In Child Protection, Easy Solutions Are Rarely Real Solutions

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Working in child welfare in developing countries, or any country for that matter, isn't a particularly easy or simple task, in fact it's quite the opposite. Child welfare cases can contain a menagerie of issues including health and hygiene, HIV, domestic violence, child labor, street living and/or working; the list goes on. These issues can be compounded in a country like Cambodia where there is often not the legal or government-lead structures or enforcement mechanisms that exist in countries with strong child protection systems.

I commonly see a view of a simple duality of options for vulnerable kids; 1) children remaining on the street or in unhealthy family units, or 2) children living in an orphanage.. This view can often be held in the general public; where the orphanage is an imperfect but necessary solution to 'unfixable' social ills. Framing of the issue in a binary 'either-or' distinction goes beyond just being incorrect, it facilitates harm to children by legitimizing the use of institutional care as a form of early intervention when it should be anything but. This view is also often held by those, mostly unqualified in child welfare, who establish orphanages in developing countries and those who fund them.

This perspective reduces family units to unsolvable, broken entities which children must be 'saved' from. It is a highly paternalistic form of intervention, and leads to the situation we have in Cambodia now, with thousands of children separated from their families when even basic support could have meant they would remain in the family unit.

Analyzing the ways in which people construct perceptions of vulnerable families is not a purely academic exercise, it has direct consequences in terms of the work organizations do on the ground in developing countries. Legitimizing orphanages as a form of early intervention care removes the family as the pivotal place for a child. It bypasses even the most basic, core alternative care options children in the West enjoy. I talk here of options such as children living temporarily with extended family, community care, foster care, or longer term options such as extended family placement or national adoption. It also ignores the possibility that families can indeed improve, that families can overcome problems -- a highly disrespectful assumption.

Across all indicators, children are disadvantaged when raised in an orphanage or residential centre. This ranges from slower physical development, lower IQ and cognitive development indicators, poorer socialization, to lower emotional development. This also speaks nothing to the societal impacts of children removed from their families and communities, and the impact of young adults leaving the centers without basic life skills and the ability to integrate properly in society

There are some vulnerable children who do legitimately need long-term care, but they are a fraction of the kids currently in orphanages. Do doctors remove a leg when it has a simple infection? Do you check yourself into hospital for a common cold? These medical responses are ridiculous, so why is it that a similarly ridiculous response in social work, removing the child from their family, is viewed as an acceptable early intervention? The view of no other options existing for vulnerable children is what perpetuates this dangerous form of 'welfare.' In the tough work that child protection is in the developing world, easy solutions are rarely real solutions.

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