China’s Castaway Kids
By Palani Mohan, Gary JonesMarch 18, 2013
In China, the children of executed criminals do not legally qualify as orphans. Spurned by their families, abandoned by the state, these children languish in the streets — unless charities such as Morning Tears find them.
Read the story behind the photos: China’s Children Of The Damned
Huan Huan, the eldest of three sisters from a rural family, comes from a violent home. Her father beat her mother. The mother, with the help of her own father, fought back against her violent husband, killing him. Huan’s mother was jailed for life, her grandfather for 10 years.
Xiao Ze and Xiao Wei’s father shot and killed a local villager with his hunting rifle in 1995, following a disagreement. He was captured and executed after 10 years on the run. The boys lived with their grandfather for a while but were taken in by the Sanyuan Children’s Village in 2009, when he could no longer cope.
When Yu Kun was three, his father beat him so badly that his fed-up mother poisoned her husband and cut his throat for good measure. Having pleaded mitigating circumstances, Yu Kun’s mother has been imprisoned for life. The boy has been in care since 2004.
The father of these three siblings was one of China’s army of migrant workers, leaving the countryside to make a living in the city. With her husband away, the children’s mother was harassed by the son of a village chief. She fought back, but the man persisted, even after her husband had returned. The couple eventually beat the man to death, and received life sentences. “Xiao Lu saw her parents kill the man,” says Kou Wei, director of the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project. “She was seven then, and police took her away to be questioned many times over several months. That was very difficult for somebody so young. Even now, she is not the type of kid who will talk to strangers. It takes time for her to trust people.”
Liu Fei’s parents were part of a gang of car thieves. The gang had been operating for at least five years, and for much of that time the boy had been kept with the family’s sheep. “He lived with the sheep, he ate with the sheep,” says Yang Biao, director of the Sanyuan Children’s Village. “When he came here he could not walk properly. He has problems communicating.”
Xiao Wan and Xiao Yi’s father received the death penalty for murdering their mother. His sentence has been deferred and may be commuted to life.
“They have visited their father in prison, but they think he is the devil,” says Kou Wei, director of the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project. “They have a lot of nightmares.”
Kou has found the case difficult to handle. “Xiao Wan told me that his father had often been abusive to his mother and there was always violence at home,” Kou says. “On the night when their father killed their mother, [Xiao Wan] heard everything. He did not know that his sister had seen the murder take place.”
The father of siblings Niu Niu and Tong Hao is in prison for 10 years for forcing many women into prostitution, according to Kou Wei, director of the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project. Their mother abandoned them.
“We tried to send Niu Niu to kindergarten, but she refused to go, so we keep her here,” Kou says. “The other kids complain because, when they are at school, Niu Niu goes through their things and takes whatever she needs.”
When Yi Li’s father went to prison for theft, her mother remarried and left. She lived with her grandfather for a while, before being taken in by the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project.
“Yi Li is an angel,” says the project’s director Kou Wei. “She’s patient, she helps the caregivers and she’s very smart — top of her class. She’s a great kid and everyone loves her.” Kou corrects herself, admitting that maybe not everyone adores Yi Li. “Actually, the two in this picture are not best friends,” Kou says, laughing. “Dan Dan is a very pretty girl and she knows it. She’s not a great student. Every day her caregivers complain because she will spend an hour or more on her hair. She probably thinks Yi Li’s life is boring.” Dan Dan’s parents are both in jail for poisoning a man who made unwelcome advances towards her mother. They were given the death penalty, with a two-year reprieve — with good behaviour, their sentences will be commuted to life imprisonment.
Jia Yu, 11, is “a sweet boy”, Kou says, but he can be hard work. “He’s a normal, naughty boy. Last March he was hit by a car when he ran across a street without looking. We sent him to hospital and, when the doctor asked him where he was in pain, where he was injured, he just said he felt ‘fantastic’.”
Jia Yu’s father is in jail for stealing, and his mother abandoned the boy.
“Many of these families are very poor and depend totally on the father,” says Kou Wei, the centre’s director. “When a father goes to prison, there is no income at all, so mothers often leave and start again.”
Xiao Yan arrived at the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project when he was eight. His father is serving life for robbery, and his mother abandoned him.
“He was a very troubled boy [on arrival], having fights with caregivers and other kids,” project director Kou Wei says. “Now he’s a sweetheart.” However, Xiao Yan suffers from abandonment issues. “We were holding a drawing exercise, helping the kids to express their feelings, and he drew a black heart,” Kou says. “I asked him why the dark colour, and he said, ‘This is the feeling I have for my mother.’”
Li Wei’s father was a migrant worker making a meagre living as a labourer in Xian City. When his employer held back his wages Li Wei’s father attacked him and received seven years for assault. Her mother suffers from schizophrenia. Wang Yi’s mother also suffers mental-health problems and left the family in 2006. Her father died in 2009 of pneumonia, and she has been cared for at Sanyuan Children’s village since 2010.
Ming Ming arrived at the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project when she was six. Her parents are in prison for 11 years for stealing cable to sell as scrap. “She’s a lovely kid,” says Kou Wei, director of the project. “She finds it difficult to visit her parents [who are in different prisons] because her father always complains about her mother, and her mother complains about her father. [The parents] can’t see each other, so they argue through the child.”
Belgian Koen Sevenants is the general director of Morning Tears, an NGO supporting the welfare of children of executed and imprisoned criminals in China.
“In the past, 90 per cent of the children we supported were from rural, financially disadvantaged backgrounds,” he says. “That has changed and there is more diversity these days. Urban drugs have played a large part, and we are increasingly taking in kids originally from quite well-off families. It’s proving a challenge for us, having to mix poor children — who actually get a financial upgrade in life by staying with us — and kids of drug smugglers and dealers whose lifestyles are being downgraded.”
Children’s names have been changed. Their stories and portraits have been approved for publication by their guardians at the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project and Sanyuan Children’s Village.