Part 2: Is This Orphanage Really an Orphanage?

by Elizabeth

If you haven’t read Part 1, in which I describe the conditions of an average Cambodian orphanage, please do so now. The rest of this series might not make much sense without that background.

This post, Part 2, will explain more about the orphanage crisis in Cambodia, for those of you who want facts and stats.

If you aren’t interested in the data, or don’t have the time to read all of it, stay tuned for Part 3, which will detail the encouraging work of Children in Families


As I’ve mentioned before, deciding to talk about the orphanage problem in Cambodia has been very difficult for me, and felt like a huge risk on my part. I have friends all over the world running orphanages, and I don’t want to alienate people – especially friends.

But the truth is that I’m not talking about orphanages all over the world; I’m talking about an orphanage problem specific to my location in Cambodia. I’m only speaking from my own observations in this country, and I don’t know what orphan care looks like in other countries. But I do know one thing: the longer I’ve lived here, in this corrupt system, the more it has burned on my heart to tell this story. So now I am telling it.

Another thing to remember here is that I am painting with broad brushstrokes. Not every single orphanage matches these descriptions, but far too many do. I am not criticizing specific orphanages; I am drawing attention to the disturbing trends among most Cambodian orphanages. It is easy to find exceptions to these trends and then dismiss the issue altogether. But my point is that the issue exists — there are many bad orphanages in Cambodia, and something must be done about it.

An Unethical Orphanage System

I think the biggest question we can ask ourselves is this: Does this institution house true orphans, or do the children have families somewhere? Statistics from 2012 tells us that over 70% of the children in registered orphanages in Cambodia have at least one living parent, and nearly 100% have living relatives with whom they could live. Thus the data confirms what our family learned anecdotally: Many Cambodian orphanages are not orphanages. They are more akin to boarding schools.

(For more information on this system, which the The New York Times calls a “scam,” please watch this short video.  The New York Times article that accompanies the video further explains the orphanage problem in Cambodia.)

Additionally, while the number of orphans in Cambodia has been decreasing over the past several years, the number of orphanages has greatly increased, with both the number of institutions and the number of institutionalized children nearly doubling between 2005 and 2010. And a typical Cambodian orphanage recruits heavily. I heard stories of orphanage directors trying to convince the poor to send their children, their nieces and nephews, and their grandchildren to orphanages, promising a better life. Sometimes orphanage directors even ask Children in Families workers where they can find more children — because a full orphanage maximizes donations. To me, this behavior is equivalent to stealing children from their families.

When we separate children from their families, we are functionally orphaning them. The orphanage system that exists in Cambodia is so detrimental to children’s development that it actually creates orphans where none existed before. And when we allow these kinds of orphanages to proliferate, we lose a generation of children to institutional life.

What we’re left with, instead, is a sector of society who has grown to adulthood without ever having learned how to function in a family, or even in Cambodian culture as a whole. Parents and other family members have been sold a bill of goods — a broken system that claims to help, but in reality hurts and disadvantages everyone.

Why Are Families Sending Their Children Away?

Children belong in families – that’s the way God designed us to live. So if the children living in orphanages are not true orphans, and indeed have living relatives, then the bigger question we need to ask ourselves is this: Why did the families send their children to an “orphanage” in the first place?

Maybe they thought their children would receive better educational opportunities at an orphanage in the city. Rural Cambodian parents are sometimes under this false impression. They rightly desire their children to have a good education, but they wrongly assume public education in the city, where most orphanages are located, is superior. This assumption is harmful, not only because the education is the same (or only marginally better), but also because it deprives children of the love and care of their parents.

Or perhaps the parents were so poor that they were afraid they couldn’t raise their children. Maybe they were finding it difficult to provide for their child, and felt they had no choice but to send their child away. Poverty is actually the main reason parents relinquish the care of their children to orphanages, but the good news is that Children in Families has helpful solutions to both the poverty and education problems, which I will be discussing in Part 3.

Important Resources

In addition to my own experiences, and the resources I’m including below, most of my information came from discussions with Cathleen Jones, founder and international director of the organization Children in Families, and with Jesse Blaine, who also works with Children in Families. Though I have endeavored to substantiate my claims with solid research, any and all mistakes are mine alone, and I welcome corrections by experts in the field of orphan care.

It’s easy to get bogged down in statistics and lose the heart of the matter here, but the important message coming out of all this data is that in Cambodia, there are fewer and fewer orphans, but more and more orphanages.

And the orphanages, generally speaking, do not improve children’s education, although they do separate families. The UN actually states that children’s rights to remain in a family unit should not be sacrificed in order to preserve their right to an education. In other words, the two basic rights for family care and education should never be in competition with each other. Unfortunately in Cambodia, most institutions compromise both.

Note about these links: Many of these resources are found on the Uniting for Children website, so if my links do not work, try heading over to their site and clicking on the Learning Center tab.

  • This short 4-page document from the United Nations contains specific details on residential care in Cambodia.
  • And if you don’t feel like reading, you can always watch this 20-minute video entitled “Why Not a Family?”
  • For further reading I recommend this paper, which takes a pretty balanced view, neither idealizing family care nor condemning residential care — because both approaches must overcome certain problems.
  • This document talks about keeping children out of harmful institutions — the key word here being “harmful.” Group care is something I will delve into further in Part 5.
  • The following (rather lengthy) document provides more research and explanations, including the Cambodian government’s stance that residential care should be a “last resort and a temporary solution” for children in crisis.

Again, I’ve provided these links if you want to read more on the subject, but don’t feel obligated. Part 3 is coming soon with a positive alternative to the type of harmful institutional care that is all too common in Cambodia.

6 thoughts on “Part 2: Is This Orphanage Really an Orphanage?

  1. Elizabeth, I’d love to link this series on Facebook, but I’d prefer to link the first article and have people be able to easily move to the subsequent ones. Is there any way you could add links at the bottom of each post in this series to make it easy to navigate around the whole series? (To clarify, each post would end with a list of the titles of every post in the series, with the names being converted to links as they’re published.) Just an idea that would make it easier for people who’d follow a Facebook link but who aren’t familiar with your blog overall–and it would make it easier for people who find these posts later, when the next one isn’t always showing up in the “recent posts” feed.

  2. We’ve seen the same kind of things in India. Most of the kids have at least one living parent and actually go to their homes during breaks. It’s such a strange, corrupt system. Thanks for sharing about your experience in Cambodia!

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