Foster Care: a Solution to Child Abuse and Neglect in China?

By Yujia Feng

In 2012, in the Chinese province of Shanxi, a seven-year-old girl named Shen Xiao-ran was killed by her stepmother after over two years of continuous abuse. As in most such tragedies, there were many things that, had they gone differently, could have saved her life. Xiao-ran’s father turned a blind eye to the violence. Her stepmother refused to let her grandmother take custody. The court was too slow in transferring guardianship of Xiao-ran from her stepmother to her birthmother. But even if the events leading up to her death had unfolded differently, Xiao-ran still would have been at risk, because in China children are almost never removed from their parent’s custody due to abuse or neglect. The state depends entirely on extended families to step in to protect children and reserves foster care for orphans.

In the West, this isn’t the case. According to the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency within the U.S. Government, in September 2011 alone, 400,540 American children were living in foster homes. Some were orphans, but many others were removed by the state from parents that could not provide them with proper care. While in foster care, they waited to be reunified with their parents, be adopted, or exit foster care as adults.

In the 1990s, the concept of foster care spread from the West to China. The system that developed in China is simpler than that in the U.S. In China, the state only takes custody of orphans: children with no other adult to claim custody of them. Although the system in China is well organized, it excludes abused and neglected children who need the state’s protection. The question remains, can and should China provide foster care similar to that in the U.S.?

Orphans Only: The Chinese Approach to Foster Care

Today, China has two main types of foster families. Members of the first type live in apartment located inside orphanages. Members of the other type live in their own houses in the countryside. Many foster children who had chronic conditions such as Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy had been abandoned by their parents and entered custody of the orphanage.

Last summer, I visited foster families of the first type at the City Orphanage in Shenyang, a major city in northeastern China. Among the 400 orphans, 104 of them lived with foster families inside the orphanage, while 86 lived with foster families in a village two hours away outside Shenyang. The orphanage houses 26 families in suites of the same structure: two doubles for the children, one bedroom for the parents, one living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. Being a foster parent requires a large time commitment. The foster mother is required to live inside the orphanage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The foster father may work outside the orphanage in the daytime, but must return to the foster family in the evening.


Parents pick up their children at the education center at the City Orphanage in Shenyang, China (Feng/TYG).
Parents pick up their children at the education center at the City Orphanage in Shenyang, China (Feng/TYG).

The first family I visited was the Lis, a typical foster family living inside the orphanage. In their fifties, Mr. and Mrs. Li have four foster sons aged two, six, seven and twelve. Their eldest foster son goes to an elementary school outside the orphanage, but the seven-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, and the six-year-old son, who has Down Syndrome, study at the education center inside the orphanage. Their youngest foster son, who has cleft palate, goes to the kindergarten also located inside the orphanage. The three younger foster sons were at home during my visit. From what I saw, they seemed well-adjusted and happy. The two-year-old son sat in Mrs. Li’s arms, kissed her, and smiled to the camera. The 6-year-old and 7-year-old sons were not shy to strangers; they brought me water and showed me around their home.

Like most high-quality foster care programs in China, this foster care program is regimented. All the foster families in the Shenyang program have the same schedule. Everyday, after sending the children to school at eight in the morning, Mrs. Li cleans the rooms and prepares for lunch, which includes rice, a meat dish, two vegetable dishes, and soup. At noon, the Lis pick up their children from school. The children have lunch and take a short nap before the Lis send them back to school at 1:30 pm. In the afternoon, Mrs. Li usually does housework and prepares for dinner with the same nutritional standard as lunch. They bring the children back home when school ends at 4:30 pm.

Unlike the American foster care programs, whose social workers visit foster families weekly or monthly, this orphanage at Shenyang checks in with the families everyday. Every morning, orphanage staff visits with Mrs. Li and evaluates the foster family as a whole. Once a week, the Lis attend an afternoon meeting, where the orphanage officials announce the evaluation result of each family and where foster parents report the children’s current health condition.

In addition to managing their foster children’s health, foster parents like the Lis work to develop their children’s interests and personalities. The Lis nurtured their children’s talents in art by decorating the wall of their living room with the children’s paintings of animals, landscapes, and fruits. Mrs. Li was very proud of her eldest foster son who won the gold award in a national painting competition for elementary school students. She said: “In the evening, we paint, watch TV, sing, and dance. I hope to discover their hidden interests and help them develop these little interests into bigger things.”

The foster children in the Li family dance in front of visitors in the common room (Feng/TYG).
The foster children in the Li family dance in front of visitors in the common room (Feng/TYG).

Towards a New Approach to Foster Care?

The orphanage in Shenyang is not an outlier; many orphanages in China closely supervise and assist their foster families. While this system is far more involved than that in U.S., foster care in China does not address those children who are abused and neglected by their parents but not abandoned altogether, because the state does not take custody of them. Although many families keep these personal problems hidden, among the 429 cases of abuse reported by the Chinese media from January 2008 to June 2011, 222 children died and 77 suffered from continuous abuse, with the longest case of abuse lasting 14 years.

In recent years, Chinese legislators have proposed that the state should challenge the parental rights of abusive and neglectful parents. In 2011, Lu Yiyu, a national legislator from Zhejiang Province, proposed that the state should terminate the rights of such parents and accommodate these children in state child welfare system. Critics argued that Mr. Lu’s proposal is not practical, because China does not have any welfare service that temporarily or permanently places these children.

Taking care of children with living parents within the foster system can be more complicated than taking care of orphans. Additionally, there’s the practical question of who will take care of all of these children if their abusive parents’ rights are terminated. In the West, this question is traditionally addressed through state-run foster care. The American process usually has three steps: removal of the abused and neglected children from their parents, temporary placement of children inside foster families, and permanent placement of children with at least one reliable custodian.

If China were to adopt a Western-style foster care system, it would require preparation in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Minors, the only national act on protecting children, requires the state to warn and even punish abusive parents. However, it doesn’t require the executive branch to remove children who are in actual or potential danger due to abuse or neglect. Statutes on the removal process are necessary if China is to establish foster care for abused and neglected children.

China also does not have any state welfare agencies like the Department of Children and Families in the U.S., which assists children navigating the foster care system. An agency under the Ministry of Civil State would have to be chartered if China instituted more comprehensive foster care.

Although China technically has laws allowing the termination of parental rights, the condition for termination is so restricted that it is rarely invoked. The Law of Protection of Minors requires individuals other than the child to apply for termination of parental rights. In the Research Report and Case Analysis of Children’s Suffering from Domestic Violence, Zhang Xue-mei, Secretary General of the Protection of Minors Committee of the All China Lawyers Association, wrote, “In most cases, individuals and organizations do not apply for termination of parental rights (for these children), because no one wants to be the custodian after the parental rights are terminated and no support was offered by the national policies on custody. Not having found any proper custodian for a child, the court cannot terminate rights of the parents.”

The enforceability of this statute is connected to the broader question of whether these children can ever be adopted after their parents’ legal rights are taken away. Under the Adoption Law of the People’s Republic of China, “children whose parents are unable to rear them due to unusual difficulties” are adoptable. However, the law has not identified abused or neglected children as falling into this category. This law also only allows childless Chinese adults to adopt, making it impossible for foster parents who have children themselves to adopt their foster children. However, other adults who meet the requirements of this law may be able to adopt them.

Although it may take years for these changes to occur, foster care has already shown its viability in Chinese society. Many Chinese adults have been successfully providing foster care for orphans, and the Chinese government has also shown its capacity to supervise and assist those foster families.

It’s uncertain whether China will ever have a foster care similar to that in the U.S., but one thing is certain; the Chinese government should take a stronger role in protecting children. Although foster care systems in the U.S. and other Western nations are imperfect, they at least provide China a possible model for addressing child abuse and neglect.

Yujia Feng ’14 is an Economics and History major in Silliman College. She can be reached at .