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A Heaven for Children of Prisoners

When Han Jing was sentenced to 10 years in prison as an accomplice in her husband's murder in 1995, the 37-year-old farmer from northwestern China's Shaanxi Province "just didn't want to live on at the thought that no one would take care of my two kids". 

But her daughter Chen Juan and son Chen Xing, now 15 and 12 respectively, are being well looked after at a special children's village in suburban Beijing.

Han visited them for the first time in eight years in late September and was relieved to see how well they were doing, both emotionally and physically. "They are much better off than I had pictured," says Han, who was released three years early in 2002 for good behavior.

Now employed by a privately owned garment factory in Xi'an, the provincial capital, Han attributes the mitigation of her sentence to Zhang Shuqin, former deputy editor-in-chief of a newspaper published by Shaanxi's Provincial Prison Administration, who set up China's first facility for taking care of children of convicted criminals in Shaanxi in 1996.

"I was so grateful to her when she asked for my approval to take my kids to the children's village in 1997, saying she would serve as their guardian," Han says. "That rekindled my confidence. I was determined to thoroughly reform so that I could get out of prison sooner."

Her children were moved to Beijing in 2001 when Zhang started her pilot children's village in the nation's capital. "Here they could receive a better education," says the 54-year-old Zhang. She made a deal with both the elementary and high schools in Banqiao Town in the Shunyi District where her children's village is located to waive tuition fees for her charges, while district officials cover the costs of their textbooks.

Zhang has immersed herself in providing for the welfare of kids like Chen Juan and Chen Xing, out of sympathy for the innocent children left behind in the wake of their parents' crimes as well as "a sense of social responsibility".

"If these children continue to be neglected and treated as outcasts of society, their traumatic experiences could lead to a build-up of resentment towards, and even hatred for, society, and they could end up committing crimes just like their parents," Zhang theorizes, citing a US study in which the children of convicted criminals were found to be five to six times more likely to commit a crime than their 'normal' peers.

Chen Juan and Chen Xing remember the abrupt and cruel change in the way people perceived them during the first two years following their mother's imprisonment. Neighbors continually cursed them and no one was willing to reach out to help a criminal's children. Alienated, desperately trying to survive, they bummed around, stealing unripe cucumbers from the fields in spring, catching and eating frogs in summer, climbing trees to devour persimmons in autumn, and feeding on wheat seedlings in winter, like sheep.

"At that time, I hated everyone, including my mother," confesses Chen Juan. "I thought my mother was the source of all this misery and that the neighbors should pay for our suffering." She admits that in those painful days she even considered retaliation.

Although she and her brother ultimately never engaged in violence, "not all kids in similar plights are able to control themselves," observes Guo Xinhua, a professor of social criminology with the Sociology Department at Renmin University in Beijing. "Quite a few resort to crime."

Each year, about 400,000 criminal cases are tried around the country. Of those adults convicted, about 70 percent are married with families, potentially affecting, at the very least, some 280,000 children.

"This group of children is more likely to exhibit antisocial tendencies due to the often violent home environments they inhabit and the extreme trauma they experience so early in life," according to Professor Guo.

Indeed, many kids, like Chen Juan, witness one parent killing the other. Some are abandoned after their fathers or mothers are imprisoned, while some are even sexually abused by their fathers for years, according to Zhang Shuqin.

Sadly, she adds, these children are virtually stigmatized, slipping between gaping cracks in the social welfare system. They are not eligible for the kind of support martyrs' offspring receive or is the social relief provided to orphans and homeless children extended to them. "Their communities tend to exacerbate the anguish by taking out their animosity towards the criminals on their children with just as much energy as they will bestow in showing appreciation and respect for martyrs on their children. It is absolutely unfair. The children are by no means responsible for their parents' wrongdoings," Zhang asserts.

Such social relief in China is reserved for orphans and abandoned babies. As for the children of criminals, only those whose parents are dead qualify for assistance, according to Wang Suying of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

There is no definite regulation stipulating whose responsibility it is to care for prisoners' children. Normally, Wang says, "their relatives are supposed to take them in. But if the relatives are unable to do so, the civil affairs administrations can provide temporary support."

This, however, does not always occur in reality. Although, in most cases, relatives of criminals' kids do not want to give up guardianship, they often lack the financial means or intellectual capacity to perform such duties. Equally, civil affairs administrations' resources are too limited to provide adequate aid. "China's social welfare system is still at a preliminary stage, lacking in quality and stretched thin," Wang complains.

For instance, Hu Yiding of the Prison Administration under the Ministry of Justice says his department cannot offer assistance to criminals' children on behalf of the government -- they only supervise prisoners and extend legal aid to those in need. "We are bound to execute the ruling of the court, so the related social problems are beyond our capacity. We are not in charge of what goes on outside the prison walls," he explains.

Zhang Shuqin, who holds that the government should shoulder part of the responsibility for looking after these children supplemented by contributions from non-governmental organizations, says the inadequate legal stipulations also create opportunities. "In the absence of clear stipulations as to which party should take care of criminals' children, those aware of the problem are free to take whatever action they deem necessary to alert both the public and the government to the issue."

Taking advantage of this situation, she set up her first children's village to provide a home and an education to kids who might otherwise end up following in their parents' footsteps. But without financial input from the government, she has to seek funding from various channels, including enterprises and individuals.

"People call me the 'beggar king', but I am happy with this title as long as I can get money to help these children," says Zhang.

She believes her work has a positive impact, not only on society but also on the prisoners and their children. "They (criminals) see hope when they realize their children are being well taken care of and feel grateful to society and want to repay (the kindness)," she says.

Not surprisingly, she also has the firm support of the children she has helped.

"I like the children's village, because I am well treated here," says Chen Juan, now a senior at Banqiao High School. "I don't have to worry about food and clothing, and I have even learned to use a computer here. I now feel I am the same as other children," she adds.

She recalls that when she first arrived at the children's village she was rather shy and extremely anxious about her future. But psychological counseling with foreign experts who visit the village every week has helped her open up, gradually making her feel more and more hopeful.

"The volunteers really listen to me and share my suffering, worries and fears, so I no longer feel lonely. I have friends, teachers and, more importantly, I have someone who really wants to help me shoulder my concerns and cares about my feelings," says Chen Juan, who is now in the top quarter of her class.

"I am very satisfied with their treatment at the children's village. They are in high spirits and no longer hate me. They call me every week and I miss them very much," says Han, adding that her current income of 400 yuan (US$50) a month is still too meagre to support her children.

"I'll work hard to earn more money until the day I can bring them home and take care of them as a real mother," says Han.

Zhang Shuqin has set up four children's villages to date, three in Shaanxi and one in Beijing, which are home to 2,000 children of jailed criminals. In 2002 alone, a total of 600,000 yuan (US$75,000), most of it donated, was spent on their care.

Chen Juan, meanwhile, is confident about her studies and says she will continue to work hard all the way through university. "I have come to realize that although I cannot control the fate of my family, I can control my own fate," she says.

(China Daily HK Edition October 14, 2003)

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