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.

I Support #NotAThing

#NotAThing founders: Allison Park, Kara Bos, Brenna Kyeong McHugh, Cameron Lee, Kevin Omans, Patrick Armstrong, and Richard Peterson. Media artists Valerie Reilly (Graphic Designer) and Sarah Monroe (Videographer), and petition Korean translator Jullie Kwon.

I am not a Korean intercountry or domestic adoptee but I am an intercountry adoptee and this is not just a Korean adoption issue – it is a global issue for all who are impacted by adoption. I stand with the Korean adoptees who are demanding President Moon apologise and meet with them to discuss how to better protect vulnerable children.

I am against the murder and abuse of any child who gets placed into an adoptive family.

I am also against any rhetoric that minimises what has happened and attempts to push the responsibility onto the child – as if they were the cause, not good enough, and needed to be “swapped out” to better suit the needs of the adoptive family.

It is time the governments of the world, who participate in, promote and look to the current plenary adoption system be upfront and realistic about the downsides this system creates.

My first argument is that the current plenary system of adoption does not respect the child’s rights and too easily becomes a commodity in a market for adoptive families to pick and chose the child of their choice. President Moon’s poorly chosen words simply reflect this reality. His words tell us what we already know: children are a commodity in today’s economy – matched theoretically to suit the needs of prospective parents, and not the other way around! If there were any semblance of equality in this system, we children would be able to more easily rid ourselves of adoptive families when we deem them equally unsuitable! But the reality is, we are children when adoption happens and like little Jeong-In, have no power or say in what happens to us. We are adopted into the family for life, our rights to our birth origins irrevocably denied, our adoption as Pascal Huynh writes, “is like an arranged child marriage”. The majority of the world somehow understands how unethical an arranged child marriage is, yet we still talk about plenary adoption as if it’s a child’s saviour.

Thanks to the recent publicity of Netra Sommer’s case, the public around the world have recently become aware of how hard it is for us adoptees to revoke our adoptions. It took Netra over 10 years to be able to undo her adoption! As for any equal rights in the current system, the mothers and fathers of loss get even less than us adoptees. They are discouraged from changing their minds if they no longer wish to relinquish their child, yet President Moon is publicly encouraging a process that allows adoptive / prospective parents to change theirs. This is the one sided nature of the adoption system!

Jeong-In’s death highlights some other core issues I have with the plenary adoption system:

  • The lack of long term followup, research or statistics on adoptees after the adoption and post placement period.
  • The selection and assessment of prospective parents by the adoption agency and their lack of accountability in their role.
  • The blind belief within the child welfare system, that an adoptive parent would never harm a child. But with all the indicators shown in this video of the recount by child care workers who tried multiple times to flag that things weren’t right for this child, no action was taken to suspect the adoptive parents of harming this child. This reflects the one sided view of first families who are demonised and seen as the only perpetrators of violence or abuse against their children. In contrast, adoptive parents are seen as saviours/rescuers but yet many adoptees will give evidence of the abuse that happens too often within adoptive families.
  • The lack of rights for any first family/kin to be notified or able to access the child’s body after death.

One has to wonder how such leniency and almost apparent empathy for the adoptive parents as expressed in President Moon’s words could not be equally applied to first families in Korea. In the large majority of cases, Korean women have to relinquish their children due to single motherhood status and the lack of supports – not because of any dark, violent, drug filled history.

I get angry each and every time a vulnerable child like little Jeong In-Yi gets mistreated and hurt by the very system that is meant to protect and support them. Let’s use this anger to demand change that is long overdue but also, let’s not forget Jeong-In herself for although she only remained on this planet for a short 16 months, she has impacted many of us!

The mothers of KUMFA have stood up and rallied to demand the agency involved, Holt Korea, be held accountable for their role in this death. The Korean adoptees around the world have created this campaign #notathing to demand the President of Korea meet with them to hear their voices. We need government to invite us to the table to discuss options other than plenary adoption.

I and other members of ICAV have shared about alternatives to plenary adoption but I question if Jeong-In would still be alive today if she had not been placed into the adoption system. The irony is no doubt she would have been much safer with her single unwed mother!

The shame is on Korea for not doing more as a first world nation to support mothers and children to remain together! The same is applied to any country, especially first world nations who have the resources yet continue to have their children adopted out via the plenary adoption system. In the USA there has been a very similar child murdered within adoptive family that mirrors Korea.

This is not a system I aspire to for vulnerable children of the future!

In Memory of Jeong-In, died 16 months old, Oct 2020

I want to end by honouring Jeong-In for the massive impact and legacy she has left behind. I hope she has not died in vain. I hope the extreme pain she must have endured was not for nought! I hope that each time an adoptee dies at the hands of their adoptive family, the world community will stand up and demand the we adoptees are #NotAThing and that more needs to be done to make our system safer and more aligned to the needs and rights of us – for whom it is all meant to be about! We are that vulnerable child grown up, who could not speak for themselves and needs our protection and our action!

Please consider signing the petition #NotAThing and find ways in which you can take action, to demand governments and authorities do more to make changes away from the current plenary adoption system to something far more respectful of adoptee and first family rights and needs.

#imsorryjeongin
#notathing

Other adoptee voices who share about #notathing

Kara Bos
Moses Farrow
Mila Komonos

Media Coverage

Adoptees say “we are not a thing”

Four Murdered Chinese Adoptees

On 15 October 2018, four Chinese intercountry adoptees were brutally murdered in their home by their white adoptive mother in Columbia, Tennessee. We honor the deaths of 14 year old Bo Li, 14 year old Meigin Lin, 15 year old Lian Lin and 17 year old Kaleigh Lin.

In light of National Adoptee Awareness Month, I assert the mantra:

Adoption creates a different life, not necessarily a better one” for adoptees.

This is a re-imagining (fiction) of the final hours from the perspective of Bo Li, one of the Chinese adoptees murdered not so long ago.

A sound like a firecracker went off. I instantly looked up from the game I was playing on my phone and turned my head around looking for the sound. A couple more bangs followed as if a fireworks show was beginning. But that seemed highly improbable and I wondered where the sound was coming from. I thought maybe they were coming from outside, but they sounded closer. Maybe one of my siblings was just slamming the door really loudly. Our house was rather large and we could each hang out in a room without anyone else and the sound could have come from anywhere. I wasn’t too concerned though and returned to my phone.

BANG! BANG! The same sound echoed through my ears and I began to feel a sense of fear as the same sounds rang out again. A sense of dread came over me. For some reason this feeling of fear felt familiar, as if I’d been really afraid before in my life but I couldn’t remember. My body was in its own fight or flight mode. What was happening in our home? Would the sound happen again? I paused my game and it grew surprisingly quiet. I listened carefully for any sound in the house. There was some rustling and what appeared to be footsteps, but I wasn’t too sure. I texted Meigin and Kaleigh to see if they heard something and then went back to crushing my game.

BANG! BANG! Yet again the sounds pierced the air and I knew for sure they were coming from our house. My siblings didn’t return my texts and fear was beginning to beat in my heart more rapidly. I knew my mother had two guns in our home but couldn’t for the life of me imagine what was going on. I was confused and didn’t want to get up and check. It felt like there was something wrong, like an alarm was going off that just continued to ring louder inside my head. As quietly as I could, I closed my bedroom door and hid under the bed because I didn’t want to leave my room. My limbs felt like giant pieces of stone. A cold sweat broke out over my body as I shivered in fear. An eerie silence filled the house as I couldn’t hear anything. Minutes passed and then, I heard a sound. Footsteps were approaching and growing louder as they came nearer to my room. The pit in my stomach immediately dropped and became empty as anxiety and fear filled it from top to bottom. Were my siblings dead? Was my mom dead? Was this the end for me? I wasn’t even old enough to drive, or to go to my first homecoming dance. I don’t know my birth parents and I also feel like I have lost my adopted father. Will I lose even more? Why was this happening? Was this our mom or one of my siblings? Was it a complete stranger? 

The footsteps were now walking outside my room as shadows began to show from beneath the door. I heard the doorknob turn and the door swung open. The shoes of the mother I loved were entering. What happened to my siblings, I thought? Why would she do something like this? She loves me, right? The footsteps came to a stop a few feet inside the room and I heard a voice say, “Bo, it’s me, it’s okay. Bo, come on out. I won’t hurt you, I promise.” The same voice I had heard for years that had provided me so much comfort, now gave me so much fear. I wanted so badly for her to be telling the truth but my gut told me otherwise. I was so confused. Did she love me? What was this sinking feeling in my stomach? However, my body betrayed me. My muscles began to move of their own accord in response to the mother I loved, who I knew, deep down, loved me. But was this love? Before I knew it, I got up from under the bed and stood shakily.

There was a look I had never seen before in my mother’s eyes, as if something had gotten loose and made her crazy. I glanced at her hands and saw a gun in them. My gut told me this was the end but I wanted to believe with all my heart that this wasn’t going to happen. Was my life going to end so quickly? Was this why I was adopted? To be killed by the people who claim to love me, to protect me, to be there forever? My heart was bursting with sadness, confusion, and anger. My brief life was flashing rapidly before me.

With tears in my eyes, I looked back up into hers and whispered so softly, “Mom, why?” Without missing a beat and probably before she changed her mind, she quickly raised her gun towards me and said with a pained look and tears in her eyes, “I’m so sorry.”

BANG! BANG! My eyes glazed over as my focus could only see the barrel of the gun pointed at me. I was falling, losing sight of the lights in my head. My head grew heavier and heavier and the ringing in my ears grew louder. As I drew my last breaths I hit the floor and thought, “Goodbye dear world, to all the memories I shall never know nor have. Alas, my time has come. Farewell”.

About Joey Beyer