The recent child abuse scandal in a girls' orphanage in Saraburi serves as a wake-up call for comprehensive reform of state orphanages to ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable children in state-run shelters.
The horrid abuse at the Saraburi Girls Orphanage involved beatings, hair chopping, confinement, locking the children in dark rooms, tying their hands and feet, and forcing them to sleep in bathrooms.
These shocking incidents expose the orphanage system's failure to oversee and safeguard children, leaving them at the mercy of their caregivers.
The Saraburi Girls Orphanage houses 280 girls in four buildings. The abuse occurred in one of these houses, where caregivers used violence under the guise of discipline. While the orphanage director has been transferred and legal action taken against the abuser, the Saraburi Orphanage violence is just the tip of the iceberg.
Across the country, over 120,000 children are living in orphanages and temples, lacking oversight and protection mechanisms. Without the involvement of local communities, the children are vulnerable to various forms of abuse.
According to Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children should receive care and nurture from their parents. When parents are absent or unable to provide care, the responsibility falls on orphanages to serve as a substitute family.
However, most state orphanages operate in a prison-like environment, depriving children of freedom, creativity, and genuine parental relationships crucial for their well-being.
The Department of Children and Youth must adopt a child-centric strategy that prioritises the child's best interests. Currently, orphanages' focus is on bureaucratic mandates and budgetary concerns.
Next, the orphanages must set up clear guidelines and rules for caregivers to prevent child abuse. The Education Ministry only permits four types of disciplinary measures for students: verbal warnings, parole, behaviour point deductions, and participation in behaviour-changing programmes. These penalties must be designed with input from child development psychologists. The same should apply to orphanages.
In addition, orphanage staff must receive training in child care and child psychology to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills, particularly for traumatised children. The temporary contracted positions of caregivers prevent the caregivers from receiving training and career development.
Most girls in the Saraburi Orphanage come from troubled families with drug and domestic violence problems. With limited support and intervention from relatives and the community, they end up in state-run orphanages that cannot provide adequate care. The situation is common in other orphanages across the country.
Silo management in the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security also hampers effective care. The Department of Children and Youth focuses solely on children without addressing parental rehabilitation.
The Department of Women's Affairs and Family Development, meanwhile, focuses on women and gender equality. Without inter-agency coordination and parental rehabilitation, the children are trapped in authoritarian institutions without a chance to return home.
A strong community capable of addressing family problems and providing care for children in need can make a difference. Support from local governments and coordination between social welfare and district officials are crucial for timely intervention to prevent children from being sent to orphanages.
Despite the recent scandal, the Saraburi orphanage had a success story thanks to volunteers' efforts to help the children realise their potential. Unfortunately, these efforts have not received adequate support from superiors.
In 2016, Anuchit Kitvanitsathian, a former national team cyclist, volunteered to teach the girls cycling. The girls won several awards. Some even made it to national teams and competed in international tournaments. However, those who were legally stateless were unable to participate, prompting a collaboration between the orphanage and the Saraburi municipality to work together to update the children's statuses. As a result, those who met the requirements finally became Thai citizens.
The violence at Saraburi Girls Orphanage highlights the urgent need for reform nationwide. Equally important, other care options for orphans and abandoned children, such as foster care, kinship care, and community-based solutions, should receive more state support because they better meet each child's unique needs for emotional stability and a sense of belonging compared to life in state shelters.