Wednesday, February 20, 2013

CHANTI''S WORLD - letter to Australia's Ambassador to Cambodia, Penny Richards

My battle with Screen Australia, the battle that has led to my being banned, begins with a documentary film I have been working on for 18 years now. The central character of CHANTI'S WORLD is Chanti - two of whose daughters were, close to five years ago, stolen by a Brisbane-based Christian church by the name of Citipointe. For close to five years I have been advocating on Chanti's behalf to have her daughters Rosa and Chita returned to her care. Citipointe has refused to do so or to provide any reason why it refuses to do so.

The following to Australi's Ambassador to Cambodia speaks for itself.

NOTE I have no idea why some of what I write is in white letters and some dark letters! One of life's mysteries! Easily resolved, in terms of reading, by highlighting.

Penny Richards
Ambassador, Cambodia
No 16B National Assembly St
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

20th Feb 2013

Dear Ambassador Richards

Please find enclosed copies of five letters that I have written this past two weeks to Senior Pastor Leigh Ramsay, whose Brisbane based church, Citipointe, operates The She Rescue Home in Phnom Penh – a refuge ostensibly committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of girls that have been rescued from the sex trade.

Citipointe has ‘stolen’ the two eldest daughters of a poor family (Rosa and Chita) that I have been associated with for 18 years and has refused, over a period of close to five years now, to return them to the care of the family.

I use the word ‘stolen’ in the same sense that we use it in Australia in relation to the generations of Aboriginal children who were removed from the care of their impoverished parents (impoverished in a material sense) in Australia – a misguided form of social engineering that caused immense heartbreak for children and parents alike and for which Australia made a formal apology in 2007.

‘Kidnapped’ is actually a more appropriate word to describe the actions of Citipointe when, in 2008 and 2009, the church retained custody of Rosa and Chita for 15 months against the express wishes of the girls’ parents  - Chanti and Chhork. Despite many requests by the parents that the girls to returned to the care of the family and in contravention of Cambodia’s ant-trafficking laws, Citipointe retained illegal custody of the girls.

Kidnapping is, I know, an extreme charge to be leveling at an Australian church. It is one that I do not make lightly and one backed up by verifiable facts, however. It is also a crime that Citipointe could quite easily prove itself innocent of by releasing a copy of any document it has in its possession that provided the church with legal justification for refusing to return Rosa and Chita to their parents over a period of fifteen months in 2008 and 2009.  Citipointe church refuses to release a copy of any such document to either Chanti or myself, as Chanti’s legally appointed ‘advocate’. This is unsurprising given that no such legal document exists.

Only after 15 months did Citipointe obtain permission, from the Ministry of Social Affairs, to retain custody of Rosa and Chita. Citipointe has refused to provide Chanti with a copy of the agreement reached between Citipointe and the Ministry and has ignored my many requests, acting as an advocate on Chanti’s behalf, that she be provided with a copy of the agreement or contract or whatever it is that Citipointe is using to provide it with justification for holding Rosa and Chita against their parents’ wishes. The Ministry has likewise refused to provide Chanti with a copy of this agreement or contract, leaving Chanti with no idea when, or even if, her daughters will be returned to her. This causes her enormous distress and has done for the past close to five years. The Ministry did, however, write the following in a letter to me 15 months after the removal or Rosa and Chita:

2)       For the SHE resuce project, according to the agreement made with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, the organization has projected to help victims of human trafficking and sex trade as well as families which fall so deep in poverty. After questioning directly, the ministry believes that Rosa must have been in any of the above categories.

That the Ministry ‘believes’ (as opposed to knows) that Rosa must have been in any of the above categories’ does not suggest much in the way of thoroughly of research or the asking of questions. Certainly, the Ministry never spoke with Chanti or her husband Chhork. At the time of the Ministry’s letter Chhork was running a boat on the Bassac River for tourists and Chanti had a stall by the river selling sacks to tourists.

The girls, Rosa and Chita, now aged 11 and 10 respectively, have never been involved in any aspect of the  sex trade - a fact acknowledged by Citipointe church and the Ministry of Social Affairs. The only reason why Rosa and Chita were placed in temporary care by their mother in the She Rescue Home in mid 2008 was that the family was very poor and in the midst of a financial crisis – ‘fall so deep in poverty’. This crisis passed within a few months but Citipointe refused to return the girls. In so doing the church abrogated promises made to Chanti and myself.

In Feb 2013 the family is no longer poor. Indeed, by Cambodian standards it is comfortably well off.  It now owns a house in Prey Veng province (acquired last week) and rents a small house in Phnom Penh. The father, Chhork, works as a tuk tuk driver to support the family  - his income supplanted by Chanti and her mother,  both of whom make and sell bracelets to tourists. Chanti also sells scarves and books to tourists. The two other school-age children (James and Srey Ka) attend school every school day. In short, a fairly typical Cambodian family. And yet Citipointe church still not only refuses to return Rosa and Chita to their family but refuses to provide any explanation or reason for not doing so. Leigh Ramsay does not respond in any way to my letters.

A close-to complete record of how Citipointe came to take custody of Rosa and Chita can be found on my blog at:

It seems from the church’s actions that Citipointe now considers Rosa and Chita to be church property. It does not acknowledge that the parents have any rights at all and has demonstrated a total lack of regard for the welfare of the rest of the family. This has been well documented this past four years in the documentary record I have kept of Chanti’s life over the past 18 years and the book I am writing – both of which are entitled CHANTI’S WORLD.

Worst of all the human rights abuses visited upon the family by Citipointe  is that Rosa and Chita are prime tourist attractions for visitors to the She Rescue Home – a point to which I will return shortly.

Leaving aside the legality of Citipointe’s position regarding Rosa and Chita, let’s look briefly at how Citipointe church is described by Wikipedia:

The She Rescue Home is in Cambodia and a place where trafficked and prostituted girls can find a safe haven to live their lives. In a She Rescue Home they receive counselling, medical attention, education and vocational training. It was started by Citipointe and Leigh Ramsey in 2006.

Two salient points are worth making here:

- The majority of girls resident in the She Rescue Home have not been trafficked and have never worked as prostitutes. They are the daughters of poor parents who have ‘fallen so far in  poverty.’

- It cost, on average, eight times as much money to support a child in an ‘orphanage’ (or similarly run refuge) as it does to support the child within his over her own family.

Given that only 27% of the ‘orphans’ in Cambodian ‘orphanages have no parents at, it follows that 73% have at least one parent. This raises the question: Why don’t the operators of these ‘orphanages’ support eight of the kids in their care within their own families and communities for the same cost as keeping them in an institution/ This, perhaps, something for AusAID to think about the next time it provides financial support to Australian-run ‘orphanages’ in Cambodia.

Rosa and Chita have never, at any point in their young lives, (aged 6 and 5 when kidnapped by Citipointe) been involved in any aspect of the sex trade. They are simply the daughters of poor parents who were offered short term help from Citipointe, were lied to, duped into signing a worthless contact, told then that they had given up their daughters until they were 18 and lost custody of Rosa and Chita.

And what does Citipointe’s own website say about the She Rescue Home:

Girls we receive have been trafficked, raped, prostituted, or are at risk of these things.

Rosa and Chita have never been trafficked, raped or prostituted. Nor have they ever been placed at any greater risk of these things happening to them than any poor girl child in Cambodia.  Given that one third of Cambodian children live below the poverty line, one sixth of Cambodia’s female child population is eligible to be institutionalized in accordance with Citipointe’s flexible use of the word ‘risk’. In short, hundreds of thousands of girls. And, the laws of supply and demand being what they are, there are plenty of poor Cambodian parents who wish to provide their children with nutritious food and schooling who could well fall into the trap that Chanti fell into when she agreed to accept short term help from Citipointe.

As is well established from studies, the children of poor families are much better off living with their families, whilst children brought up in institutions are more likely to suffer from damaged or severed family connections and be prone to homelessness, exploitation, trafficking, drug abuse and behavioral problems – the very same problems that arose as a result of Australia’s misguided attempts to ‘rescue’ Aboriginal children from their materially poor parents.

In the case of Citipointe the church is also indoctrinating Rosa and Chita into the church’s own Christian belief system (against the law in Cambodia) and alienating the girls from their culture and religion by refusing to allow them to participate in any religious festivals or cultural events with their Buddhist family. The wedding of Rosa and Chita’s aunt this last weekend (which Citipointe refused to allow Rosa and Chita to attend) is yet another example of the church’s deliberate attempts to alienate the girls from their family and culture.

On the question of sponsorship, Citipointe tells potential sponsors:

You have the opportunity to sponsor either a girl who is currently residing in the SHE Home, or girls who have been safely reintegrated back into their communities.

Are Rosa and Chita currently being sponsored – despite being neither victims of the sex trade of from a family that has fallen so low in Poverty? Not only has Citipointe made no effort in close to five years to move towards reintegration of Rosa and Chita into their family (see extensive blog correspondence on this question this past year), nor has the church made any financial contribution at all to the family’s well-being – as exemplified the week before last when Chanti, 8 months pregnant and with pneumonia, received no assistance at all from the church.

What happens to the sponsorship money donated to Citipointe to help care for “girls who have been safely reintegrated back into their communities,”? How much money does the She Rescue Home take in each year in donations made by sponsors and how much does it cost to run the She Rescue Home? Is the church in fact making a profit out of the refuge whilst, at the same time abrogating the human rights of both the girls resident in it and materially poor parents such as Chanti and Chhork?

I believe that these are quite legitimate questions for yourself, as Australia’s representative in Cambodia, to ask Citipointe church. Australia does, after all, provide Cambodia with many millions of dollars to help combat the very forms of human rights abuse I allege are being perpetrated by Citipointe church. I do not expect you to take my word for this but do trust that you, or the relevant persons within the Embassy will look at the facts – the most pertinent of which is the existence or non-existence of a legal document giving Citipointe the right to hold Rosa and Chita against the wishes of their parents for 15 months back in 2008 and 2009.  The most important people in all this but the ones who never get consulted are Chanti and Chhork. It would be appropriate that someone from the Embassy speak with both parents without either Citipointe or myself present. Chanti has all the voluminous correspondence – signed with her own thumb prints and those of her Village Chief to verify the accuracy of what I write here.

Citipointe church’s website has the following to say about the tours it conducts in Cambodia:

Looking for somewhere a little different to celebrate the end of your school days? Keen to explore the world and experience new cultures? Spend ten unforgettable days in Cambodia doing just this. Cruise around Phnom Penh in tuktuks, try local delicacies (tarantulas...eew!), and squeeze into tiny river boats, all while impacting the lives of those around you. See tangible differences as you spread the message of hope and love to the people of Cambodia. Experience and be involved with the work that the SHE Rescue Home and other organisations are doing to stop the cycle of poverty and sex trafficking in Cambodia. 

Does Citipointe really believe that the children lined up in a row to have their hair washed in unison by well meaning volunteers (see photo on website) is an experience of value to them? Much has been written about the damaging effects of Orphan Tourism or, as I prefer to call it ‘Poverty Tourism’ and you will no doubt be familiar with the literature.  

But lets just say for argument’s sake that there are some girls in the She Rescue Home who have been rescued from the sex trade. They must, by definition, be young (less than 18) and traumatized by their experiences. What kind of Christians would invite anyone prepared to pay money to go on a tour to come and wash the hair  of a rape victim! Does the rape victim, the victim of trafficking or exploitation within the sex trade have any choice but to have her hair washed by cashed-up ‘poverty tourists’? Are they supposed to be grateful for having been lined up and had their hair washed in unison? Such cultural insensitivity smacks of 19th C colonialism and should play no role in Australia’s assisting Cambodian families out of poverty.

Another question that I trust you will ask of Leigh Ramsay: Are Citipointe’s ‘poverty tourists’ qualified to work with traumatized girls from another country or are tour group places open to anyone who is prepared to fork out the money? And how much do the Citipointe ‘poverty tourists’ pay for the experience of washing girls’ hair and generally hanging out with sex abuse victims for a few days? Were you to behave in this way back in Australia, had you not already been arrested for kidnapping, you would have child welfare and victims of sexual abuse advocate groups down on your head like a ton of bricks. Citipointe can get away with it in Cambodian, however, because here pretty well anyone with money can do whatever they like with impunity and are under little or no obligation to obey the laws of the land.

I trust that someone within the Embassy, someone within the Department of Foreign Affairs will take the trouble to read through all the correspondence and acquaint themselves with the indisputable facts of what has taken place over the past close to five years in relation to the removal of these children from their family, the fifteen months in which Rosa and Chita were essentially kidnap victims and the subsequent years during which the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs has turned  a blind eye to fraudulent claims made by Citipointe in relation to its activities in Cambodia.

In the interests of transparency I am publishing this letter on my Citipointe blog.

best wishes

James Ricketson

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