to deal with specific challenges. In those cases, our staff work alongside to learn those skills themselves.


The parents of our students will tell you that they don’t want to give up the responsibility of raising their children to organizations. They only make those decisions when they believe there is no other alternative. When they come into our program and understand how it works, it’s clear they are capable of raising their own children. In fact, everything that we do with the children who come to ISF is reviewed with the parents before we do it. They are heavily involved in the decision making process whenever it affects their children.


Sure these families live in extreme poverty, but that is not an adequate reason to take their children away. I find it shocking that at least seven organizations that I know about in our area remove children from their families and put in institutions less than a kilometer away, because they will tell you the children are ”at risk.” How can we be working in the same community and not have the same high statistics that they have? Sure it’s a bigger job for us and much more challenging than if we just took the kids out of their hard situations, but how can they ever learn to deal with reality themselves with this solution? If we don’t do something to bring about real change in the community and within the families we work with, the overall situation remains the same.


Originally submitted as a report from Indochina Starfish in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Photos used by permission of ISF and the individuals shown