Everyone in Kampong knows Sopheat* — his mischievous laugh, his lively personality, his story. Sopheat was among the very first children to be placed with a foster family in Kampong, a Cambodian village of sweeping rice paddies and swaying sugar palm trees. Sopheat’s street is now home to several other children living with foster families, and over the past few years their village has welcomed 35 children previously living in vulnerable situations.
Children in Families (CIF) is a Christian organization in Cambodia working to reintegrate at-risk children into families. Many of these children live in orphanages after being abandoned or trafficked by family members in desperate situations. Acknowledging that kinship care is typically most beneficial for a child, CIF aims to place 80 percent of the children referred to them with an immediate or extended family member whenever possible. The remaining children for whom kinship care is not available are placed into foster families. CIF strategically places these children in communities with other foster families. This model of reintegration significantly reduces stigma — one of our Faith to Action key strategies explained in Journeys of Faith — while building synergy among community members to collectively meet the needs of their children.
But reducing stigma did not come easily for Sopheat. Not only was he abandoned as a baby at an orphanage ill-equipped to care for him, but he is also blind. When he was referred to CIF by a local government body as an eight-year-old, he displayed many symptoms typical of children placed in institutional care. He rocked to comfort himself. He had few social skills. He had never been to school. He had never even been taught to chew his food, subsisting largely on thin baw-baw rice porridge. Because there was no extended family member able to care for Sopheat, CIF found a foster family willing to welcome him into their home.
Naturally, the neighbors were initially skeptical. How would this boy — an outsider — learn to eat or play or read, let alone thrive in their village?
This skepticism did not last long. Sopheat’s foster mother leaned on the support of CIF staff, and on her own innovative methods, to restore life. She placed his hand on her own jaw, and Sopheat learned to chew real food. She planted grass pathways from their house to the latrine, and Sopheat learned to find his way around with confidence. Furthermore, she leaned on the support of her village to provide for his needs.
Children in Families embodies the “village approach” to caring for reintegrated children in several ways. First, whenever possible, children are placed near other foster families. Children thrive alongside other children. Along with reducing stigma, this village approach compels other families to consider fostering children themselves. In a country where legal pathways to national adoption are still a work in progress, the idea of caring for a child outside your own family is still largely foreign. CIF has noted that the most difficult step is finding the first one or two families in a village willing to accept foster children. When others see how a life like Sopheat’s is transformed, they consider opening their own doors.
Second, foster families are encouraged to interact with and encourage one another by participating in a “Community of Care”: a group of six families that meet monthly for mutual support, with discussion facilitated by a CIF staff member. Families thrive alongside other families. Families receive not only emotional support, but also a small monetary stipend to ease the financial burden of raising a child.
Third, CIF expands its village to include other nonprofit and governmental agencies with expertise in areas like hygiene and education. These organizations help build the capacity of both families and entire communities to care for their children in a way that promotes total health. In Kampong, CIF partners with nonprofit organizations and government agencies, encouraging them to utilize the resources they already have available to provide for their communities. Organizations thrive in partnership with other organizations. In Sopheat’s case, CIF provided some initial Braille materials so he could learn to read, then partnered with the Cambodian Department of Education to secure additional resources to aid his learning. Sopheat now studies alongside his friends at the local school in Kampong.
Finally, CIF recently started networking with rural churches, gently encouraging Cambodian believers to flesh out their faith by walking alongside foster families in their respective villages. This may involve something as simple as a monthly visit to a family to chat about how they are doing, a gift of a few fresh mangoes, or an offer to pray for them. While CIF does not work exclusively with Christian families, they whole-heartedly believe that children and families thrive alongside Jesus.
It takes a whole village.
And this proverb is all the more true for once-vulnerable children learning to thrive in new families and new communities.
* Names of child and village have been changed.