In the United States, foster care generally refers to a system in which children in need are temporarily placed in homes with a screened family or relatives designated by the local government. Foster care exists due to parents’ inability to care for children, abuse, or neglect. China has at least the same need (if not more need) for this type of the system, especially because so many girls are abandoned due to the one-child policy. American families are eager to adopt Chinese girls. According to State Department estimates, Americans have adopted 71,000 Chinese children since 1999, 63,000 of which were female. Yet this is not nearly enough to deal with China’s hundreds of thousands of orphans. Last summer, I had an amazing opportunity to shadow a college student’s research* about China’s foster care system in Shenyang, China. I discovered that the government’s response, while quite different from the US response, is extraordinary nonetheless.
I visited two different types of foster care families while in Shenyang. The first was a small community of foster families living in small, separate houses in Shenyang’s countryside. Each family had two children: one that could walk, and one that needed mobility assistance. Many of the caretakers were middle-aged women who received financial assistance from the government. The particular family we visited had had their children for eight years. The care lavished on these children by their foster parents was outstanding – you could hardly tell they were not the children’s biological parents. This type of system was similar to that of the US, in which individual foster care families live in individual homes.
The second type of foster care I visited was the Shenyang City Orphanage. Founded in 1985 with money donated by an American screenwriter, the center houses abandoned children, 90% of whom are disabled. The compound of colorful buildings housed facilities as diverse as libraries, first-class medical and rehabilitation equipment, a computer lab, a nature room with live plants and animals, classrooms outfitted with electronic touch-screen whiteboards, play and exercise rooms, a bright cafeteria that served three meals a day, and much more.
This second type of care turned out to be an interesting combination of the American foster family system and a “congregate” care system. Each set of foster care parents took care of four children and resided in an apartment-like setting on the center’s grounds. The foster mother must live inside the orphanage 24/7, but the father may leave the orphanage during the day to work and return to the apartment at night. Being a foster care parent at the center is a huge commitment of time and energy. Despite this, the Li family, a family whom we spoke to that works at the facility as foster parents, seemed very happy to be doing what they were doing. The mother, Mrs. Li, was very supportive of her foster children, saying that the family did activities such as painting, singing and dancing together in the evening. She says she “[hopes] to discover their hidden interests and help them develop these little interests into bigger things.”
After touring the grounds, I spent the rest of my afternoon talking with several of the foster care children. One girl was particularly interested in talking, eager to ask me questions about my life in America (and my strange blonde hair) and willing to answer my questions about life in China. I can’t forget the brightness of curiosity in her eyes when she came to the conclusion you and I, we are not the same at all – Indeed, we weren’t; we seemed to come from almost entirely different universes. Yet despite obvious aesthetic and cultural differences, I felt an undeniable connection to this girl, and through her I saw how fantastic this center was.
It was wonderful to see and experience the fact that China has its own, different foster care systems. Though they may lack some attributes that define the U.S. system, in some ways they exceed what is available in the States – for example, the myriad of facilities available at the center. Some things are the same in both countries, like the affection in the eyes of loving foster parents, as I saw in the countryside of Shenyang. My small friend’s simple but astute observation about our differences is reflected in the different ways the U.S. and Chinese governments protect children and provide foster care services. But both systems are striving in their own ways for the same goal of protecting and nurturing children in need – and both are deserving of praise. I hope the model from the Shenyang facility can be spread and imitated throughout the country, hopefully easing the plights of the many orphans who still struggle in China.
*The author would like to acknowledge and thank Yujia Feng for allowing her to participate in her research.
Featured pictures are from the archives of Olivia Martin