Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara Monday suggested setting up a foster care program for the city’s approximately 1,000 street children at the weekly City Hall Cabinet meeting.
NGO leaders and urban experts praised the idea but warned that the program could be disastrous if designed too hastily. Chea Sophara recently pledged to clear the streets of homeless in time for the Asean summit in early November, and the NGO Mith Samlanh/Friends reported that the city is increasingly shipping the homeless out to random locations in the countryside.
While informal adoptions in the name of charity are common in Cambodia, foster-care programs—in which the state reimburses a family for caring for an unrelated child—are virtually unknown.
Chea Sophara suggested searching for volunteer foster parents, such as elderly or childless families, or retired schoolteachers. Families who volunteered to take children would be reimbursed with “rice, clothes and a bicycle.”
“I think there would be a lot of families who would want to take the children,” he said.
Authorities would find street children, give them showers and take photos of them for the volunteer families to examine, he said.
Peter Swan, technical adviser to the UN Habitat program, said the program would require help from NGOs experienced in working with street children. Many street children now see police and authorities as people to be avoided, he said.
“Any attempts to use coercive measures, well, we just see the children run away when they try that in other countries,” he said.
Prum Thary of the NGO Krousar Thmey said his organization has run informal, temporary foster care programs. He said it was essential to choose foster parents carefully.
“Some people do not care for the children, but they care for the income, that is our experience. You have to be very careful.”
In recent months police have been rounding up more and more homeless families and children—especially those found in high-tourism areas—and shipping them 40 km or 50 km out of town, said Pin Sokhom of Mith Samlanh/Friends. “The municipality sends them anywhere. They don’t care as long as it takes them from the city.”
Without any means of support in the countryside, the homeless typically return to the city within a day or two, he said.
Phnom Penh has about 1,000 street children now, according to the NGO Save the Children Norway. But that number may increase considerably in coming years as more children are orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.