Football focus I never knew my father. He left when I was two and I was raised by my mother and grandmother and two sisters in Norfolk (in East Anglia, Britain). My passion was football. Some coaches from Norwich City chose a few of us from the school team to spend time training with our heroes but, at 16, I was quite skinny. When the coach said I wasn’t big enough, I remember cycling home with tears down my face. That was my dream and the world had fallen apart.
I joined the Royal Navy in 1973 and served on two submarines. For some reason, I was fascinated by China and I thought maybe the navy would be a good opportunity to see Hong Kong and Singapore. But it was the cold war and we were chasing Russian subs in the North Sea. By the time I was 18, I was six foot two inches tall and broad. I played football for the navy and then I played for Portsmouth for a season. It wasn’t all the glamour it is today, the money was poor, and I got injured.
An appetite for China Back in Norfolk, I saw an advert for a housemaster and PE teacher at a “school for maladjusted boys”, as they used to call them. That was a baptism of fire but I went on to work for Norfolk County Council and eventually got my degree in social work.
By 1996, I was in Guernsey, managing some of their services, but I still had this fascination for China. I went with a friend to Hong Kong and afterwards we flew into Shanghai. And that was … incredible. I knew it was the place where I was supposed to be. Some people had given us tickets to the Special Olympics and I got invited to a lunch where there were some rude Westerners who were wagging their fingers at the Chinese, telling them off.
I didn’t know who the Chinese guys with us were but I told them I was loving the food. One of them was the director of Shanghai’s Civil Affairs Bureau, and he told his staff, “Get rid of the other guys and bring Robert to dinner.” We got on very well, and he asked if I’d come back and help them. I thought it would be an opportunity to see more of China.
All fired up It all happened very quickly. I didn’t speak Chinese, which was good because if I’d been able to understand I probably wouldn’t have been so keen. By the third meeting, they asked if I would become senior consultant and develop foster care in Shanghai. There was no Chinese word for fostering, so we came up with the term “family placement”.
Care for Children was registered as a charity in the UK and I signed an agreement to start in September 1998 for three years and I moved to Shanghai with my wife, Liz, and the children – which was quite funny because China had a one-child policy and we had six: four girls and twin boys, aged between five and 13. We had given all our stuff away, our car, our furniture, everything. On the morning we left Guernsey, all we had were our mattresses, so we took them up a hill and set fire to them. That was our statement as a family: we’re going to China.
Winning ways At first it was hard. My office was in the orphanage and I was conscious some people didn’t want me around. I wasn’t allowed to eat in the canteen, so I’d have my lunch alone and play football with the older lads.
I began to train them as a football team. I wrote to Norwich City Football Club, who are known as the Canaries, and they sent out their strip – yellow shirts and green shorts – so we were the Shanghai Canaries.
We entered them in the Shanghai Schools Trophy, and in the final they beat the American School 5-3. The mayor of Shanghai said, “All your lives you’ve been losers but today you’re winners!” The next week, the matron and the staff knocked on my door. They had a bowl with my name written on it. After that, I could eat in the canteen.
Family finance We didn’t do adoptions because with long-term foster care the government was still responsible for the children’s medical and educational fees. Every family got an allowance of 300 yuan a month: the government paid half and Care for Children paid half. The families weren’t going to make money but we felt they shouldn’t lose money.
Many families said they didn’t want the money and we told them to put it in a bank account for when the child grows up. Within three years, we’d placed 500 children. We had an international evaluation and they said it was one of the best family placements in the world. China at that time was getting a lot of criticism so that was huge. But it wasn’t surprising. The children were craving mothers and fathers and, because of the one-child policy, parents wanted more children. So it was win-win for everyone.
Healing hearts After Shanghai, we started to work in Kunming, Chengdu and Yinchuan, in Ningxia. People said it wouldn’t work in the west of China. And guess what? It flew. It’s simple. When you put children into families, it transforms their lives.
In Chengdu, there was a little girl – she had a hole in the heart and was going to die – and we put her with a family so she’d at least have that comfort while she was dying. A couple of years later, she was the picture of health in her ballerina outfit, and she was so attached to her mum. That made the national news. They called her the miracle baby whose heart had been healed by love.
Orphans no more In 2003, we moved to Beijing to roll out a national programme. I went through some struggles. There were times when new government people would come in and they’d start building orphanages again, and all the good work we’d done got pushed aside. But in 2014, China passed legislation stating that family placement would be the priority for children.
In October 2017, at a conference, a professor from the National Bureau of Statistics said that 85 per cent of children in care were now with families. In 20 years, we’ve gone from nought to almost a million children.
Homes from home In 2013, we moved back to Norwich. Thailand had invited us in and we felt we couldn’t run that project out of China. We were trying to do it the China way but Thailand is culturally very different, we had to change the whole programme. Six years on, we’ve got it right.
There’s a big move now to stop giving money to orphanages in Southeast Asia but you’ve got to put in some infrastructure first or children will be on the streets. Cambodia, and now Vietnam, want us to help build up a proper service, with regulations and legislation; then they can start closing down the bad institutions.
Seeds of change We all miss China dreadfully. All our kids refer to it as home. At the beginning, in Shanghai, we lived in an undeveloped village in Pudong. We had everyone in for Christmas, and sang Silent Night by candlelight. Then we were invited for Chinese New Year. Once you understand a people, you can help a people. We were just planting seeds and the Chinese were watering them and they made them grow.
For more information, visit careforchildren.com. A clip of an upcoming documentary on Care for Children’s work can be seen on childrenofshanghai.com