Friday, April 15, 2011

Youth Leaving Orphanage Care: The Severed Family Connection

During our interviews, we asked 27 youth the question, “What can you tell me about your experiences after you left the orphanage?”
In response to this question alone, 8 young people reported returning to family’s homes after their exit from care. Six out of these eight young people stated they felt out of place in their family’s homes, or like their relatives “had their own family” to care for.
In their words:  
·         “…[I] wake up early in the morning, no time to sleep at night. If don’t do the work [my family] tells me to do, I regret it…I need to run away from this house.”
·         “They had their own family and didn’t treat me like their child.”
·         “Sometimes I can’t leave [the house], because for transportation I can only go with my auntie’s children when they let me and they feel resentful.”
·         “I did not belong there in [my family’s] place.”
10 other youth reported contacting their families when they left, but being unable to return home to them or receive support.
·          “They can’t help because they have their own family.”
·         “[My family] live in Svey Rieng. I visited them once, but will not visit again.”

Still others reported an entirely severed connection:

·         “I know where my family is in Takeo. When I was little they used to visit me in the orphanage. Now they don’t visit.”
·         “My family lives in Svey Rieng, but I have never been back.”
·         “I have no contact with my family.”

A recent study showed merely 28% of youth in Cambodian orphanage care are parentless[1]. In 2003, a study showed that families place their children in orphanage care primarily for the educational benefits, but families complained that they were either not permitted to visit their children once they were in care, or that the orphanage was so far from their homes they could not afford to visit[2]. In this same study, children in orphanage care frequently reported missing their families.

The damage to – or, in many cases, severance of – family ties has grim implications for youth when they leave orphanage care. Indeed, in nearly every culture, some dependence on family during adolescence and young adulthood (and beyond) is expected and often encouraged. This is particularly true in Cambodia, where family is generally upheld as a person’s primary responsibility and source of social support. A recent ethnographic study in Cambodia showed that a person’s family networks “help each other in whatever way they can, providing food, labour exchanges, moral support and, when possible, financial assistance…”[3].

As said by one of the youth interviewed: “Even if you have a good education, you can’t get a job without a network.”

According to a study conducted by our Phnom Penh partner, Project Sky, two-thirds of the more than 300 youth interviewed (who were still living in an orphanage) have some contact with relatives. Nearly half of these youth wish to live with their relatives when they leave the center. Importantly, of the one-third who are not in contact with relatives, 20% want to live with them.   
To some extent, it can be expected that the transition from orphanage care into a family home may be wrought with complications. The youth in an orphanage have been deprived of any responsibility for sometimes decades, have not learned basic house hold chores or agricultural skills, and have been raised in an oasis of Western-infused childcare, stripped of Cambodian culture. Their ability to function as a member of Cambodian society has been deeply impaired by their separation from society, which may only exacerbate the anticipated difficulty in rebuilding familial relationships upon reintegration.
Furthermore, youth raised in an orphanage are likely to exhibit the characteristics frequently associated with institutionalization around the world, including difficulty regulating emotions and building social relationships, cognitive limitations, severe psychological distress, and (culturally inappropriate) indiscriminate affection. We are asking youth who have been systematically disadvantaged to rely entirely on an education, devoid of necessary social skills, to independently reconstruct familial relationships with almost complete strangers in an environment likely already strained by poverty.
Youth around the world rely on family for any number of benefits, including protection. It is without question that by destroying family relationships, orphanages have gravely, if inadvertently, compromised the safety and on-going well-being of the youth who leave their care. 

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more blogs about our research.

- Susan Rosas
Program Development Intern   

[1] *Worley, Mark. “In Orphanages, Only 28% Are Parentless.” The Cambodia Daily. March 21, 2011.
[2] Nakajima, Misako. (2003). Orphans in Cambodia: a case study of families and children in a public orphanage. Capstone Project. Brattleboro: School for International Training.
[3] Gartrell, Alexandra(2010) ''A frog in a well': the exclusion of disabled people from work in Cambodia', Disability & Society, 25: 3, 289 — 301 (296)