ReThink the Orphanage Model & Keep Families Together

ReThink Orphanages Working Group Free To Shine is pleased to announce our new membership with the ReThink Orphanages: Better Solutions for Children Working Group. ReThink Orphanages is a cross sector network aiming to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children around the world, promote family based care alternatives, and encourage responsible tourism.The Problem Between 2005 and 2015, Cambodia saw a 60 percent rise in the number of orphanages and residential care facilities. In 2015, the ministry recorded 254 institutions housing 11,171 children. With a subsequent increase in awareness and advocacy, many assume that the number of orphanages has declined since then. However, a 2017 study from the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) found that Cambodia had 406 residential care institutions, or orphanages, housing a total of 16,579 children, a major increase since 2015.It is widely recognized that the majority of the “orphans” living in these institutions in Cambodia are not orphans at all. According to a recent study carried out by Columbia University, approximately 80 percent of adolescents living in Cambodia’s orphanages have one or more living parents. This is a global issue; worldwide, it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the eight million children living in orphanages have at least one living parent or family member that could potentially care for them.How do so many Cambodian children end up institutionalised? Disadvantaged families have come to see orphanages as a better option for their children, believing that they will be provided with more opportunities and a higher quality education. Most parents are not aware of the negative consequences of this decision.Our organisation has had several experiences working with families and communities who truly feel that their children would fare better in a residential institution than at home. On one such occasion, our team was in a new village conducting family assessments in conjunction with local law enforcement and community leaders. One mother, living in a small house with her own children and a number of other people, expressed her hardships to us. The household was attempting to survive on 11 cents per day, per person; nowhere near enough to meet their basic needs. The mother pleaded with our staff to please help her, to take her children to an orphanage so that they could have 3 meals a day and access to an education. It was the only choice she thought she had.“We don’t believe any mother should have to surrender her children because they’re living in poverty,” we told her. Instead, we presented her with an alternative. We offered to help get her children into school, to provide them with tuition, school materials and transportation. We offered vegetable seeds to grow a garden, a water filter and monthly visits from our team of Education Officers and Social Workers. We told her we wanted to help keep her family together.From such experiences we’ve come to believe that placing a child in an orphanage should be a last resort, and wherever possible a temporary resort until the child can either be reunited with family, or placed in kinship or foster care. Placing a child in an orphanage should not be the first and only solution a family knows of. We want to see families and communities supported in raising and protecting their children.Additionally, a large number of the institutions and orphanages in Cambodia are unregistered or unregulated. A 2017 study from the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs found that 38 percent of residential care facilities have never been inspected by the ministry, 12 percent are not registered by any branch of the government and 21 percent do not have a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the government. This limits monitoring and other safeguards enacted to protect children and ensure they are not neglected or exploited.


The Cambodian government is taking steps to address the issue of over-institutionalisation and to prioritize alternative care models. The Ministry has committed to reintegrate 30 percent of children from residential care and prevent any child below 3 years of age from being placed in residential care by 2018.Orphanages no longer exist in developed countries due to over 60 years of international research, which shows that institutionalisation often has serious consequences for children’s physical and psychological development.Our ExperienceAt Free To Shine, we believe most children are best supported and protected when they grow within their own families and communities. We are committed to best practice in child protection and work to keep families together, even when that requires intensive social work to make it a safe, viable option. We believe poverty should never be the reason a parent surrenders a child. Our program provides support services not only to the girls that we enrol, but to their families as well. We work with families and community leaders in order to develop case-by-case solutions to any complex challenges they face – all while prioritizing the child’s safety and right to education.We have been presented with many cases in which a residential care facility would have been the easiest, most obvious solution to a family’s difficult situation. In one such case, we were working with a girl named Sreytouch* who began to struggle in school and demonstrate withdrawn behaviour. After meeting with her mother, we learned that Sreytouch’s father was abusing alcohol and being violent toward the family, and that he’d threatened Sreytouch with sexual violence. Rather than assume that removing Sreytouch from the family would be in her best interests, we worked with her, her family and community to develop a comprehensive safety plan. We arranged a meeting with the police and the leader of the Commune Council for Women and Children in order to make a plan to protect Sreytouch and her mother. The police visited the family, advised Sreytouch’s father that they’d arrest him for any further violence and provided Sreytouch’s mother and neighbours with a 24hr emergency contact number. The police also arranged a meeting with the village leader to engage the local security team, trained to immediately respond to any threat of violence. We worked with the Commune Council for Women and Children, who agreed to visit the family weekly. We met with Sreytouch’s teacher to communicate the situation at home in order to seek additional support. Additionally, one of our social workers provided the father with extensive one-on-one counselling services. We continue to check in with the family on a regular basis, and thankfully, there have been no subsequent threats of violence. With the support of her mother, other relatives and neighbours, Sreytouch has been able to continue accessing her education and remains within her community.Another example of our community-based approach involves two sisters in our program, Sun* and Suy*, who were orphaned in 2016 after both their parents passed away. We explored whether one of their relatives could care for the girls, but unfortunately, this was deemed an unsafe option due to a history of harassment and violence. Furthermore, their house was very isolated and did not provide adequate shelter and security for the girls. Despite these challenges, the girls continued to attend school through the support of our organisation. There, they began to form a friendship with one of their teachers, who we informed about their difficult family situation. The girls felt safe with their teacher and often visited her for meals or help with studying after school. Free To Shine worked with the teacher to support the sisters, and she eventually offered to partner with us and contribute to building a new, more secure home for the girls. The teacher was able to purchase a plot of land and partially build a house near her own house which allows the girls to continue to visit, eat and do homework at her house, while still gaining independence and having a secure home to return to at night. Free To Shine helped by making improvements to the new house and property, including adding protective bars to the windows, a secure door, a tin roof and a vegetable garden. We continue to check in with the girls, who have since expressed that they feel happy and safe in their new home, with their teacher close by. Although this solution was difficult to come to, it ultimately minimized the disruption of the sisters’ education and daily life, and allowed them to remain together, close to their friends and support network.The above cases are just a few examples of times when institutionalisation might have been the simplest, quickest solution. Over the years, we’ve worked with more than 700 families living in extreme poverty across 49 rural villages in the Siem Reap province and we have only ever placed one child in residential care, as a last resort, once we had explored all available alternatives. We are committed to assessing our actions and decisions, and learning from every situation. In the end, we believe that children in less-developed countries deserve the same level of care and protection that children in so-called developed nations are granted.Orphanages & TourismOrphanage tourism occurs when tourists visit orphanages to donate money, goods or time by volunteering. Increase in demand for visiting/volunteering at these orphanages over the last decade means that some have begun operating as business enterprises, focused more on profit than the best interests of the children. In association with these trends, over half the institutions in Cambodia are now concentrated around popular tourist destinations of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.


Many of these residential institutions/orphanages regularly accept short term, unqualified visitors, donors or volunteers to teach, supervise or interact with the children. Volunteers typically stay for short periods of time, form bonds with the children and then leave. This process disrupts the child’s ability to form healthy relationships and can intensify existing feelings of abandonment. According to UNICEF research, this continuous cycle often leads to attachment disorders among institutionalised children.Nicky Mih, our Founder and Managing Director, recently received a call from a university student inviting her to speak with a group of students about Free To Shine. During their conversation, Nicky discovered the young woman was studying childcare and was eager to volunteer in Cambodia. Not sure where to begin, the young woman had visited a travel agent who presented her with the opportunity to volunteer in an orphanage, and she was considering it. “Have you volunteered in an orphanage in Australia?” Nicky asked. “Would you?” The young woman stopped to think about it, taken aback. Their conversation then turned to the unintended, harmful consequences associated with volunteering in an orphanage.At the beginning of the phone call, the young woman was hoping that a group of her fellow students could help with one of Free To Shine’s campaigns. However, through the conversation she realised that many of her fellow students, like herself, could be planning to volunteer overseas, completely unaware of the consequences of their actions. The young woman asked Nicky to present the same information to her classmates, focusing on ethical and responsible alternatives to volunteering with children.The interest in volunteering in orphanages in Australia and other “developed” nations is not uncommon. Each year, schools, universities, non-profits and travel agencies in Australia arrange for thousands of tourists to volunteer in orphanages in Cambodia and other impoverished nations. According to a recent study, over half of all Australian universities advertise volunteer opportunities at orphanages and 15 percent of high schools in Victoria and the ACT arrange and fundraise for trips to orphanages abroad.We know that most tourists and volunteers generally mean well and believe they are making a positive impact in the lives of orphaned children. However, when all the negative consequences are taken into account, it is clear that selecting to participate in orphanage tourism is irresponsible, regardless of intentions.Would you make day trips to orphanages or schools in your home country? Why not? If not, why do it elsewhere?Free To Shine’s Tourism Approach In an attempt to accommodate requests from donors and other visitors who want to learn about our work, we are developing an immersive, educational experience that asks the participants to put themselves in situations similar to those our beneficiaries face on a daily basis. This visitor experience is informational and interactive, but does not involve any direct contact with the girls/families we enrol and work to protect. This type of activity is a responsible alternative to visiting orphanages, schools or villages.What can you do to help? First and foremost, when you travel internationally, stop and think before visiting villages, schools or orphanages. Be respectful; hold the same standards you would for your own community, your own children. Would you want strangers to visit your children in their schools, to play with them unsupervised? Would you want people to take “selfies” with your children, or photos of your home without your permission? Unfortunately, we have seen this behaviour normalized among tourists in Cambodia.Second, partake in responsible tourism and be selective in the causes you support. Choose to support those committed to best practices in child protection, including organisations working to strengthen families and communities.Finally, help us spread the word. To learn more about this issue and how to get involved, visit ReThink Orphanages and the ChildSafe movement. Share what you learn with your family and friends, and help promote responsible tourist practices.