• When parents go to prison who takes care of their children? (SBS Dateline)
When parents go to prison who takes care of their children? Part 1 of this story goes inside a unique orphanage in China, sheltering the kids of murderers and domestic violence victims and abusers.
Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - 21:30

The second part of this story is available to watch here.

A Chinese father is convicted of murder.

His three young children, from the city of Nanzhao, are left with nowhere to live. What happens to them now?

At Sun Village, a chain of orphanages across China, the children of criminals and convicts – left by their extended families to fend for themselves – are learning to become adults.

“The kids are deeply hurt in their heart,” says Grandma Zhang, the director of Sun Village. “Therefore, we have to face the reality with them.”

“It’s impossible for [them] to live elsewhere, because they’re poor kids whose parents are in prison.”

Grandma Zhang used to be a prison officer, before opening Sun Village in 1995 – there are now nine across the country, caring for 500 children who don’t have a home to go to.

In this week’s Dateline, the first of two films looking at the lives of children at Sun Village in Beijing, we meet three young siblings who have just arrived at the orphanage after their father is convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s niece and sentenced to life in prison.

14-year-old twins Zhang Yan and Zhang Wei, and their brother Zhang Hong, who is 12, get on well with other children at the orphanage, but face daily struggles after being ripped away from the life they knew.

In China, children like the Zhangs often face prejudice for their father’s crime.

“These kids are very different from kids from normal families, some people discriminate against these kids” says Grandma Zhang. “They project their resentment for their parents onto the children. It’s very unfair.”

Zhang Wei says the children’s extended family has not stayed in contact since their father went to prison.

“What do they take us for?” she tells Dateline producer Kaspar Astrup Schröder. “I wish I were an orphan. Orphans are better off – they don’t have parents and don’t bear horrible memories.”

Other children come from violent homes – like three young triplets who recently arrived at Sun Village.

“Their father was unemployed and violent,” says Mr Su, an employee at the orphanage. “He often drank and beat his family.”

“Their mother was a convenient target of domestic violence. The boys were so afraid that they would hide.”

At one point, the triplets’ mother had had enough and killed their father. The children, according to Mr Su, were crying all day and night when they arrived.

These kinds of cases are not uncommon.

In China, domestic violence has long been considered an epidemic hiding in the shadows – the government body responsible for women’s rights in the country estimates 1 in every 4 married women is beaten by their partner.

Legal protections against domestic violence were only implemented in China last year, but there remain concerns over the unwillingness of victims to report abuse to authorities and around the implementation of restraining orders against perpetrators. For many women, shame is the reason they don’t report abuse.

The experience of bearing witness to abuse is also traumatising for children.

“Some kids were deeply affected by the bloody fights between their parents,” says Grandma Zhang.

Children like the Zhangs and the triplets are in a situation outside their control.

They are forced to become adults before children their age usually would. They also face more rudimentary issues – the Zhangs struggle to secure a National ID card, which is needed to enrol in high school. But with their father in prison, and no extended family willing to help, they can’t apply for one.

“I have no hope or expectations,” says Zhang Yan. “The future is dark.”

“We’ll just grow old here and nothing more,” says Zhang Wei. “No one’s going to help us get through this.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


Women in China are on the rise, so why is it still common to see them beaten in public?
In China there is "a culture in which victims must either silently suffer behind closed doors or fight a system on their own that’s skewed against them".
Child trafficking in China often starts with parents selling their own kids
Some parents in China are trafficking their own children as a source of money.
Filming with the children of China’s violent criminals
Filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder says documenting the heartbreaking stories of Chinese children whose parents had gone to jail, led to him crying on several occasions.


Director / Camera: Kaspar Astrup Schröder

Producer: Katrine A. Sahlstrøm

Co-Producer: Cindy Zeng Cin

Additional Camera: Ren Jie

Editor: Cathrine Ambus

Additional Editing: Micah McGown

Composer: Povl Kristian

Narrator: Ana Maria Quinn


Boy 1: What is your father doing now?

Boy 2: My father is in detention awaiting his sentence. What about yours?

Boy 1: Same as yours.

Boy 2: What?

Boy 1: He’s in prison.

Boy 2: I see.

Boy 1: Alright, Why is he in prison?

Boy 2: He was drunk and drove his car into someone. He might be in prison for a year.

Boy 1: Mine lost his temper and killed someone.

Boy 2: Why?

Boy 1: He lost his temper.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): It's impossible for the kids to live elsewhere because they are the poor kids whose parents in the prison.

This is home to 100 children, many, the sons and daughters of victims of domestic violence. Laws protecting women from domestic violence were only introduced in China last year, leaving children the silent witnesses of years of abuse.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Some kids were deeply affected by the bloody fights between their parents.
Let’s help clean up the garbage. Whose clothes are they? You have to learn to wash them. Can you do that? Just a little is enough.

Sun Village is run by a former prisoner officer the kids call Grandma Zhang. There are now nine homes across China funded through donations. The hardest day for everyone is always the first.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  I'm on my way to Nanzhao City. I’m going to see some kids there. It’s a busy day for me. The local police officer called me to tell me there are three kids with no mother and their father is going to be executed.

DAD (Translation): Yan you’re the eldest child. You’re good at school work, you should help your twin sister and younger brother with their studies. In not a good father nor a good citizen.

DAUGHTER (Translation): No you are good.

DAD (Translation): No I’m not. I’m not a good citizen nor a good father.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Come over children let your father wait there for a while. Come over here.  I’m Grandma Zhang from Sun Village. Sun village is a big family. It houses more than 110 children. Our teacher Su is from Henan. He worked in the army for many years. He’s in charge of daily operations of Sun Village. We have helped thousands of children like you. No one doubts your father is a good dad, however he broke the law and you have to live with that. We are here to help you and get through this difficult time. We’ve made the decision to take you to Sun village in Beijing.  It’s time to go.
Go and say goodbye to your father.

DAD (Translation):  Please ask them to go, I’m too ashamed to see them.

DAUGHTER (Translation):  Father lift up your head.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Children help your father to stand up.

DAD (Translation):   I’m leaving my kids in your hands.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Don’t worry I’ve taken care of many children before. Your girls are good. Your little boy too, I’ll do my best to raise them.

DAD (Translation):  Please take them away.

DAUGHTER (Translation):  No don’t! Goodbye, Dad!

The Zhang children don't know if they will see their father again. He killed his girlfriend's niece and tried to burn her body. Sun Village may now be their home for weeks, or even years.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Hello! Welcome! Come on, the kids are waiting for you. Let’s give them a round of applause!

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  The kids are deeply hurt in their hearts. Therefore, we have to face the reality with them.  The purpose of Sun Village is to provide help for the kids to be independent, to abide by the law and contribute to the society.

Please tell us your name.

ZHANG HONG (Translation):  I’m Zhang Hong. I am 12 years old.

ZHANG YAN (Translation):  Hello everyone, my name is Zhang Yan. I am 14. I am in eighth grade.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):   Let’s clap for her!

ZHANG WEI (Translation):  Hello, my name is Zhang Wei. I am 14 too. I am in eighth grade.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Don’t you think they look alike? They are twins.

WOMAN (Translation):  This is your home. It’s a bigger room you will have the upper bed. We can swap if you are not used to it. See the upper bed? There are blankets and everything. This is your sister’s bed, you will stay there. Here are your toiletries.

TEACHER (Translation):   Here are the rules. No fighting or swearing at school. If you break the rules you will be punished.

MR SU (Translation):  You have to be there they finish school. Tell them to be quick after school.

One of the challenges for these kids is getting official documents without their parents. The most important is a National ID card, without it the Zhang’s can’t get into high school.

ZHANG TWIN (Translation): A National ID is proof of citizenship.  Without our ID, we have no place in society. Graduating from school means nothing.

ZHANG TWIN 2 (Translation):  I have no hope or expectations. The future is dark, I can’t go to university.

ZHANG TWIN (Translation):  How do you know?

ZHANG TWIN 2 (Translation): I just know.

CHILD (Translation): There are flowers, Mrs Liu!

MRS LIU (Translation):  Let’s leave the small ones and pick them next week.

National ID cards are compulsory at age 16, but the Zhang siblings are missing documents like birth certificates to apply for one, in desperation, they call family.

ZHANG YAN (Translation):  Hello uncle, Zhang Yan and I find it hard to pass the middle school graduation exam. How could my brother manage school, even if he could, what about his ID? If we don’t have an ID we don’t exist in this society.
Here, we can only stay and watch other kids come and go. We will just grow old here and nothing more.  No one is going to help us get through this. Look at our relatives, they haven’t kept in touch with us since our dad’s incident. What do they take us for? I wish I were an orphan, orphans are better off. They don’t have parents…and don’t bear horrible memories.


MAN (Translation):  Get up! Get up students. Have you seen our driver? Hurry up. I overslept.

The Zhang children are up early. They're off to visit their father for the first time. They haven't seen him for 16 months.

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  Our car is waiting outside
.When you see your father what will you say to him? 

ZHANG HONG (Translation):  I don't know yet

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  He’ll be concerned about your life there.

ZHANG HONG (Translation):  And then he'll ask about my studies

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  About your grades. Wei must be feeling nervous too? 

ZHANG WEI (Translation):  I don't feel anything.

ZHANG HONG (Translation):  Her grades dropped.

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  Were you a good student before?  Hello!

ZHANG YAN (Translation):  I want to take off my hat. No. I'll wear it. No. I'll take it off.

ZHANG WEI (Translation):   Hello dad.

FATHER (Translation):  How were your exams?

ZHANG HONG (Translation):  Don’t be sad, put on a smile.

ZHANG WEI (Translation):  Dad, Hong says we will take care of you when you get out. Don’t worry, we will look after you.

FATHER (Translation):  Can you hear me?

ZHANG WEI (Translation):   Yes.

FATHER (Translation):  What do you need to get a good job in the future?

ZHANG WEI (Translation):   We need to get a degree We have to get a bachelor’s degree.

FATHER (Translation):  That’s right, so you must work hard to complete your education and get a job.

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  It’s time to go.

CHILDREN (Translation):   Bye- bye, dad.

The Zhang siblings have made the promise of furthering their education to their dad. There's only one thing standing in their way.

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  Their parents aren't here and they don't have any ID cards. Can they register here?

WOMAN (Translation):  Comb your hair to the side. To one side. Show your eyebrows.

The Zhangs get their ID cards.

ZHANG WEI (Translation):  I’m here.

It's finally the first day at high school.
MALE TEACHER (Translation):  Let me see your hands and nails. Good. They're clean and neat.
It's a day that would make their father proud, but it's also bittersweet. He's just received a life sentence for his crime and they'll only be able to visit him once a year.

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  Now go to the classroom.

In China, there are over 1.5 million people serving time. 6% of the prison population are women, with often no choice but to leave their children behind. Some of those kids find a home in Grandma Zhang's refuge Sun Village.

GIRL (Translation): Wake up. Don’t laugh. Stop hiding.

Fitting into the family can be tough but the reminder of a real family also brings challenges.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Some people discriminate against these kids. They project the resentment for the parents on to the children. It’s very unfair to the children.

GIRL (Translation): Did you say you love your mum the most?

TRIPLETS (Translation):  Yes.

GIRL (Translation):  So you will be the one to write something to her, right?

TRIPLET (Translation):  Sure.

GIRL (Translation):   Okay.

MR. SU (Translation):  They cried day and night when they arrived because they missed their mother.

The eight year old triplets have been without their mother for one year.

MR. SU. (Translation): The triplets arrived before the last Chinese New Year. Their father was unemployed and violent, he often drank and beat his family and their mother was a convenient target of domestic violence.  The boys were so afraid that they would hide. The police told us at some point their mother couldn’t take it anymore. So she killed him.  The kids might have witnessed the killing.

SON 1: It’s a dog biting you.

SON 3: I am a dog biting you, stupid.

SON 2: I’ve finished writing.

SON 3: Let me write something.

SON 2: I’ve finished writing it. It’s done.

The story of the triplets' mum isn't uncommon. It's estimated 1-in-4 married women in China experience violence from their partners.

GIRL (Translation): They wrote a letter to their mother.

TRIPLET (Translation):  Uncle, this letter is for our mum.

UNCLE (Translation):  For your mum? There’s no name on it.

TRIPLET (Translation):  There is.

UNCLE (Translation):  Come in. Do you miss your mother?

TRIPLET (Translation):   Yes.

UNCLE (Translation):  Do you want to visit her?

TRIPLET (Translation):    No, I don’t.

UNCLE (Translation):  You don’t want to see her? How about visiting her during Chinese New Year?  Okay?

MALE TEACHER (Translation):  The triplets will stay here for a long time. They have finally gotten used to life here. They are happier here and they talk with other kids. Now if you ask them to go back home they would say no.

The boys are travelling to visit their mother. It will be the first time they've seen her since she was sentenced a year ago.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): They have brought strawberries for their mum and for you as well
. Here are some photos. Photos of themselves.

MAN (Translation): Your mother is coming now. You can give her the photos when you see her.

TRIPLET (Translation):  Okay.

MAN (Translation):  Alright, sit down for a while.

TRIPLET (Translation):  I don't want to go home

MAN (Translation): Why not?

TRIPLET (Translation):  I just don't want to

MAN (Translation): Okay, you're not going back to your home today. You're going back to Sun Village later. Is that alright

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Don't worry. I'll bring you back. I like the three of you, all right? How could I leave you here?

MAN (Translation):  Okay, let’s go. Your mother’s here. Let’s go. Come in, come in. go to your mother.

MOTHER (Translation):  Do you recognize me? Which one of you is Guo? Is it you?  You’re the biggest child.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Why aren’t you greeting your mother? Hi mum!

MOTHER (Translation):  Why aren’t you greeting me?

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):   Say hi to your mother.

MOTHER (Translation):   Do you miss me?

TRIPLET (Translation):  Yes.

MOTHER (Translation):  Don’t cry boys. I will stay here for a while, then I will go back, all right? Why are you thinner than before?

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Go and stand next to your mother, over there. Stand in front of your mother.

MOTHER (Translation):  Listen to your teacher. What is your teacher’s name?

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Zhang.

MOTHER (Translation):   Mrs Zhang, thank you so much. Thank you for teaching the three of them.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):   Please sit down. They are very good boys, they are in year one.

MOTHER (Translation):  How are they doing?

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  They are doing well, just a little slow in school.

MOTHER (Translation):  Slow in school?

MAN (Translation):  Mrs Zhang, give her some time to talk to the boys.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Okay.

MOTHER (Translation):  What’s wrong?

MAN (Translation):  Grandma Zhang is here, she isn’t leaving, she isn’t leaving. She is right over there. Don’t cry. Grandma Zhang’s there, look!  She is waiting there for you, don’t worry, she won’t leave you. It’s 10.30, you have 15 minutes left.

It's a brief reunion, but precious for the triplets' mum. She's due to be released in 2019, but will only be allowed two more visits with her children.

kaspar astrup schröder

katrine a. sahlstrøm

cindy zeng xin

additional camera
ren Jie

story editor
cathrine ambus

additional editing
micah mcgown

additional translations
andi zhang

30th May 2017