Sharing social work knowledge in rural Cambodia

Dr Polly Yeung, pictured in the centre back row, with staff at the Kampong Chhnang Community Rehabilitation Centre.

Dr Polly Yeung is heading back to Cambodia next month to
continue her work with local Cambodian staff.

Using the family-centred approach to support parents with children with disabilities is gaining momentum among Cambodian parents, says a Massey social work academic.

Dr Polly Yeung from Massey’s School of Social Work will head back to Cambodia next month, to continue offering intensive training with local Cambodian staff on working with families and their child/adult with disabilities in the area of disability and rehabilitation.

Dr Yeung was first asked to provide social work consultation in rural Cambodia by an international non-government organisation called New Humanity in 2013, along with her mentor and good friend, Dr Eria Li, who is an occupational therapy academic in Hong Kong. The organisation has been providing rehabilitation and support services for children and people with disabilities and their families in the region for over 20 years.

“In 2013, I spent four weeks in Kampong Chhnang, a two-hour drive from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, to provide training workshops for local staff on how to do intake interviews, family assessments, goal setting and writing reports. I also had the opportunity to conduct lots of family visits in the rural areas of Kampong Chhnang.

“Relationship building with the local staff is extremely important because for many of these families they normally see people like us [professionals] as ‘foreigners’ with no long-term connection with them. While they welcome us for visits, in order to promote and empower any substantial long-term changes, we need to work collaboratively with the local staff, as they are the people who continue to provide support and care to these families on a regular basis once we leave,” she says.

Since 2013, Dr Yeung has been going back to Kampong Chhnang each December to provide staff professional development training and keeping track on the families she has visited. Her visits range from one to two weeks.

“It’s a lot easier to work with the local staff now as they have known me for a few years. We have developed a good collegial partnership. There was some uncertainty and resistance when we first came as they thought we were there to evaluate and report their performance to the head office. However, it took no time for the ice to break, often involved food and a few laughs, and now they know we are here to support their work.”

While the Cambodian culture has often been considered as highly fatalistic, particularly when it comes to disability, not all families displayed a sense of fatalism, she says.

“When we first met Nao Sok in 2013, a 21-year old women with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability, her parents struggled to look after her and they often left her alone in an unhygienic environment. We discussed with staff about using a family-centred approach to engage with the family to address their needs, and also to assist the mother to connect with other mothers with children and young people with disabilities in the area.

“Last year, Nao Sok’s father built a new bedroom for her. The family even offered their place to host a community event to talk openly with other families and community about disability issues. Nao Sok’s parents are much more involved with her care and therapy now. This is a good example on collaborative partnership between staff and family. It takes time but when it works, it makes a significant impact on the family and the person with disabilities.”

Dr Yeung says her upcoming trip will be quite interesting. For nearly 20 years, New Humanity operated as an international non-government organisation, but late last year the ownership of the organisation went back to the local parish and community to manage the operation. “While most staff and day-to-day businesses remain unchanged, I’m eager to see how the new structure and process may mirror more of the community-led development principles and values, in which local people have more involvement in making decision on service provision and delivery.

“It will be a good case study for the students in my 300-level community development course as they can learn more about community development as bottom-up development for the community’s right to control decisions that affect people’s lives in the community,” Dr Yeung says.

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