Photo gallery: The Norwich man who introduced fostering to China

chinese foster families chinese foster families

He introduced the concept of foster care to China and is giving 250,000 orphans the chance to grow up in a family. Now Robert Glover’s Norwich-based charity has been awarded more than £2m to expand its work. He talked to Rowan Mantell about fostering, football and faith.
Friday, April 11, 2014
1:42 PM

He introduced the concept of foster care to China and is giving 250,000 orphans the chance to grow up in a family. Now Robert Glover’s Norwich-based charity has been awarded more than £2m to expand its work. He talked to Rowan Mantell about fostering, football and faith.

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Robert Glover, who along with his wife Elizabeth introduced the concept of fostering to China. He is chief executive of Norwich - based charity Care for Children. Photo: Steve AdamsRobert Glover, who along with his wife Elizabeth introduced the concept of fostering to China. He is chief executive of Norwich - based charity Care for Children. Photo: Steve Adams

‘The first orphanage I visited in China, a little boy got hold of my hand. His clothes didn’t fit, his shoes were broken and he hung on to me. I wondered how I was going to break free from him,” said Robert Glover.

But instead of breaking free, Robert got involved, and the Norwich-based charity he set up, has found foster families for an astonishing quarter of a million abandoned Chinese children.

Every year tens of thousands of children move from orphanages to live with families right across China, thanks to the vision of this Norwich man.

Now Care for Children has just been given £2.22m to further develop foster care in China and Thailand.

“We restore children to where they should be - in a family,” said Robert, who trained as a social worker. “Children were never meant to grow up in warehouses. When we don’t let them have good mothers and fathers, they develop mental and physical problems; awful things happen.”

Robert grew up in Norwich, dreaming of playing for Norwich City.

He still speaks with a local accent – except when his phone rings and, sitting in an office in Norwich’s Cathedral Close, he answers in lilting fluent Mandarin.

When he first moved to China he knew barely a word of Chinese, and still seems slightly bemused at how he came to help revolutionise state childcare policies across the huge communist nation.

He was on a fact-finding tour of the country when a chance meeting with a top government official led to him being asked to set up China’s first foster-care project.

“It was really right time, right place,” said Robert. Two years later he and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Shanghai – with their six children. In a state with a one-child policy, they were immediately a phenomenon.

“When we went out we would have several hundred people following us, just to see this English couple with all the children!” he said. “It was a bit difficult.”

Just before they first left Norwich, Robert and Elizabeth had been approved as foster carers. They had hoped to foster one child. Instead they were embarking on a journey which could find homes for a million.

As a child himself, Robert attended Norwich’s George White and Alderman Jex schools, and excelled at football. He was a Norwich City trainee in the 1970s and although he never made it through to the first team he trained, and sometimes played, alongside such city luminaries as Duncan Forbes and Kevin Keelan.

He also had a spell with Colchester United but said: “Colchester wasn’t for me. I had always had my heart set on Norwich, but I was never quite good enough to make it.” Instead he joined the Royal Navy, and played football for naval teams – but was then transferred to serve on submarines. “Football and submarines are a less good fit!” he laughed. However his football career was not entirely sunk as he was signed for Portsmouth, straight from the Navy and began coaching children, often from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Back in Norfolk this led him to a career in social work and he specialised in working with youngsters in residential care, becoming fostering officer for Norwich City Council and then moved to work in residential and foster care management in Guernsey.

By now Robert and Elizabeth, a Norfolk girl from Weybourne, near Sheringham, had four daughters. Their twin sons were born on the island and the family lived in an idyllic farmhouse.

And then Robert went to China.

“There was quite a lot coming out about the conditions for orphans in China and I just felt I wanted to find a way of helping,” he said.

During a fact-finding tour he met various government officials – one of whom invited Robert to lunch.

“I love Chinese food and they had some good Chinese beer!” said Robert. “I was sharing some of my experiences about how important it is for children to grow up in a family and found that in China both the nuclear family and the extended family are very important.”

The officials were particularly interested in the concept of foster families.

“I was asked to come back, and said yes, thinking I’d bring a few videos about what we do,” said Robert.

Instead, back in Guernsey, he received a summons from the Foreign Office.

“I thought ‘What have I done wrong?’” said Robert. “But when I arrived I was shown around, introduced to the minister, and they asked ‘How did you do it? The Chinese want to work with you.’

“Apparently they had been trying to develop a relationship with the Chinese, but through bigger organisations, and I’ve since learned that everything in China is done through friendships and relationships, and they like working with small organisations.”

And so, although he spoke no Chinese and China had no tradition of fostering, the entire family – Robert and Elizabeth, plus Rachel aged 12, Lois aged 10, Megan aged eight, Anna aged six and four-year-old twins Joel and Joshua - packed up and moved to China.

Robert said they were driven by a desire to make a difference, which he believes springs from their faith.

“I’m just a normal guy. There is nothing special about Robert Glover, or my wife. But we are both Christians so we have the value of wanting to, where we can, help others.

“I knew we could help these children. For thousands of years we raised children in families and then we try putting them in warehouses. This is restoring God’s order.”

They lived in Shanghai for the first five years and then moved to Beijing in 2003.

“All Elizabeth wanted to do was raise a family in the country. And what did I do? Take her to two of the biggest cities in the world!” said Robert.

The first project was supported by the Foreign Office. Robert’s job was to work with officials to set up projects where orphaned children could be cared for in families, rather than crammed into huge institutions, of up to 2,000 children.

In some ways, he said, it was simple, because Chinese culture has a huge respect for the family – and the one child policy meant families had room in their hearts and homes for foster children.

But the concept of fostering had to be introduced and approved, and foster carers chosen, trained and supervised.

It took three years to get the first 500 children placed. But in the next three years, from 2014 to 2017, another 80,000 Chinese children will be moved from institutions to families, plus thousands more in Thailand.

Robert set up a charity, Care for Children, to help fund and run the fostering schemes, always working alongside the government. He found he had friends in very high places, cutting through bureaucracy and helping making things happen, including an official who had been one of Chairman Mao’s closest advisors.

“Because China became such a successful project we started to get invitations from other countries,” said Robert.

Governments from countries including Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and India sent representatives to a conference in Thailand and two years ago Care for Children began working with the Thai government. Next year it will launch a fostering project in Vietnam, in partnership with Unicef.

Care for Children trains local staff to run its projects and all the money it raises and contributes has to be matched by government of the country with which it is working.

“We aim to empower people to make a difference. We put the systems in place,” said Robert. “A lot of it is quite simple. It’s getting people to have hope.”

He is now a consultant to the Chinese government on child welfare as well as executive director of Care for Children, which has just received £2.2m from the Ikea Foundation to expand its work – cash which will fund more foster places so that thousands more children can grow up in families. The partnership between the charity and the Ikea Foundation was announced this spring by Care for Children patron Prince Michael of Kent.

Robert’s vision is for a million children to be moved from institutions to foster families. Every placement is planned as a long-term, forever family, but children are fostered rather than adopted so that they can continue to be supported and monitored.

For years the Glovers lived in China, but for the past 18 months Robert, who was awarded an OBE in 2005, has split his time between Norwich and China, ensuring the charity is ready to make the most of the Ikea Foundation grant.

Robert’s eldest daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Thomas, helped set up the Care for Children project in Thailand two years ago. Rachel originally trained as a midwife in Norwich and is now a mother herself.

All six Glover children, now aged between 20 and 28 are still fluent in Mandarin, the language of more than a billion Chinese people. “What it’s done for our kids has been fantastic,” said Robert.

An unexpected side-effect of his drive to help the orphans of China is that he has found himself popular with business people in Britain. “Everyone is interested in China now!” he said. “I speak Chinese and have had 15 years of making the right connections. Over the past three or four years I have been able to help Norfolk companies make relationships, and they will often support the charity so it can be a win-win situation!”

On a smaller scale he enjoys surprising Chinese people in Norwich. “If we spot people speaking Chinese somewhere like Sainsbury’s we will switch to Mandarin, and they can’t believe these English people know their language!” he laughed.

What is even more astonishing is that this family has introduced a new word to Mandarin, and a new concept to China, meaning a quarter of a million orphans are growing up in loving families.

For more information on Care for Children and the Ikea Foundation visit www.careforchildren.com

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