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SISHA Orchestrates Government Closure of Abusive Orphanage: First Closure Using Due Process

Last month Cambodia took a substantial step forward in building a framework to shut down exploitative orphanages and improve its child welfare system. On November 15, 2012, SISHA continued its fight against child exploitation as it assisted government officials in closing the Children’s Umbrella Centre Organization (CUCO), an orphanage located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Mean Chey Commune. It marked the first time that the Cambodian Government has used due process of law to close an orphanage based primarily on the violation of minimum standards and child safety laws. The closure signified progress by the Government in addressing the massive problem of abusive or neglectful orphanages and residential care facilities throughout the country. The case will now be used as an example by both the police and government ministries of how to investigate and put an end to other exploitative organisations.

 SISHA’s Director of Operations, Eric Meldrum, led a team of 2 investigators, 1 lawyer and 2 aftercare counselors to CUCO and removed 30 children from the premises after an extensive 18-months long investigation and three government inspections revealed numerous instances of abuse, neglect, and improper treatment of the children. Accompanying SISHA were several officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) and the Phnom Penh Department of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSVY), as well as three police officers and the chief of the local village.

SISHA first became aware of CUCO in April 2011, when a former employee of the organisation expressed numerous concerns, namely: physical abuse of the children, unfit living conditions, insufficient food, the Director arranging illegal adoptions in exchange for money, and questionable documentation for the children. At that time, SISHA launched its investigation to collect additional information and evidence about the orphanage and its Director. Once SISHA obtained the names of several children living there, its team of investigators traveled to the provinces to locate some of the kids’ families, and the village chiefs, to inquire about the circumstances that brought the children to CUCO. Most of the families had left the area to work abroad, but SISHA was able to meet with some, who expressed that they were too poor to care for their children and thus, when approached by CUCO’s Director, had willingly allowed their children to go with him.

From August to October 2011, volunteer reports and further investigation raised serious concerns that the children were not being properly cared for by the Director. He was continuously bringing new kids to the orphanage even though there was not enough space or food, and the volunteers began buying food for all the children. One volunteer stated that she witnessed signs of a sexually transmitted disease on two of the boys (a 14-year old and a 12-year old), and another volunteer reported that CUCO was flooded by almost three feet of water, with many of the kids getting sick from various illnesses. On October 24, 2011, SISHA met with MoSVY officials to express the urgency of the situation and to hand over a report detailing SISHA’s investigation of CUCO. At this point, the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Anti Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection (AHTJP) became involved in the case and conducted a surprise inspection of CUCO with MoSVY. Additional inspections were conducted by MoSVY over the subsequent months, resulting in formal letters issued to the orphanage Director that reiterated his failure to institute MoSVY’s minimum standards. However, conditions at CUCO did not improve.

In June 2012 Al Jazeera aired a story about ‘voluntourism’ and Cambodia’s growing orphan business. The piece featured an interview with SISHA’s Chief Operating Officer, Erin LaCroix, and highlighted the problems at CUCO and the estimated 500 orphanages throughout the country, a majority of which use volunteers or tourists to generate income. Al Jazeera’s correspondent went undercover and captured video of the poor living conditions at CUCO, as well as its Director’s unrestrained willingness to allow the reporter to choose four children and remove them from the premises, without any questions asked or identification requested. An official working group formed in August 2012 to address the problems at CUCO; the group consisted of representatives from SISHA, AHTJP, DoSVY, City Hall, Mean Chey Commune, the Child Welfare Department of MoSVY, and ICC (International Cooperation Cambodia) – a partner NGO. Continued investigative efforts by the working group uncovered pornography on the orphanage Director's computer at CUCO, as well as the fact that seven children were missing from the orphanage. SISHA was able to track down the missing children, six of whom were back together with their families and one that had been placed in a different care center.

By November 2012, the impending closure of CUCO was becoming more of a reality. Several meetings took place between SISHA and MoSVY to determine the exact date that they would officially shut down CUCO and more importantly, where all the kids would then be placed. Based on recommendations from SISHA and other members of the working group, MoSVY decided that the children would be taken to ICC and Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) for temporary placement, allowing sibling groups to remain together. On November 15th, SISHA received the official go-ahead from the government, and two large vans, the SISHA operations team, and MoSVY and DoSVY officials headed to CUCO to execute the closure. Upon arrival, SISHA’s aftercare team immediately engaged the children in games and distracted them as officials took the orphanage Director to a separate area to inform him that the orphanage was being closed as a result of his incompliance with MoSVY’s minimum standards. SISHA’s lawyer assisted the government officials in executing the required legal documents. Outside, the children eagerly played with SISHA staff and when it came time to actually leave the premises, the process went as smoothly as could be expected. the orphanage Director called the children together and told them to gather their things because they were moving to a new place to live. The kids quickly ran off to grab their few belongings and obediently piled into the two vans. All children were carefully counted and their names checked. Eight children were attending school at the time, so two SISHA staff members remained behind to wait for them and later brought them to join the rest of the group. The vans, filled with children, then headed to the Phnom Penh DoSVY office so that officials could complete the necessary paperwork before placing the children in the two new shelters, ICC and PSE. At the end of the day, SISHA accompanied 19 children to PSE and placed 11 with foster families at ICC.

Now that the children have been removed from CUCO, SISHA will assist ICC and PSE with conducting formal interviews of all the children and trying to reintegrate them into their families within the next 3-6 months. It is SISHA’s hope that the CUCO case will be the catalyst for a complete overhaul of the child welfare system in Cambodia. The closure of CUCO is a groundbreaking move for Cambodia, with the potential to significantly impact the alarmingly high quantity of exploitative orphanages in the country.


by: Charlotte Huffman, Legal Consultant

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