Traditionally, there were limited and fragmented resources and protection for vulnerable children in China, which placed children in difficult circumstances at high risk. In recent years, China has boosted its efforts to strengthen support and protections for vulnerable children due to poverty, disability, illness, and lack of custody. Zhejiang, an economically advanced province in China, has pioneered such efforts, signaled by the 2011 passage of the first governmental regulation that defined children in special difficulties and provided them with systematic financial and other support. In 2016, the Chinese central government issued administrative rules for protecting and supporting children in special difficulties, making this a national effort. Despite this growing public and governmental interest, little is known about the social and psychological wellbeing of these children.
This study used data from a sample of 1,000 families in Zhejiang province whose children were defined as being in special difficulties due to poverty, serious illnesses, disability, and lack of custody. Researchers at a local China university applied multi-stage cluster sampling and conducted face-to-face interviews to collect data from both children and their parents/guardians, and the data were shared with researchers at the U.S. The survey included questions concerning the children’s demographics, social economic characteristics, and psychological wellbeing. We first conducted descriptive analyses to compare the children’s characteristics and wellbeing by their vulnerable status, and then used multivariate analyses to examine factors associated with their life satisfaction.
Most of the children (90%) were 7 years and older, half of them were cared by non-parent relatives (49%), and 20% of them had a severe disability or illness. Only a small proportion of the caregivers (11%) had a high school education, and three quarters (75%) of the families were receiving public assistance. Most of the children did not feel that their guardians cared about them (82%), but were unwilling or unable to tell their thoughts to the guardians (79%). The majority of the children felt inferior (64%) and discriminated against (53%), and only 9% of them expressed satisfaction with their current life.
In the models we constructed to predict children’ life satisfaction, children having someone to ask for help and caregivers receiving public assistance were positively associated with child life satisfaction, while being cared by non-parental guardians was negatively correlated with satisfaction; there was little difference among children with different types of vulnerabilities (e.g., poverty, disability, and lack of custody).
Our findings are important to the developing context of caring for vulnerable children in China, which traditionally has been left totally to family systems. Despite enhanced support to these children, they are often isolated and lack of psychological wellbeing in the famiy and larger social context. It is important for future policy and program development to promote family relationship building and out-of-family social networking for these children. In addition, our findings resonate with U.S. work on the special difficulties facing children cared for by non-parental family members or foster parents. We will address similarities and differences to the U.S. context in discussing implications.