I first moved to Thailand in 2009, because as a follower of Christ and a social worker, I felt deeply burdened to engage trafficking and child exploitation internationally. I joined a grassroots organization working along the Thailand-Myanmar border where thousands of Burmese people have fled due to violence and oppression in their own country.
Women and children were highly vulnerable and children from the slums were often begging or collecting recyclables from the rubbish bins. Because they often lacked legal identity, they were easy targets for exploitation. Through our drop-in center for children on the streets, we were a trusted resource and I became accustomed to the dark side of their realities. Among the most disturbing were the stories of children sold to traffickers or abandoned at orphanages by their own parents.
Although I knew orphanages were not the best option for children in the U.S., there was something about being in a foreign country notorious for sex tourism which made it seem like these children might be better off in long-term residential care than with families who didn’t seem to love their own children. It wasn’t until one of our regulars invited us over for dinner that my thinking began to change.
A team member and I were warmly welcomed into a tiny shack composed of scrap metal and wood. The only light came from candles lining the walls. We sat on the floor around a full spread of homemade Burmese dishes and I spent the entire evening in awe of what I observed. Every space was used as efficiently as possible with clothes tightly folded in cabinets and sleeping mats tucked carefully away.
The most eye-opening observation though was the love and attachment I observed between the children and their mother. Throughout the evening, it was obvious that in the midst of their lack of material wealth, they were each other’s most prized possessions. That night led to weekly dinners with more families and what we learned is that these families cared deeply for their children, but their financial desperation often led them to make decisions which they believed were in their children’s best interests.
Traffickers did not tell parents that their children might end up in the sex industry or exploited for donations at a corrupt orphanage. Instead they tricked families by offering education programs, food security and a life far better than what the family could afford. Parents who left their children at orphanages often believed that would ensure their children a better life. They had no way of knowing the research about the harmful affects of institutionalization.
We know this is not unique to Thailand because global estimates show that there are eight million children living in orphanages, of which 80-90% have at least one living parent who could care for them if given the right support (U.S. Department of State, 2018).
Our main focus for the last 8 years has been strengthening families’ resilience to provide strong protection for their own children. We come alongside the most vulnerable families utilizing the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework, educating parents about external threats and helping them understand that they are a vital part of their children’s lives.
We also recruit and equip loving families for children who lack a safe family of their own.
Trusting God’s design of family is often difficult to do in light of extreme poverty. However, as reported in the recent release of the 2018 Trafficking in Persons report, children separated from their families are at increased vulnerability and experience greater levels of trauma throughout their life course.
As believers and social workers, we can trust that God is not making mistakes by allowing children to be born into poverty and we can challenge this social injustice by empowering families to stay together.
Ashlee Heiligman is a social worker who has worked in international child protection for the last ten years. She serves as the Executive Director of Global Child Advocates, a nonprofit which has been protecting women and children from abuse and trafficking in Thailand since 2008. Ashlee and Global Child Advocates have been members of NACSW since 2017.
U.S. Department of State (2018). Trafficking in persons report: Child institutionalization and human trafficking. Retrieved June 28, 2018: https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2018/282575.htm#3