Diversion: a juvenile justice success story

How years of advocacy and inter-ministerial collaboration kept 4 girls out of detention and in the care of their families.

Jesse Lee Gray
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Todd Brown
UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Todd Brown
21 October 2021

Kampong Cham is the first Cambodian province to issue a diversion order.  Diversion refers to directing the path of an accused child away from formal court procedures and towards a more constructive and positive solution. “Above all, diversion offers the opportunity for children to correct themselves, stay integrated with their communities, and receive the guidance of social agents”, said Deputy Prosecutor, Toch Oudom, who issued this first order.

Our story starts in Kampong Cham with four older adolescent girls on a mountain, out to enjoy the day and take in the scenery. Sreynoth* had already been to the top of the mountain and stopped halfway down to take a selfie. As she posed, she made a rude hand gesture, as adolescents sometimes do, just as Vattey* and Vannary* were coming down the mountain. Vattey was offended, thinking the gesture was directed at her.

When Vattey later saw the photo on Tiktok, an online fight ensued and escalated into an in-person meet-up, which quickly turned violent. Community members heard the disturbance and called the police. The girls were separated and detained at the police station, where their case came quickly to Deputy Prosecutor Toch.

Upon review of their case, he found that they had indeed broken the law by inciting violence. He also recognized the importance of rehabilitation and avoiding the social stigma that detention can bring to young people and their families.  Being familiar with the Juvenile Justice law, he called the province’s two social agents, Mr. Soung Kha and Ms. Long Thary, to witness his interview of the girls and provide support.

This seemingly simple process to keep children out of prison has a lot of moving parts.  Social agents, prosecutors, and police officers must all understand their role and cooperate for juvenile justice to be rightfully served. Up until 2019, low awareness of the law and how to apply it saw growing numbers of children interrogated and detained like adults. In 2019 alone, there were nearly 2000 children in detention in Cambodia.

This high number rang alarm bells and crystallized years of careful advocacy when the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSVY) appointed two social agents to each of the 25 provinces and a sustained focus on training finally took root. Support from the Government of Japan, the UNICEF Australian National Committee, and diverse stakeholders allowed Deputy Prosecutor Toch and both social agents to learn about Juvenile Justice and serve their role when called to do so. Most importantly, strong and sustained collaboration across the MoSVY, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Ministry of Interior (MoI) made this year’s noteworthy advancement possible.

“This successful diversion is a result of many years of hard work”, said Lucia Soleti, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection. “UNICEF Cambodia has advocated for the rights of children to treatment that promotes dignity and self-worth, aims at integration in society and is supported by a strong social workforce. Further, ongoing training has been provided to prosecutors and social agents on the Juvenile Justice law, the specifics of diversion orders, and accurate reporting in the Primero digital case management system. These trainings fit into an overall effort to build coordinated, cross-country child protection. As a next step, UNICEF is working with MOI to provide structured training to the police force at a national and sub-national level.”

The two girls were released into the care of their families on the conditions that they: show up monthly at the police precinct, continue their studies or vocational training, avoid offensive online criticism at all costs, and keep every appointment with the social agents. Each girl and her family met with the social agents every two to three weeks over three months.  “The advice and support I received were incredibly helpful, particularly the encouragement to stay in school,” confessed Sreynoth.

The time social agents spent engaging with the parents and caregivers proved to be as impactful as the support provided directly to the girls. Previously preoccupied with his bustling restaurant business, Vattey’s father promised to be more present in his daughter’s life and check in with her regularly.  Sreynoth’s mother said, “I would like to thank UNICEF and MOSVY’s social agents, for providing counseling to my daughter and reinforcing my advice to stay in school and complete her studies.”

At the end of the monitoring period, Deputy Prosecutor Toch was satisfied with the progress made by the girls and the support built around them by their families. Upon choosing to file the case without proceeding, he said “I’m happy to provide this opportunity for children to stay with their families and integrated in their communities. This case can be an example for others to consider when applying the law in the future.” Deputy Prosecutor Toch thanked UNICEF for playing an important role in bringing this law to life, adding, “I believe that with UNICEF's technical assistance, the existing support of the MoJ and the Royal Government of Cambodia, and the commitment of the provincial courts, we can work hand-in-hand to serve the best interest of children.”

Social Agent Soung, grateful for the support received so far, tacked on a request “We could be more effective if trained on techniques to support peaceful conflict resolution, in-person or online.” For Mr. Soung psycho-social support is even more important now as he sees firsthand the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and a rise in interpersonal conflicts. “During COVID-19, children are home more and have time to obsess about social media. This causes problems. Especially when parents go to work, and kids are left alone. We’ve definitely seen more trouble,” he added. Mr. Soung’s observations reveal that online protection issues can cause real-world harm quite quickly and that this case is far from isolated.

At the time of writing, a second diversion order had just been issued, in the same district. Slowly but surely, a sustainable juvenile justice system is being built, and more and more children are being protected. While not yet consistently put into practice, Kampong Cham has shown that with the right training and cross-sectorial collaboration, the juvenile justice law can be implemented.

The four girls now consider themselves friends. They have become acutely aware of the impact their actions can have on their futures and their families’ position in the community, have expressed remorse and a commitment to think before acting in the future.

* names have been changed to respect the privacy of the people involved