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Richard Haugland Complaint Letter - Removing Akha Children

This is a letter of complaint written by a volunteer to Richard Haugland's Starfish Children's Country Home in Chiangmai, Thailand, about how the Akha children are taken away from their families and the fearful environment in which this man from Oregon makes them to live so that his dream of some kind, can come true.
Dear Mr. Waddell,
Thank you for your interest in my experience at Starfish.
I agree that my views as a teacher may be different from those of student volunteers. One of my deepest concerns is that as a teacher I am a mandated reporter, which means that I am compelled to report even the slightest awareness of suspected child abuse. Of course, Thailand is not the United States, so the regular channels for such reportage are not available to me.

My first concern upon arriving at Starfish School was the almost complete absence of leadership. When I arrived the 23 children were barely supervised. They wandered around the pool with no adult present. There is a river right across the small road in which the children played unsupervised. Every foreigner, including all the volunteers arriving at Starfish, immediately noticed the total lack of any standards of safety. When we pointed this out to Dr. Haugland, he laughed.

There was no supervision of the staff by experienced people, nor any training given before or after their employment. The Thai staff in charge of the custodial care of the children, aged 3 to 8 years old, had virtually no experience, training, or accountability to anyone Shortly after I arrived I was made aware, both from the children and another teacher, that the staff, the "house mothers", regularly pinched the children. When I immediately reported this to Mr. Haugland he showed little reaction. I insisted he bring up the issue at a staff meeting, and that this had to stop. Much later he did so in a very desultory fashion, although the individuals who were perpetuating the punishment were not even at the meeting. After Haugland left the meeting, the Thai staff asked me who was going to tell the custodial staff what Haugland had said. There was no one in charge of them, except Dr. Haugland, who had no intention of speaking to them personally, as he never does. This situation concerns and distresses the Thai staff as much as it does us "farangs."

Another incident involved one of the staff hitting a child with a stick. A volunteer told Dick immediately, at which point Dick emailed all of us volunteers and said "we" have to figure out what to do about this person, and please to report any further incidents. After a week or so I became aware that nothing had been said to the young woman who had hit the child . When I confronted Dick about his, he said that since we hadn't reported another incident he had in effect let the matter drop. I emailed him to say that he did not need another incident of child abuse to speak to the staff, and that it was not the responsibility of 23-year-old volunteers, most of whom had just arrived, to deal with this matter. There was no "we" here, "he" was supposed to be in charge. The woman in question didn't even speak english.

But the most eggregious example of child abuse is simply the atmosphere of punishment and forboding at Starfish. Dr. Haugland claims to be establishing a school for gifted and talented children. Those children who are not viewed as such by Haugland are sent to his other site, in the city of Chiang Mai. What he doesn't reveal is that he brings these hilltribe children to the "gifted" Starfish site, ( one as young as two and a half), and expects them to learn english in their first year there. That is his sole criteria for evaluating the children. The other Montessori teacher and I told him again and again that these were delusional expectations to have for hilltribe preschool-aged children who are yet learning Thai . He shrugged and repeated that those were his expectations. We asked him what his educational backround was to be judging a 3 year old's academic potential. He said, and I quote, "I'm a father." (This exchange was in a staff meeting with many witnesses.) The only other volunteer with a solid backround in early childhood education said, "do you realize that these children are constantly afraid of being sent to Chiang Mai, that it is viewed as a punishment?" Dick said, "they're right, it is." This volunteer walked out of the meeting in outrage and horror.

I remain devasted that these innocents are being treated like this. Dr. Haugland takes these youngsters from their villages, telling the parents that he will give them an outstanding educational opportunity. What he doesn't say is that if these children do not please him by conversing in English, they will be sent to Chiang Mai ,where they will experience the Thai school system which Haugland describes as a kind of "death." Indeed, three months after I arrived, the other Montessori teacher and I awoke to find that two of our students had been sent away to Chiang Mai over the weekend. Their sisters remained at Starfish Country . No reason was given, except that Dick hadn't wanted to take them in the first place, but in order to get their siblings, the parents insisted. In other words, he separated sisters from each other, after they had already undergone the unprecedented dislocation and trauma of being removed from their villages and homes, based on nothing other than a personal preference. He never even asked me or the other elementary teacher what kind of students they were.

This Foundation is presenting itself as being the answer to the prayers of the hill tribe peoples of northern Thailand. Many of the children who arrive at Starfish are indeed "disadvantaged" although only one is a true "orphan" in the sense that both parents are deceased. I noticed that most of the volunteers thought they were coming to an "orphanage." I was even laboring under that impression for a few weeks. Then I saw that they all had homes and families and people who love them dearly. I visited an Akha village where 3 of our 5 Akha children lived. I visited a Lisu village. The families were beside themselves with joy to have their children back . Dr. Haugland only "allows" two short visits home a year as a condition of enrolling at his school. (I pleaded with him this last christmas to give them more time, as the parents must go to great lengths, literally and otherwise, to bring them home. Dr. Haugland grudgingly added one day to their 3 day holiday.)

These caring parents send their children to Dr. Haugland because he promises them an opportunity so fabulous that they would be foolish and selfish to turn it down. They fully expect their children to receive a first rate education which will enable them to return to their villages in order to assist their parents and their community. They don't know that Dr. Haugland has virtually no backround in education. They don't know that the people in charge of their children's health and well-being have no training. They don't know that there is no educational philosophy or methodology underpining the school, but their children are expected to learn english anyway, at 3 and 4 years old, or they will be considered "dumb" ( an adjective Dr. Haugland uses often to describe the children he sends to the Chiang Mai site.) They don't know that their children are extremely stressed and unhappy at Starfish Country Home School because communication between home and school is discouraged. They don't know that Starfish is an extremely unhealthy and unhappy place for everyone.

I don't believe this is a legitimate learning experience for young volunteers with little or no training in early childhood education. I have extensive training and experience recognizing and identifying child abuse and neglect. I think these volunteers are being sent to an emotionally traumatic situation. From what I saw, the volunteers were upset and confused, hardly knowing what to do or who to talk to. They used any excuse to get away from the site. They were understandably intimidated about speaking up, even though they sensed something very wrong. I do not see how they are expected to have the maturity to put this experience into any kind of "learning" context. I think that it is potentially psychologically damaging for them. In a few years they may well reflect on their participation and become overwhelmed with guilt and anxiety. I know that I am feeling these emotions as I write. I am trying to work through these feelings, in part, by protecting the wonderful kids who have signed up for a program that I am sure they assumed has some legitimacy and altruistic intentions.

Thank you for listening. Again, as a mandated reporter I am compelled to divulge what I saw, even though I might well be howling in the wind.

Julie Cambridge

homepage: homepage: http://www.akha.org