In Cambodia, Holt’s social work team has helped to develop three care alternatives for children growing up in institutional care — kinship care, foster care and for the first time, a formal, ethical system of domestic adoption. In March 2021, the first child in Cambodia joined her adoptive family via this new process.
In May 2020, early in the COVID pandemic, a baby girl was born in a hospital in Cambodia. She was small — weighing just over 5 pounds — but her eyes were dark and lovely and shining with light.
A bright new life had just begun.
But for her mom, this was not a day of celebration. As she looked in the eyes of her newborn daughter, she faced a heartbreaking decision.
Unmarried, and separated from the baby’s father, she feared her family’s reaction if she came home with a child. In many communities in Cambodia, the stigma of single motherhood remains alive and well — shaming women for having a child outside of marriage. This newborn girl’s mom had managed to keep her pregnancy a secret from her family. And on the day her daughter was born, she decided to relinquish her parental rights.
The nurse at the hospital contacted Holt Cambodia as well as OSVY, a department of the Cambodian government that cares for women and children. Together, social workers at both Holt and OSVY provided options counseling for the woman — and offered support and resources should she choose to parent for her baby.
But her mind was made up. She wanted to relinquish her child.
Socheat Soy is provincial manager at Holt Cambodia in Battambang, the northwestern province of Cambodia where this woman gave birth. Soy manages Holt’s programs in the region, including sponsor and donor-funded efforts to help children remain in the loving care of their families, whenever possible.
At Holt, this is always our first priority. As Soy explains, “We always try to establish the family, help the family, so they can have their child back for the best interest of the child.”
Since 2005, Holt sponsors and donors have helped thousands of children to thrive in the care of their families in Cambodia — providing everything from school supplies and food support for children to job skills training and small business microloans for parents.
But until recently, when a family or parent could not care for their child, they had almost no alternative care options. Their only choice, really, was to place their child in an orphanage.
Nurturing Care Alternatives for Children
Five years ago, Holt received a grant from the GHR Foundation to help develop more nurturing care alternatives for the thousands of children living in Cambodia’s institutional care centers. In the years since, Holt has worked alongside the Cambodian government and several leading international aid organizations to develop three alternative care models — kinship care, foster care and domestic adoption.
Through kinship care, Holt works to reunite children with their birth families — if not parents, then aunts or uncles or grandparents who can provide the kind of loving, attentive care that children just don’t receive in institutions. With the support of sponsors and donors, Holt may also provide the tools and resources these families need to care for the child — such as food support, school supplies, counseling and even job skills training for the adults.
Not every child has a family member who can care for them, however. For these children, Holt developed another alternative — foster care.
As Soy explains, “We hire families in the community to help with taking care of the kids who are abandoned, who need support with the foster care. … Without support, they would be placed in a residential care center or pagoda or other places — not in families.”
By the time the young single mother in Battambang decided to relinquish her child on May 16, 2020, a Holt-trained foster family was prepared and ready to take her into their care the following day.
In the loving care of her foster family, the baby, Chivy*, grew stronger.
“After receiving good care from a well-trained foster family supported by Holt Cambodia, Chivy was healthier and her weight became normal according to her age,” our staff in Cambodia reports.
While Chivy grew in the care of her foster family, Holt Cambodia staff began exploring a more permanent long-term plan for Chivy. For the first time, they began to seek a loving adoptive family for a child in their care.
Domestic Adoption Begins in Cambodia
Historically, Cambodian families have adopted children. But never via a formal process.
“Adoption is still new for us. We have done it — adoption — but in the traditional way, not really the legal way,” Soy explains.
To ensure safe and ethical domestic placements, Cambodia needed to develop a formal, legal process for vetting prospective families. They needed a process to thoroughly explore whether a child could be reunited with their birth family first. And once a child is united with a family, they needed a process for post-placement visits to ensure the suitability of the match and the long-term wellbeing of the child in his or her adoptive family.
Working alongside the Cambodian government — and drawing upon Holt’s nearly 65 years of experience in adoption — Holt’s team in Cambodia helped build out these processes step by step, all with the goal of finding a family for every child in need of one.
Bo Sreyleak is a social worker at Holt Cambodia and the team leader for foster care and domestic adoption. She works closely with the local ministries that now oversee the domestic adoption process in Cambodia. As she says, “We can share that with Holt Cambodia, we implemented the full domestic adoption process relative to the guidelines of the social affairs and the ministry of justice.”
The First Adoption Case is Approved
In Cambodia, many children come into care after being found abandoned — often in a hospital, often left by single mothers or parents struggling with poverty or other hardships. For these children, Holt Cambodia conducts a search process for their birth family with the hope of reuniting them.
As Soy explains, “Before we search for adoptive families, we also do some kind of announcement to find their birth family. We apply all the laws and we want to do it in the proper procedure.”
In Chivy’s case, her mom formally relinquished her — making it possible for Holt Cambodia to immediately begin finding an adoptive family for her. A young couple in their late 30s soon came forward. The local social affairs ministry in Battambang conducted a homestudy assessment on the family, and found them to be a good match for Chivy.
“They have a good living condition, a loving family and are in good health, which could provide care for the child,” our staff writes. “Reference check, health check and criminal check were carried out with both prospective adoptive parents.”
As part of the process in Cambodia, Chivy was placed with the couple for a six-month trial period. After close follow-up visits with the family, an application was submitted to the court in early 2021 and on March 3rd, the court formally approved the adoption case — the first to be approved through this new process.
“We got the final approval from the court for one child. … We’re so happy and the local authorities congratulated us,” says Soy.
Today, Chivy is thriving with her parents, and they are overjoyed with their daughter. As adoption is still a relatively new concept in Cambodia, however, they wished to keep their identities private.
As Soy explains, “Adoption is a new thing in Cambodia, the legal way, and it’s quite sensitive.”
But as Holt Cambodia and the Cambodian government raise awareness about domestic adoption and the need for families to adopt children, more families are coming forward — hoping to be matched with a child. Already, they have another child in process of being approved for adoption.
For everyone involved, the development of a formal domestic adoption process in Cambodia is cause for celebration. For children growing up without families, it is filling a vital need.
“It’s very important and quite necessary to the children. Because there are so many kids living in [orphanages] and they don’t have parents. And many, many kids who are abandoned,” says Soy.
Moving forward, Holt Cambodia remains committed to helping as many children stay in their birth families as possible. Through the generous support of Holt sponsors and donors, every year more than 3,000 children and families receive the critical support they need to stay together. Holt Cambodia will continue to work alongside local ministries to counsel women like Chivy’s mom who are facing unplanned pregnancy, and give them the support they need to parent.
But for children who can’t rejoin their families, or for children whose mothers make the decision to relinquish their child, they now have a much better option than growing up in an institution. They can stay in a foster family, and ultimately, they may be able to join an adoptive family in Cambodia.
Holt Cambodia is continuing to support the local ministry as they seek families for children domestically, such as helping them identify and screen children living in orphanages who could potentially be adopted. And once this new process proves smooth and efficient, they hope to explore another long-term solution for children living in institutional care in Cambodia: international adoption.
“Before we move to international adoption, we need to make sure our domestic process is going smoothly,” says Soy.
But yes, he says, ultimately they plan to explore every possible way for children to grow up in the love and stability of family.
“The goal is we want them to have families,” he says.
* The adoptive family featured in this story has requested we not provide any identifying information or photos. The name of the child has been changed.