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What is UNICEF’s position on orphanages, group homes, or residential care for children, and on adoption of children for whom family- or extended family-based care is not an option?

Orphanage and adoption
© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Luis Barreto
Institutions are not - ever - a better environment for children than a loving family.

Institutions are not - ever - a better environment for children than a loving family.  The more we learn about the brain and how it is negatively affected by the environment in which children grow, the stronger the evidence that children should not be placed in institutions – and children under 3 in particular, should never be placed in an institution. There is increasing evidence that not only does the brain fail to develop fully in children in institutions – but parts of the brain actually die - and this is not reversible.

While the overall number of orphans aged 0-14 in Cambodia decreased over the few past years, there has been a steady increase in the number of residential institutions. 

Despite government efforts to close some of the institutions that do not meet the Minimum Standards of Alternative Care or have incidents of child abuse, in 2013 the number of residential care facilities continued to grow with a total of 11, 865 child residents*. 

The number of State-run orphanages has remained steady at 23 but the number of registered NGO-run orphanages now stands at closer to 225 (compared to 154 in 2005). These are almost exclusively overseas-funded and many are faith-based.

In 2009 only 23 per cent of children in orphanages in Cambodia had no parents. Most children had at least one living parent, many more had living grandparents.  The main reason why families put their children in orphanages is cited as poverty and limited social protection and safety net programmes.  Primary school education fees account for as much as 26.5 per cent of non-food spending among the poorest households. According to local government, the main reason children are sent to orphanages is to get an education, which parents may not be able to pay for themselves.

Our challenge is to convince those funding and running the institutions to adapt their approach to become community support centres – that can operate as schools and feed the children, but also encourage and support the children to return home, to live with their families, connected to their communities. 

For those residential facilities that we know were created as money making ventures, where tourists are lured and children lack care and protection, we make no apology for demanding that they be closed.

Summary: UNICEF advocates strongly with relevant ministries and local authorities that no more residential institutions for children be permitted to open in Cambodia.  All existing institutions must be open to regular inspection according to the minimum standards. Failure to meet the standards must result in closure of the institutions in question.  No child aged 3 years or under should ever be placed in an institution. The goal is to encourage as many institutions as possible to promote family/community-based support models, which are cheaper, more effective and less damaging to children than institutions.  A further goal is to undertake effective case management of all children in institutions to understand well their family status and to facilitate their reunification with their families or communities wherever possible. For those children for whom family is not a safe and loving option, to facilitate alternate community care; local adoption and inter-country adoption.

A note on Volunteers:
UNICEF Cambodia urges volunteers wishing to make a personal contribution in Cambodia to avoid working in institutions or residential care facilities for children. Vulnerable children in institutions face further emotional stress when they bond with consecutive volunteers who subsequently leave them. The lack of background checks on volunteers not only increases the risk of abuse but the teaching of foreign languages by volunteers actually encourages parents to send their children to institutions. These are among the reasons why UNICEF Cambodia does not support volunteering in orphanages.  Instead, volunteers are strongly encouraged to work only with organisations that have shifted their focus to community-based support and not institutional care. Volunteers can also play an important role in work that is not related to caring for children directly provided that they have the necessary skills, for example, by helping to improve NGO administrative systems, training care-staff or fund-raising.

What is UNICEF Cambodia’s position on inter-country adoption?

UNICEF Cambodia strongly advocates that institutional care should be a temporary solution and absolutely the last resort for the care and protection of children.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guides UNICEF’s work, clearly states that every child has the right to grow up in a family environment, to know and be cared for by her or his own family, whenever possible.  Recognizing this, and the value and importance of families in children’s lives, families needing assistance to care for their children have a right to receive it. A comprehensive social protection system is needed in Cambodia. 

When, despite or in the absence of this assistance, a child’s family is unavailable, unable or unwilling to care for her/him, then appropriate and stable family-based permanent placement solutions should be sought to enable the child to grow up in a loving, caring and supportive environment. Adoption is one such option.

A word of caution. In Cambodia, where the majority of children are not orphans, and where the majority of parents fully expect their children to return from institutions to the family,  it is crucial to have checks and balances in place that establish clearly the family options for each child with a focus on the best interests of the child as the primary consideration.

Over the past 50 years, growing international efforts have been directed to ensure that adoptions are carried out in a transparent, non-exploitative, legal manner to the benefit of the children and families concerned. In numerous, well documented cases, however, adoptions have not been carried out in ways that served the best interest of the children - when the requirements and procedures in place were insufficient to prevent unethical practices, such as the sale and abduction of children, coercion or manipulation of birth parents, falsification of documents and bribery. Sadly, there is a growing body of evidence that such practices continue today in Cambodia. This is why checks and balances are crucial.  The challenge is to ensure that the steps are followed according to policies, regulations, procedures and existing law; that money does not buy children or allow some to by-pass the system; that the status of a child as eligible for adoption is clearly established through proper case management; that best interests of the child is the primary consideration – not best interest of any other party to the adoption; and that these steps are completed in an efficient manner – so that the child is placed as quickly and correctly according to the law.
Inter-country adoption is among the range of stable care options for individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin. 

UNICEF supports inter-country adoption when pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoptions – already ratified by more than 80 countries. This Convention is an important development for children, birth families and prospective foreign adopters. It sets out obligations for the authorities of countries from which children leave for adoption, and those that are receiving these children. The Convention is designed to ensure ethical and transparent processes. The Hague Convention essentially turns the ‘principle’ of subsidiarity into a rule, recognizing that inter-country adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of Origin.

Cambodians have a tradition of caring for their own.  At this time, attention to getting children out of orphanages and back into their families and communities is underway with clear case management to establish the child’s status as an orphan or otherwise; options for family or community care as a first step. Special and ongoing attention needs to be given to the provision of follow-up and family-support to ensure that reintegration is sustained and in the ongoing best interests of the child.  
Efforts to build local adoption are underway with Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, and there is already a waiting list of Cambodian parents who would like to adopt. As in any country in the world and as required by the subsidiarity principle - this should be the first priority. As with inter-country adoptions – checks and balances are required by the law in Cambodia – and at the heart of making a decision regarding what is in the child’s best interests – case management must be undertaken properly.

Where no domestic family-based care options are available, inter-country adoption should be an efficient and effective recourse. UNICEF is devoting considerable attention to closing poor performing institutions; to improving the understanding of domestic adoption legislation; to increasing the number and improving the capacity of social workers who will focus exclusively on case management of children in institutions; to supporting and working with a range of non-government organisations dedicated to finding family/community based care for children; and to working with the Hague Permanent Bureau on training and enhancing adoption procedures in Cambodia. These actions are a part of our efforts to ensure that the systems are in place and operating effectively in order to ensure that required international and national standards and safeguards are followed. These checks and balances should ensure that domestic options have indeed been exhausted and that an inter-country adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved; to assess the proposed adopting parents and guarantee that they have no record of abuse or exploitation of children; to be certain that they can care for the child; and to make sure that they will respect the child's right to know and preserve their culture.

These provisions are meant first and foremost to protect children, but also have the positive effect of safeguarding the rights of their birth parents and providing assurance to prospective adoptive parents that their child has not been the subject of illegal practices. In accordance with international standards, the Cambodian law clearly prioritizes a consideration of what is in ‘the best interests of the child’ and not what is in the best interest of adopting local parents or overseas nationals.


* Source: Alternative Care Inspection Office, Child Welfare Department MoSVY 2013



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