WASHINGTON – Six months after the massive Indian Ocean tsunami left a quarter-million people dead or missing, aid workers say many orphaned children have been taken in by family members or village friends, and child exploitation in the wake of the disaster has been largely minimal.
"There was a real good chance of [child exploitation] being a possibility, and we took immediate steps to prevent it," said Christine Knudsen, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, who recently returned from Indonesia.
Save the Children has added more than 2,000 unaccompanied children to an Indonesian database listing all such children. Only about 140 have been reunited with family so far.
Knudsen said the U.S.-based organization has longstanding operations in Indonesia and was fully aware of the country's chronic problems of trafficking in children. She said villagers were also aware and quickly took action after the tsunami hit.
"Communities were shutting down around their kids. They were being very protective — to the point that when we went into the communities on our own, they wouldn't even give us children's names," she said. "It was a very positive development."
Mike Kiernan, a colleague of Knudsen, concurred.
"If you are a child trafficker," he said, "this is one of the last places in the world you would want to do business, because the world is watching."
There are still challenges to the effort to reunite families — 4,000 parents have posted requests for missing children in the Indonesian database — and aid workers keep an eye out for predators, scam artists and people seeking to abuse the fledgling system.
Dean Owen, spokesman for World Vision, which conducts child-protection and family-aid work, including child-family reunification, in Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, said the child exploitation in the region was a horrifying fact even before the tsunami.
"Thailand, India, Cambodia — they have child prostitution that is rampant," he said. "Children are certainly the most vulnerable to exploitation. We're more on alert for it."
Clear totals of tsunami orphans from each affected country are hard to come by.
According to the latest figures from UNICEF, 1,648 Indonesian children were separated from both parents during the tsunami, 140 of whom have since been reunited with their families. The organization did not have a figure for the number of children who had lost both parents.
The Indonesian government says 5,270 children lost at least one parent in Aceh (search) province — the hardest hit area in the country — alone.
In Sri Lanka, UNICEF says there are 934 separated children, 554 orphans and 3,477 who lost one parent. In Thailand, 1,200 children lost parents as a result of the disaster.
In January, Indian officials estimated that 1,744 lost both parents, and 1,450 children lost one parent.
Meanwhile, aid groups say actual incidents of exploitation have been very rare.
"We never found problems with trafficking," said Heather Paul, U.S. spokeswoman for SOS Children's Villages, an international organization that currently cares for 56,000 orphans across the globe. The villages house orphans and caregivers in community settings.
She said SOS is building several new villages for orphans of the tsunami, many of whom now dwell in SOS villages that were in operation before the disaster.
She said that many small and large-scale "instant shelters" for children were set up after the tsunami, and many have already closed up shop, so they are hard to track. Many might not be in operation until the end of the year.
"Staff of SOS Children's Villages in the affected areas reported hearing stories of concern about some of these places," she said. "Our organization has many years of experience carrying out humanitarian aid in 132 countries, so we know that some of these places may indeed be dubious. However, we also know that some are good and genuinely interested in providing aid and care for tsunami affected children."
Antennae were raised, however, after a recent report indicated that an American sex offender with a long rap sheet had been operating an orphanage in Sri Lanka for more than two months.
MSNBC reported in June that Daniel Wooley (search), also known as Daniel Nicholas Taze, and his girlfriend, Michelle Curry, rehabilitated and ran an orphanage for 40 to 50 children.
There were no complaints of abuse, according to the report — in fact, Wooley was credited with treating the children for varying infections and fixing the dilapidated building.
But he is now being investigated by Sri Lankan authorities and has been banned from the orphanage due to his background, which includes drug trafficking, sexual assault and check fraud.
Both Wooley and Curry, who raised substantial amounts of money for the orphanage, have denied any wrongdoing.
Aid workers say they have taken extraordinary measures to protect the children in their care, such as instituting verification guidelines for adults claiming children and monitoring the care in orphanages and boarding schools. They also say that stories such as Wooley's are the exception, not the rule.
In addition, all adoptions of children in Indonesia outside the affected region have been halted to avoid the potential trafficking of children. Other countries abide by similar strict adoption policies.
Kiernan and others say that one of the most successful approaches has been to place orphans with trusted adults in their own communities, as opposed to housing them in orphanages and hoping for outside adoptions.
"Most have a caring adult they know from their community willing to take care of them," said Kiernan. "In many cases, neighboring adults and relatives who have lost their own children are very open to taking care of children separated from their parents."
Knudsen said Save the Children, like other groups, is supplementing its role as child advocate with the rebuilding of villages, schools and livelihoods, all things that will restore normalcy in children's lives.
"In most cases," she said, "our experience has shown that most children will recover that normal sense of joy if they have the assurance of security and a caregiver."