In China, Children of Inmates Face Hard Time Themselves

From left, Shitou, Hai Bin and Hai Liang eat lunch at Children's Village, a group home in Dalian, China. Before Hai Bin arrived, another boy cracked his head open with a rock.
From left, Shitou, Hai Bin and Hai Liang eat lunch at Children's Village, a group home in Dalian, China. Before Hai Bin arrived, another boy cracked his head open with a rock. (By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 13, 2006

DALIAN, China -- The children answer to nicknames such as "Seagull," "Brightness," "Summer" and "Ocean," but they come with scars that social workers initially mistake for dirt. When they first arrive at the two-story house here, they hoard toothpaste, or they hide new socks and steamed buns in their bed quilts, as if they were precious gems.

They are the children of prisoners, and in this country, they belong to no one.

The law is unclear on who should provide for the children of China's more than 1.5 million prisoners. No government department is willing to supervise them. Historically, relatives have taken them in, but in practice, many unwanted children are shuffled from family to family. Sometimes, even the families do not want them.

A small number of children, like the 12 at the home here in Dalian, receive care at "Children's Villages," organizations usually run by civic-minded individuals. But there are no more than nine or 10 such organizations nationwide, serving perhaps 1,000 children, experts say. Prisoners have an estimated 600,000 children under the age of 18, according to Justice Ministry statistics; experts argue that the actual figure is higher.

The reasons for the neglect can be traced to China's bureaucratic system, but also to the scorn with which some Chinese have traditionally regarded criminals and, by extension, their children. In rural areas especially, the stigma against criminals and their families is felt almost as strongly as it was during the Cultural Revolution, the brutal 10-year campaign of terror that pitted youth against parent, wiped out any notion of trust and taught millions of people to shun "bad elements."

"People used to turn pale when talking about criminals in those times," said Zhang Shuqin, 58, director of the Beijing Sun Village Research Institute for Helping Special Children. "Some would argue, 'We can't even help good people's kids, why bother to help criminals or their kids?' "

At Dalian Children's Village, located behind a cornfield just west of this seaside city in northeast China, many of the children arrived after being taunted or beaten in their home villages or towns, and most came from impoverished backgrounds. Their parents, now serving time for robbery, fraud or murder, often earned less than a dollar a day before being incarcerated.

"Most of our kids live below the poverty line. They have relatives, but they're very poor. The more rural the area, the worse it is," said Pan Du, the executive director of the Dalian home. "If you live in a village, everybody knows your business. And kids can be so cruel to each other."

To protect their privacy, the children are given nicknames. "Shitou," 9, was the first child to come to live at the home three years ago. His name means "Stone," because he is considered the founding stone of the home. His previous nickname was "Idiot," given to him by relatives who beat him.

Shitou's mother abandoned the family, and his father is serving six years in prison for robbery. The boy and a sick grandmother bounced from relative to relative each month.

Yang Mei, 29, the home's full-time social worker, recalled seeing Shitou shortly after he arrived.

"I remember that his jacket was not thick enough for northeast China, and his pants were so short and tight they were hard to take off," she said. Yang also recalled Shitou flinching every time she tried to swat at the flies that loop through the home. It was only later that she learned he had once been beaten by relatives with a fly swatter.

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