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Children of Prisoners Cared for in Village Setting

Early this year a new complex was erected in Banqiao Village, which is in Zhaoquanying Town in Beijing’s suburban Shunyi District. In the clean and spacious courtyard, there are three rows of one-story houses, which include dormitories, a library, a clinic, a psychological health-care room, a solar-energy powered bathroom, etc. Lawn covers the grounds, and two swings can be found in one corner of the courtyard.

This is the Beijing Demonstration Children's Village established by Zhang Shuqin with the support of the China Charity Federation. It is a special children's village because the 36 children aged from six to 14 living here are neither orphans nor disabled. They are from families with both or at least one of their parents now serving a prison sentence.

Sad Stories

All the children have had an unbearably painful experience. Some of their parents committed a crime together, some committed offenses separately, and others cruelly killed their spouses. Worse still, some children personally witnessed the brutal behavior of their parents.

For various reasons these children were no longer cared for by adults after their parents were put in jail. They led a life of wandering, and suffered greatly. Developing bad habits such as telling lies, fighting and stealing, some children became “problem juveniles”. Because these children saw evil things at too early an age, their young hearts have been more or less scarred.

Xiao An and Xiao Qing are seven-year-old twin sisters. Shortly after their birth, their father was given a life sentence for robbery and unlawful possession of guns and ammunition. Their mother was sent to receive reeducation through labor due to drug abuse, but cannot be found since being released. The neighborhood committee where the two girls lived took care of them for three years and then sent them to an old couple in Hebei Province, the family’s distant relatives. In poor condition, the old couple could do nothing more than give them three meals a day. Since the twins came to the Children’s Village, they have learned to sing, dance, make paper-cuts, fold a quilt and wash a handkerchief, and they have never been so delighted.

Xiao Hong is a pretty girl aged 14. When she was growing up, her father, who was once jailed for rape, abused her, and her mother was unable to care for her because of mental problems. Last February, neighbors found the brutish father sexually assaulting his own daughter. He had locked her to a table with an iron chain in order to prevent her from escaping. When the neighborhood committee and police came to her rescue, Xiao Hong was covered in black and blue bruises. Upon leaving, she shouted while crying, “I would rather die than come back to this home again.” Her heart-rending cries brought tears to the eyes of the people there.

Xiao Long is now 14. When he was four years old, his father was sentenced to life imprisonment for robbery and, before long, his mother disappeared. Xiao Long was brought up by his grandfather, who died in a car accident some years ago. Thereafter, he had to lead the life of a vagrant and occasionally stole in order to live. But later, older hooligans’ fists turned him into quite a thief. When he got some money, he would buy cigarettes and drink liquor. When he had no money, he suffered from starvation and the cold. At the end of last year, the gang he was in got involved in a crime that caused a death. For fear of getting into trouble, Xiao Long fled. When things quieted down, he came back and continued his life as before until the Beijing Demonstration Children’s Village took him early this year.

Give Them a Home

Before the Beijing Demonstration Children’s Village was established Zhang Shuqin had actually already founded three similar children’s villages in Shaanxi Province with the assistance of various social organizations. So far, these villages, established since May 1996, have housed more than 150 children.

Zhang, who is now director of the Working Department for Assistance to Special Children under the China Charity Federation, used to be a senior police officer and deputy editor-in-chief of a newspaper run by the Shaanxi Prison Bureau. In her work, Zhang came to know the conditions of many inmates’ children and was concerned about their life and education. Inside prisons, many inmates, especially women prisoners, suffered a lot by worrying about their children. Not in the mood to reform themselves, some tried to kill themselves or tried to escape many times. Meanwhile, outside the prisons, their children, leading an insecure life due to lack of care, became a group with the latent possibility of committing crime. Seeing this, Zhang, who as a police officer cherished a maternal love and high sense of responsibility, decided to establish a children’s village for them.

Zhang said, “My initial purpose was to give these kids a new home, a shelter that would keep them out of the wind and rain, let them grow up like other children and free their parents of worries so that they could better serve their sentences.”

The Children’s Village signs an agreement with the parents to give their children foster care on their behalf. Once the agreement becomes valid, the Children’s Village acts as a guardian to the children, taking full responsibility for their growth. The agreement also requires that the children’s parents properly reform themselves in prison and take their children back after they are released.

“I feel good when these children hold my legs, embrace my waist. I like to see them around me like little monkeys. I feel very happy at these moments,” said Zhang, who the children call “Grandma Zhang”. “I really want to see these children play, laugh, cry or even fight with each other, like normal children. And I also want to see them ask for something from me and complain to me because these are the needs of normal children.”

The Children’s Village is like a big family with teachers who take care of all the children’s needs. They help small kids wash their faces and brush their teeth. In the morning, they help them put on their clothes and at night they remind them of going to the bathroom before bed. When some of the children wet the bed, they air the quilts and wash the mattresses for them. Sometimes little kids will throw themselves into their teachers’ arms like spoiled children and sometimes a child may ask to sleep in the same bed as his or her teacher.

The teachers regularly take the children to visit their parents in prison. “Nothing can replace a blood relationship,” Zhang noted.

On Mother’s Day this past May 13, Zhang Shuqin and Headmaster Xiao Yugang of Banqiao Central Primary School took Xiao Jing to visit her mother at Beijing Women’s Prison. When Xiao Jing was five, her mother, who could bear no more violence from her husband, killed Xiao Jing’s father. Harboring a hatred for her mother, Xiao Jing had refused to see her. Her bitter hatred made her mother lose her desire to live and she tried to kill herself three times. Zhang and other teachers in the village managed to persuade Xiao Jing to visit her mother. In prison, upon seeing her mother, Xiao Jing threw herself into her arms, both sobbing too much to speak.

According to a prison official, since Xiao Jing’s mother learned that her daughter was leading a settled life in the Children’s Village and was willing to see her, she has been in a better mood to reform herself. Her performance may enable her to get a reduction in her sentence, the official said.

According to Zhang, the Children’s Village has received letters from many inmates, who expressed their gratitude for the good care given to their children and said they would do well in order to get a reduction in their prison terms.

Education

The children are sent to study at Banqiao Middle School and Banqiao Primary School according to their ages. Children under school age attend a local kindergarten.

Headmaster Xiao Yugang of Banqiao Central Primary School said each of the village children has been exempted from paying the 1,200-yuan fee for their temporary schooling and local town officials donate money for the children’s textbooks and notebooks. The children join different classes to study with the local children and teachers at the schools give them special care.

Besides their education in school, the village has arranged for the children to take many other classes, such as work and living skills classes, arts and handicraft classes, physical exercise, and a reading class on Chinese and Western classics.

According to village workers, great changes have taken place in the children, most of whom have lived at the Beijing Demonstration Children’s Village for about six months.

The children now have good manners. They say “hello” to visitors. Girls, in particular, talk easily with visitors, while small kids will sing a song, read from a text or invite guests to look at their pictures and family letters. Zhang Shuqin leads her students to a local Children’s Day celebration activity.

But the village is not peaceful and happy every minute and managing these children is by no means easy. Not long ago, Xiao Yang got into a fight with a girl over a trifling matter. In a frenzy of rage, he picked up a stool and threw it at the girl. A teacher, who was on duty, rushed to the spot and warded off the stool in time, but injured her arm. The furious Xiao Yang also rudely shouted, “Get away!” to Shan Shan, another teacher who was trying to take him away.

What the children fear most is that the village will not care for them any longer. After the fighting incident, Xiao Yang said that he didn’t know what he was doing at the time. He pleaded with his teacher to let him stay in the village. Even the girl, who was beaten by Xiao Yang, put in a word for him, saying: “We are homeless. It will be so miserable for him if the village no longer wants him.”

The educators at the Beijing Demonstration Children’s Village know that these children are like “wild horses that have just been reined in with a bridle” and changing them requires great patience.

The Children’s Village and local middle school, primary school, police station and hospital have jointly set up a group to guide the village’s management and education. The group regularly studies matters concerning the children’s education. Zhang explained that the education is aimed at restoring the children’s natural character and helping them move out of the shadow of the past and lead a healthy life.

Give a Hand

Everything in the Beijing Demonstration Children’s Village is the result of social contributions, including the land, housing, maintaining the lawn, as well as the children’s living and schooling expenses such as books, the piano, swings, a solar energy water heater, bedding, clothes, etc. Zhang Shuqin said the children are very sensible. Knowing the conditions of the village, they are not picky about food and clothes nor do they tend to compare themselves to other children who live in better conditions outside the village. “Just because of this, I feel an even greater pressure,” Zhang said.

The psychological health of the children is also of great concern. According to Zhang, nearly 200 professionals have expressed their desire to offer free services for the children.

Many college and high school students have taken the initiative to become volunteer workers at the Children’s Village. They make friends with the children and give them advice. The children have put a great deal of trust in those older brothers and sisters. Sometimes, they talk to them about things they wouldn’t tell their teachers.

Xiao Liang, a senior high school student at the Middle School Affiliated with the Capital Normal University, is one of them. “I read from newspapers that many children in this village were uncommunicative and eccentric. So I decided to become a volunteer helper,” Xiao said. “I’m not a psychologist, but at least I can talk with them, help them with their studies and make friends with them.” Before he arrived at the village, Xiao said he looked up much useful material regarding psychology on the Internet. “The role of each person may be limited, but great things may be done by mass effort,” Xiao said.

Xiao is now quite popular at the Children’s Village. He plays chess and quiz games with the children, presents books to them and chats with them. Even Xiao Yang, who is noted for his rudeness and mischief, regards Xiao Liang with special respect. Each time he is ready to throw himself into a game, he never forgets to prepare a chair for Xiao Liang to sit and watch.

This fall, Xiao Liang will go to Canada to study at a university. Before he leaves China, he said he would be coming to the Children’s Village every weekend.

Valuable Work

Statistics show that each year, courts at all levels throughout China adjudicate 400,000 cases, of which 70 percent involve married people. That means 280,000 prisoners will be leaving about 300,000 children behind.

“These children are a weak group who have long been neglected,” Zhang noted, adding that wherever there are human beings there will be crime and this type of children.

Today, the social security system in China is far from perfect, especially in regions that have high crime rates and are poverty-stricken. Many children left behind by their inmate parents lack support and are leading a wandering life of poverty.

Actually, Zhang noted, developed countries also face such issues as the psychological recuperation of this type of children, their education, protection of their rights and interests and prevention of juvenile delinquency. Therefore, it is a long-term sophisticated project to ensure the healthy growth of these children and protect their rights and interests. Both society and relevant government departments should pay attention to this issue, Zhang said.

Article 20 of the Law on the Protection of Minors explicitly stipulates that the State encourages all groups, enterprises, institutions and other organizations and individuals to conduct activities that are favorable to the healthy growth of minors within their power. The Children’s Village totally corresponds to the stipulation of the law and has made a great contribution in this regard, said Kang Shuhua, a professor at Peking University’s Law School.

Although China has formulated two laws for protecting juveniles, the Law on the Protection of Minors and the Law on the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, she said, the country’s welfare and legal systems need further improvement in this regard. Under such circumstances, non-governmental charity organizations are important and effective supplements, she added.

“When a child encounters some problems, everyone should lend a hand. It should not merely be a matter of the police or civil affairs authorities,” said Zhang Shuqin.

According to Zhang, the Beijing Demonstration Children’s Village, built on the basis of the children’s villages in Shaanxi, will further standardize its work. At the same time it will conduct theoretical research into the issues of psychological recuperation, crime prevention, education, and protection of rights and interests of this group of children. Later, it will popularize its experience throughout the country.

In regards to theoretical research, Zhang said: “We practical workers do not have much time to do it, and we are also not capable enough of doing such things. However, we have built up a base for experts to do the research.”

According to Zhang, five other provinces in China are now planning to establish protective institutions like the Children's Village.

(Beijing Review 07/18/2001)

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