Part 3: What Does Children in Families Do?

by Elizabeth

So far in this series, I’ve written about what it was like to live next to a typical Cambodian orphanage for two years. I’ve also outlined some reasons why children might be sent to an orphanage, even if they are not orphans. The current system, as I’ve described it, is incredibly broken.

This project has required a lot of mental and emotional energy, certainly more than I had initially expected to give. The deeper I delved into the orphan and orphanage issue, the more poverty I discovered, and the more complicated the problem became. The social problems stemming from poverty can be very disheartening at times. That’s why the work of Children in Families is so very hopeful and encouraging to me.CIF-Logo

So today, instead of just discussing the problems, as I’ve done in the first two posts of this series, I’m going to offer some solutions. How does the organization Children in Families help at-risk children and their families? That’s the question I’m hoping this blog post will answer, along with some of the common concerns people have about family-based care, because they are valid concerns, and because Children in Families has answers to those concerns.


Just as I witnessed the orphanage system up close and personal, so did Children in Families founder Cathleen Jones: she and her husband ran an orphanage here in Cambodia for 4 ½ years in the early 1990’s. It was disillusioning, and she started asking questions. Her search for a better way to care for poor and orphaned children carried her back to her home state of Minnesota, where for two years she explored the state’s foster care system.

During this time Cathleen took all the available foster care training, participated in fostering, and eventually adopted a child out of the Minnesota state foster care system. In addition to the training she took, she also read as much social work and orphan care research as she could get her hands on. When her family returned to Cambodia, she applied what she had learned from the foster care system in America and founded the organization Children in Families in 2006.

Why did Cathleen set up a foster care program and not another orphanage? Because she believes that children need the love, nurture, and security of a permanent family unit. The family is the building block of society. Instead of encouraging parents to give up their children, she believes we should be empowering them to keep their families intact. God did create the family unit, after all, and blessed it.

Kinship Care {KINnect}

Kinship care refers to the placement of a child with immediate or extended family members and involves both family preservation and family reunification. Family preservation keeps families together that might otherwise be ripped apart due to poverty or educational concerns, and family reunification returns a child to their immediate or extended family after a time of separation. About 2/3 of the children that Children in Families helps are in their kinship care program (called KINnect).

In traditional Cambodian families, cousins are more like brothers and sisters, and it’s common for families to bring up a relative as their own. This makes the work of Children in Families feel quite “natural” to Cambodians. But although it’s traditional for extended family to raise orphaned relatives, poverty often keeps people from opening their homes. When a family doesn’t even have enough money to support their own children, they assume they can’t afford to take in another child. But with Children in Families, they can keep their relatives. Children in Families will pay for the cost of keeping the child by providing both food and school supplies.

Many people are concerned that a child placed with relatives would become a “second class” member of the family and be physically abused or neglected. Food might be withheld, or the child might become a servant or slave for the family, thus sacrificing their education. This is a valid concern, and it’s not a desirable outcome. The traditional, informal kinship care practiced among Cambodians may very likely lead to abuse and neglect. That’s why Children in Families provides ongoing monitoring for the child and their family.

This monitoring includes monthly visits by social workers, during which the social worker is required to see the child in person. They look for signs of physical abuse and malnourishment, and they take the child’s weight and measure their upper arm circumference. They check the child’s homework log and talk to them about their schoolwork. Occasionally a social worker contacts the child’s teacher to check on the child’s education that way.

It’s also important to note that Children in Families does not blindly send children back to their families of origin. Kinship care is not done carelessly. Children should not be placed with their biological parents or with aunts, uncles, or grandparents if the environment is not safe. Extensive family assessments are undertaken in order to determine whether relatives can and will provide safe, loving homes. During the assessment process, social workers look for warm and loving attachments between children and their family members, regardless of the financial situation of the family. Children in Families will provide the financial support necessary to add another child to the family, so they are looking for the best fit for the child emotionally.

To date, Children in Families has never separated sibling groups. And they even work to support children with disabilities in their own families (or in foster families) rather than in institutions. Children in Families always favors the biological family, as long as it’s safe. However, if an assessment determines that there is no safe family willing to take a child, then the child will be placed with foster parents.

Foster Care {Jenjum}

Foster care is the placement of a child with carefully screened and trained foster parents who are unrelated to the child. About 1/3 of the children that Children in Families helps live with unrelated foster parents in the Jenjum program.

Most Children in Families foster parents live in rural areas. Most Cambodians, in fact, live rurally. In contrast, most orphanages are located in the popular tourist cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Foster care ends up being a much more “normal” cultural experience for children than a typical orphanage in the city.

Generally, foster parents volunteer for one of two reasons. Perhaps they are childless and want children (the fostering is a considered a permanent responsibility). Or perhaps they married and had children young, enjoyed being parents, and now, in their 40’s, with their children a bit older, they want to foster. Foster parents generally welcome one or two children into their homes.

The same type of monthly social work visits I described for children in kinship care also applies to children in foster care. And the foster parents go through training. Foster children are required to wear pants at all times, and the foster parents are taught about sexual abuse. This is because normal baby care here includes fondling a child’s private parts as a form of soothing. I saw this cultural norm play out at the orphanage next door, and it was so distracting. It’s hard enough trying to speak in a second language, but conversation becomes even more difficult while watching caregivers touch children’s privates. And while it’s true that it’s acceptable behavior here, I was relieved to hear that Children in Families still considers it abuse and teaches against it.

In a notoriously corrupt society (see Joel Brinkley’s Cambodia’s Curse for more information), it’s not uncommon for well-meaning Westerners to visit Cambodia and buy infant formula, mosquito nets, or rice for people. When the wealthy tourists leave, Cambodians sometimes sell those items back for money (this is often part of a larger scam and does not apply to all people or all orphanages). Nonetheless, Children in Families attempts to prevent this from happening. They open the seal on the formula cans and sometimes even remove the labels before giving them to families.

Another layer of protection and accountability comes through all the paperwork that must be signed for foster care. With foster care, the child is a ward of the state (as opposed to kinship care, in which the relatives hold the legal rights). All foster care paperwork goes through the national ministries, and the village chief and commune chief must also sign the paperwork. The entire community understands that the foster parents are taking on this responsibility, and anything that goes wrong will also go through government channels. It’s a family-community-government partnership.

Emergency Care

The Cambodian government stopped approving new orphanages in 2010 (meaning any orphanage started since then is operating illegally). Since 2012, the government has been shutting down orphanages in earnest. As discussed previously, most children living in orphanages in Cambodia are NOT orphans. Sometimes children are sent to another orphanage when their orphanage is shut down, but sometimes Children in Families is able to help return children to their families.

So what happens to a child before being placed in a permanent family situation? The first step is to place children with special emergency foster parents while family assessments are undertaken. The emergency care stay is usually two months, though it may take up to three months. This much time is allotted so that Children in Families can find a family that is a good fit for the child and can be permanent. In the long run, taking the time to search for a good home provides as much stability as possible, by minimizing the number of moves.

Community Development

One of the reasons parents send their children to orphanages is concern for their education. In Cambodia, families must purchase uniforms and school supplies in order for their children to attend school (and oftentimes, offer a bribe to the teacher). If they are too poor to do this, their children’s education may suffer, or they might consider sending their children away. So Children in Families sometimes goes into a community and provides uniforms and backpacks for children, who can then attend the local public school. They also work to improve the health and hygiene of the local public schools, so children can attend without getting sick. Hygienic toilets, wells, and water filters are provided.

Children in Families is not the only organization doing family-based care and community development, it is just the one I am most familiar with. Additionally Children in Families partners with other organizations who provide this kind of care, and they are willing to help new organizations who want to do family-based care. At this point they are also trying to recruit local churches to provide emotional and relational support for families and at-risk children and also help with reporting needs.

One of the things I love about Children in Families is the fact that it places Cambodian children with Cambodian parents. I love the fact that they don’t remove children from their home culture, and whenever possible, keep children with relatives or at least in their local community of origin. I also love that all their social workers are Cambodian. These practices are born out of Cathleen’s heartfelt beliefs: “I believe in the Cambodian people and empowering them,” she told me. I want to believe, along with Children in Families, that the solution for children in crisis lies with the Cambodian people themselves, and Cathleen gave me hope of this.

Can You Help?

It’s important to understand that no form of orphan care is without cost. Orphanages cost money, and family-based care costs money. Orphanages promise to feed, clothe, and educate a child. With family-based care, there are no buildings to build and maintain, and there is fewer staff to hire and train. All of this means that family-based care is cheaper.

Foster and kinship care not only preserves family and societal structures, but it also stretches donor dollars further. Whereas a typical child in an orphanage needs about $150 per month in sponsorship, a child in foster care requires only $75 to $80 per month, and a child living with relatives in kinship care requires even less — $38 to $40 per month. These figures cover all costs, including staff, transportation, medical fees, food and education. (The foster care costs are higher because foster parents receive a small stipend, and also because of the increased medical costs associated with caring for children with disabilities.)

I want to be very clear here that Children in Families did not ask me to write about their work, or to advertise their financial needs. But I really believe in the work they do, so I asked them if I could. Children in Families can only fill the needs of children, families, and communities when people donate to their work. The greater their funding, the greater the number of children and families they can serve. So if you have a heart for at-risk children and their families in Cambodia, consider donating to Children in Families here. When I asked their needs, Children in Families also mentioned that they would like to set up a 501c3 in the United States and would welcome help with that endeavor. So this is a call for anyone out there who could help with a 501c3.

And finally, I want to thank you for being patient with me while I compiled all this information. When I first considered writing about this issue back in March of this year, I had no idea how big the subject of orphan care is, nor did I realize how long it would take me to finish. I feel the same today as I did in the beginning – excited about the work Children in Families does and hopeful that it can expand even more.


Again, many thanks to Cathleen Jones and Jesse Blaine for their patience in answering all my questions about Children in Families. And again, any and all mistakes are mine and mine alone.

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