CHILDREN, ORPHANS AND ADOPTIONS IN CAMBODIA

CHILDREN IN CAMBODIA

The birth of a child is a happy event for the family. According to traditional beliefs, however, confinement and childbirth expose the family, and especially the mother and the child to harm from the spirit world. A woman who dies in childbirth--crosses the river (chhlong tonle) in Khmer is believed to become an evil spirit. In traditional Khmer society, a pregnant woman respects a number of food taboos and avoids certain situations. These traditions remain in practice in rural Cambodia, but they have become weakened in urban areas. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Traditional Khmer families were normally smaller than Chinese or Vietnamese families; the desired number of children was five. Between the ages of seven and nineteen, but most commonly between the ages of eleven and nineteen, a boy may become a temple servant and go on to serve a time as a novice monk. Having a son chosen for such a position is a great honor for the parents, and earns the individual son much merit. Formerly, and perhaps still in some rural areas, a ceremony marked the entrance of a girl into puberty. Upon the onset of menstruation, a girl would participate in a ritual called chol mlup (entering the shadow). Certain foods were taboo at this time, and she would be isolated from her family for a period of a few days to six months. After the period of seclusion, she was considered marriageable. *

Adolescent children usually play with members of the same sex. The main exception to this occurs during festivals, especially happy ones such as the New Year Festival, when boys and girls take part in group games. Young people then have the opportunity to begin looking for future mates. Virginity is highly valued in brides, and premarital sex is deplored. The girl who becomes pregnant out of wedlock brings shame to her family.

For Cambodian youths today it is difficult to find job and there is little hope for the future. Sociologists worry that this could lead to deep frustrations, violence, unrest and anarchy or at least in selfish, reckless behavior.

see Education, School

Children earn money by doing things like watching cars in parking lots and holding umbrellas for tourists for as little as 10 cents a day. Many poor children beg or look for work and don’t attend school. Drug companies have approached the Cambodian government about using Cambodian children for the testing of new drugs. The government thought seriously of approving the tests.

Child Rearing in Cambodia

Child rearing is generally very permissive in Cambodia. Young children are allowed to do what they want within reason. Learning takes place through verbal instruction and following example. Physical punishment has traditionally been rare. As they grow older children are expected to display proper behavior. Elder siblings, grandparents and other relatives assists in the raising of children.

A Cambodian child may be nursed until he or she is between two and four years of age. Up to the age of three or four, the child is given considerable physical affection and freedom. There is little corporal punishment. After reaching the age of about four, children are expected to feed and bathe themselves and to control their bowel functions. Children around five years of age also may be expected to help look after younger siblings. Children's games emphasize socialization or skill rather than winning and losing. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Most children begin school when they are seven or eight. By the time they reach this age, they are familiar with the society's norms of politeness, obedience, and respect toward their elders and toward Buddhist monks. The father at this time begins his permanent retreat into a relatively remote, authoritarian role. By age ten, a girl is expected to help her mother in basic household tasks; a boy knows how to care for the family's livestock and can do farm work under the supervision of older males. *

In precommunist days, parents exerted complete authority over their children until the children were married, and the parents continued to maintain some control well into the marriage. Punishment was meted out sparingly, but it might have involved physical contact. Age difference was strictly recognized. The proper polite vocabulary was used in the precommunist period, and special generational terms for "you" continued to be used in the late 1980s. Younger speakers had to show respect to older people, including siblings, even if their ages differed by only a few minutes. *

Angelina Jolie and the Adoption of Cambodia Children by Foreigners

Cambodia began allowing the adoption of Cambodian children to foreigners in 1989. Beginning in the late 1990s, it became a popular place for American couples to adopt children. The number of adopted Cambodian children that ended up in the United States rose from 249 in 1998 to around a 100 a month in 2001.

Many of the adopted children are obtained through orphanages such as the Asian Orphan Association that caters to American and Western couples. The couples are usually put up in nice hotels in Phnom Penh and driven around in nice cars. Many are attracted by promises that they could obtain the adopted children in less than three months compared to 12 months in China. Couples typically pay $13,000 to $20,000 for a baby. The adoption agency makes the arrangements to get the child and does all the paperwork and processing that goes along with it. Much of this money is profit that ends up the hands of the “facilitators” that arrange the adoptions.

In some cases the adoption agencies obtain the children from parents have been coerced into selling their babies for as little as $20. Some children may have even been kidnaped. The Asian Orphan Association has been linked to many such cases. The United States government is trying to crack down on the practice by refusing visas to adopted children that appear to have fraudulent documents. The documents will say, for example, a baby was abandoned in such and such and place but when that place is checked out no such baby was abandoned.

Among those who adopted a Cambodian child were the actor couple Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thorton. Jolie said they “visited an orphanage in Cambodia and met a little boy we felt a connection to and wanted to be our son.” They named the boy Maddox. According to Wikipedia: On March 10, 2002, Jolie adopted her first child, seven-month-old Maddox Chivan, from an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was born as Rath Vibol on August 5, 2001, in a local village. Jolie applied for adoption after she had visited Cambodia twice, while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and on a UNHCR field mission. The adoption process was halted in December 2001 when the U.S. government banned adoptions from Cambodia amid allegations of child trafficking. Once the adoption was finalized, she took custody of Maddox in Namibia, where she was filming Beyond Borders (2003). Although Jolie and her then-husband Billy Bob Thornton announced the adoption together, she in fact adopted Maddox as a single parent.

Adopting a Cambodian Child Under False Pretenses

Kit R. Roane wrote in U.S. News & World Report: “Adopting a child from overseas is anything but simple. Federal agents who investigated a Seattle adoption agency run by two sisters, for instance, documented evidence of visa fraud and money laundering. The agents spent more than two years tracking international money flows and searching Cambodia for witnesses and found that children were being bought from their Cambodian parents and brought to the United States with fraudulent identification documents. Some Cambodians thought they were sending their children to an orphanage school and could always pick them up. "There were huge amounts of money being made, being promised to orphanages in Cambodia, that was instead being diverted for bribes and for luxury items," says Michael Barr, the lead prosecutor. In the course of the investigation, agents found that "facilitators would line up several different groups of parents for a child," says Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which now handles immigration crimes.” [Source: Kit R. Roane, U.S. News & World Report, May 29, 2005]

E.J. Graff wrote in the Washington Post: “The orphan manufacturing chain is not limited to infants and toddlers. In 1999, Songkea was 9 or 10 years old. She lived with her brother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Her mother had recently died, but close relatives lived nearby. Songkea thrived in school and in her dance lessons and loved playing with her nephew and cousins. One day, a man approached the girl. He was a child recruiter and later told ABC's "20/20," which investigated Songkea's case in 2005, that he had been paid $300 to recruit her for adoption. [Source: E.J. Graff, Washington Post, January 9, 2009, E.J. Graff is associate director and senior researcher at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism]

"[A] man stopped me, and told me to go and ask my family if I could live in America. The man told me if they agreed, I should move to the orphanage for two weeks, and they would take me to Phnom Penh after that," Songkea wrote five years later in a victim-impact statement presented in a U.S. court. "Suddenly, they told me I would go to Phnom Penh that day and meet my new mother. I didn't say goodbye to my sister, or anyone else."

Meanwhile, Judith Mosley, who was living in Saipan with her husband and children and awaiting word about a pending adoption, got a call from Lynn Devin at Seattle International Adoptions, which Devin ran with her sister, Lauryn Galindo. Devin told Mosley to go to Phnom Penh to meet Galindo, the adoption facilitator. There, Mosley was told, she would receive her new daughter. After meeting Songkea, Mosley -- despite Galindo's protests -- insisted on going with the girl to see the Siem Reap orphanage where she had lived. But once at the orphanage, the child gave the taxi driver directions to her family's house. There Mosley learned that Songkea had a family, although she believed that they had knowingly given her up for adoption.

Just before Mosley and Songkea, now to be named Camryn, boarded the plane back to Saipan, Galindo handed Mosley the adoption paperwork. It said that Songkea had been living in the orphanage for four years and had no known family -- which Mosley by then knew to be false. She continued to believe, however, that Camryn's family had chosen to give her and that Galindo had simply mishandled the documentation.

In December 2001, following investigations by a local human rights group and the Phnom Penh Post that exposed baby-buying and abduction through Galindo's adoption operations, as well as others, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service halted adoptions from Cambodia and began its own criminal investigation. The moratorium on adoptions continues today. In 2004, Galindo pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and launder money stemming from her role in arranging the adoption of Cambodian children such as Songkea. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison and also ordered to forfeit more than $1.4 million in property in Hawaii.

Devin, who prosecutors say did not know that babies were being bought, pleaded guilty to related charges after providing information to officials about her sister's activities and was sentenced to six months of house arrest. It is not known how many of the more than 700 children whom the operation matched with new families were actually orphans. In 2004, Mosley took Camryn back to Cambodia to visit her biological family. By then a teenager, Camryn was no longer fluent in Khmer, but she says she was profoundly happy to see the family she loved. Today she is waiting for her college acceptance letters.

Cambodia’s ‘Orphan Tourism’ Sparks Concern

In July 2011, AFP reported: “Pictures of hundreds of former volunteers line the walls of a muddy courtyard in Cambodia’s tourist hub of Siem Reap, their faces once familiar to the orphans playing there but now long gone. The colourful gallery at the Acodo orphanage illustrates a growing trend of holidaymakers donating their time and skills to children in the impoverished country — but experts fear they could be doing more harm than good. [Source: AFP, July, 27 2011 ~]

“Marissa Soroudi, a student in her 20s from New York, is one of the many volunteers teaching English at Acodo, near the famed temples of Angkor and home to more than 60 orphans between the ages of three and 18. The young American, who pays $50 a week to work at the orphanage, plans to stay for a few days before travelling on but she knows it is tough on the children to watch volunteers like her come and go. “There are so many people volunteering that it’s kind of like, one leaves and another swoops in,” she said. “They say better not to talk about it with them. Don’t say ‘I’m leaving in a week’, don’t do any of that because then they get upset. Better to just not come.” ~

“Short-term volunteers may have good intentions, but childcare experts say they are putting some of the most vulnerable children at risk. “Constant change of caregivers gives emotional loss to children, constant emotional loss to already traumatised children,” Jolanda van Westering, a child protection specialist at the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) told AFP. “And the constant exposure to strangers poses risks of harm, of violence and abuse, because we know that oftentimes volunteers come to an orphanage without having their backgrounds checked.” ~

“As the gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor — which attract more than a million visitors a year — a steady stream of tourists passes through the sleepy riverside town. And many want to do more than just sightsee in one of the region’s poorest nations. On notice boards in hotels, cafes and souvenir shops, wide-eyed children stare from posters for schools and orphanages, encouraging travellers to donate time and money for their particular cause. “Visitors see some poverty and they feel bad about it,” said Ashlee Chapman, a project manager with Globalteer, an organisation that matches volunteers with local organisations. “They want to do something,” she adds, saying they might visit a children’s project for a few hours, donate money and toys, “take a holiday snap and feel that they’ve contributed.” ~

“As the so-called volunteer tourism sector flourishes, so too does the number of institutions housing children. In the past six years, the number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled to 269, housing some 12,000 children, according to Unicef. Friends International, a local organisation that works with marginalised urban children and youths, says tourism has contributed to the increase. Visiting orphanages has become a tourist “attraction” in big cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, said Marie Courcel, alternative care project manager at Friends International. That in turn encourages the institutionalisation of youngsters, many of whom are very poor but actually have at least one living parent, she said. ~

“Only one in 10 of the orphanages are funded by the state, the rest rely on charitable contributions to survive. At Siem Reap’s Acodo, huddled with the children in the shade of the only tree, Soroudi organises the afternoon activity. Following her lead, the orphans make headpieces out of grass and add licks of paint to green and yellow conical hats, costumes they will wear in that evening’s traditional Khmer dance show. The daily half-hour event attracts a tourist crowd who thank the young performers with donations of money. ~

“Van Westering said she worried about the dangers for children who are expected to raise funds for their care by begging or putting on shows for tourists. “They have to do their best and they hear that also if they don’t there isn’t enough money for their care,” said Van Westering. “You can just imagine what that does to children to live in that kind of insecure environment.” Her advice to tourists pondering a brief working stint at an orphanage is simple: “Don’t go. Give blood, support a community-based organisation that provides day activities for a child but where the children go home at night.” ~

“Betsy Brittenham, an interior designer in her 50s from Arizona, and her 15-year-old daughter Alex are spending three weeks as volunteer teachers at one such place, the Grace House Community Centre, where the children return to their families each evening. The mother and daughter team, who planned their trip months in advance, say volunteering at a reputable centre is a chance to make a difference in a country with fewer resources and opportunities than their own. Like the volunteers at Acodo, Betsy pays for the privilege of working on her holiday but she sees no downsides to the experience. “When you volunteer like this you’re bringing your money and you’re making tremendous strides and teaching their children,” she said. “It’s something you can’t put a price on.” ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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