• Lili eats with a dog at Sun Village. (SBS Dateline)
When parents are in jail they don’t stop loving their children. In part 2 we look at how kids adapt to life at the orphanage when parents are locked away, and how their relationships are impacted by separation.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017 - 21:30

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

How do parents care for their children from prison? And how to kids become adults without the support of their parents?

At a small group home in Beijing, the children of criminals are growing up by parenting each other.

One of the few shelters for children whose parents are in jail for violent crimes, Sun Village is helping raise China’s most vulnerable young people – teaching them to cook and clean, and helping them process their trauma.

“I insist that the older kids look after the younger ones,” Sun Village’s founder Grandma Zhang tells producer Kaspar Astrup Schröder, in the second part of Dateline’s film on the lives children in the group home.

“We only have two teachers to look after these children. That’s why I want the older kids to protect the younger ones, and I call them ‘big brothers’ and ‘big sisters’.”

The children living in Sun Village carry more psychological baggage than many adults will in their entire lives. For some, one parent was killed by the other; some stay temporarily whilst their parents await trial, and others were simply abandoned.

6-year-old Strawberry came to Sun Village after she was rescued from a human trafficking ring when only 10 days old. The only family she’s known is the one she has at the home.

She’s watched other children come and go – as their parents are released from prison or family members come to collect them. But Strawberry knows there’ll be no family reunion for her. No one even knows her parent’s names, or where they are.

Without parents of her own, Strawberry relies on other girls at Sun Village – who aren’t much older than her – to act as surrogate guardians and raise her.

Many of the kids living at the shelter are scarred from violent experiences.

Lili, one of the children at Sun Village, is still tormented by her home life.

“It’s because of my dad,” she says, “He killed my mum because she was running away.”

“He told her to come back, but she wouldn’t, she kept running away. Then he killed her.”

Only 12-years-old, Lili struggles to understand exactly what happened at home – often she will turn conflicting thoughts over in her head.

“I don’t hate him. It was my mum’s fault. She was always running away.”

“All right, maybe I hate him a little.”

What Sun Village provides for children like Lili is stability in the aftermath of chaos.

While many children look forward to being reunited with their parents, others become attached to life in the home, and don’t want to leave.

11-year-old Gao Yuan’s mother spent eight years in prison for killing her husband. She was a victim of domestic abuse – Gao Yuan was only three when she was locked up.

When she arrives to pick him up after finally being released he is anxious and reluctant to leave, worried about the uncertainty a life outside of Sun Village could bring.

Children leave Sun Village if their parents or other relatives are able to take them home. But many parents are on death row or serving life sentences. Those without family stay in Grandma Zhang’s care until they are old enough to look after themselves.

Grandma Zhang, a former prison officer, says the nurturing environment she’s tried to create has a specific goal in mind for all the children she takes in.

“Many kids were brought here by myself personally,” she says. “They are so young when they come.”

“Some of them are dull. Some are sharp...It’s not about holding them in your arms, or about feeding and clothing them. The important thing is to teach them not to end up like their parents.”

“When I see them grow up to be young men and women, I am very happy.”

“They’re like my own kids.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


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: Sally Roberts


The children who live here are the survivors of terrible tragedy and violence, many have had one parent kill the other.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Many kids were brought here by myself personally, they are so young when they come. Some of them are dull. Some are sharp. Some are naughty and troublemakers.  But when I see them grow up to be young men and women, I am very happy. Sometimes, I also feel powerless when they’re naughty.  But after all, they are like my own kids. That's why I always forgive them.

LITTLE GIRL (Translation):  Little kids, listen. You’ll get a smack!

LITTLE GIRL 2 (Translation):  She’s a good girl.

LITTLE GIRL (Translation):  I’ve told on you.

LITTLE GIRL 2 (Translation):  She’s good.

LITTLE GIRL (Translation):  I only reported these ones, if you don’t behave I will tell Sister Xu Yue.

LITTLE GIRL 2 (Translation):  What will happen then?

LITTLE GIRL (Translation):  If you don’t behave… she will pinch you on the neck.

LITTLE GIRL 2 (Translation):  And if I still don’t listen?

LITTLE GIRL (Translation):   You’ll be thrown onto the street.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): It’s like governing a country, we have always explored better ways of manage the village. I insist that older children look after the younger ones. I call it self-management and self-education.
I’ve told you, you need to make a bigger effort, our living conditions require us to live together, we try our best to look after you.

Only two adults work here full-time as their limited funding comes from donations, so the older kids are encouraged to help the smaller ones, like Lili. Twelve year old Lili is one of one hundred children living here under Madam Zhang’s care. Tonight, she is moving into the big girl’s house.

GIRL (Translation): What is your name?

LILI (Translation): My name is Lili

GIRL (Translation): You know you've brought a lot of stuff, right?  Make your bed first, it’s so easy. Why can’t you do it?

The children constantly have to adapt, it’s often challenging when they have all been through their own trauma.

GIRL (Translation):  Give her a cabinet.

GIRL 2 (Translation): I’m going to throw her stuff away. Tip it out.

Lili’s possessions are all she has left of the life she lost.

GIRL (Translation):  you can only keep a few things. Oh, gosh. You can only keep one Barbie doll.

LILI (Translation):   I want to keep this one.

GIRL (Translation):  Put all this mess in the bag, hurry up.

LILI (Translation):  I want to recycle them.

GIRL (Translation):  Yes, they are for the recycle box, your garbage bag is for rubbish. You don’t think, do you?

LILI (Translation):  You can’t throw this away, my brother bought it for me.

Two months ago, she left her home and a life that was filled with violence and neglect. It’s estimated that there are six hundred thousand children in China like Lili, with parents in jail.

LILI (Translation):  It’s because of my dad, he killed my mum because she was running away. He told her to come back but she wouldn’t, she kept running away, then he killed her. I don’t hate him, it was my mum’s fault. She was always running away. All right. Maybe I hate him a little.  Look, it glows. It’s glowing.

GIRL 2 (Translation):  Give me my stuff. I want it back now.

LILI (Translation):  Take it.

GIRL 2 (Translation):  Where’s my stuff?

LILI (Translation):  What stuff?  It’s all in the box.

GIRL 2 (Translation):  Lili, this won’t play anymore, there is no sound. Go and find a battery for it, you were playing with it. I’d just changed the battery and now it doesn’t work. You can’t borrow this or other toys anymore.

LILI (Translation):  I don’t like the girls here, like that one just now. No one wants to play with me.

GIRL (Translation):  I’ll curse her. I’m the big sister, if she doesn’t behave, I will punish her.

BOY (Translation):  You’ve dirtied the floor again, these are your footsteps!

For Lili, adjusting to the rules of the older children is not easy. Like any family, sometimes there’s aggression, sometimes there’s understanding.

LILI (Translation):  take this. I will clean the floor in case he gets angry again.

GIRL (Translation):   Leave it.  It’s alright you can just leave it.

Not all the children who live in Sun Village are the kids of prisoners, six year old Strawberry was rescued from human traffickers when she was just ten days old. She’s known no other family other than the one she has here.

SISTER ZHANG (Translation): Go to bed.

STRAWBERRY (Translation): But sister An said she isn’t going to bed yet.

SISTER ZHANG (Translation): Won’t you go to bed without her? You can’t always sleep with others. Go to sleep! Do you want me to come up and sleep with you? Go to sleep! You really want me to come up?

STRAWBERRY (Translation):  Yes!

SISTER ZHANG (Translation):  Do you want to sleep? Lie down and sleep. Go to sleep!

STRAWBERRY (Translation):  It’s so nice.

Strawberry plays with the other girls her age and today word is spreading that two of her friends are about to leave Sun Village.

GIRL (Translation): Xuan Xuan and Guo Guo’s mothers are picking them up today. They want to go home. They don’t want to stay here. I want to go home.

GIRL 2 (Translation): That’s your mother, Xuan Xuan.

WOMAN (Translation): That’s your mother. Look there she is.

XUAN XUAN (Translation):  The one in white.

WOMAN (Translation):  It’s your mother.

MOTHER (Translation): Mummy’s here and I’m alright. Let mum hold you. Come to mum. Give me a kiss.

Both girls were brought here when their fathers committed a joint crime and were sent to jail. When the fathers were arrested, the girls' mothers were living and working in another province. It has taken them months to find their girls. Now they have come to take them home. Strawberry watches a reunion that she will never have. No-one knows who her parents are and she has started calling her roommate "mum".

STRAWBERRY (Translation): Mum, for you.

GIRL (Translation): Yes.

STRAWBERRY (Translation):  I’ll give you some.

GIRL (Translation): I don’t want it.

GIRL 2 (Translation): Is she your mum?

GIRL 3 (Translation): Of course not. You might as well call her your aunty!

GIRL (Translation):  Strawberry said she wants to stay with me when we grow up.

GIRL 2 (Translation): That’s impossible.

GIRL (Translation): I will vanish once you look away. When you look back, I’m already gone.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Missed! Missed it again… Missed. Now it’s my turn. Ear, nose. Too slow. Ear!

Children like Strawberry, are raised in this shelter until they are old enough to look after themselves. For kids with parents in jail, they are reunited once the prison term is served. But, reunions can be traumatic for both children and parents. Mrs Gao is here this morning to pick up her 11-year-old son. This is the first time they have seen each other since her release.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):   Gao Yuan. Look who is here. Look at his smile. I really love this kid. Whenever I see him…Gao Yuan, come on. Give your mother a hug.

After eight years living apart, both are unsure what the reunion will bring.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Come in please, both of you. Take a seat. I have something to say.
After lunch, your mother has to go back to your village. There isn’t much time today. On the weekend you can go home with her too.  Okay? Just to take a look and come back after that. Look at you! You’ll come back here after that.

MOTHER (Translation): It’s just one Saturday or Sunday. Is that alright?

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation):  Gao Yuan, listen to me. Listen to Grandma Zhang. That place is your home. Sun Village can’t be your home forever. Alright, don’t cry. I’m not sending you home okay?

MOTHER (Translation):  You are going home to visit.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. We’ll talk about it again.

MOTHER (Translation):  We bought a big bed for you.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): I just want you to take a look. See how your village has helped.

MOTHER (Translation):  They bought a lot of things for our home.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): Don’t worry, don’t cry. Stop crying…Okay. Come on. Take your mother to your dormitory.

Gao Yuan was only three years old when his mother went to jail. She was a victim of domestic violence and killed Gao's father.

MOTHER (Translation):  I bought you new shoes, try them on. Here you are.

GAO YUAN (Translation): I’ll try them later.

MOTHER (Translation):  What?  Let’s see if they fit. If not, I will exchange them.

GAO YUAN (Translation):  They’ll fit!

MOTHER (Translation):  What?

GAO YUAN (Translation):  They fit.

MOTHER (Translation):  Try them on. Just try them on and see if they fit.

GAO YUAN (Translation):  I don’t want to.

MOTHER (Translation):  Why? Is there anything you want to eat? Sit down.

GAO YUAN (Translation):  I don’t want anything.

WOMAN (Translation):  Huh?  What is your favorite food?  Let’s go out and buy it, okay? Huh? I’ll never take you away from here, you just stay here with Granny Zhang, okay? Say something to mum. Please?  What are you thinking? What do you want me to do? Mum will follow all your wishes as long as I get to be with you. Mum has nothing left.  Now… you are my only hope.

The two of them will need time to rebuild their relationship. Gao Yuan is still unsure about living Sun Village to live with his mum, but agrees to visit their old house. He's not been back here since the murder.

MAN (Translation): We are here to visit you hometown. We'll buy whatever you want. 

WOMAN (Translation): He was so little when the tragedy happened. 

OLDER WOMAN (Translation):  A smart boy! 

TEACHER (Translation): That’s my boy. Don't be so shy! They're all your family! This is your second uncle

GAO YUAN (Translation): Hello uncle

MAN (Translation):  Say hello.

TEACHER (Translation):  He just did. See how tall he is now.

MAN (Translation): Good, good. Do you remember playing with her when you were a little boy?

MOTHER (Translation): See how big our yard is. I redecorated this room. I threw a lot of stuff away it must look very different. I'll buy you some more things when we have extra money. See this bed is pretty big. You used to sleep in this bed when you were little. They said to throw it away, but I refused because we used to sleep in it together. Isn't it funny?

AUNT (Translation): Hello Gao Yuan! Do you remember me? 

MOTHER (Translation): This is your eldest aunt

AUNT (Translation):  He doesn't recognise me. You're so tall now, child! I miss you so much! He doesn't remember me. Come home child! Come back often.

MOTHER (Translation): Don't cry! He’s here with us now.

AUNT (Translation): I watched him grow up from a small boy.

More than 5,000 children like Gao Yuan have passed through the gates of Sun Village. He now needs to decide if he is ready to leave and return home for good.

GRANDMA ZHANG (Translation): I feel conflicted, I know those children will leave Sun Village one day. It’s not about holding them in your arms, or feeding them or clothing them. The important thing is to teach them not the end up like their parents.

kaspar astrup schröder

katrine a. sahlstrøm

cindy zeng xin

additional camera
ren Jie

story editor
cathrine ambus

sally roberts

additional editing
micah mcgown

micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

6th June 2017