Srey On knew the tricks of the orphanage business. She knew where the donations to Sokhasa Orphanage were coming from and learned that pictures of vulnerable children kept the money flowing in.
She was once an orphan herself.
Ms. On, 23, spent more than five years living at Sokhasa Orphanage in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, where the manager, Meng Bopha, eventually left much of the daily operations to her.
In August, having learned the ins and outs of running the place, Ms. On decided to take about a dozen children from Sokhasa’s care, post their pictures to Facebook with a call for donations and open her own orphanage.
Ms. On then filed a complaint with the Ministry of Social Affairs claiming that Sokhasa wasn’t properly feeding the children in its care, leading the government inspectors to convince the institution to close its overnight care program.
The ministry also told Ms. On that she should not be running an orphanage, so she gave up on the enterprise herself.
Caught in the middle of this battle for business were at least 12 children, victims of a broken childcare system that the Social Affairs Ministry admits it cannot control.
On paper, the government is committed to monitoring the ever-expanding number of orphanages in the country, and even to reducing the number of children in institutional care. But in practice, it lacks the power and resources to implement meaningful change, and other ministries are doing little to help their cause.
Oum Sophannara, director of the ministry’s child welfare department, is in charge of overseeing the orphanage sector. In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Sophannara said that at every turn, implementing the ministry’s policies is nearly impossible.
“It’s easy to say, but it’s not easy to do,” he said in his office in Phnom Penh. “We do not have the power.”
The number of orphanages in Cambodia rose by 75 percent from 2005 to 2010, to a total of 269, while the number of children in them rose from 6,254 to 11,945 during that period, according to statistics from the ministry.
More than 75 percent of the children in these centers are not orphans, according to Unicef, but have been institutionalized due to a combination of impoverished families using orphanages to reduce the burden of raising a child and aggressive recruiting of “orphans” by directors looking to expand their business.
Left in orphanages indefinitely, children often find themselves ostracized by society, out of touch with any relatives they may have and stunted socially, according to organizations working to improve childcare in the country.
In 2006, the Social Affairs Ministry drafted a policy to address the epidemic of orphanages in the country. The Policy on Alternative Care for Children stresses that orphanages should be a last resort and a temporary solution for vulnerable children.
Following the establishment of a minimum set of standards for orphanages in 2008, the ministry in 2011 drafted a guideline to implement its 2006 policy.
The goal, Mr. Sophannara said, was to prevent more children from being placed in orphanages, close institutions not meeting the standards and reintegrate non-orphans back into their families and communities.
But between 2010 and 2013, the number of registered orphanages has only dipped to 225, while the number of children in them has dropped by a mere 80, from 11,945 to 11,865.
Despite being in charge of monitoring orphanages, the child welfare department has virtually no authority to compel the businesses to comply with its recommendations. The department doesn’t even know how many centers operating as orphanages exist.
Mr. Sophannara said most orphanages open after registering with the Interior Ministry as an NGO, without the approval of his department, which is not required by law. Others open without notifying anyone in the government.
A lack of communication between the social affairs and interior ministries has led to hundreds of orphanages operating without his department’s knowledge, he said.
Among the department’s tasks is locating orphanages and encouraging them to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which subjects them to minimum-standards inspections.
But with only 39 inspectors, including four based in Phnom Penh that coordinate inspections, the department spends most of its time trying to keep tabs on the orphanages it already knows about.
“It’s very difficult because some orphanages will not allow [inspectors] to inspect,” Mr. Sophannara said. “They think the ministry of social affairs is not involved with their affairs.”
The child welfare department cannot force an orphanage to sign the MoU or be inspected. Of the 225 orphanages currently known to the ministry, Mr. Sophannara said at least 60 have not signed the MoU.
“We don’t have the power to make them sign the MoU,” Mr. Sophannara said. “We can provide recommendations, but if they don’t want to, what can we do? We don’t have the power to shut them down.”
Orphanages who have signed the MoU are ostensibly inspected once a year based on a lengthy list of minimum standards, including access to clean water, sufficient food and clothes, and proper sleeping and bathing facilities.
If an orphanage fails an inspection, it is given three months to fix its faults before the inspector is meant to return.
“That does not really happen,” Mr. Sophannara admitted. “We can only inspect them once a year because we don’t have enough money to inspect them more often.”
Sarah Chhin, country adviser for M’Lup Russey, an NGO that works to reintegrate children from orphanages back into their families and communities, said the minimum standards are very basic, and orphanages that fail to meet them have no place in the childcare system.
“If you cannot check off those boxes, you really shouldn’t be taking care of kids,” she said.
But in practice, if an orphanage fails inspections, the child welfare department can only recommend that it cease operations, Mr. Sophannara said, adding that there was no way for him to ensure the veracity of the reports being filed by his inspectors.
The director of an orphanage must sign off on the inspection sheet, which may result in some directors bribing inspectors for better scores, he said.
“We had some problems already, some are lying about the documents,” Mr. Sophannara said of his inspectors.
“How can I know if they are corrupt or not?” he added. “We depend on them.”
Being raised in an orphanage leaves children more likely to suffer lasting psychological damage and puts them at greater risk of being physically or sexually abused, according to the Social Affairs Ministry and the NGOs it works with.
A joint 2011 study by the ministry and Unicef found that prolonged institutionalization can lead to “clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.”
Unicef is particularly concerned that many children who enter institutions in the country remain there indefinitely.
“In most instances, children lose all contact with their family and socio-cultural background, and are encouraged to practice different religious beliefs than their own,” said Unicef spokesperson Denise Shepherd-Johnson.
Ms. Shepherd-Johnson added that volunteer-oriented orphanages, in which caretakers come and go, do not employ adequately trained staff and rarely carry out background checks on potential employees.
“This places children at additional risk of physical and sexual abuse, and makes them vulnerable to access by pedophiles,” she said.
This week, a 20-year-old Cambodian volunteer at an orphanage run by the Christian NGO Agape International Missions went on trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for allegedly raping boys under his care at a safe house in Russei Keo district.
James Sutherland, the spokesman for Friends International, an NGO that works with vulnerable children, said the ephemeral nature of relationships in orphanages takes a toll on children.
“It’s very difficult for them to function in society once they leave the institution,” he said. “They find it hard to build and maintain relationships.”
Mr. Sutherland said salaried caregivers cannot replicate the nurturing relationship a child builds with relatives or even foster parents.
And the fact that there is money to be made from donors makes the whole sector prone to capitalist inclinations, he said, and less focused on actually raising children to become healthy adults.
“It’s a business,” he said. “There’s a realization that money can be made here, so the children become products and you can’t sell your institution unless you have your product.”
Helen Sworn, the founder of Chab Dai, a coalition of 58 NGOs that work with victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking, including children from orphanages, said children institutionalized in Cambodia are often ostracized by the “collective society” surrounding them.
“In Cambodia, you’re not just an individual, but someone’s son or daughter or sister,” she said. “When children don’t grow up in their families, the stigma is huge. The impact is huge in Cambodia.”
Ms. Sworn added that children are sometimes bought from their families and put into orphanages, leaving them with an abiding sense of abandonment.
“It’s just horrific. It’s a horrific form of exploitation,” she said. “The orphanages need people to feel pity and sympathy, to put money in their pockets, and they use these kids to raise money.”
When it comes to training local communities about the alternatives to sending vulnerable children to orphanages, the child welfare department only has six dedicated employees for the whole country.
The alternative options include foster care, “kinship care” with the child’s closest living relatives, or smaller-scale group-home care, all of which foster a child’s development better than remunerated institutional care.
“They [commune officials] don’t know the other options,” Mr. Sophannara said. “When they meet children at risk, they just send them to local orphanages without asking questions.”
Although the Social Affairs Ministry launched the alternatives in 2006 and issued guidelines to implement them in 2011, a lack of resources has prevented the information from being disseminated across the country.
“Yeah, it is our job, but there are more than 1,000 communes,” Mr. Sophannara said, laughing at the seemingly insurmountable challenge. “How can we provide the training for all? The people in the local area should implement the procedure of alternative care, but how can they if they do not even know? Even though it was introduced in 2011, they don’t know how to implement.”
Over the past three years, only Phnom Penh and Kandal province have had committees trained in every commune on the alternative-care options. A handful of communes in Battambang and Siem Reap provinces have also received training.
According to the 2006 policy, when an abandoned child is found, he or she should be placed with a relative or a foster family during a five-month search for a permanent placement. If the parents are found, the child should be returned home. If there are no parents, or going home is unsafe, then domestic or international adoption should be considered.
“This policy is not as widely disseminated amongst officials as it should be due to the lack of resources in the relevant departments to do so,” said Chetra Kiev, family-alternative care project manager for Friends International.
Craig Greenfield, the founder and director of Alongsiders, an NGO that partners vulnerable children with mentors in their community, said orphanages are still seen as the go-to remedy.
“It is still seen as a widespread solution,” he said, noting many communities view orphanages as a boarding school. “Like anything with this government, it takes a while [for the alternative options] to trickle down to the grassroots.”
Mr. Greenfield noted that NGOs like Unicef are helping pick up the slack, but can’t be expected to shoulder the full burden of implementing government policy.
“It’s going to take a lot more work to get community-based solutions supported,” he said. “There’s a long way to go.”
On the rare occasion that the child welfare department does identify institutionalized children who can be reintegrated back into their families or communities, this process happens after an orphanage gets shut down.
The department does not employ a single professional social worker to visit orphanages and build relationships with children to find candidates for reintegration.
“We do not have any social workers,” Mr. Sophannara said. “There are not many in Cambodia, and those here work with NGOs or the private sector, not with the government.”
Mr. Sophannara said he would ideally like to hire 30 social workers, but first has to find them and convince his superiors to provide the budget to pay them.
“We have [a] plan, but when we ask about the budget to implement this, no one supports it,” he said.
Unicef’s Ms. Shepherd-Johnson said NGOs and international organizations, including Unicef, support the Social Affairs Ministry in its work, but added that there is “an urgent need for the government to hire more qualified social workers and to increase collaboration.”
A 2014 review of social work in Cambodia carried out by Unicef noted that “many districts do not have personnel to execute the functions described” in the government’s policies.
“There must be greater recognition by the RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] of the enormous human-resource gap that exists around professional personnel and adequately trained para-professionals to meet the social welfare needs of its country,” the report concluded.
Mr. Sophannara admitted that he relies upon NGOs to reintegrate children from orphanages, whether it’s before or after they get shut down.
But the only time the child welfare department can force an orphanage to shut down is when evidence of a crime is found, which leaves NGOs with the often impossible task of convincing sometimes hostile orphanage directors to let go of the children in their care.
“If an NGO goes in and says ‘We’re going to be looking to take out kids,’ its not going to happen,” said Ms. Sworn of Chab Dai.
Chhin, from M’Lup Russey, said the only time she can relocate children is when the ministry closes an orphanage.
“If I just walked into an orphanage and said you are doing things wrong, it’s not going to work,” she said. “It just doesn’t work like that.”
Mr. Sophannara admitted he knew for years that the Sokhasa Orphanage in Phnom Penh was not the ideal place for children to be cared for, but said there was nothing he or his department could do about it.
He says he told Meng Bopha, the manager, “over and over again to give the children back to their families…. But she didn’t listen to me at all.”
Hoping to get more power to actually implement the ministry’s policies, Mr. Sophannara has been drafting a sub-decree since early 2014, which would give his department the authority to force orphanages to sign the MoU that subjects them to inspections.
The sub-decree would also give inspectors the authority to fine orphanages that do not consent to inspections and shut down institutions not meeting the minimum standards.
“We have these documents as our power but it is not enough,” he said of the policies and guidelines passed over the past decade.
“Before, we thought it was enough, but it’s not enough,” he said. “We need more power. If we have the sub-decree, we will have the power to close orphanages that don’t follow the [minimum standards] criteria.”
Kiev of Friends International said “it is clear” there are still orphanages “operating in Cambodia with impunity” and the sub-decree is badly needed.
The sub-decree, which Mr. Sophannara hopes to see passed by year’s end, also addresses the lack of communication between the ministries of interior and social affairs.
If it passes, the Interior Ministry would be required to notify the Social Affairs Ministry when NGOs register with the stated mission of caring for children. Orphanages would then be required by law to obtain permit letters from the Social Affairs Ministry to begin operations.
“If they want to establish operations, they’ll need to get permission from the Social Affairs Ministry,” Mr. Sophannara said.
“We will have more power with the sub-decree—it is signed by the prime minister, and everyone is under the prime minister.”