Rebuilding

Coming home from dinner on Sunday night, I had a message waiting for me from one of the Blue Dragon staff.

He was on his way to meet a young man who had just come out of prison, a former Blue Dragon boy named ‘Hao’ who was caught up in the pedophile rings that ran with impunity several years ago, and was unable to escape the drugs and darkness that came with that terrifying life.

Much has changed since then, including the fact that those rings no longer have impunity. With 3 foreign pedophiles arrested and imprisoned in Vietnam, plus a fourth arrested by interpol, as well as 5 local pedophiles arrested and the law reformed to recognise the sexual abuse of males as a crime, street children today have far greater protection than they did back in 2012 when Blue Dragon first started hearing disclosures of abuse by homeless boys.

Achieving this change has taken its toll on us, both personally and as an organisation. With limited systemic support to protect street children, my team and I were faced with a blunt choice: to put ourselves on the line in order to keep the kids safe, or to simply do our duty and stand back while children were abused.

Of course we could not stand back, and so all of us accepted that we would need to work through the night and weekends, sacrificing our time and families, to respond to the constant crisis that raged around us.

There were nights when kids would call begging for help, or warning that one of the pedophiles had taken a new street kid to a hotel. You just can’t deal with a call like that and return to polite dinner conversation or roll over and go back to sleep. We all faced a very deep trauma, and we still live with those scars today.

One of the foreign pedophiles (now in prison) had the phone numbers of my staff stored on his phone, and late one night when he was high on ice he started texting one of the team, thinking he was a child, inviting him to a hotel.

Nothing was normal, and our work for several years involved looking into the blackness while we tried to create hope and light.

Eventually we did, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the lives of many children were saved. Teen boys whose lives seemed impossible to repair have stayed with us; many are in jobs now, or still in training, and we continue to care for them while they slowly rebuild a sense of self and work toward fulfilling their own dreams.

But not Hao. He was too damaged, even before we met him, to turn his life around. Hooked on meth, with a burning hatred of the world and a deep distrust of everyone in his life, his path to prison was almost inevitable.

Now that he’s out, the first people he has reached out to are from Blue Dragon. We can’t do much, but we can let him know we care and lend a helping hand in some practical ways to help him start over.

The rest is up to Hao. I just wish that we had met him a year before we did… and that the men responsible for his psychological demise will one day face justice for what they have done.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Caged

Long’s story reached us through a woman whose son we were already helping; a random conversation on no particular day, almost incidentally.

“I wonder if you can do something for my neighbour,” she said. “Their son, Long, is quite naughty so they have locked him up in their house.”

Every now and then, Blue Dragon comes across families who have locked their children up to stop them running away.

Just this week we found a 9 year old boy chained inside his home (he’s now in an emergency shelter while we work out how to help over the longer term). And he’s not the first – we’ve met kids cuffed to beds or kept at night in dog cages by mothers and fathers who may be abusive or, in some cases, completely overwhelmed by their teenager’s behaviour and lack any parenting skills.

Some parents may have been locked up themselves as children, and think it’s just a normal way to discipline a child.

Long was not chained up. He was not being kept overnight in a locked room.

Instead, his father had custom built a cage* inside the house, from ceiling to floor, with the gate permanently locked.

Long was a prisoner inside his family’s home.

My first reaction was outrage: we had to call the police! These parents must go to prison!

After a group meeting, it was decided that several of our best social workers would go out to see for themselves what was going on. If needed, they would call the police; but first we would assess the situation.

It was a half day drive from Hanoi to Long’s village. And when the team arrived, it was clear that he was indeed locked into a room-sized cage as we had heard.

In fact, he had been in there so long that the padlock no longer worked and the metal bars of the gate were almost rusted into the metal door frame. There was no way to open it, except with power tools.

As the social workers had predicted, the family situation was complex. Long’s parents seemed to genuinely love their son and wanted to protect him, and were frustrated that they couldn’t stop him going out overnight to internet cafes, skipping school, getting tattoos, and hanging out with local gangsters. They wanted to keep him from that – but didn’t know how.

Initially they locked him up when they were going to be away from home for the whole day and Long would be on his own. But when they came back and let him out, he took off for days at a time.

Knowing that it was wrong; knowing they could go to prison; the family finally locked Long into the cage and kept him there for months.

When Blue Dragon arrived, the mother and family were visibly relieved that someone had come to help. They wanted something better for their son but instead had made things much worse. Long was miserable and angry; there was no doubt that he would flee the moment they broke open his prison.

We learned that they had been looking for someone who could help them and their son, but there was simply nobody to be found.

Over the years, Blue Dragon has met a few teens who were locked up in cages or chained inside the house on and off for years, but who escaped and came to the city as street kids. In these cases, we have met them too late – substantial damage had already been done. These are the kids who end up in constant trouble with the law, targeted by pedophile rings, and hooked on drugs like meth.

We didn’t want that to be the fate of Long.

After hours of talking, Long’s father went to find a grinder. He came back, cut open the cage, and Long was free.

So what next?

Long clearly couldn’t stay at home; that wasn’t going to work. Knowing that one of his friends was with Blue Dragon, he wanted to come in to Hanoi and see what was on offer there. His parents agreed, and we went to see the local government to make sure they knew what was going on and understood the plan.

Today, life is very different for both Long and his parents. After arriving in Hanoi, Long spent some weeks hanging out at Blue Dragon, talking to counselors and working out what he wanted to do with his life.

The first priority was just to spend time being a normal kid.

Finally he settled on studying a part time vocational course, combined with a part time job. He’s like a kid who woke up one day, surprised to find that it was Christmas. He’d thought he would be stuck in that cage for the rest of his life.

Long is 16 and living semi-independently but he still comes by to see us every day.

And the best part is that he goes home from time to time to see his parents: sometimes with a Blue Dragon social worker, and increasingly on his own. They all know that what happened within their family should never have taken place, and they all want to heal the rift that grew between them. Our ultimate goal is to see this family back together and able to cope with whatever comes next.

No child should live like a prisoner, or grow up feeling like running away is their only option. Long’s life is looking a whole lot brighter now that he has his freedom and the support to live the life that he dreams of.

*Just a note that the header photo for this blog post is a part of Long’s cage, but I have cropped it down to be unrecognisable for privacy reasons.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.