In Cambodia today, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 are not living at home with either of their biological parents. These children are living in ‘alternative care’, such as orphanages, pagoda-based residential care, foster care or group homes.
Unfortunately, there will always be some children who cannot live at home, and for whom family separation is the only option. This might be because their home life is extremely violent, their parents might abuse alcohol or drugs and be a danger to them, or because they are orphans with no extended family to care for them. But given the right support and assistance, most families can be helped to stay together, and children can be raised at home. Every child has the right to grow up in a family-based environment, a principle enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Cambodia PROTECT Strategy aims to help people understand that, most often, family separation is unnecessary–and it is avoidable.
Studies show that poverty and lack of educational opportunities are the driving forces behind parents placing their children in residential care. Poor parents are led to believe that institutions offer children an education, a roof over their heads and three meals per day. But growing up in institutionalized care is known to have detrimental effects on children’s emotional, psychological and physical health. In the worst cases, residential care can lead to children being abused and exploited.
MoSVY has increased its efforts to reverse the alarming trend of placing children in alternative care. In 2015, it led a huge mapping exercise to document every residential care institution across the country, and to record the number of children living in care. The results formed the basis of the Action Plan for Improving Child Care (2016–2018), which has been extended until 2019.
Two fundamental principles underpin all child protection work: ‘The best interests of the child’ and ‘Do no harm’. Alternative care programmes should also follow two principles that aim to prevent unnecessary family separation (the principle of necessity) and where that is not possible, they should ensure the best alternative care (the principle of suitability). These principles must be central to any decision that involves a child, particularly decisions about where and with whom a child should live. When reunifying a family or reintegrating a child from care into his or her family, every decision must be made in the best interests of that child. The safety and well-being of a child must never be compromised, under any circumstances.
Unnecessary family separation is the placement of a child in alternative care–a residential care institution, a pagoda that offers residential care, or in a group home–before all avenues of family-based care have been exhausted. Poverty is the greatest driver in unnecessary family separation. It is widely accepted that children are best cared for by their families. When that is not possible, the best option is family-based alternative care, including foster care and kinship care. Placing a child in residential care should be the absolute last resort, and should be for the shortest time possible.
Research shows that children raised in residential care can suffer from delays or abnormalities in speech and brain development, delays in physical growth, higher exposure to disease, clinical personality disorders, and emotional insecurity. Children who are removed from their families are at risk of abuse and exploitation.