Supporting small group family living at Hagar Cambodia’s recovery centre for sexually abused and exploited boys

Posted By: • September 23rd, 2015

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Contact details:

Names: But Boreth and Sam Sreyna

Email addresses: But.Boreth(at),


Date of profile: October 2011

Model: Small group family housing for boys

Aim: To provide a safe, short-term supported housing and recovery programme for sexually abused and exploited boys

Background and context:

The housing facility for boys was opened in Phnom Penh in 2009. The project was developed in response to the ground-breaking report “I thought it could never happen to boys”: Sexual abuse and exploitation of boys in Cambodia’ written and undertaken by Alastair Hilton and commissioned and published by Hagar Cambodia and World Vision Cambodia in 2008 (Hilton et al, 2008).This study, which took place in three locations in Cambodia, involved 23 key informants, 40 boys and young men, and over 100 staff.

The recommendations of the report highlighted the need to raise awareness of the sexual abuse and exploitation of boys and develop responses that matched the needs expressed by the boys in the study.

The boys and staff, when interviewed, felt that where boys were unable to return to family or be cared for by extended family members or foster carers, a specialist residential unit was needed as a safe option and last resort. The recommendation was that a unit should be based on a small home model and staffed by specialist carers who could respond to crises and provide sensitive support. It was proposed that such placements should be short-term, with the eventual goal of placing the child back into the community with family, in kinship care or with specialist foster carers.

Hagar’s home has the capacity to care for 19 boys at any one time. The boys come from all over Cambodia and include both Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals. To date 25 boys have been cared for. In the last two years, six boys have been integrated into community living.

What the model does for boys:

The housing is one part of a larger recovery programme that provides holistic healing through professional trauma counselling, case management and ‘catch-up’ education. Every boy’s family assessment is conducted with a view to them returning to their family of origin, living with extended family or a community foster family.

Referral, assessment and case-management: All boys are referred to the project via the police, NGOs or human rights groups. The boys are initially assessed at intake and an individual care plan is developed specifically to meet their needs. The care plans are revisited every 3 months.

Small group family living: The residential homes has been purpose built and designed so that boys are cared for in small numbers with one specially trained carer or ‘house mother’ caring for six boys at a time. The boys can stay in the home until they reach the age of 16. However, if possible, the boys will leave and be re-integrated into their family and community earlier. Hagar also has a programme in place to identify, train and support foster carers who, it is hoped in the future, will be able to offer homes to some of the boys.

In the residential home, six boys share one room. The boys are put in groups depending on their ages and also on their personalities and how well they get along together. There are two ‘house mothers’ who do alternative shifts so they can remain constant carers for the boys. These house mothers receive support and training to understand the needs of the boys and the experiences they have been through. They are also shown ways to encourage the boys and motivate them. The house mothers carry out a range of family roles such as caring, cooking, cleaning and providing the boys with a role model. The house mothers also ensure the boys eat nutritious meals, keep themselves and their rooms clean and tidy, get up to go to school, go to bed at night and encourage independence. The boys are also supported by their case managers, counsellors and teachers.

Education and training: In most cases the boys have missed out on education and are often out of school and may need to catch-up on their learning. The boys have access to education through Hagar’s Community Learning Centre.

This centre, located in another part of the city, is attended by many boys and girls who are supported by different Hagar programmes as well as children living in the local area. At school the boys sit an entrance exam to determine their educational level and then attend classes aiming to cover two grades in one year so that they can catch up with their peers.

For boys who are unable to complete formal education, as well as for older boys, Hagar can also link them into their ‘Career Pathways’ programme. This supports literacy and employment and provides training in vocations such as mechanical repairs, administration, tailoring, cookery and other areas based on the young person?s experience and interests.

Counselling: All boys receive counselling from trained male counsellors and those with complex trauma are offered Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (TF-CBT) to assist them in their healing.

The big brother’ or ‘mentoring’ programme: This is a new initiative recently introduced in the home. Three older boys, all former clients of Hagar, who are attending university in Phnom Penh are working as mentors for the boys. These older boys, who may have had similar experiences to the boys in the home, meet regularly with the boys in the evening and at weekends. They are there to help the boys deal with any problems or concerns, assist them in their studies and spend time with them. For example, one of the mentors is currently teaching some of the boys how to play the guitar. These ‘big brothers’ act as role models for the boys and give them a sense of what can be achieved in the future. In addition, these mentors provide another adult that they can talk to and confide in. Having the mentors around also helps the house mothers and gives them a break from supporting and entertaining the boys.


An evaluation of the boys recovery programme is planned in the future. The following outcomes have been observed and reported from the staff:

Improvement in the behaviour of boys who often come to the programme displaying anti-social and destructive behaviours

Increases in confidence: the boys are better able to talk about their experiences

The boys are able to access school and the majority of them do better in their school work, increasing their educational attainment

A positive attitude develops among the boys, who start to express dreams and hopes for a brighter future

Creates greater awareness and knowledge amongst other practitioners who are trained by Hagar’s staff in partnership with World Vision’s ‘My Son Project’.

Non-discrimination and an individual response:

The home welcomes both Cambodian and Vietnamese boys of any sexual orientation. All clients have an individual care plan and services are provided in the best interests of each client respecting their rights and unique experience and journey.


Through the original research, boys’ voices were sought and recorded

Individual care plans allow the boys to be involved in their own goal setting

A Client Committee structure is in place for all of Hagar’s clients. On this committee, representatives from each programme meet with the management team every three months to discuss problems, voice their views and give suggestions for improvement. Two boys from the home represent the other boys in these meetings


Confidentiality guidelines are applied during counselling and case management to safeguard information disclosure

Pseudonyms are applied in case studies and case studies are shared with the boys before being disseminated to donors and supporters

Sustainability and replication:

The project for boys is the only model of its kind operating in Cambodia. Learning from the home and recovery programme as a whole is shared with local district authorities as part of Hagar’s advocacy and awareness raising strategies

The longer term aim is to see more boys receiving services while remaining in their community setting rather than coming into the residential home. To achieve this aim Hagar is partnering with World Vision’s ‘My Son’ project to raise awareness and build the capacity of the community and a range of professionals to both prevent abuse and exploitation and train the community to be able to respond to boys effectively


Keeping small numbers in the residential home is important as the care of these boys can be very demanding for the house mothers and rest of the children and staff

There needs to be adequate support for key staff as the behavioural issues of sexually abused boys can be challenging for caregivers and it is important to regularly debrief and develop caregivers knowledge specifically on working with boys


A lack of psychological assessments that are suitable for this target group. The Child Exploitation Psychosocial Assessment Tool has been tested and designed for girls, but there may be potential for adaptation for use with boys.

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