Every child deserves a safe and secure childhood, and in Thailand there's an organization working to make this a possibility for hundreds of kids. Founded in 1993 by children's rights pioneer, Montri Sintawichai, the Child Protection Foundation is Thailand's first community-based organization that shelters abused children and helps their families - including abusive parents - address the root causes of abuse.
Montri began studying child abuse after receiving a B.A. in education and taking a teaching job at an exclusive private school located near temporary settlements for migrant construction workers. It was here that he observed the tragic neglect and abuse among the worker’s children, who were often left unattended by parents struggling to maintain two or three jobs, leaving them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and drugs.
"I saw the difference between the richer kids and the poor kids, because the school that I was teaching at was a school for rich kids," Montri said. "That is why I formed a group of friends - my former classmates - to work and get close to the kids who were abused runaways and would hang out at one of the public parks."
This act of compassion lead Montri to champion for children’s rights by rescuing neglected boys and girls from brothels and abusers, and by waging a nationwide media campaign to raise awareness and challenge cultural taboos. In March of 2000, he was elected to the Thai Senate, giving him more influence and a protective aura of visibility.
The Child Protection Foundation now operates a three-story home in Bangkok where Montri lives with his wife and 11-year-old son, and serves as a father figure to some 100 children seeking refuge and help. The trained staff and volunteers create a warm, safe atmosphere that feels as much like a traditional family as possible, with children and adults sharing chores and living together in a nurturing environment.
Concerned citizens, public officials and community leaders are also joining the cause, building a strong network of supporters who are prepared to respond to individual cases of children in trouble. Montri has even established a training program for police officers to manage unique child abuse cases, and has convinced the government to establish a special agency that set up a "hotline" and special postal box for reporting child abuse.
Although sexual exploitation of children often goes unpunished due to intimidation and social stigma that both frighten and silence victims, Montri says he is gratified to see Thai lawmakers responding to pressure for reforms in enforcement, support, and treatment. "Even though the problem is still serious, Thai society is more aware of it," he said in a recent interview.
Montri’s life work is making an enormous impact on the lives of children in Thailand. Today there are about 60 children between the ages of 3 and 16 living at the home, and about another 50 under the Foundation's care at boarding schools. Roughly 70 percent of the children eventually recover and return to their families, while several have started their own businesses, or gone on to good jobs. Some eventually make donations and volunteer during weekends and holidays, and half of the home's ten staff members were former residents.
"I am frequently asked a question by my friends and peers: 'Don’t you feel the pressure? Aren't you tense when you're working with abused children?' I must admit that sometimes it is stressful, and painful to encounter these kinds of situations. But when you live with children, you feel that they are charming, and the charm makes you happy.”