Saturday, July 16, 2005

Cam-Americans Returnees shortchanged by project

By Leonie Sherman

USAID is looking to shakeup the way assistance is offered to Cambodians deported from America, following a highly critical report on the current Returnee Assistance Project (RAP).

On July 8, the United States Agency for International Development began advertising for organizations interested in managing RAP, after the previous administering body - the Center for Social Development (CSD) - pulled out of its two-year contract with the current program after just nine months.

The move follows an independent review of current RAP services. Commissioned by USAID, researched in five days, and released in May, the review was co-authored by clinical psychologist Nicholas Tenaglia and independent contractor Kevin Lineberger. It has not been released publicly but was obtained by the Post on July 12.

The review highlighted a laundry list of shortcomings and proposed an overhaul of nearly all areas of what it described as a "dysfunctional system".

"The present RAP program lacks a formal structure and therefore services are not clearly defined and not consistent as reported by some of the returnees interviewed," the review stated.

"The RAP Review Team recommends that significant change is required within RAP management systems, staffing, facilities, and overall budget to allow RAP to provide the services envisioned in the Grant agreement," the review said.

Since 2002, 129 Cambodian nationals convicted of felonies have been returned from the US. Many arrive with serious substance abuse and mental health issues. Recently, the number of deportees has dwindled, with the last group of three people arriving in March.

As the only known project of its kind in the world, the review noted that RAP had the potential to be a model for other countries in the future and warned that failure to help resettle these convicted felons could pose a risk to the community.

"All the elements for public safety disaster and/or narco terrorism are present in Cambodia: e.g. drug cultivation and preparation, rampant corruption in the local law enforcement community and easy access to weapons," the review stated.

Some of the most serious criticisms of the project included financial mismanagement, untrained and unsupervised staff, and allegations of extortion and physical abuse by a former employee.

"There were a couple of altercations where [Meas] Bopha slapped returnees who were being obnoxious," said Bill Herod, RAP project coordinator and Bopha's spouse. "I was present on one occasion and heard about several others."

The 15-page assessment reported that returnees were afraid of Bopha, RAP's former community services officer, and as a result many were reluctant to visit one facility.

The review team also heard allegations from returnees that Bopha had clients arrested by local police and then attempted to extort money from their families. There are currently four returnees in prison, three involving incidents that occured on RAP property.

Herod called the extortion allegations libelous and baseless.

Bopha is no longer employed by RAP, but Herod said July 13 that she was "still doing this work" and had met with top government officials recently about the project's future.

Financial issues have plagued RAP, which was set to receive $300,000 from USAID over two years. The project does not employ an accountant but uses a former returnee with no formal training as an "administrative assistant" responsible for preparing all financial documents associated with the program.

"We have provided a lot of technical assistance for financial accountability and feel that all RAP finances can be properly accounted for," said a top USAID official involded with RAP issues.

In an email dated July 13, however, Herod admitted to having cash flow problems.

"We are perpetually weeks or months behind in paying staff and others to whom we owe money," he wrote. "... Over the last ten months, it has not been unusual to be $20,000 in debt."

In assessing RAP's ability to help returnees reintegrate into society, the review highlighted poorly implemented support services, untrained and unsupervised staff, and residential arrangements that could pose a risk to returnees, staff members and their families.

On RAP's website, the program claims to provide a support network for returnees through orientation, training, employment and housing. Herod, however, claimed that RAP acts only as a "safety net" program for returnees, and often returnees have no for the services they provide.

The assessment states that in some instances, the lack of clinical training and experience among staff is leading to "non-existent professional boundaries that only reinforce negative behavior."

One incident cited in the report detailed the use of alcohol as a sedative for returnees with mental health issues.

"Under the direction of the program director this staff member [a returnee employed as a residential site manager], in his own words, escorts these mentally challenged and heavily medicated returnees to purchase alcohol on a daily basis. The mixing of alcohol and psychotropic medications is potentially life threatening," stated the review.

Herod defended his actions, saying the client was prone to violence if he did not have access to alcohol and RAP staff were only trying to limit the amount of rice wine purchased.

The review criticized Herod's role as "clinically unsound", arguing that he saw himself as a "pastor" who never gave up on a "black sheep".

Herod admited that his 30 years of development experience didn't give him even "the most rudimentary qualifications for doing this job", and he would be happy to step down as project coordinator and continue on as a consultant.

Early on, Herod decided to ditch formal orientation in favor of ad hoc guidance. While jobs had been found for approximately 50 returnees, substance abuse and discontent with low salaries resulted in short-lived employment for many.

However, Holly Bradford, director of Cambodian Harm Reduction Collaborative, a program administered by RAP but operating independently, currently employs about 10 returnees and is optimistic about their abilities.

"The majority of returnees, they want to make a change in their lives ... These guys are educated in America, they're bilingual, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to get a job out here," Bradford said.

While RAP does provides services such as emergency medical assistance, Khmer language classes, transitional housing, and assistance with job placement, many returnees have been critical of the implementation of some of these services.

"The RAP program didn't do shit for me," one returnee told the Post on condition of anonymity. "They talk a good game, about job training and all that shit, but I couldn't get none of that stuff."

"This program ain't working," said another. "I just don't want to see the next group of people suffer like what we went through."

In addition to expanding and improving the services offered, the review also recommends increasing the operating budget for returnee assistance to almost three times the current amount.

However, some of the recommendations contained in the review may attract further controversy.

The authors suggest expanding the project to include a 30-day orientation during which returnees must be accompanied when leaving the project residence. After completing this phase, the returnee would be given ongoing support with housing, jobs, medical care, counseling, detox and vocational training.

"Failure to enter or complete the 30-day orientation and assessment program will result in a waiver in the returnees rights to access RAP services," the review recommended.

Herod described this model as effectively a "mandatory 30-day detention", and said that he would not work under this "re-education camp" arrangement.

USAID stressed that while parts of the review would help inform the agency's approach, "the comments and recommendations do not necessarily reflect or establish USAID policy."

Despite the critical report, Herod said that he has been in discussions with three organizations in Cambodia interested in partnering with the current RAP team. According to Herod, all of these organizations have read the May review, and he expected them to turn in submissions to USAID by the July 14 deadline.

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