The government on Monday promised to place Cambodia’s sprawling orphanage system under its microscope in the coming months, with all child care institutions now required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and adhere to a set of standards or risk closure.
Previously, orphanages fell under a variety of authorities, with church-run organizations managed by the Ministry of Cult and Religion and other institutions answering to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport or the Ministry of Social Affairs.
“This has caused difficulty in managing the quality of care in residential care centers,” said Touch Channy, deputy director of the planning department in the Social Affairs Ministry, during a workshop to dissem- inate a new sub-decree on the management of residential care centers, another term for orphanages.
Mr. Channy said that the sub-decree, which has been in development since 2013 and was ratified in September this year, was designed to give social affairs officials the sole authority to “organize, monitor and inspect these centers.”
According to the sub-decree, centers that do not register with the ministry before March 11 will be closed, and those that register but do not meet standards will be issued a written warning before being temporarily suspended.
The new rules say that all orphanages must “Manage and maintain a dossier of each child through a clear database system and prepare reports on a regular basis [and] Prepare family reunification plans and integrate children into their family and community.” Cases of suspected abuse at centers must be reported to authorities within 48 hours, it adds.
Centers that fail to meet the standards will be considered “clandestine,” which in theory would result in their closure, although Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth admitted that his ministry did not have the resources to care for children who may be displaced in the process.
“We don’t have enough money,” Mr. Sauth said, adding that the ministry only employed 15 social workers to handle reintegrating children into communities, though he hoped to increase that number.
Mr. Sauth also said those who were prepared to criticize the ministry’s handling of displaced youth should focus on how they could assist the transition instead of playing “ping pong and throwing blame toward each other.”
“[NGOs] can help in the community, rather than bringing children to the center,” he said.
According to a 2014 survey by Unicef, more than 11,000 children were living in 228 registered residential care facilities in Cambodia, a figure that does not account for children at hundreds of unregistered institutions. More than 75 percent of the children in residential centers are not actually orphans, according to a 2012 study by Unicef and the Social Affairs Ministry.
Asked what would happen to children who lived in facilities that did not meet the new standards, Mr. Channy said there was still no mechanism for such situations.
“In principle, we have to create a committee to facilitate that issue,” he said. “If necessary, we can send them to their father or mother…. Or, we can send them to a safe center. And if they are too poor, we will help facilitate this for them.”
Debora Comini, the country representative for Unicef in Cambodia, which has been pushing for an overhaul to the country’s orphanage system for years, said the sub-decree was a “significant milestone.”
“Family is the best place for a child to grow up,” Ms. Comini said, adding that orphanages should only be a last resort. “Residential care has a long-term negative impact on their life.”
“Every country needs a limited number of residential institutions,” she said, calling on an audience of mostly NGO workers, orphanage directors and diplomats to get on board with the message.
“We call on you to join with the ministry, Unicef and the new family care first program to make the transition from center-based care to community-based care, where the children are supported to stay with their families.”