Korea’s Revised Adoption Process

by Jayme Hansen, Executive Director of ICAV, ICAV USA Representative, adopted from Korea to the USA.

Mid-June this year, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) announced they have revised their adoption process, perhaps accelerated by the public outcry at the abuse and death of baby Jeong-In at the hands of her adoptive parent but I believe more of an attempt to comply with Hague Convention guidelines.

I applaud South Korea’s efforts to revise their adoptions processes

I believe this is a small step in the right direction. Adoption agencies should not be solely responsible for the process of relinquishment of the child or the counselling of birth mothers. Historically numerous adoption agencies around the globe have used unethical practices and have pressured vulnerable single mothers into relinquishing their children.  An Huffington Post article entitled “Adoption Criminality and Corruption” exposed some of the abusive practices by adoption agencies, stating:

Another major problem that the Hague Convention on International adoptions does not address is “finders’ fees” paid by foreign orphanages. These fees are enough to incentivize criminals to kidnap children and claim that they were found abandoned. Often, the children who wind up adopted through U.S. agencies are passed through multiple hands in a process known as “child laundering“ making it impossible for even the most reputable American adoption agency to ensure the origins of the child involved in any international adoption. The line between legal, ethical adoptions and criminal activity is blurry at best.” 

This latest action from the Korean government did not stem from Jeon-In’s case alone but her life and death did play an important public role in highlighting the illegal and abusive practices by the adoption agencies who facilitate the adoption and continue to face no consequences. Risk is always reduced if we get rid of the middle men (adoption agencies) who have a vested interest in profits or their agenda to promote adoption ahead of any other alternatives and have no-one overseeing their practices and procedures. It’s time Korea took more responsibility for their children and attempt to implement a revised model of adoption which appears to be an alignment with the Hague Convention guidelines. There are other countries like Australia who have successfully implemented a completely centralised model of adoption for many years and despite the early discussions around the risks of Central Authorities ( governments) discharging their responsibilities to accredited bodies (see paragraphs 242-243), there remains no research since then, that discusses the pros and cons of a centralised vs outsourced model of adoption by governments.

Of course, as with all change, there are always those who oppose it – especially when the pockets of big organisations (adoption agencies) risk loss of their income stream! I challenge the opposition and point out that it is economically unwise for Korea to continue in the wholesale trade of its children when they have the lowest fertility rate in the world with 0.84 births for every woman in South Korea. Furthermore, this is a Korean issue and individuals need to keep in mind that Korea wasn’t established as a democracy until 1948.  The country was literally torn apart and destroyed during the 35 years of Japanese Occupation and the destruction during the Korean War in the early 1950’s. Compared to America’s longer established democracy – Koreans are quickly establishing their own method of self-governance, social programs and economic growth at a record pace.

Some have express concern that vulnerable mothers will not want to seek out government help in their times of crisis. I think if government staff focus on the best interest of their people, it is a good thing and assumes a country, ranked as the 10th biggest economy in the world (in 2020) has the capabilities to resolve their own issues. Furthermore, South Korea has an ever-growing number of certified professional social workers who have helped their nation through numerous crisis over the years helping it’s citizens through increased teen suicide, affects from COVID-19, and numerous other social impacts and issues.

I also don’t believe these changes will result in more babies being abandoned at baby boxes as some critics state. First, there is no proof that children were dying in large numbers before the baby box was established. There is also no indication that this change in policy would result in greater numbers of these issues. I have visited and logged thousands of hours volunteering in nearly half a dozen orphanages across South Korea and the government has made it relatively easy for parents to relinquish their children if they are unable to care for them. I met numerous mothers who came to visit their children at the orphanages and placed them there so that the state could feed and take care of the child when the parent was unable. I question anyone who can support a program like the baby box that allows women to abandon their children. Such actions in most developed countries would lead to arrests. The problem with so called solutions like baby boxes, where children are literally dropped off like mail, is that it allows individuals to bypass responsibility and to shirk the government established programs. Baby boxes also encourage a breach of fundamental human rights for the child to have its identity documented and protected. 

Let’s also not downplay the issue of abuse of children by adoptive parents. Little Jeon-Ing was not the first or last child to die at the hands of her adoptive parents. The seriousness of the risk to adopted children should never be understated. An article written by Richard Wexler highlights the under reporting of child abuse cases in his article “Abuse in Foster Care: Research vs. the Child Welfare System’s Alternative Facts“. Wexler’s research found under reporting of abuse and neglect in numerous states across the USA. A study from Oregon and Washington state found one third of all children in foster care were abused. A study in Atlanta found 34% of the children experienced abuse where the goal was to assist them in being adopted. Mr. Wexler summarised his findings by stating “in survey’s going back for decades, from 25 percent to as high as 40 percent of foster children report having been abused or neglected in care”. The bottom line is that relatively few children are adopted in South Korea by its own citizens. In fact, only 260, children were adopted within the country in 2020. If you compare the number of abuse cases by the number of children that are actually adopted within Korea, the percentages of abuses dramatically climb up. An article written in 2021 by Grace Moon states that “13.35% of adopted children were victims of abuse, double that of children raised by their biological families.” 

For the critics who use inflammatory language labelling the changes as the markings of a “Socialistic System” – this is is an attempt to fuel conservative follower-ship without recognising the hypocrisy of such a call. Even the most developed countries, including the USA have state funded programs that oversee the protection children. Here in the USA we have a government agency in each state listed under numerous names such as Child Protected Services (CPS), Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Department of Social Services (DSS). I wonder should we also label our American programs in child welfare and protection as “socialist” too?

Korea isn’t alone in attempting reform in adoption. Numerous other countries are reforming adoption laws because of their recognition that children are not being kept safe and that the current system of plenary adoption has many flaws. This is also thanks to the role played by adult adoptees who have worked tirelessly to advocate for our rights and needs. A growing number of countries such as Romania, Russia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and South Korea have either banned or placed laws that make it nearly impossible to adopt internationally. These changes came largely due to the unscrupulous practices of profit driven adoption agencies. One of numerous examples was highlighted by pro-adoption agency Adoptive Families Association of BC. The article summarized the issue by stating: “terrible conditions in Romanian orphanages after the overthrow of the Ceaucescu government in 1989, prompted parents from many countries to adopt thousands of abandoned children; it also spawned a lucrative adoption industry within the country. With little infrastructure, the system was vulnerable to unethical practices”.

My Recommendations to the Korean Government to Revise Adoption

My first recommendation would be for the Korean government to change its citizenship law. Unlike the USA and most countries, a Korean citizenship is not determined by being born within Korean territory. Citizenship instead, is conferred by jus sanguinis or through the “right of bloodlines” of an individual. This law means that “Children of Korean citizen women, who had either a non-Korean father or no known Korean father (no Korean man claimed paternity), were not Korean citizens — even if born in Korea.” The outcome of this law has had perverse affects: “therefore, many single mothers chose to “abandon” their “fatherless” child so that the child would have the rights and access to services, education, and employment as a Korean citizen, rather than have their child officially recorded as not having a Korean father and therefore being a non-citizen with no such rights.” 

Another issue is the Korean government provides nearly 10 times the funding for orphanages compared to what’s provided for single mothers with children. The government should establish child welfare reforms so that single mothers have the resources to raise their children and be given the opportunity to thrive and become positive and contributing member of Korea’s society. Currently the only option is for the child to be plenary adopted or institutionalised for life. Not really a choice! We all know the researched outcomes of institutionalisation i.e, of retardation in child cognitive and emotional development, higher exposure to violence, and greater susceptibility to mental health issues.

Lastly, I recommend that South Korea establish stronger policies and laws for child support for single mothers. This includes enforcement to hold the fathers accountable and ensure they be responsible for the children they’ve sired. The Korean Herald highlighted this issue by stating, “83 percent of all single parents in South Korea never received any child support payments from non-custodial parents in 2012. Only 4.6 percent of them filed lawsuits. Even among those who won their cases, 77.34 percent said they never received any money, in spite of court orders.” 

I am optimistic for a better era where South Korea holds itself more accountable for the long term well being of its children rather than exporting them en masse to other countries. Taking back responsibility via the revision to adoption processes is a great place to start!

Click here if you’d like to read Jayme’s other blogs at ICAV.

Lifelong Impacts of Identity Loss

On 1 July, I was asked to speak as part of a webinar panel for the Transforming Children’s Care Webinar Series #4: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care. We had an amazing panel of experts, moderated by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, President of Child Identity Protection (CHIP), and hosted by the Better Care Network in partnership with CHIP.

I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.

My Story

 I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.

I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.

I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.

The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency. 

Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.

I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.

Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity. 

In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.

When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!

I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either. 

This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.

Our ICAV Community

Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice! 

I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:

Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!

Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.

You can watch the complete webinar here.