The Children’s Revolution

Hundreds of thousands of children and young people who have
spent their lives in China’s state and private orphanages are
being found foster and adoptive families and are -moving to homes
of their own for the first time.

It is a bold move for the Chinese government, but it is a huge
challenge and problems are inevitable. Which is where social
workers from the UK come in. A delegation from Leeds recently
attended a conference in Beijing on foster care training as guests
of children’s charity Care for Children and the China Social
Work Association.

This group included Tracy Cartmell, head of employee development
at Leeds social services, Gary Dimmock, head of social work at
Leeds Metropolitan University, and myself. That we were in the
country at all represents a major change in the Chinese
government’s approach to caring for its extraordinary numbers
of orphaned and abandoned babies. This revolution is due in no
small part to Care for Children, which was founded six years

After years of intense lobbying from Care for Children founder
Robert Glover and charity president Lord Laming, and the success of
a fostering and adoption pilot project in Shanghai, China has
announced a national roll-out of the new fostering and adoption

Now that the government has accepted that children thrive better
in families than in institutions, the challenge is to move one
million children out of the country’s vast orphanages and
into adoptive or foster care.

It is a huge task, but with it comes the -bigger job of training
enough social workers to provide therapeutic care for damaged
children. Their new families also need training and support to
prepare for the children’s move into independent adult

While there is much interest in training social workers in
community work, older people’s and children’s services,
social work itself is still not recognised as a profession. As yet,
there are no qualified field social workers acting purely on behalf
of children in care, although there are now undergraduate social
work courses in Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing and Guangzhou.

Many of the children have come into the care system after being
abandoned because they were disabled or the “wrong” gender.
Sometimes a couple have already had their only permitted child and
cannot afford to support another. This brings additional traumas
for the older children, many of whom suffer low self-esteem and
lack even basic information about their origin or natural

Inevitably, children who have lived in orphanages on the scale
of those in China will have been looked after by a range of
professional carers. No matter how kindly this care is provided, we
know that lack of a consistent care-giver can lead to massive
emotional problems where children find it difficult to bond. As a
result, many of the -children now waiting for foster and adoptive
parents have anxiety and attachment -disorders. Many of the
orphaned children also have multiple physical disabilities and
learning difficulties.

Potential adoptive parents and foster carers can be unprepared
for the reality of the task. Because fostering and adoption are
such new concepts in China, many of the couples who offer a home to
a child have no experience of the issues. They are often childless,
or with little experience of bringing up children. Other couples
apply to foster because they have already had their only child and
would like to bring up another, especially if the first baby was a
girl. But, unlike nurturing a child from birth, parents receive
their new family member already partly grown, unused to family life
and needing far more than the usual levels of patience and

It takes time for a child brought up in an orphanage to adjust
to suddenly having a home, family, friends and a place of his or
her own in society. Encouragingly, though, the pilot foster scheme
has shown that most of the children are going on to achieve their
potential, with good family bonds and increased self-esteem.
Through healthy child-adult relationships, many will become full
members of the wider community.

Our presence in China is intended to be part of the beginning of
a process of sharing skills with Chinese colleagues who may need
support as they approach an enormous task for which there is no
home-grown experience.

Care for Children has launched a set of fostering standards and
an impressive training pack, based largely on our the UK’s
national minimum standards. Both of these have been sensitively
translated and, in the words of Glover, “culturalised so the
workers and foster carers can envisage some of the concepts within
the context of Chinese life”.

I am aware that the visit to China was not a one-way process.
Although the Chinese may be new to fostering, there is much within
their culture on which they can draw. It is easy to think of China
as an enormous, anonymous population. However, despite the size of
the cities and the variety of historical and cultural influences,
they consistently show respect for each other as individuals which,
I found, is to be seen only from close up and not from the typical
viewpoint of TV news or travel films.

Importantly, workers in the new service know they are not alone
– they realise they have the backing of the Chinese
government and the support of colleagues worldwide.

And this support will continue. Our next visit will take place
in spring 2005 and two senior workers from China are currently
studying children’s social work at British universities. As
we prepared to leave for home after our week-long visit, we were
left inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants and humbled at
the thought of the many young lives that may be changed for the


This article looks at China’s efforts to move a million
orphaned or abandoned children out of institutional care and into
adoptive and foster families. With social work yet to be formally
recognised as a profession, training for the workers who will
achieve this enormous task is in its infancy, but growing

Further Information

Care for Children is a registered charity working in partnership
with national and local governments in China to introduce foster
care and other strategic initiatives to relieve hardship, distress
and sickness and to enrich the lives of orphans and other needy
children. Go to

The China Social Work Association has been given the
responsibility to implement a national programme for alternatives
to institutional care under the ministry of civil affairs.

Contact the Author

Eric Shedlow is head of children’s resources in
the social services department at Leeds Council. He has
considerable experience as a manager and a social worker. He is
responsible for the department’s fostering and adoption
services, children’s residential homes, family resource
centres, the pathway planning team and the independent visitor
scheme, all of which combine to provide the range of services
available to looked-after children.



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