Report from Indochina Starfish Foundation by Kate Griffen 

Indochina Starfish works with the “dump kids”. We currently have 315 kids who access our 2 non-residential education centers in Stung Mean Chey and Chbar Ampov. We have 1 social worker per 50 kids in our organization. We are very familiar with the families and their circumstances and I believe we have established good trust and lines of communication with the families we work with. We have dealt with cases of drugs, gambling, alcoholism and domestic violence in the families.

In the last 5 years we’ve only come across 2 cases where a child was at risk enough that we needed to intervene and call the authorities and have them take the child out of the situation. In both cases, we monitored the child (who went to live with relatives) and worked with the family to deal with the issue with the intention of getting the child back into the family. Both of these cases involved abuse where the child was at risk which is why we took such action. All of our dealings have been working with the families to alleviate the issues they are facing and involving other organizations who have the expertise to deal with the challenges while our staff work alongside them to learn the skills themselves.


The parents of our students will tell you that they don’t want to give the responsibility of raising their children to NGO’s. They only do it when they believe there is no other alternative. By showing them the model we have run for the last 5 years, they are under no illusion that they are not capable of raising their own children. In fact, everything that we do with the children who come to ISF is run by the parents before we do it. We have them heavily involved in the decision making process where it affects their child.

As one of ISF’s goals is to build the capacity of the families and provide them with opportunities to allow them to improve their current circumstances, our social workers partner with other NGO’s on the ground to link the parents to services and trainings they otherwise would not have access to.


Sure these families live in extreme poverty but that is not a good enough reason to take their children away.  I personally find it shocking that there are at least 7 NGO’s I know of in the area who take the children from these families and have them living in institutions within a kilometer of their families because they will tell you the children are ”at risk”. How can we be working with the same community and not have the same high statistics that they have? Sure it’s a bigger job for us and much more challenging than if we just took the kids out of the situation but how can they ever deal with reality when the solution is to just remove them from the problem. If we don’t do something to effect change in the community and the families we work with, it just stays the same.

We get a huge amount of support from the British and Australian Embassies because of how ethical we are and because they are not in support of orphanages.


The following is a case study of the mother of one of the students in our school who has benefited from our program: 

Say Son
(Female aged 38)

Say Son is currently living in the Steng Meanchey area of Phnom Penh and has a child studying at ISF. She said that living in Phnom Penh is really hard for her as she was used to living in the countryside where she lived with family, grew what they ate and didn’t have so many expenses. Now she has to earn a salary to cover rent, food, education costs, health care and to pay off some of the debt she has from moving from the province to the city. 

She spent two years working as a cleaner with a private company in Phnom Penh for only $60 a month. She said that her work at this company was extremely hard as she was required to work fulltime 7 days a week. She was also put under a lot of pressure from the company and the employer was not particularly nice to work for. When the work pressure started to affect her health, she left the job. 

In November 2012 (after her child had joined ISF’s program) she learned that ISF was partnering with another local organization called SCARO. SCARO provides training and links to dignified jobs for its trainees. She applied for the training course and quickly passed the test. She received further training and was provided with a cleaning job in one of the International Schools in Phnom Penh. 

In her new role, she only works in the mornings from Monday to Saturday and gets to take the public holidays and annual leave with pay. She receives $90 per month and says the employer is much easier to work for and the environment is much friendlier. She now has more time to spend with her children at home and more income for her family to benefit from.


Photographs used by permission of ISF and the individuals shown.