The Sunday Age today ran an article today about a raid on an orphanage in Cambodia called Love in Action (LIA), run by 71-year-old Australian woman Ruth Golder.
According to journalist Lindsay Murdoch, LIA was raided by 17 Cambodian government officials, police and representatives of the anti-human trafficking organisation SISHA (South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities) after reports of beatings and neglect.
Mrs Golder, who has worked with children in Cambodia for the past 13 years, denied reports of abuse and neglect, though admitted her orphanage was not registered with the Cambodian government.
According to the SISHA website, 21 children were rescued while seven remain unaccounted for; Mrs Golder says they were sent back to their families in the Cambodian provinces.
The orphanage sector in Cambodia is a growth industry, increasing 65 per cent since 2005. While there are 269 registered orphanages in Cambodia, more than that number again are estimated to operate outside of government regulation.
Significantly, 72 per cent of the children living in Cambodian orphanages still have parents.
It can be hard for those of us in wealthier countries to get our heads around a statistic like that. How is it possible that the vast majority of children in Cambodian orphanages have parents? Isn’t calling them ‘orphans’ a misnomer?
Indeed, it would be more accurate to call these children ‘boarders’ rather than orphans. They are placed in institutional care by families too poor to raise them, but who hold out hope that a change in circumstances will some day enable them to reclaim their children.
It is not hard to imagine how such children might be vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous orphanage operators. Indeed, it was precisely by imagining a scenario in which children who were not genuine orphans were put up for adoption that I came up with a major part of the plot for my second novel, The Half-Child.
The orphanage in my novel is located in the coastal Thai town of Pattaya and is run by an American-born, evangelical Christian called Frank Harding, whose mission is ‘conversions’:
Not in the first instance from Buddhism to Christianity — though that remained the ultimate goal — but to convert babies and toddlers languishing in institutional care into orphans eligible for inter-country adoption.
Whether Mrs Golder’s orphanage was operating along these lines is anyone’s guess, but I was interested to note on one of the few functioning pages on the LIA website that Love in Action “is a charity based on Christian values which aims to show the people of Cambodia what caring & love really means.”
(Is it just me, or does anyone else bristle at the idea that parents prepared to suffer the heartbreak of surrendering a child into institutional care for the child’s sake need to be shown “what caring & love really means”?)
Reading a blog post by someone who volunteered at LIA is likewise eerily reminiscent of the characters in my novel, notably Australian volunteer Maryanne Delbeck who in The Half-Child wants to be part of Frank Harding’s campaign to convert ‘boarders’ into ‘orphans’. The real-life LIA volunteer says of the children, “best of all, the[y] come to know about the love of Christ.” Or as Frank Harding puts it in the novel: “the ends always justified the means when it came to saving souls.”
While my novel may be set in a neighbouring country, the report on the LIA raid in Cambodia makes me think my made-up story wasn’t far from the truth.
The Australian-registered not-for-profit organisation SISHA, run largely by former police with anti-trafficking experience, claims the raid against LIA shows the Cambodian government is “serious about moving against orphanages that have done what they liked without answering to anybody for years.”
I hope they’re right.
Follow up post here.