“Still, despite it all—the rape or abandonment or HIV—all the odds against these kids,” he held the steering wheel a little tighter, “there’s hope.”

The Good Men Project / June 27, 2011

by Cameron Conaway

“I was a rascal,” he said. His face was calm, and his eyes were steady. A mischievous, reminiscent smile grew. “And I’ve got the scars to prove it.” Several raised, purple marks ran along his visible veins. He pointed, “This one is from when I was fifteen.” He paused. His eyes stared blankly into his forearm as though his mind’s projection of his former self had turned his flesh into a film screen. Then, without guilt or despair or the tonal inflections of catharsis, “That was the first time I tried to kill myself.”

Ricky Tan stands about 5’8”, and at 54-years-old, carries his lean frame with the posture of an ex-athlete. His bronzed Malaysian skin makes him look even fitter, and he has one of those smiles that instantly puts people at ease. Ricky is a husband, a father, and a former heroin addict who now adopts and provides a safe haven for orphaned, underprivileged, and abused Thai children—including child sex slaves who have been infected with HIV. He was raised in what he calls a “strict Buddhist household” and later became “not a religious man, but a man with a personal relationship with Christ.” He’s a former high school dropout who, thanks to role models, mentors, and years spent pursuing both spiritual and formal education, became the founder of Care Corner Orphanage in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As Ricky drove us to the orphanage I asked his thoughts on the nature of child sex slavery. “Look, children can be raped by Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, or by the guy next door. But, in my experience, it’s most often because of a breakdown in the family,” he said. “That’s usually first.” I’d studied this idea of family breakdown before and wanted to dig deeper, to get the details beyond Care Corner’s website and the short film from May 2011, by CNN’s Dan Rivers, “Fighting child sex slavery in Thailand.”

“Where do these kids come from?” I asked, and followed too quickly with “… and what’s their relationship with their parents? Do you know how or why the breakdowns occur?”

“Let’s back up a bit,” Ricky said, perhaps sensing that my questions were preformed. “See these beautiful mountains around us? Well, deep inside these mountains there are tribes that go back hundreds, probably thousands of years.” I’d visited four different tribes during a trek a few weeks prior, but I knew he was about to say something well beyond my superficial experience. “Know how some of the tribesmen get a wife?” he asked.

“Gosh, I have no idea.”

If a man can kidnap a woman and hide her for three days she becomes his wife.”

His statement hung cold in the tropical air.

Then, they’ll have eight or ten kids with the same woman, and then they move on, kidnap again, repeat the process. So now you have ‘mothers,’ if you can call them that, who are poor and living off the land to begin with, now with eight to ten mouths to feed.”

I looked hard into the mountains miles away and tried to imagine being a single parent, entirely dependent on the land, with a crying three-year-old child, ribs exposed, writhing in hunger on the dirt floor.

Then you have foreigners coming in offering all sorts of good things. Some say they’re with such-and-such organization and that they’ll adopt a child for free and provide them with a great life. Others straight-up offer the mother $300 per child. It’s impossible to put a number on how many mothers knew where their child was going and how many were actually fooled. Safe to say it’s a mix. We have over 80 kids at Care Corner now, not all of them were sex slaves. Still, despite it all—the rape or abandonment or HIV—all the odds against these kids,” he held the steering wheel a little tighter, “there’s hope.”

♦◊♦

Patrick Cooper is a PhD candidate in Experimental Psychology with a concentration on children’s social development at Florida Atlantic University. I consulted with him regarding the nature of this form of intentional or unintentional parental neglect, particularly as it relates to neglect from the mother. I shared with Patrick what Ricky had told me during my visit, and I asked how some of these children may struggle developmentally as a result of their past traumas.

“I would argue that most of the children you’ve encountered have either an insecure or disorganized attachment,” Cooper began.

Attachment is an evolutionary-based theory developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the mid 20th century. The basic premise is that children develop a specific type of bond with their mother that inevitably is a survival strategy. Children who form insecure attachment styles are at risk for maladjustment because they have a faulty strategy in developing human relationships, and human relationships are essential for human survival. The children who are at most risk are children that exhibit a disorganized attachment style. These children have no coping strategy. They don’t know whether to avoid mothers or seek comfort in mothers and therefore ‘freeze’ in situations where action is needed.”

“Because these kids have experienced many other forms of abuse,” I asked, “what might all this mean?”

Coupled with the fact that they’ve been psychologically and physically abused (which is beyond my expertise), I would say that they might suffer an inability to develop human relationships (romantic relationships and friendships). In my opinion, this problem will supersede most other psychological problems (including extremely low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, etc.) because the other problems will all develop from their inability to develop critical relationships.”

“So then what?” I asked Ricky. “The young child leaves with the foreigner; what happens from that point until they reach Care Corner?”

“Here we are,” he said. We pulled up to the Care Corner Orphanage gate. He asked me if I could get out and slide it open. I did and jumped back into the truck.

“Well, all stories are different,” he continued.

“But basically they are either sold again at a much higher price, used by the original or new buyer as a prostitute, or used by the buyer as his personal sex slave. They get here because we’ve established good relationships with the local police, and when they get leads and conduct raids, we’re on their list of places of refuge. Okay, here’s the Rainbow House,” he said without skipping a beat. “This is where the boys with HIV stay.”

Care Corner has been running strong since 1995. It’s nestled into a beautifully green, Zen-like environment filled with a variety of trees and a view of rolling mountains. Ricky purchased this area in part because it was just a short walk to a previously established school adjacent to the property. As it was nearing noon, the kids were in school, so we were able to slowly drive through the Care Corner campus. “Here’s the open-air cafeteria,” he said. “And these here are the various dorms painted by the students, that’s the visitor guesthouse over there, and this place in front of us is my home.” We pulled up in front of his home, and as soon as we entered he began making us fair trade coffee bought from a small organization he established in order to help some of the surrounding tribes. We toured the orphanage by foot, met some of the staff, and then came back to his home where we settled into rocking chairs and began a conversation that would continue through dinner.

“Do you still feel it?” I asked him. “When the police make a raid or when you see the little kids running around out here, do you still feel all the emotions, or have you become numb to them over the years?”

You know, Cameron, I still feel it. I really do. But I think I’m better able to handle how I feel it, if that makes sense. For example, when I tell people what I do for a living, they always smile and respond favorably. They say they admire my work. But when I tell them where these kids have come from, and what has happened to them, most people’s initial response is pure anger. You can see it in their eyes; their blood is boiling. They want to kill the person who hurt these kids. This is normal, but I do believe—and I think this is what I’ve learned to do over the years—we need to reverse where our emotions are placed. Anger against the criminal accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t help the situation and it doesn’t help the kids.”

Dr. Edward Day’s studies have led him to the same conclusion. Dr. Day is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, Altoona Campus. He’s an award-winning teacher whose published research focuses on delinquency, suicide, genocide and other war crimes, victimization, and ethnic identity. Dr. Day currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and previously served as the Director of the Secretariat for the Northeastern Association of Criminal Justice Sciences. I shared Ricky’s observations with him and asked if he could provide any more insight.

“Love for the victim is what’s needed to break through their alienation,” Dr. Day said.

Instead, because the victimizer represents a threat to what we want to believe is sacred, our typical response is hatred towards the offender rather than compassion for the victim. We dedicate the bulk of our energy and resources towards punishment rather than healing. We set our goal as revenge rather than repair, leaving the victims to despair on their own and accomplishing so much less than we could.”

When I asked Ricky where the kids go once they reach eighteen and graduate high school, I was shocked at his response. “The majority of staff at Care Corner are former orphans or sex slaves themselves who have been here since they were small children,” he said. Admittedly, I felt both inspired and uneasy. Inspired because how great, right? The older kids may have a deeper understanding of what the incoming children have gone through. Uneasy because, years ago, I researched about how the victim often becomes the victimizer. I knew there was a risk here. I asked Ricky if he felt there should be more professional staff at Care Corner to help the kids emotionally, psychologically, and even physically, based on their HIV.

“There’s just not much research out there,” he said, “especially regarding the emotional impact of having HIV so young. I believe the Lord has given us all the knowledge we need to overcome.” Surely, I asked myself, a therapist or counselor or academic is needed here? As Ricky got up to refill our coffee mugs, I saw a Bible sitting on the table, then a small cross on the wall. I felt frustration creeping through my agnosticism. I leafed through my notes and found Care Corner’s “Vision” statement from their website:

“The goal of the ministry is to provide spiritual development based on the Bible, basic education, primary health care and the utmost moral guidance as they grow. We believe the Lord has called us to raise up an army for His Kingdom in Thailand, and to be a beacon for the Lord wherever we are. We are committed to establish the career of these children by creating jobs and micro enterprises and to train them into ‘tentmakers’ and full-time servants for the ministry.”

“No…” I mumbled to myself, “the Lord hasn’t given you all the knowledge needed to overcome. Professionals are needed here. Badly.” My personal beliefs and emotions were getting the best of me. I went to the bathroom sink, splashed cold water on my face, took a few deep breaths, and returned back to the rocking chair. I realized that by all accounts—even my own, however brief—these kids were certainly in a far better place than from where they came. It wasn’t fair of me to get upset because the program had what I perceived to be a glaring weakness. Kids laugh and play hopscotch after school, they pitch in and help cook their meals together, and they have weekly discussion groups where they’re able to develop trusting relationships by working through their experiences and emotions with others. It really is a safe haven. I wondered, though, what Dr. Day, a man who has spent his life studying in this field, might say about the true impact of such brutal victimization.

I could send you scientific citations on the effects of such victimization. The findings are robust. The victims are more likely to engage in all types of risky and destructive behaviors as they go through their lives, have difficulty maintaining relationships, and in the cruelest irony, are more likely to become victimizers themselves. This is all valuable knowledge because it helps us understand the problems that will need to be addressed so we can best design programs of prevention.”

“And it all somehow misses the human side of the tragedy,” Dr. Day continued.

Rationalism may give us a guide to action, but the wounds are emotional. When the very person who is supposed to represent release or security from the pains of the world is the same person who causes them, what do you trust in? Where do you find good? What can you love?”

I quickly snapped out of my contemplation when Ricky returned and handed me a steaming mug of fresh coffee. I took another deep breath. “We’ve talked a lot about these kids and their families,” I said. “But, if you’re okay with it, I’d love to hear your story.”

“Well, I started serving full-time in ‘82 through ’85, with Christian Care Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,” he began.

I participated in a Disciple Training School with Youth with a Mission in Singapore and later served as an associate pastor in Full Gospel Assembly in Singapore and Malaysia for several years before coming here in ‘93. I graduated from Bethany College of Missions in America in ’88, with a degree in Missions and Theology.”

“I was able to gather most of that from your website,” I joked. “I’d love to know more about young Ricky, though. About your time in Malaysia, about your own parents.” Just then his son walked into the room, introduced himself, and sat down at the dining room table a few feet behind us.

“The second time I tried to kill myself was a few years later,” Ricky said.

At the time, Malaysia’s school system was based on automatic promotion. This meant that no matter how you did, you advanced until you reached the 10th grade. There you’d have a load of kids in over their heads and unable to read at a 10th grade level, if at all. I was one of them. Wasn’t able to seriously read and comprehend what I read until I was 21, or so. So, there I was, barely 16, with no skills and too far behind in school. I dropped out.”

“What did you do? How did you get by?” I asked.

I ran with the wrong crew, a gang I guess. I pushed drugs, broke into homes, stole. I trained in Muay Thai kickboxing for a few months around this time and wanted to go pro. I was completely aimless. It didn’t take long before I started using. I used every drug I could get my hands on.”

“Where was your family at this point? Was there a breakdown?”

“Yeah, I guess there was. My mother died when I was six. My father was living with another family. Thank God, I had two good sisters. So, there were times where I felt alone, you know. Without a family, without a job.”

A gang or otherwise like-minded crew of dropouts can fulfill these two primary needs. At once a gang both welcomes members as family and employs them as workers. Acceptance is essentially contingent on want, proximity, and availability (being jobless). Employment is the willingness to steal and deal. It’s danger sheathed in the artifice of family, of safety. Danger sheathed as safety is far more dangerous than unsheathed danger.

The result is that the stealing and the dealing do not feel as dangerous as they actually are. Everyone around you is doing it, and they can relate with your hardships. It’s why financially struggling artists feel a bit better when they have the support and community of other financially struggling artists. With security and a job, it’s easy to go months without seeing your next-door neighbor, but the gang is tight. Within the close dynamics of a gang, decisions are often made for the benefit of the gang, with the unspoken hope that the trickle down “what is good for them is good for me” happens. More often than not, however, the “us” concept disintegrates in a gang because so many individuals come and go, enter clean, start using, vanish, or are banished.

The needs of self often trump the needs of group, especially in the disjointed, disconnected world in which we live. That’s one reason why we’re drawn to the news stations that support what we already believe. It’s one reason why community engagement is perhaps at its lowest level even though the world’s population is rising. The war against modern-day slavery is tough to wage in the face of a climbing population and the climbing poverty resulting from it. Many efforts to increase the public’s awareness of modern-day slavery may be countered by the numbers game and the slave owner’s increasing ability to hide what they do. In order to battle modern-day slavery, we must acknowledge this.

♦◊♦

“At 18, I did six months in prison, and apparently didn’t learn a thing from it,” Ricky continued. “As soon as I got out, my friends took me out for some ‘freebies,’ and just like that I was back to being an addict.”

“Were you always on the run from the police?”

Oh yeah. You know, the thing about being an addict is that you are always either thinking about getting caught, thinking about using, or thinking about quitting. Nothing else even enters your mind. Nothing else matters. There was one time where some of us were fitting heroin into straws—we’d light it and inhale the smoke—and a police raid burst in. I was the only one caught, and the police cuffed me. I wrestled out of their grasp and took off down a dark alley. They couldn’t open fire because there were too many houses around. I hid that night and slept with my cuffs on. In the morning a friend sawed them off. That’s the kind of life we lived.”

“Do you still keep in touch with any of the ‘we’ you refer to?”

Ricky paused. “Actually, no, I don’t. You know what? They are either dead or in prison. We all went separate ways.”

“And how were you able to quit, Ricky? How were you the one who made it?”

“Friends introduced me to the teachings of Jesus and, I don’t know, I finally started taking the teachings seriously. At first going to church just provided me with a safe place while I was still using. I knew the police wouldn’t come, plus, after service I got to meet all the girls in church. A win-win. Eventually, though, I started seeing myself as a sinner.” He picked up the Bible on the table and flipped to a page. “This verse in Corinthians gave me a revelation of understanding,” he said as he handed it to me.

“Read it out loud.”

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” I said.

Yes. You see? I didn’t have to carry guilt and be depressed and continue sinning. I could be given a second chance. I could be born again. I realized that I had a choice. I chose not to sin. In my case, to destroy my body with drugs, to lie, to steal, to cheat.”

“Some people say that once you are an addict you are always an addict. Even if they are not using they feel the addict quality is within them. Do you ever feel that?” I asked.

“No, no,” he said. “‘The old has gone; the new has come.’”

Both of our smiles turned to laughter, and the mood lightened. I felt comfortable enough to ask if he’s experienced any animosity from others, especially within the Catholic Church, for his helping of the older children who, willingly or unwillingly, engaged in “homosexual acts.”

“Not so much,” he said. “But then again I’m working primarily with kids. Some of my friends are helping homosexual adult males who have contracted HIV/AIDS, and they struggle quite a bit more in trying to get members of the church to help them out. Homosexual adult males, especially those with HIV/AIDS, are considered by some to be the absolute scum of the earth. I don’t know,” Ricky said as he took a long, slow drink of his coffee, “whatever my beliefs, I try to see people not just as their weaknesses. I mean, look at me. Look at the stuff I did when I was younger. We are all human, Cameron. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or will do. We are all human.”

Ricky looked down at his watch. Just then we heard the faint sound of children talking and laughing in the distance. They grew louder. We both smiled. No matter the country or language, the sound of groups of children leaving school is always the same. “Let’s go hang out with the kids,” he said. I followed him out the door, and as we were both slipping our shoes on, he leaned closer to me and whispered, “You know, even when I was in America I always had this intention to come back to Asia to try give back what I took. I’ll never be able to fully make up for my past wrongs, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.”