When parents are in jail they don’t stop loving their children. In part 2 we look at how kids adapt to life at the orphanage when parents are locked away, and how their relationships are impacted by separation.
A Chinese father is convicted of murder.
His three young children, from the city of Nanzhao, are left with nowhere to live. What happens to them now?
At Sun Village, a chain of orphanages across China, the children of criminals and convicts – left by their extended families to fend for themselves – are learning to become adults.
“The kids are deeply hurt in their heart,” says Grandma Zhang, the director of Sun Village. “Therefore, we have to face the reality with them.”
“It’s impossible for [them] to live elsewhere, because they’re poor kids whose parents are in prison.”
Grandma Zhang used to be a prison officer, before opening Sun Village in 1995 – there are now nine across the country, caring for 500 children who don’t have a home to go to.
In this week’s Dateline, the first of two films looking at the lives of children at Sun Village in Beijing, we meet three young siblings who have just arrived at the orphanage after their father is convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s niece and sentenced to life in prison.
14-year-old twins Zhang Yan and Zhang Wei, and their brother Zhang Hong, who is 12, get on well with other children at the orphanage, but face daily struggles after being ripped away from the life they knew.
In China, children like the Zhangs often face prejudice for their father’s crime.
“These kids are very different from kids from normal families, some people discriminate against these kids” says Grandma Zhang. “They project their resentment for their parents onto the children. It’s very unfair.”
Zhang Wei says the children’s extended family has not stayed in contact since their father went to prison.
“What do they take us for?” she tells Dateline producer Kaspar Astrup Schröder. “I wish I were an orphan. Orphans are better off – they don’t have parents and don’t bear horrible memories.”
Other children come from violent homes – like three young triplets who recently arrived at Sun Village.
“Their father was unemployed and violent,” says Mr Su, an employee at the orphanage. “He often drank and beat his family.”
“Their mother was a convenient target of domestic violence. The boys were so afraid that they would hide.”
At one point, the triplets’ mother had had enough and killed their father. The children, according to Mr Su, were crying all day and night when they arrived.
These kinds of cases are not uncommon.
In China, domestic violence has long been considered an epidemic hiding in the shadows – the government body responsible for women’s rights in the country estimates 1 in every 4 married women is beaten by their partner.
Legal protections against domestic violence were only implemented in China last year, but there remain concerns over the unwillingness of victims to report abuse to authorities and around the implementation of restraining orders against perpetrators. For many women, shame is the reason they don’t report abuse.
The experience of bearing witness to abuse is also traumatising for children.
“Some kids were deeply affected by the bloody fights between their parents,” says Grandma Zhang.
Children like the Zhangs and the triplets are in a situation outside their control.
They are forced to become adults before children their age usually would. They also face more rudimentary issues – the Zhangs struggle to secure a National ID card, which is needed to enrol in high school. But with their father in prison, and no extended family willing to help, they can’t apply for one.
“I have no hope or expectations,” says Zhang Yan. “The future is dark.”
“We’ll just grow old here and nothing more,” says Zhang Wei. “No one’s going to help us get through this.”
How do parents care for their children from prison? And how to kids become adults without the support of their parents?
At a small group home in Beijing, the children of criminals are growing up by parenting each other.
One of the few shelters for children whose parents are in jail for violent crimes, Sun Village is helping raise China’s most vulnerable young people – teaching them to cook and clean, and helping them process their trauma.
“I insist that the older kids look after the younger ones,” Sun Village’s founder Grandma Zhang tells producer Kaspar Astrup Schröder, in the second part of Dateline’s film on the lives children in the group home.
“We only have two teachers to look after these children. That’s why I want the older kids to protect the younger ones, and I call them ‘big brothers’ and ‘big sisters’.”
The children living in Sun Village carry more psychological baggage than many adults will in their entire lives. For some, one parent was killed by the other; some stay temporarily whilst their parents await trial, and others were simply abandoned.
6-year-old Strawberry came to Sun Village after she was rescued from a human trafficking ring when only 10 days old. The only family she’s known is the one she has at the home.
She’s watched other children come and go – as their parents are released from prison or family members come to collect them. But Strawberry knows there’ll be no family reunion for her. No one even knows her parent’s names, or where they are.
Without parents of her own, Strawberry relies on other girls at Sun Village – who aren’t much older than her – to act as surrogate guardians and raise her.
Many of the kids living at the shelter are scarred from violent experiences.
Lili, one of the children at Sun Village, is still tormented by her home life.
“It’s because of my dad,” she says, “He killed my mum because she was running away.”
“He told her to come back, but she wouldn’t, she kept running away. Then he killed her.”
Only 12-years-old, Lili struggles to understand exactly what happened at home – often she will turn conflicting thoughts over in her head.
“I don’t hate him. It was my mum’s fault. She was always running away.”
“All right, maybe I hate him a little.”
What Sun Village provides for children like Lili is stability in the aftermath of chaos.
While many children look forward to being reunited with their parents, others become attached to life in the home, and don’t want to leave.
11-year-old Gao Yuan’s mother spent eight years in prison for killing her husband. She was a victim of domestic abuse – Gao Yuan was only three when she was locked up.
When she arrives to pick him up after finally being released he is anxious and reluctant to leave, worried about the uncertainty a life outside of Sun Village could bring.
Children leave Sun Village if their parents or other relatives are able to take them home. But many parents are on death row or serving life sentences. Those without family stay in Grandma Zhang’s care until they are old enough to look after themselves.
Grandma Zhang, a former prison officer, says the nurturing environment she’s tried to create has a specific goal in mind for all the children she takes in.
“Many kids were brought here by myself personally,” she says. “They are so young when they come.”
“Some of them are dull. Some are sharp…It’s not about holding them in your arms, or about feeding and clothing them. The important thing is to teach them not to end up like their parents.”
“When I see them grow up to be young men and women, I am very happy.”
“They’re like my own kids.”