After completing the first phase of a sweeping plan to register and regulate the country’s orphanages and work toward returning more children to a family setting, the Ministry of Social Affairs says it is hamstrung by a lack of funding, staff and options for what to do with children at failing orphanages.
A year ago, the government endorsed a new set of standards for the country’s 641 known residential care facilities—including pagodas and boarding schools that care for children—and committed to reducing the number of children living in them.
Having identified about 400 orphanages during a nationwide program to map the country’s child care centers, the ministry began a two-phase process in which owners must notify the ministry of their operations and then request approval to remain open once they have shown they meet the standards and have a plan to integrate the children into communities.
About 270 orphanages sent the initial notification documents, however only 14 met Tuesday’s deadline for requesting official approval to operate, according to Social Affairs Ministry spokesman Ros Sokha.
He said the necessary efforts to enforce compliance were beyond the ministry’s current abilities.
“The government is not taking hard action. We are playing soft,” Mr. Sokha said. “We understand that we need to do a lot of things in order to promote the living standards of orphaned children.”
“We have to strengthen the foster care system, look at kinship care, reunite children with their families. And if we cannot do so, if I go to your institution and you do something wrong and I shut it down, what can we do with the children who are living there?”
Mr. Sokha said the ministry planned to inspect centers that had not submitted any paperwork to see if they were meeting minimum standards, and would push back the deadline for orphanages to apply for approval to operate, though he did not know when that might be.
In 2012, a study by Unicef found that only 23 percent of children who lived in residential care institutions, often called orphanages, were actually orphans. It was after years of campaigning by Unicef that the government agreed to try to rein in the sector and work toward having more children raised within a community rather than in institutions.
Meas Bunly, a spokesman for Unicef, said the government needed to commit more resources to the effort as quickly as possible.
“As a matter of urgency, the recruitment of more social workers is needed, in addition to the finalization and implementation of the national and provincial operational plans related to the new sub-decree,” he said.
Scott Neeson, director of the Cambodian Children’s Fund, said he was in favor of efforts to reduce the number of children living in care facilities, but stressed the need to prioritize child welfare above government targets.
“If there is a silver lining to the delays, perhaps it is the pragmatic need to avoid children being put out on the street due to NGO non-compliance. Locating families and having the children returned where possible or finding alternative foster or kinship care will require resources, oversight on a child-by-child basis,” he said in an email.
“Unwinding such long-time NGO practices has to be done with consideration and care for the child rather than rushed to meet a time-line,” he said in an email.
Kevin Tutt, board chairman at Sunrise Children’s Villages, said finding alternative arrangements for the tens of thousands of children living in orphanages could take a decade or so.
“Most of the problem lies in an unregistered environment. Standards and regulations for care must be set and more specifically adhered to,” he said. “The end of orphanages in Cambodia is a long-range target but one that the government must work hard to achieve.”