A new set of standards for orphanages that the Ministry of Social Affairs plans to enforce over the coming months, combined with a global move toward community-based care, has at least one organization worried it will be forced to close down.
The implementation of the sub-decree on the management of residential care centers in Cambodia is part of a wider push—supported by Unicef and USAID’s Family Care First initiative—to move away from a system of institutionalized care and toward family- and community-based care.
Orphanages are a fixture of Cambodian society, and along with pagodas have effectively filled in the gaps created by a nonexistent foster or alternative care system. But the number of orphanages in Cambodia has ballooned over the past decade, as child care experts have come to the consensus that institutional care should be a last resort.
At a workshop to disseminate the new sub-decree on Monday, senior officials from the Social Affairs Ministry said they were prepared to review and possibly shut down orphanages that did not meet minimum standards by March 11, but admitted that there was currently no comprehensive child welfare program to facilitate the shift.
One of the organizations affected by the sub-decree is the Foursquare Church of International Promise, a U.S.-based Pentecostal ministry that has been operating as a local NGO for 17 years.
With 99 centers across Cambodia housing some 2,500 women and children, Foursquare is frantically trying to meet the new standards set by the government.
“There is no way that we can meet all standards by March and they have no place to put the kids—it is a disaster,” Foursquare Cambodia administrator Pow Naret said in an email on Tuesday.
The standards include keeping a dossier on all children living at a center, preparing children to be reunited with family members whenever possible and reporting child abuse within 48 hours. The Social Affairs Ministry also has the authority to impose health, safety and living standards in accordance with international norms.
One of Foursquare’s church centers in Kratie province made headlines in September after the husband of the director allegedly molested and attempted to rape three young girls there.
Foursquare Cambodia’s president, Sou Mountha, said in an interview last week that the organization was making improvements a “little at a time,” but added that “we are not billionaires [able] to fix everything.”
“I would like to see the government help us also, not to destroy, not to shut down,” she said. “I [am] willing to repair and fix things and try to do all those things that we need to be done.”
Ms. Mountha said many families came to Foursquare asking for help, and that she had no intention of turning them away. While some of the children in the organization’s care had mothers or fathers, she said, many parents were out of the picture.
“[If the] grandparents have no food to eat or something,” then they will bring their grandchildren to a Foursquare center, she said. “If we found the parent or relative or grandparents who want to have these children, we [would] be delighted to give [them back].”
A public campaign launched this year by international NGOs including Unicef has promoted the idea that giving money to orphanages was “creating orphans” in Cambodia. However, Dah Lee, a public relations consultant for Foursquare, said he believed this message was misleading.
“There’s this whole philosophical movement away from orphanages,” Mr. Lee said. “[Foursquare Cambodia’s] practical experience is that they are genuinely helping lots and lots of kids that need help, who would otherwise have no benefit of education whatsoever.”
Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International, an NGO that practices and promotes community-based care, said well-intentioned orphanages should see the new sub-decree as an opportunity to improve.
“We’ve been working on that issue for many years now…on saying that orphanages are not the right approach in 21st-century Cambodia, so we had already a lot of negative backlash from orphanages,” Mr. Marot said.
“Orphanages were an emergency response in times of crisis,” he said. “In Cambodia 2015, there are no such emergencies that justify [them].”
“We need to change mentalities of people, especially local authorities. They see a problem and think, ‘Oh, the orphanage can take care of that,’” he added.
But not all NGOs operating orphanages are worried about the government’s new standards.
Geraldine Cox, president of the Sunrise Children’s Villages, said she had found nothing in the sub-decree that she would be unable to comply with.
“There might be orphanages that can’t meet the minimum requirements and if they can’t, they shouldn’t be running,” Ms. Cox said, adding that whenever possible, she supported the reintegration of children into their families.
“We’re doing that now; children are being reintegrated to families when it’s safe to go back,” she said.