Deep Dive

The Problem: Downstream Child Protection

The current child protection system in Cambodia is a downstream model. The sector is dominated by NGOs investing the majority of resources and funds into the delivery of crisis services for children who have already experienced abuse, neglect or exploitation. 

At first glance, a downstream model seems logical. If there are children being harmed, then it makes sense to focus efforts on getting them out of harm’s way. When the number of children in harm’s way grows, spending more funding on crisis interventions seems justified. However, there is a grave flaw in this design. 

When the majority of funds and resources are invested in downstream interventions, a self-reinforcing dynamic is created that results in increasing numbers of children requiring crisis services. 

When families are unable to access universal prevention services, like heath, education and housing, they become unnecessarily vulnerable and problems begin to arise. A lack of early intervention services that mitigate problems in families leads to intractable crises. These crises place children in situations where they experience significant harm and see them removed from their families and dependent on crisis services. The downstream approach is a band-aid response that never addresses the root-causes and perpetuates the problems it aims to solve.

The negative consequences of downstream child protection

Many aid and development disasters are the consequence of a downstream approach. One example is the proliferation of orphanages in Cambodia. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of orphanages increased by 75% and the number of children being institutionalised doubled, despite the fact that 80% of the children had at least one living parent. The remaining 20% mostly had other kin still alive. 

It appears as if families make a conscious choice to place their children in an orphanage, but that choice is an illusion. In the absence of prevention and early intervention services and faced with multidimensional poverty, entrusting their children into the care of an orphanage is often their only choice. Unfortunately, accessing essential services in orphanages doesn’t make children any less vulnerable. Separating children from their families and institutionalisation in childhood creates trauma that results in lifelong consequences and an immeasurable long-term cost to society.

In recent years, some NGOs in Cambodia have been focused on care-reform by redirecting resources away from residential care services. However, efforts are still largely focused on other downstream interventions like reintegration, rehabilitation services and foster care.

The worst and most damaging aspect of a downstream approach is that support is only available to children after they are already harmed, after they’ve already been traumatised. This is not effective child protection.

Cambodia’s need for an upstream model of child protection is even more urgent with the spike in numbers of families who have been made vulnerable due to the COVID19 pandemic. Unless adequate prevention and early intervention services are made available, we will likely see another boom in children filling up the beds of orphanages, crisis centres and foster care homes.

The Solution: Upstream Child Protection

Ensuring that we have good models for raising children safeguards the future of our world. Raising children well is an investment in society. They are our future leaders, voters and change-makers. How they are raised determines whether they’ll contribute to society or be a burden to it. 

The best way to ensure children grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults is to prevent them from experiencing trauma in early childhood with an upstream approach.


The difference between a downstream and upstream approach in relation to child protection is illustrated through the analogy of a river.

Everyday, families in Cambodia navigate a fast-flowing river as part of their daily lives. Some of these families have old boats. When their boats break, their children fall into the river. Some people see the children in the river being washed over a waterfall. They call an ambulance to provide emergency first aid to the children. Meanwhile, more family’s boats are breaking and more children are falling into the river and being washed downstream and over the waterfall. The people who are trying to rescue the children call more ambulances to join the escalating rescue effort at the bottom of the waterfall. 

Other people don’t join the rescue, instead they head upstream to find out why so many children are falling into the river. They see the families are having problems with their boats. They ensure the families have the tools they require to repair their boats to make them strong and resilient, preventing the children from falling in. Soon enough, there are so few children falling into the river that most of the ambulances at the bottom of the waterfall are no longer required. The few children who do fall in are provided with high quality care because the ambulances are no longer overburdened.

Building an upstream system involves redirecting our focus from crisis interventions towards prevention and early intervention. With adequate resources and support, families are empowered to protect their children from abuse and exploitation, improve their living conditions and nutrition, send their children to school, prevent separation, grow their income and overcome multidimensional poverty.

The Upstream approach works

Building an upstream system involves redirecting our focus from crisis interventions towards prevention and early intervention. With adequate resources and support, families are empowered to protect their children from abuse and exploitation, improve their living conditions and nutrition, send their children to school, prevent separation, grow their income and overcome multidimensional poverty. 


Trop’s Story

Despite working several jobs, Trop struggled for years against mounting debt while raising her four children. 

With the right tools and resources, Trop says her family’s life is now much better than before. She sees a promising future for her children and is providing them with stability and support now so they can break the cycle of poverty as they grow up.

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Sreyleap’s Story

“I never thought in my life, me and my children would get out of this toxic environment and unsafe place and have a healthy life elsewhere”.

So much has changed for single mum Sreyleap and her four kids in the past two years. Watch this inspirational story of transformation.

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Our social work practice

Our Village-based Social Workers, Senior Social Workers, and Social Work Interns are integral members of CCT’s Village Hive model of child protection.

The social workers in CCT’s Village Hive use a strengths-based, family-driven approach to casework, based on the principle that families are the experts in their own lives.

They promote self-determination by partnering with families to cultivate a lasting network of support. Families are assisted in developing realistic and sustainable plans to overcome the challenges in their lives and ensure the ongoing safety and wellbeing of their children.

Relationship-based practice

Relationships are the bedrock of human change and growth. Constructive working relationships between CCT social workers, family members, children, and local authorities is key to effective practice. CCT Social workers don’t do things “to” families or “for” families. Instead, they partner “with” families, children and local authorities to co-create plans and set goals.

CCT Social workers spend time getting to know children and families. They conduct home visits to meet with the families often, listen to them, build trust and show acceptance. They learn about the family’s history, show empathy and seek to understand the difficulties and trauma that families have experienced. By building strong relationships, CCT social workers, families and local authorities work together to ensure children’s safety, stability and healthy development.

Appreciative inquiry & strengths-based practice

Appreciative inquiry is an approach used in the Signs of Safety three-column framework that seeks to engage families in self-determined change. Social workers lead families, children and local authorities through a questioning process to map the intervention plan.

The process focuses on these domains of inquiry:


What are we worried about?
Identifying past harm, complicating factors, and worries about future danger


What is already working well?
Identifying existing strengths in the family and behaviours that have kept children safe and well.


What needs to happen?
To ensure future safety and wellbeing

Scaling question: Where are we on a scale of 0 to 10 where ten means there is enough safety to close the case and zero means it is certain that the child will be harmed.

By assisting families to think through problems and come up with their own solutions, CCT social workers empower families to meet the challenges in their lives and meet their children’s needs independently.

Child-focused practice

CCT’s case management is child-focused, which means that CCT social workers are concerned with the needs and best interests of the child, above everything else. Case plans are always focused on what is best for the child’s future. To achieve this, the views, experiences and wishes of the child are integral to the process. It is important that children understand why social workers are intervening in their lives and are given agency to shape their own support plans.

CCT Social Workers use a range of tools to privilege children’s voices when developing safety and empowerment plans with families. 

The tools serve as practical ways for social workers to:

  • Identify the people who are part of the child’s safety and support network.
  • Explores what worries children have, what is good in their lives and what would they like to see happen.
  • Explain to a child what has happened to them, what people are worried about and what people are doing about these worries.
  • Find out what safety means to them, and what needs to happen to make them feel safe and keep safe.


Supervision is an essential part of reflective practice and an integral part of social work. Supervision provides social workers with the opportunity to evaluate, discuss intentions and develop innovative solutions.

CCT’s Social Workers participate in the following supervision:

  • Group Supervision: social workers gather together in groups of approx 12-15 to undertake group supervision, which helps to build their capacity in CCT’s social work approach by learning from one another.
  • Peer Supervision: in peer supervision, a set of questions are formulated for social workers to evaluate the progress of their case work. It helps social workers to identify positive developments in families, the actions they’ve taken with families to accomplish the case plan goals and the areas they need to focus on.
  • Individual Supervision: is conducted by line management between the social work team leaders and senior social workers, and between senior social workers and village-based social workers/interns. Individual supervision maximises positive working relationships and provides important personalised support to all social workers in CCT’s Village Hive.