Robert Glover reveals how he set up Shanghai's foster care system

British father who set up China’s foster care system in the ’90s recalls battle to persuade people to adopt children who’d been tied together or left alone in cots – until football team he set up for older boys changed everything

  • Robert Glover founded Care for Children, tells how set up China’s foster system
  • Former footballer moved his family to Shanghai in 1998 for his charity work 
  • Helped open up the Chinese orphanage system to a foster care system 
  • Nearly 23 years on, documentary retraces the success story of his endeavour 
  • He and wife saw babies in cots not nurtured and children tied together on walks

A former British footballer revealed how he moved his family to Shanghai to help set up China’s foster care system. 

Robert Glover, from Guernsey, played for Norwich City in his youth and moved on to Portsmouth FC, before injury halted his football career, and started coaching children from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

This led to a career in social work and setting up his charity Care for Children, which is documented tonight in Children of Shanghai, airing at 7pm on Sky Documentaries.

During a visit to China in the late 1990s, Robert – who’s been awarded and OBE for his work – was struck by the fact that orphans were abandoned and kept in big orphanages where they had little prospects for a better life.   

Married to his wife Liz and with six children, the charity founder decided to uproot his life and move to China in 1998 to work as a consultant to the Shanghai government to help set up a foster care system and find adoptive families. 

Children of Shanghai, airing tonight on Sky, looks back at Robert’s endeavour and reveals the lives of some of Shanghai first ever foster children, through testimonies from their families and themselves. 

The Children of Shanghai, a Sky documentary, looks into how former Norwich City footballer turned charity founder Robert Glover, pictured right with his wife Liz, made foster care possible in China in 1998

During his visits to one of Shanghai’s biggest orphanages, Robert saw babies in cots, tied together and with hardly any possessions 

Robert decided to set up his Shanghai office in the city’s biggest orphanage, which he remembers in the documentary as a ‘formidable institution.’ 

‘It was quite a formidable institution, where lots of different people had lots of different roles,’ Robert said. 

‘There were lots of children in cots who weren’t nurtured, weren’t helped, that was really tough,’ his wife Liz recalled. 

‘So they used to bring the children out and tie them together so they could walk in a line and they didn’t wander off,’ Liz remembered as the couple visited the old orphanage for the documentary. 

Liz, Robert’s wife, who moved to Shanghai with him and their six children, says she remembers seeing children tied together so they wouldn’t wander off, pictured

‘They had hardly any possessions so they had these tiny little cupboards where they kept their stuff in there and they had some books, and few little tiny toys,’ Robert says. 

‘And then you saw some of the other boys and how tough they were, and you knew in their toughness that they’d survived,’ he adds. 

‘For any of these boys that had survived, many hadn’t.’

Robert first became interested in the situation in China’s orphanages after a visit to the country in the late 1990s.

At the time, eight million children lived in orphanages after they were abandoned by their parents  due to China’s strict one child policy. 

John Langlois, Founding Chairman of Care for Children, said: ‘I don’t even think there was a word for “fostering”. 

‘There wasn’t a word for “adoption” and there had been some very adverse publicity in the UK and other countries about the poor state of orphanages in China,’ he explained. 

Through his work with Care for Children, Robert managed to get invited to a dinner with Shanghai officials and international aid organisations to discuss child welfare. 

Through his friendly approach, Robert caught the eye of the ministry of social affairs of China, and was invited to come back.  

‘I was with the Chinese people and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying, and then one chap stood up and said, “I want to tell you the meaning of your name. As many stars as there are in the sky, you’ll be father to the children of China”.’

Robert and Liz with their six children at the time of their move from Guernsey to Shanghai in 1998

Babies in cots being tended to by one nurse in one of Shanghai’s biggest orphanages. At the time, 8 million children lived in orphanages 

The documentary featurea clip of Yan Mingfu, who used to be Mao Zedong’s interpreter, and was the vice minister of civil affairs from 1990 to 1996. 

Speaking in 2000, Mingfu said: ‘Our friend Robert from Britain brought in a new concept. 

‘He advocated that we place the children into loving local families, so that the orphaned and disabled children may expeience the love of a father and mother.’

Robert caused a stir when he moved his family, which consisted of six blonde-haired children, to Shanghai, and while locals were welcoming, Robert admits in the documentary that the orphanage system wasn’t.  

Daphne Cheng, who was Robert’s assistant in Shanghai, explained: ‘The Chinese, back 20 years ago, they are very conservative, very high avoidance. 

‘I don’t think they could fully understand what Robert was saying. At that time, it was about the time that China had just opened its doors to foreign investors, to foreign business, to foreign sectors.

‘So most foreigners came to Shanghai, for business, to make a fortune.

The orphanage where Robert set up his office; He admits in the documentary that he wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the orphanage system 

‘It’s very unusual for Robert to come to China and say “Hi, I’ve come here. I want to save this child, I want to do some charity things”.’

‘I think the China government, they appreciated but still, they were holding something like suspicion.’

Robert felt this as he started working at the orphanage, recallined: ‘I was told I couldn’t eat with the rest of the staff in the canteen so I had my lunch of my own.

‘There were lots of vested interests in Shanghai at the time in the orphanage system, it was like business,’ explained Langlois, adding that they were ‘breaking down that business’.

In the documentary, Robert remembers the first ever presentation he gave about his project. 

‘I had to give an overview of what foster care was, I had to translate it, and I noticed within two or three minutes of my presentation that people were fidgeting around, going to the toilet, answering their phones,’ he said. 

‘And within 5 minutes I could see people reading the newspaper, and I think after about 10 mins of me starting doing my presentation, there were some that had started a card school at the back; it was very unnerving,’ he added. 

Jonathan Le Tocq, who was Guernsey Chief Minister from 2014 to 2016 said: ‘I think the expectations from China were very high, and I was fearful at the time that Rob wouldn’t be able to deliver on that. 

A child staying at the orphanage. Robert said it was a ‘formidable institution,’ At the time, China had been criticised for the treatment of children in its orphanages, and was trying to find solutions 

Robert with Shanghai officials during an official dinner. His friendly approach caught the eye of several members of the Chine Ministry of Civil Affairs, who asked him to come help the Shanghai government turn their orphanage system into a foster care system 

‘It seemed at the time that the more we made a step forward, more obstacles would come in the way.’ 

However, Robert was able to turn it around thanks to his former career as a footballer. 

He started playing football with the older boys at the orphanage, who had less chance of being adopted. 

‘We started with the five of them and then it grew, to the point where we got permission where we could train them. I contacted my old team of Norwich City and they sent out their strip of yellow shirts, green shorts and green socks,’ Robert said.  

‘And training became a bit more serious then and we decided to enter then into the Shanghai school trophy.’

The orphanage team, which had members with special needs, including five deaf boys and another who had a missing arm, won the tournament and brought publicity to the orphanage, which resulted in a surge in adoptions. 

‘And it was a major achievement, really, for the orphanage,’ Robert said. 

Also appearing in the documentary are some of Shanghai’s first fostered children, who were adopted thanks to Robert’s initiative. 

Ai Lyang was the first ever girl to be adopted in Shanghai, and said: ‘I didn’t know what the outside world was like I thought I’d stay there forever. 

Ai was adopted aged five and now is a thriving mother in Shanghai, who was encouraged thanks to her parents’ love throughout her life. 

Many of the children who were fostered in 1998 went on to lead successful lives. 

Pictured: the lockers where the orphans kept the little amount of personal possessions they had

Among them is Su Yiya, who was adopted aged nine after his birth mother abandoned him between a construction site and train tracks. Su was taken to the orphanage by the police. 

He was fostered by Wu Diying, who didn’t tell her husband she was going to be adopting a child 

‘My heart wanted to offer love,’ she explained. 

Her husband sadded  We brought him back, but we didn’t know what to do next! My older comrades in the factory told me, “Xiao Zhu, you are doing the right thing. Everyone should use their life to do good”.’

‘One of the things we know about children is when they come into care, they’ve often gone through awful rejection, they’ve been abandoned,’ Robert explained. 

‘And what we have to do is to try and work with the families and say ‘Look, these children are hurt, so they’ll display quite abnormal behaviour, it’s a self-destruct button”.’

Su Yiya as a child after he was adopted by his foster parents, thanks to Robert’s initiative, in 1998

Su, now a successful coder for WeChat, was the first of the fostered children from the orphanage to graduate from university

Su’s school performance was really poor after his time in the orphanage because children were not receiving education that could help develop their potential.  

‘I remember he took the IQ test before he came out of the orphanage, and the score was very low,’ said Lucy Lu, a social worker who worked on Su’s case. 

‘After settling at home, it was completely different. So I think family foster care gives children a real second life,’ she said.  

Now, Su is a successful coder for WeChat, the biggest social network in China.   

Several of the children were malnourished and underdeveloped after their time in foster car. Some children who were five-years-old where the same size and had the same behaviour as babies. 

One of these children was  Xy Quoqi, who is now a special Olympics champion and has won several national and regional competitions.  

Robert picrtured with Ai Lyang, who became China’s first ever foster child in 1998 and is now a thriving mother herself 

Lucy said she remember Xy at the orphanage, saying: ‘At first the child was quiet and she avoided people. Her best-friend is a good influence, she is very outgiong. But Xu Guoqi was very timid.

‘She suffered from muscles weakness,’ Dong Qi, Xy’s sports teacher and coach added. 

‘She went to school every day, but she had difficulty walking in.

Xy couldn’t speak or walk properly when she left the orphanage. Before meeting her for the documentary, Robert admits he feels ‘anxious.  

‘A bit anxious ’cause I remember this child and i remember when she came to the orphanage and she needed a bit of help and I don’t know what to except,’ he said.

Xy’s foster parents were very pround to tell Robert and Liz of all of Xy’s Olympic success.  

‘She was five whe we fostered her but she was like a one year baby,’ her mother said ‘I had to hold her all the time because her brain wasn’t functioning properly. She couldn’t use the toilet and had to wear diapers.

Robert and Liz (left) with some of the foster children and foster families he has helped in Shanghai in 2018

‘She couldn’t eat solid food. All she could eat was porridge and milk. At first she was scared about coming into a new family, but we tried hard to build a connection with her.’

Xy’s father was against adopting at the time, because he felt another child would be a financial strain, but he ended up bonding with his foster daughter and now the two have a great relationship.  

‘Such an amazing family,’ Liz said after the visit. ‘That little girl, when she came at the orphanage, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t walk and she couldn’t eat solid food and now she’s a confident young woman, she’s an athlete, she’s representing her country.

Robert added: ‘Really, China should be proud of this family, they are awesome, the heroes of this age. 

Robert, left, with the Shanghai Canaries, the football team he built with teenage boys from the orphanage, who won the school league and brought honour to the orphanage, creating a surge in adoption requests

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