When traveling through a developing country it is easy to become overwhelmed by the situation of children. Poverty and social issues are very visible and often travelers are moved to take action and want to contribute in a meaningful way. It is important that the international community does take action, however contributions can unfortunately often add to existing problems or create an environment where children are kept in vulnerable and dangerous situations.
This document seeks to assist travelers and volunteers in finding a way to contribute, yet avoid situations or actions that may lead to child exploitation. Certain 'tourist attractions' such as orphanage tours exploit children's vulnerabilities.
Before visiting or volunteering in an orphanage consider the following questions:
(Please click on the questions to see the answers)
How do I harm children by visiting an orphanage?
In my own country would I consider visiting a shelter for children during the course of my day?
Is my contribution sustainable?
Investing in the future of Cambodian children is a valuable contribution. Investing in Cambodian families is also a valuable pursuit. Projects that aim towards strengthening community-based work provides the conditions under which alternative options may be offered to children and their families. A sustainable contribution should be aimed at breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and exploitation.
Orphanages do not offer a long-term sustainable response to the situation of vulnerable children. By investing in families and communities we are laying the foundation for better conditions for children.
Orphanages should be a last resort option for children in need. If children are to be placed temporarily in an orphanage, how can it ensure that it works in the best interest of the child? Here is a set of questions to help you evaluate the intentions of orphanages:
(Please click on the questions to see the answers)
Is the orphanage legally registered with the government?
Orphanages should disclose if they are registered with their national authority. This is an important process as all registered orphanages are bound to uphold the national minimum standards of care for children in their facility. They are also subject to a process of inspection by the government authority to monitor the standards.
Does the orphanage have a child protection policy?
A lot of orphanages do not have child protection policies in place to ensure the safety and well-being of children in their care. Without a child protection policy, abuses of children may go undetected. It is important that orphanages can demonstrate that they have made attempts to safeguard children from dangers and vulnerabilities. In addition to this it is also important that children are aware of their own rights in the orphanage.
Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision?
Allowing visitors to have direct contact with children can place children at risk especially when visitors are unsupervised. Good organizations have policies in place to protect children and should not allow visitors to just drop in and have access to children. Visitors to an orphanage should never be left alone with children or allowed to take the children away from the orphanage unattended. Allowing visitors to the center may result in a pattern of grooming whereby children begin to trust all visitors to the centre, this makes children vulnerable to abuse from visitors with ill intentions.
Background checks should be conducted for all staff and volunteers interacting with children. Orphanages who allow people to walk in off the street with no background checks and interact with children are not protecting the children in their facility.
Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage?
Children residing in orphanages should in no way be used to promote or secure funds for the orphanage. Children should never be used as a promotional tool, be required to dance, sing, to make or sell products as a way of increasing revenue for the orphanage. This is child exploitation, child labor and violates children's rights and personal safety. By forcing children to engage in revenue rising they are being groomed to participate in the methods used for begging and street work that renders children even more vulnerable to exploitation.
Is there long-term, trained and well-supervised staff?
Children who are living in outside the family unit often have complex needs and require specialist staff to accommodate these needs. Continuity of staff is important for children to attach and bond with a single caregiver. Where possible a constant caregiver should be appointed to attend to the child's daily needs promoting consistency and secure attachments to caregivers. Supervision of staff assures that they are upholding the rights of the child and that any difficulties they encounter are met and addressed. Orphanages that rely on foreign volunteers and staff undermine children's needs for developing long term and meaningful relationships.
Are sibling groups kept together?
It is important that children are not separated from their siblings. Children should have the opportunity to live and stay in small family environments where they have the chance to bond with caregivers and their siblings. Consistency of care is important to children in creating long and lasting relationships. Remaining with siblings also allows children to stay connected to their cultural and family roots whilst they are separated from their families.
Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program?
Are orphanages actively involved in maintaining relationships with living family members so that children can rejoin their family and community? Orphanages should be encouraging community alternatives such as kinship care and foster care above institutionalized care. Orphanages should be able to demonstrate how they are actively exploring family and community care options for children residing in their orphanage. In Cambodia, the government released Minimum Standards of Care as part of its alternative care policy that explicitly states that all orphanages must actively seek family and community alternatives for children living in institutionalized care.
Is the orphanage located in the same community that the child previously lived in?
Displacement of children from their community of origin reduces the chances of the child being reintegrated into his or her community. It also causes disruption of daily routines such as continuity of education, culture and social life and ties. It is important for children to remain connected with their families and community for healthy mental and social development.
Is the orphanage set up to replicate family living or small groups?
It is important for a child's development and life after living in institutionalized care to be provided with the opportunity to learn the life skills that come from residing in a small family environment. A small family environment models essential life skills such as cooking, cleaning, how to interact with adults, managing a budget etc. These skills are essential for young adults in learning to live independently from their families. Some children living in orphanages who lack this stimulation become institutionalized and are unable to be an active participant in life outside the orphanage. Living in a small family environment gives children an opportunity to create meaningful relationships with adults and strong bonds with other children.
Does the orphanage respect and accommodate children's background and religious beliefs?
Each child has the right to practice his or her own religious and cultural beliefs. In no way should a child be persuaded or unduly pressured to practice a religion other then his or her own in line with cultural beliefs. Real and meaningful steps should be taken to ensure that a child can practice his/her own religion and cultural beliefs. This may include, but is not limited to, access to religious sites, interaction with religious and cultural leaders, and a specialized or modified diet.