Authorities on Monday disputed reports by anti-trafficking NGO Sisha that Friday’s closure of a Christian-funded orphanage in Phnom Penh was the result of a police raid and instead said the closure was in response to a plea for help from the 71-year-old Australian owner of the orphanage.
In a statement Friday, Sisha said the Love in Action (LIA) orphanage was shuttered as an “emergency response to groups of children who had fled from the organization over the past 3 weeks.”
It also said children in the center had reported beatings, poor living conditions and “signs of human trafficking” to its staff.
But Lao Lin, Juvenile Protection Bureau chief at the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, said authorities had received no such complaints.
“We did not go to that orphanage to raid it,” he said.
“We just went there to receive the children from the director of the center after she [Ruth Golder] requested that the Phnom Penh social affairs department help the children, because she no longer had the ability to feed the children.”
Mr. Lin also said that he had not received details of the children’s complaints, though he believed that some of the children had become angry at Ms. Golder as she was no longer able to feed them. He added that he did not think Ms. Golder should be arrested because “she was educating them like a parent.”
You Sopheak, bureau chief of Phnom Penh’s social affairs department, confirmed that authorities had cooperated with Sisha, but agreed with Mr. Lin’s version of events.
“We did not go to close the center, we just went to collect the children because the center’s director said she could not feed them.”
Attempts to reach Love In Action in Queensland, Australia, went unanswered.
Despite claims by police that Ms. Golder had requested help from authorities, Fairfax media released a video of her on Friday in which she appeared visibly upset and shocked that 21 children from her orphanage had been taken away by authorities.
“I love them with all my heart,” she said, crying. “I’ll fight the charges with all my soul and all my might and I know that God will fight with me,” she added.
Although Sisha said the orphanage’s owner was being investigated for human trafficking, child abuse, neglect and running an unregistered orphanage, Ms. Golder has not been arrested and, according to Mr. Lin, the Juvenile Protection Bureau chief, is still living in a house nearby the orphanage.
Still, a spokeswoman for Sisha on Monday said seven children who escaped from the center remain unaccounted for after the closure.
“The founder claims they [the seven children] were sent back to their families in the provinces, but their whereabouts remains unknown,” said Gratianne Quade, communications officer for Sisha.
“The facts remain, over the course of three weeks, 12 children escaped or were kicked out of LIA…and reported beatings and insufficient food. This prompted investigation and action.”
Mr. Sopheak, the bureau chief at the municipal social affairs department, said that the investigation was the responsibility of anti-human trafficking police, while Mr. Lin said an investigation was ongoing.