Emergency Orphanage Shutdown – 33 rescued
Friday, 22 March 2013
This morning, SISHA and Cambodian officials shutdown Love In Action (LIA), an Australian-run orphanage in Phnom Penh. This closure came as an emergency response to groups of children who had fled from the organization over the past 3 weeks. The children reported beatings, neglect, and signs of human trafficking. This marks the first time the Cambodian criminal justice and social services mechanisms have used due process to close an institution on short notice. Twenty-one children were rescued in the closure this morning, but 7 are still unaccounted for. According to the LIA CEO/Founder, they were sent back to their families in the provinces.
The raid included SISHA staff and officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY), the Phnom Penh Department of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSVY), and the department of Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection (AHTJP). The CEO of LIA, an Australian woman, has admitted to police that her orphanage was not registered and she had no legal authority to care for the children. The organization, according to its website, is Christian-run and receives most of its funding and volunteers through church groups in Australia. According to a former volunteer’s review online, “[The CEO] has worked hard to raise these children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
On February 26, SISHA received a report from 2 former LIA volunteers residing in Phnom Penh. A group of 5 children from the orphanage had escaped and walked across the city to seek refuge. SISHA contacted the Cambodian officials and they met internally to develop an emergency response. Shortly after, on March 14, another group of 7 kids, some who escaped and some who claim they were kicked out, arrived at the same volunteer’s house. These children made similar allegations against LIA, which involved sub-standard living conditions and physical abuse.
MoSVY, DoSVY, AHTJP, and SISHA conducted a formal investigation as soon as procedure would allow on Friday the 15th. Investigators found that the institution failed to meet minimum standards in several regards: the food standards were subpar, some children were visibly ill and not taken to a doctor, the facility was dirty, sewage was blocked, and the living quarters were overcrowded. Interviews of the children revealed many instances of physical abuse from the staff.
During the investigation, one of the LIA staff came forward. She had just received a job as a caretaker eighteen days earlier. The employee and her young daughter were living at LIA, and the child was visibly ill and in need of medical attention. The CEO forbade the mother from taking the girl to the hospital or reporting it to the investigators, saying that she would fire her if she took the child off the premises. Seeing the condition of the child, police granted SISHA the authority to take the girl to the hospital. The woman was then denied wages for the days she worked; SISHA reimbursed her for those lost wages and covered all medical costs.
The LIA CEO is now under investigation for human trafficking, child abuse, neglect, and running an unregistered orphanage. This shutdown is a massive step forward, demonstrating the Cambodian government’s increased capacity to deal with abusive orphanages or residential care facilities, as they are sometimes called. The orphanage sector has become a multi-million dollar industry in the developing world and this business is flourishing in Cambodia. Government institutions, which are underfunded and lack the infrastructure to monitor the problem, are struggling to combat this phenomenon.
It is estimated that over 70% of the 10,000 orphans in Cambodia have a parent. Many orphanages in Cambodia have recruiters. An orphanage’s funding, which comes mainly from international donors and voluntourists, is contingent on the number of children it is hosting. The financial incentive to increase the roster has led to a destructive business model, which ends up creating orphans rather than helping them. The recruiters approach poor and often rural families saying that the orphanage can offer the children an education, food, clothing, and a chance for a better life. There are many reports of cash transactions for the child, though it is usually referred to as a donation to the family. There are 269 registered orphanages in Cambodia, but the number of unregistered ones much higher, according to SISHA’s Director of Operations, Eric Meldrum.
Last year, MoSVY, DoSVY, AHTJP, SISHA, and other partners, established an ad hoc working group to identify, investigate, and close abusive orphanages. On November 15, 2012, SISHA along with members of the working group, closed the Children’s Umbrella Centre Organization (CUCO), an orphanage found to be neglecting and abusing its children. This marked the first time that the Cambodian government used due process of law to close an orphanage based primarily on the violation of minimum standards and child safety laws. It was an 18-month process, from the initial reports of abuse, to the closure and arrests. LIA was closed in 3 weeks, an indication that the procedures established by the CUCO case were effectively and efficiently replicated to make this closure.
The 33 children rescued from LIA were taken to DoSVY, the Cambodian social services branch, for temporary care. SISHA will be working with DoSVY and our partners to trace the 7 missing children and trace the families of the other 33 children who were rescued and who escaped. The infants are currently with our partners, Children In Families. The children will be reintegrated with their families or placed in foster care. As of the writing of this article, none of the children have been identified as orphans, meaning they have one or more parent. SISHA’s involvement in this case will continue as we track families, facilitate reintegration, and represent the victims in court.