Friday, October 30, 2015

# 161 Aziza's Place. An alternative to institutional living of the kind practiced by 'orphanages' in Cambodia

Reintegrating with Care: A Phnom Penh Partner Puts Families First

On a scorching day in May 2015 in Phnom Penh, 6-year-old girls spar with an intensity that I can hardly imagine mustering. Their karate instructor misses nothing. As he straightens a uniform, corrects a stance, leans down to look into a child’s eyes to ensure concentration, I can feel the girls’ confidence rising to the challenge. Older students lounge on a bench, waiting their turn and chatting with me in careful English. The karate lessons—along with lessons in art, dance, and music—are available to these children through Aziza’s Place, a grassroots partner of The Global Fund for Children.
Aziza’s Place serves children from the Stung Meanchey dumpsite and city slums around Phnom Penh, providing a safe environment, access to mainstream schooling and supplemental educational activities, programs on healthy lifestyles, community involvement, visual arts, and sports. Its holistic approach to care is exemplary: two nurses make weekly visits to monitor the health of the children; psychology graduate students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh conduct psychosocial counseling sessions at Aziza’s Place every two weeks; and staff are always finding creative ways to enrich the lives of students.
Aziza’s Place is in the midst of a groundbreaking transition: the organization is closing its residential dormitory and slowly working to reintegrate all of the children living there into their families. While the karate instructor and other educational program staff will continue to play a role in the lives of these children through daytime activities, the primary responsibility for their upbringing will soon be in the hands of their parents and other family members.
A mural painted by children of Aziza’s Place, located in the organization’s courtyard.
This decision is grounded in decades of research showing that communities are strengthened and the interests of children are best served when children live with family members or even in independent living situations rather than in shelters or other institutions. This move to support the family as a unit instead of just the child is expected to result in recognition for Aziza’s Place in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia.
Cognizant of the magnitude of this transition, Aziza’s Place staff are working with a deinstitutionalization consultant and participating in social-work trainings focused on maximizing the safety and effectiveness of programs offered at the organization’s community-based center. Rather than attempting to meet an artificial deadline, Aziza’s Place is undertaking this process with the same thorough, individualized approach that it applies to every aspect of its programming. This move to support the family as a unit instead of just the child is expected to result in recognition for Aziza’s Place in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia.
Socheat (far left), with karate students and Aimee (far right), director of development.
According to Socheat Soy, the program director of Aziza’s Place:
“It has always been expected that an education would prepare a child for their future; however, we must recognize that they need more than that. Whilst AP [Aziza’s Place] can provide support in some areas like education and health, we cannot replace the children’s real family. We have seen that this affects the children’s mental health and development, and therefore their behavior. Family relationships play a crucial role in their development, and understanding ‘real life’ in real communities is the best way to prepare them for their future.
As our children become young adults, we want them to become less dependent on us as an NGO; however, young adults coming out of residential centers like ours are actually struggling to become independent and integrate into wider society. This is when they are most vulnerable—when they move out of a familiar environment where everything was available for them and into the community, where tough life challenges lie ahead. They can’t cope with so much change and want to give up when things become difficult.”
The decision to move children from facilities to family-based care has received much attention in Europe from researchers and respected organizations like Lumos Foundation, which has served as a resource for Global Fund for Children partners in Europe and Asia. According to Lumos, “Despite most having families who love them, 8 million children worldwide live in institutions because they are poor, disabled or from an ethnic minority.” In Cambodia, most shelters and care centers are privately run, with the state providing very little in the way of services and support during the critical period when children “age out” of residential care.
Many well-meaning donors, and even the heads of care-providing organizations, assume that children who live in shelters are victims of abuse, have been abandoned by their families, and are orphans. In fact, of those 8 million institutionalized children globally, 80% are not orphans, and 77% of children living in residential care in Cambodia have at least one close living relative. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that most children living in residential care in Cambodia have not been abused. According to the deinstitutionalization consultant who is advising Aziza’s Place, the barriers that children face are often less sensational and in most cases are related to poverty. Many families are forced to make the difficult decision to place their children in residential care simply for better access to education, as such basic support services are rarely offered without charge to children living with their families.
The 2003 Stockholm Declaration on Children and Residential Care, which was agreed on by 600 individuals from governments, civil society, and the research community from 71 countries, states that “there is indisputable evidence that institutional care has negative consequences for both individual children and for society at large.” The document echoes tenets of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (specifically Article 20), which states that children should not be deprived of their family; that institutions should be a last resort after all other options are exhausted; and that poverty is not a reason to deprive children of their family.
Unfortunately, while traveling for The Global Fund for Children in Cambodia, I observed an NGO sector that is almost entirely dependent upon maintaining residential care facilities. Reliant upon individual donations, these shelters are often set up in tourist areas visible to foreigners. In stark contrast to Aziza’s Place’s personalized approach to care, there is little attention paid to monitoring and tracking the residents, whose numbers fluctuate daily. Additionally, many of these shelters offer families money or rice to send their children. This creates an expectation of dependence—something that Aziza’s Place has had to battle when approaching families who are conditioned to expect compensation. I also heard countless stories of NGOs struggling with the expectations of donors who seek to be the decision makers in the lives of the children. Setting clear boundaries means reducing the number of visitors and sponsorships, often an unpopular move in the eyes of management, though some staff may advocate for such limits.
Many stakeholders, including board members and donors, are hesitant to support reintegration processes because of misconceptions about what they entail. Reintegration is often perceived as something done to a child overnight rather than as a multi-stage process during which social workers and other qualified professionals assess and address the comprehensive needs of the child, and his or her family and community, with genuine consideration of the child’s right to participation in decisions. These misunderstandings are reinforced by international child protection organizations that push grassroots organizations to meet unrealistic deadlines to complete reintegration processes, and that provide little or no funding for the monitoring aspect of reintegration programs. Long-term monitoring is crucial to understanding how children and families adapt to their new living situation and to ensuring that children are safely settled into their new placements long after the initial move.
Aziza’s Place, for one, is doing much more than moving children back to their families. Families are included in decisions concerning their children; children are consulted; and Socheat spends much of his time conducting home visits, teaching classes, and helping adults become more responsible caregivers. As Socheat describes:
“In the past year, I have been spending a lot of time with the families that we have reintegrated. We have been helping them to understand better that they are the ones responsible for their children and they are important for their children’s development. The first few months were difficult, as both the families and the children needed to adjust to living as one family unit. Families would realize that their children could not do basic tasks around the house like cooking rice or did not know to bring in the washing when it’s raining outside. This would cause arguments, and we had to work with the families through these turbulent periods.
After a year, the families tell me that they realize the intimate attachment between themselves and their children is very effective for their behavior and dynamics within the household. It’s clear that a family’s bond with their children needs to remain strong throughout their lives and that NGO caregivers cannot replace family members. We have six new joiners to our program this year, and they were not given the option to stay at AP, and this is how we will continue.”
This forward-thinking transformation situates Aziza’s Place among our most innovative partners in the region. Aziza’s Place has also begun a social business initiative, Aziza’s Coffee, that employs women from the dumpsite community. Aziza’s Coffee owns Cambodia’s first solar-powered tuktuk (motorized rickshaw) and encourages recycling by accepting bottles and cans as currency. The initiative is currently looking at expanding in Phnom Penh and possibly other provinces. At The Global Fund for Children’s 2015 Southeast Asia Knowledge Exchange, a regional convening of grassroots partners, Aziza’s Place presented its child protection policy to the group, and several other partners sought the organization out as a resource for strengthening their own policies.
I hear time and again that our partners most appreciate the flexibility that we provide with our grants, which are unrestricted and can be used for whatever the organization determines will best serve the children. Though reintegration has been widely acknowledged as a best practice for 20 years, there is little funding for groups to undertake the process. The Global Fund for Children is proud to support this effort, and I hope that Aziza’s Place will continue to set an example for other organizations that provide residential care. I am confident that those 6-year-olds in the karate class will be happier and healthier coming to Aziza’s Place during the day and spending most of their time with their families and communities.
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  1. This is good work, but we all know that taking children from their families is not the right way to deal with impoverished children! Someone said Neeson took over 700 children from their families. If that is true how will he ever compensate the children and the families for the developmental, emotional and social harm that he has brought them by taking them into institutional care. I think it is a debt that he will never be able to repay. What a lame brain plan!

    1. A sign that this could be the beginning of the end for organizations that take children from their families. I suspect Neeson and his Board are busy determining how this was always his plan and how he invented it! What a joke he is!

  2. This will really piss Neeson and Team Neeson and the Neeson Trolls off!

    How dare anyone suggest that the best place for kids is with their families when there is so much money to be made taking them from their families and presenting yourself as a hero from rescuing them.

    When will the penny drop. Scott Neeson is a fraud who has stumbled upon a grat scam when his career in Hollywood tanked because he pissed off everyone he worked with.

    1. Don't worry, the Neeson trolls won't be understand it or will say it is wrong. Remember most of them are on the NGO dole!

  3. Neeson and CCF are on the wrong side of history. The days of warehousing children and using them as pawns in an 'orphanage' marketing scam are over. It may take a while for this to sink in, in Cambodia, but it will. I hope, when it does, that a lawyer will start a class action suit against Neeson and others in the 'child rescue' business. Just as there are now lots of senior members of the Catholic church, worldwide, being held accountable for the sexual abuse of children in the church's care. so too will the day come when NGOs are held accountable for their illegal and unconscionable removal and detention of children.

    1. James, I so hope you are right about a class action suit. I read somewhere that Neeson has taken over 700 children from their families. Since APLE set the stage of $30,000 compensation for a girl that they knew wasn't raped, I think that would be a good start to compensate these children for the emotional, psychological and social harm that Neeson has done with his institutional care. Matter of fact, it should not be just for the children he has taken, but also for each member of the family that the children were taken from.

    2. Get off the marijuana Ricketson - I dont like the NGO's but your comments continuously remind people that you are so full of shit!

    3. Wow, a breakthrough for Cambodian children to be raised with their families and all you can offer is a weak attempt to denigrate Ricketson? It is a site that you are not required to read. Something very, shall we say unusual about you Anonymous 12:34.

  4. Alan Lemon, is Scott Neeson telling you not to respond or comment on this? Please ask him again, we are excited to hear from you.

  5. Dear Anonymous 12.34

    What don't you like about NGOs? Is that all NGOs or just some?

    If you are one of those 'continually reminded' that I am full of shit, why do you keep coming back to be reminded again?