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 worldwith 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.
Am I a dog, cat or a fish that you can return back to a pet store? Your actions reflect that I am less than an animal You give strokes of affection and positive comments to your pets As I receive constant chastisement for the infractions that I committed You are genuinely worried when your pet is sick or lost You know nothing about me and remain clueless about the issues I face alone I am insignificant I am a nobody Why did you adopt me?
Other families make a habit of routinely calling each other But we are not like other families, I don’t receive calls from you Most families visit each other over the holidays Unless I come to you, I don’t get visitations Most families know chapters about each other as they interact You know barely a paragraph of my life I am invisible to you I do not matter Why did you adopt me?
You remain vile, proud and unwilling to grasp onto the olive branches I’ve extended With that attitude, how could I subject my children to you? You claim that my truths are mere exaggerations, lies or made up stories How can we discourse when all my words are offensive to you? I have pondered this question so many times You said I have deserved the horrific things you did to me I am a disappointment I am not worthy Why did you adopt me?
There is no answer to this question You’re not honest enough to tell me why When you examine the answer, you dislike yourself even more When you’re confronted with the facts, you tighten your grip on denial You would rather take the reasons with you to the grave Than to be honest with your child I am not deserving I am beneath you Why did you adopt me?
Several comparisons have looked at social climate and economic factors to understand the motivations for why the South Korean government continues to export its children via intercountry adoption. Some individuals claim it’s due to impoverished conditions after the Korean War but I find this to be misleading. America has a long tradition of sounding a rallying cry after a great disaster such as the collapse of an economy, famine or war. Modern intercountry adoption began from South Korea and has remained popular over time. Other nations have become popular sending countries in recent years, for example China. However, South Korea still reigns as having the highest number of children sent away to a foreign country via intercountry adoption.
Korean War the Rallying Cry but Not a Major Contributor
The graph above shows the number of adoptions that occurred by year. The rally cry for South Korean adoptions may have started with the aftermath of the Korean War and for 17 years, the children did trickle into the America. The gap between the Korean War and the start of the first wave of Korean Adoptions that occurred in the 1970s was nearly a full generation after the Korean War. Therefore, there must be another driver that motivated South Korea to export its children.
If the safeguarding of the children after the War was an important driver to aid South Korean children, then one would expect to see the number of adoptions rising after the War. However, the increase in adoptions did not occur until sixteen to eighteen years after the War had ended. One argument often used has to do with the poor economy. However, the two peak periods with the largest number of children sold off via intercountry adoption occurred during the largest economic boom for Korea. Therefore, other reasons must exist that motivated South Korea to sell of its most precious asset, its children.
This essay will investigate the underlying motivation in depth for why South Korea has sent out so many children via intercountry adoption. I will draw from both my professional financial background and as a person who has lived this exporting experience.
American Adoption Trend or Preference?
The bulk of children adopted to America came from Asia and Russia and former Soviet-controlled countries. Preferential selection based on race has been cited numerous times to be the main reason for this disparity amongst the Caucasian community who adopts the majority of children into America. The article Discouraging Racial Preferences in Adoption by Solangel Maldonado summarized this context well:
“Tracing the history of transracial adoption in the United States, this article argues that one reason why Americans go abroad to adopt is race. The racial hierarchy in the adoption market places white children at the top, African American children at the bottom, and children of other races in between, thereby rendering Asian or Latin American children more desirable to adoptive parents than African American children.”
If Americans were really concerned for children involved in conflicts, then there are huge gaps in adoption trends. One would assume children from the massacres of Rwanda, Darfur and other Wars and disasters would be reflected in adoption statistics but America has a preference to adopt children that are from light-skinned countries. Ethiopia is located in northern Africa and Ethiopia has some of the lighter shades of skin color in Africa. The culture was influenced by Judaic influences as well as the middle east. The reality is Americans do have a preference, they want as many light skinned babies as possible.
In the past, I have been asked to talk about the business side of adoption. The following information is initially from an interview I did with Kevin Vollmers for an interview on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. I found a great explanation about supply and demand and how it correlates to business, to include the adoption industry.
“Supply and demand are perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and it is the backbone of a market economy. Demand refers to how much (quantity) of a product or service is desired by buyers. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price; the relationship between price and quantity demanded is known as the demand relationship. Supply represents how much the market can offer. The quantity supplied refers to the amount of a certain good a producer is willing to supply when receiving a certain price. The correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the market is known as the supply relationship. Price, therefore, is a reflection of supply and demand.”
A focus on factors that influence the supply side of the equation of adoptions from South Korea was highlighted and shows how changes in prices and the use of subsidies have made adoption a very lucrative business.
Demand Side within America for Intercountry Adoption
Some individuals are very ignorant about the large demand for children in America. For the most part, prospective parents are looking to adopt infants to allow them to experience parenting. I was surprised by the number of couples incapable of conceiving and although technology is advancing to assist conception, the barriers to use these technologies are at high costs and the toll it places on the woman’s body as compared to the trade-offs of not conceiving.
The latest information from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) estimates the following:
“About 6% of married women aged 15 to 44 years in America are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying (infertility). Also, about 12% of women aged 15 to 44 years in America have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status (impaired fecundity)”.
National Survey of Family Growth stated that 7.5% of all sexually experienced men reported receiving help with having a child at some time during their lifetime. This equates to 3.3 – 4.7 million men in America. Of the men who sought help, 18.1% were diagnosed with a male-related infertility problem. This data points out that there could be as high as 6.7 – 10.8 couples that will have problems in conceiving children and are likely candidates for adoption. This isn’t to say that infertile couples are the only ones wanting to adopt. There is evidence that families without fertility issues and families with biological children have the desire to adopt too.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Council For Adoption and their testimony before Congress on foster and adoptive parent recruitment reform; their polling concluded the following:
25% seriously consider becoming a foster parent/ or adopt;
63% believe religious leaders should do more to encourage people to become foster parents or to adopt;
76% support hiring more case workers, even if cost millions of dollars.
Besides the desire to raise a family by infertile couples, the adoption industry has been heavily influenced by the evangelical movement in America that spans nearly a decade. During this time, large established families without infertility issues have adopted in high numbers. The evangelical adoption movement also fought to lobby in Congress to keep the adoption tax credit and won in 2017 to extend the bill to support growing evangelical families.
It’s extremely hard to determine how large the demand side of adoption is, it’s true that not all infertile couples will look to adoption as part of their basket of choices and furthermore, there are large segmented groups like the evangelicals that are very pro-adoption and that too is also hard to determine but the demand side potential could be easily be in the double digit millions.
Demand Side within South Korea
South Korea has little-to-no demand for adoption within its own borders. It’s estimated that South Korea takes in around 4% of their unwanted children. Despite selling off 200,000 children, it has nearly a ten-fold increase that remains within their state-run orphanages in the past six decades. It’s estimated that more than 2 million children have been brought up by the state in South Korea. For the most part, Koreans adhere to Confucian principals and conform to staying within their own bloodlines. Therefore, the demand side in Korea is near non-existant. To understand the cultural differences, The Economist ran an article entitled “Why adoptions are so rare in South Korea“ and stated:
“Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month-old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons”.
Supply Side in America for Domestic Adoption
The Department of Health and Human Services produces a report every year about the number of children who are in foster care or in need of a home. Adoptionnetwork.com provides a plethora of adoption statistics to give an idea of how large the supply is within America. The site gave the following examples:
428,000 children are in foster care in the United States;
135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year;
In 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in the foster care system;
2% of Americans have actually adopted, more than 1/3 have considered it;
Around 7 million Americans are adopted;
State and federal expenditures for foster care administrative costs (placing and monitoring children in foster care) totaled $4.3 billion
In America the figures show the vast majority of children are not adopted and the system is heavily subsidized by Federal and States funds that has turned into a multi-billion dollar business.
Supply Side in South Korean for any Adoptions
The exact number of children that are available for adoption each year in South Korea is unknown and has been artificially inflated due to laws and incentives that encourage abandonment. The math doesn’t lie, its estimated that 4.2% of the 51.5 Million Koreans were either raised in state ran institutions or sent off for adoption. The real issues are glossed over when emotions are used over facts. The main reason why South Korean mother’s give away their children is because there are no social welfare programs nor civil rights that support single parenting in South Korea. A single parent receives on average 70,000 won (US$84) per child a month compared to the 1.1 million won that is spent for each child in an orphanage and this disparity helps push desperate mothers to relinquish their children.
If the support went to the mother instead of the institutions, the supply side in Korea would dry up overnight.
Despite these perverse laws, the number of children in welfare centers that house orphans has dropped considerably. In 2015, the number of children taken care of by the State declined to 12,821 from 17,517 in 2006, i.e., a 26.8% drop. Many organizations try to point to the fact that South Korea has shipped 200,000 children to other countries as an indicator of a large supply of children available for adoption but does anyone show the research for this? No because in doing so, we would understand there is not a large supply side in South Korea.
Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers and he stated in a Huffington Post article in 2015:
“Instead, my research suggests that many — maybe most or all — “abandoned” Korean children were wanted and their mothers went through a horrendous, agonizing process to reach a decision that showed that their mothers cared for their welfare and did the only thing they could to give some advantage to their child by at least conferring Korean citizenship.”
He further explains why there isn’t a supply curve in South Korea by stating:
“Recent surveys conducted in Korea indicate that greater than 90 percent of single mothers desire to keep their child if their circumstances and society had allowed. It would seem that, indeed, Korean mothers are no different from mothers everywhere. Just Korean laws and the weight of Korean social norms.”
Unscrupulous Practices Decrease Input Costs
Adoption agency costs are much lower to operate in poorer developing nations. Operating costs could be much lower – a few thousand dollars to cover a year supply of expenses for lodging, food and incidentals. During the height of the baby sales in South Korea there was a large disparity in GDP per capita between America and South Korea. WIth the lower operating costs in Korea during this time period, this allowed the South Korean government to make more profit. The cost could be dramatically less if unscrupulous practices that were market driven to bring in children for foreign adoption. Other benefits to the adoption agency and the adopters include the lack of resources for poor families to look for their child or petition the legal system if the parents change their mind.
Adoption Incentives Drive Profits Upwards
The American tax incentive plays a negative roll in driving up costs in adoption. Several economists correlate the rise of College tuition with the increase of Federal grants and subsidies. This means for every dollar a student received in grants and free money – the university had increased the tuition costs and the amount of debt the same for the student. The government provided funds did not offset costs for the student. Instead, what the system did was increase the total cost of tuition. No matter how much this can be pointed out by economists and smart legislators – people will demand to get more of their schooling funded through grants and government subsidies instead of asking for ways to lower tuition costs.
The same problem holds true for those who want to adopt. Funding is available via tax write-offs, loans, and grants to prospective parents, incentivizing them to adopt.
There is no clear evidence that the input costs are being driven up or that parents are being matched with better children due to more extensive search or process. Specific adoption expenses such as adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees and travel expenses are used as a tax credit. Remember a tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in federal tax and not a reduction of taxable income. Furthermore, the adoption tax credit allows US$13,460 worth of tax credit for the adopted child. So, one must ask, where does this money go? Adoption agencies respond saying the increases in costs are caused by tougher regulations, longer holding times and increases in input costs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).
An assessment was made at the financials of Holt International to determine where the funds were being distributed throughout the system.
Holt International, as well as numerous adoption advocacy sites, have used the figure of US$40,000 to be the average cost a prospective family spends on each adoption. Using this for 2010 on the number of children processed for adoption into America, the total amount of revenue earned was US$29,560,000. Subtracting the adoption fees Holt International charges to each family, the total liabilities unrecorded is US$18,756,000 i.e., 63% of the funding is unaccounted for.
A Washington Post article states that the biggest cost outside agency costs (which are separate) is legal fees that range from US$6,000 to $8,000. Much of what Holt and other adoption agencies publish is vague and the financial records change from year to year, making it hard to determine where the funds are spent and preventing transparency. In 2010, how did Holt earn an additional US$14 million worth of revenue when half the revenues came from adoption fees?
Adopt for All Children is another American adoption agency and they list a greater breakdown of their costs. They co-operate with the Eastern Social Welfare Society to place children from South Korea to America.
Smoking Gun Another adoption agency called New Beginnings that deals with South Korean Adoptions gives some insight of the greater detail of their South Korean Program Fees:
“Korean Program Fee Program Coordination $6,500 for program sponsorship and development; working with ESWS to identify a child and arranging for an adoption; receiving a referral of a child that includes the Child’s Background Study; securing the child’s legal information to present to USCIS for immigration approval; filing the documents in Korea for court approval and emigration permission, establishing the itineraries while the family is abroad for the adoption hearing, the placement of the child and the child’s travel visa. ($2,500 due at home study approval; $1,500 due at acceptance; and $2,500 due at submission of Emigration Permission).” Foreign Agency Fee and “Donation” $19,500 For child care expenses prior to the adoption, identifying a child available for adoption, securing the necessary terminate parental rights, providing the background study on the child, arranging for the finalization of the adoption and the immigration of the child (due at acceptance). Total Korean Program Fees $26,000“
The document provided by New Beginnings show that a large portion of the adoption costs gets returned back to the South Korea Government. I dislike the term that these agency use. They call it donations and that means the funds are unaccounted for. South Korean agencies need to be transparent on the funds they received and how the funding is spent. Regardless, this is the amount of funding that could have contributed to Korea’s economy: to pay for salaries to process documents, cost of care for the children and other expenses. I will refer to these numbers throught the study as the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation.
Holt Case Example It is almost impossible to obtain any real assessments from Holt’s online financial statements. Most years, Holt will publish a total number of children adopted into America vs. splitting the numbers between adoptions made from the parent country and domestic adoptions. Due to limited data I have to make some assumptions. I will assume the majority of the costs will be transferred to the American families and that the majority of costs would be for foreign born children i.e., the domestic adoptions should be cheaper to process.
In 2007, Holt listed the domestic and international adoptions to America separately and if we peel back the onion, the overall costs for the international adoptions would increase if we sliced the domestic adoptions out of the equation. I used the 2007 figures to come up with the new cost: 59 domestic and 561 foreign adoptions and this implies approximately 10% of all Holt adoptions, for an average year, are domestic.
The Federal Adoption Tax Credit was enacted in 1997. I do not have enough data to determine if the law increased these costs. I would need to look at financial statements going back to the early ’90s to make an accurate assessment but it doesn’t mean this data is totally useless either. First, the adoption fee per international child is close to what other sources are reporting. The increase in Total operating Revenue suggests the costs are passed down to the potential parents, the number of adoptions is not increasing dramatically and the annual operating funds have increased from year to year, on a whole. This may be due to inflation of 2-3%.
The annual reports also list the areas the adoption agencies are actively working. We can see numerous trends. First, they are constantly going to economically depressed areas to obtain these children. We see where they are focusing their attention and possible patterns of abuse. For instance, in recent years adoption agencies have been prohibited from doing business in Russia and Guatemala due to perceived or real abuses within the adoption process. Overall, one can assume that the policy is working well in encouraging individuals to adopt. However, other sources point out that the program is supporting foreign adoptions and not helping the domestic foster care system.
A recent Child Trends research brief uses 1999–2005 data from the US Treasury Department to determine who most benefits from the credit. In his report summary, author Rob Geen reveals that:
The vast majority of adoption tax credit recipients completed private or foreign adoptions rather than adoptions from foster care.
The tax credit disproportionately supports higher-income families.
The tax credit primarily supports the adoption of younger children.
Nearly all foreign adoptions were supported by the … tax credit but only one in four foster care adoptions were.
Estimated Size of the Adoption Industry
The adoption process is no different to other programs where federal assistance increases the wealth of those who run them. Together with increasing demand for international adoptions, the federal assistance acts to inflate costs and enables those who run the programs to become wealthier.
I went to the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get the average number of intercountry adoptions per year. The site has a database that lists the total number adoptions as 271,833 from 1999-2017. I took the average year to be around 15,101 adoptions a year and multiplied it by Adoption.com’s average intercountry adoption cost of US$35,000 to determine the size of the American market. It is US$529 million dollars a year. This does not factor in legal fees, medical fees, counseling costs and immigration costs. It also doesn’t factor in all the other developed countries that adopt abroad. Several sites estimate that Europe and all other developed countries adoptions numbers, equal that of America. Therefore, the entire intercountry adoption industry is worth at least a billion US dollars a year.
There were actually two peak periods where children were adopted out of South Korea enmasse and these occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. There was no correlation between the adoption rates against GDP per capita. If this was true, then one would expect more children being exported during the IMF crisis in the later part of the 1990s, however, this never occurred. One could argue that size of the family may have been the key driver. This could be said for the children born in the 1970s. The average household size contained 4.53 children per household.
South Korea’s birthrate stabilizes near the current rate which is below 2 children per family around 1982. However, a large number of children were still being adopted for nearly 8 years after the birthrate dropped below 2 per family household.
A better explanation for the adoptions has to do with South Korea being a patriarchal society. If a South Korean woman losses support from her partner, she is shunned and ridiculed by society. She has no support system to turn to and is given only one option to give her child a fighting chance: adoption.
Wikipedia states: “Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea’s national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percentand, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent”.
In relatively a short period, South Korea greatly improved its education system which meant a larger number of women entered university. The age when women gave birth in the 1970-80s was 20-24 year old mothers and this is where a large number of children for adoption came from. The number of children born to this segment shrank dramatically after the 1980s. This was largely due to 2 factors: firstly, the use of ultrasound technology to determine the sex of the child and perform targeted abortions on female fetuses; and secondly the increased use of contraceptives and abortion by women in South Korea.
This also explains the high percentage of South Korean girls given up for adoption throughout this period. More than likely, the poorer women who could not afford to have an abortion or use contraceptives were forced to give up their child due to social pressures.
“Imbalances in the sex ratio at birth in Southeast and East Asia increased especially after the mid-1980s. We study how ultrasonic technology affected sex ratios at birth in South Korea, a country with a strong son preference. Between 1985 and 1995 fetal screenings and abortion services were widely available, though not available in the years before, and prohibited in the years after”. (Source: NIH article)
As a direct means of avoiding unwanted births, particularly after contraceptive failure, induced abortion gradually increased in South Korea especially among urban women (Choe and Park, 2005, Stephen, 2012). By 1970, abortion had become a common practice with more than 40% of women reporting having had an induced abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and this rate rose to over 50% by the 1980s (Chun and Das Gupta, 2009). Abortions were easy to obtain in clinics throughout the country and the operations were safe, cheap and completed without social resistance despite the illegality of the procedure (Tedesco, 1999).
Adoption used for Cost Avoidance
What could be another driver for South Korea to sell off their children? I believe we really need to look at the economic incentives. The first economic incentive is the cost avoidance. South Korea forfeited the costs to raise children in institutions from the age they enter the system until adulthood. One needs to remember economic growth in South Korea was extremely high and the average growth between 1970 to 1990 was 18.7% each year. Imagine the amount the government would have to carry as the costs of wages, food and shelter continue to rise by that amount each year?
I measured the growth by looking at the GDP per capita as an indicator. I calculated the cost to house, feed and educate a child under an institution would cost more than a family given the children need 24 hour care. I used the cost of 40% of the given years GDP per capita as the cost to raise the child for that given year. The costs could actually climb higher when factoring in the higher cost of labor to take care of infants and special needs children. I also estimated that the average child spent 16 years inside the institution. An assumption was made that the average age of the child sent to Korean institutions was 2 years old.
The total cost to the South Korean Government in terms of cost avoidance for only 20 of the 62 years that Korea was exporting children (1970-1990) is estimated to be around US$6.4 billion!
This is evidence that South Korea had an economic motive to sell off its children and supports this theory of cost avoidance. South Korea spend way less money on social welfare programs than other OECD countries which means they have more funding for other programs such as its R&D and military.
In her 2010 book, Kim Rasmussen said: the root cause of the number of adoptions out of South Korea in 2010 was South Korea’s lack of spending on its social welfare system. Rasmussen also shared that the other OECD-30 countries spent an average of 20.6% of their GDP on social welfare benefits while South Korea only spent 6.9% of its GDP on social welfare benefits. Rasmussen believes that South Korea’s promotion of domestic adoption does not address the heart of the problem and that South Korea should raise its spending for social welfare benefits.
Adoption as a Revenue Maker
In the graphs below, I estimate the average cost for the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation as a steady state (US$19,500 per child) times the number of adoptions per year in South Korea. I compare the revenue in terms of the GDP per capita and determined that in 2015, when the article was written, the cost is around 35% of the GDP per capita in America. I then took that percentage and calculate it by the American GDP per capita stated for each corresponding year. I took the information and compared it against the cost and number of barrels of oil used in Korea to determine how much adoption could have impacted the South Korean economy (if any). The Tax and South Korea’s GDP was compared to determine the strength of the economy and whether it had any effect on the number of adoptions. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
The price adjusted to today’s dollars of the total adoption program from 1970-1990 earned South Korea a revenue of US$3.1 billion, averaging US$157 million a year.
To understand the magnitude and impact, the equivalent to a program in America which is more than 6 times the size of South Korea, the revenue gained by selling off its children would be the equivalent to the cost of the fight on AIDS in Africa. In that program America spent roughly US$1 billion a year. Or you could equate the amount to the American national After-School Lunch Program for the entire country that fed hungry impoverished children.
The yellow line in the graph (above) takes the adjusted Foreign Agency Fee and Donation times the number of children that were adopted each year. Most of the funds went to the South Korean government as above the line profit. Articles have been published stating that the South Korean government has made money from adoption, such as this article on International Adoption of South Korean Children in Wikipedia.
A 1988 article originally from The Progressive and reprinted in Pound Pup Legacy says the South Korean government made fifteen to twenty million dollars per year from the adoption of Korean orphans into families in other countries. The 1988 news article also says the adoption of orphans out of South Korea had three effects: it saved the South Korean government the costs of caring for the Korean orphans; it relieved the South Korean government of the need to figure out what to do with the orphans and it lowered the population.
I think the amount of revenue gained from exporting South Korean children has been understated!
Due to a lack of transparency, there is no exact method of calculating how much revenue the South Korean government made during the adoption process. Holt and other adoption agencies that operate out of South Korea declare their financial statements on an annual basis and if the amounts are lower than the average adoption transaction, one could assume the difference is given to the South Korean government. Issues that make transparency difficult are that adoption agencies such as Holt change their financial statements on a frequent basis and only a fraction of the adoption companies share their financial statements with the public.
The graph below shows a comparison of Korea’s GDP Growth (grey line) in comparison to profit made from adoption (blue line), changes in oil useage (orange) and increase in tax revenue (yellow) over time.
A comparison was made of the cost of barrels of oil used during the twenty years. The amount of money made in adoption sales stays above, or at the level of oil used, when using the steady state number ($6000/adoptee) and it jumps dramatically higher when applying the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation ($19,500). The blue line would grow three fold.
Economically selling off the children via intercountry adoption has been a suicidal move because the population ultimately fell below 2.1 children per household. In developed countries, sub-replacement fertility is any rate below approximately 2.1 children born per woman, but the threshold can be as high as 3.4 in some developing countries because of higher mortality rates. Going below this number will result in the current situation that South Korea faces and that is a sub-replacement fertility rate. This occurred around the early or later part of 1982.
I theorize that the rapid drop in fertility rates in South Korea occurred for two reasons:
Cultural: it was unacceptable for women to have children if they weren’t married. That segment quickly disappeared (20-24 year olds) because of contraception and abortion use took place. I need to overlay this to see if more kids are being raised in orphanages. South Korea makes it too easy for parents to dump their kids off and run.
Someone (or the government) was economically gaining from the wholesale of children: if we average the profit throughout the years of $5000 x 200,000 children the profit would be equivalent to US$1 billion dollars .
In 1980 South Korea’s GDP was $68 billion, showing the wholesale of its children would have significantly contributed to the economic growth of the country. There must be a South Korean document somewhere that is equivalent to Germany’s Final Solution. Instead of eradication, South Korea had a plan for the mass exportation of its children.
Following 1988, there was a large drop in intercountry adoptions after the Seoul Olympics. This is an important date, as many nations were chastising South Korea for the exportation of its children. Feeling this pressure, South Korea immediately reduced the number of adoptions per year by 75%.
The Number of Institutionalized Children and Adoptions are Dropping
With the recent passage of laws and strict requirements for adoption the number of children exported by South Korea for adoption has declined sharply over the past decade. In numerous studies, I note the statistic that America has been taking in nearly half of the adoptions worldwide.
An online journal The Conversationarticle says international adoptions have dropped 72 percent since 2005 and quotes:
“In recent decades South Korea, Romania, Guatemala, China, Kazakhstan and Russia– all former leaders in foreign adoption – have also banned or cut back on international custody transfers. In 2005, almost 46,000 children were adopted across borders, roughly half of them headed to a new life in the United States. By 2015 international adoptions had dropped 72 percent, to 12,000 in total. Just 5,500 of these children ended up in the U.S., with the remainder landing in Italy and Spain”.
Furthermore, the number of children sent to orphanages in Korea has also fallen. See this article which quotes:
“In 2015, the number of children staying in welfare centres caring mainly for orphans dropped by 26.8 per cent to 12,821, from 17,517 in 2006”.
Adoptee Parents are Rapidly Dying Off
During the early 1970’s, fertility rates within South Korea and the ratio for women giving birth was one third in the early to mid 20s age range, one third in the mid to late 20s, and one third in their 30s or older. As South Korea progressed, the number of women in the younger segment shrank greatly. My initial graph above showed potential age lines and made the assumption that the father was on average a couple of years older than the mother.
I also found an article on life expectancy which increased by nearly 20 years from the 1970s to today. The dotted horizontal red line in the graph above is the changes in life expectancy and will merge with the mean age of the parents. The life expectancy shot up and stayed around 84 years from the mid 80s to the present. Where the dotted vertical red line meets the dotted horizontal line shows a high likelihood that the fathers have passed away and where the dotted yellow and first dotted red line meets, also holds true for the mothers. I also calculated the ages by the number of adoptees adopted by year group and estimated, using current actuary tables, that more than 2,000 parents are dying each year. Roughly one third of all adoptee’s biological parents have already died and it’s crucial for adoptees to do their searches as soon as possible if they want to find parents alive.
The money spent on the intercountry adoption of South Korean children would have done more to support single mothers, prevented the separation of children from their surroundings and prevented unnecessary negative externalities experienced via adoption. South Korea could have used the funding to begin its social welfare programs such as Canada’s training programs which train mothers how to raise their children, cope with stresses and empower them to become productive single parents.
The issues facing many 3rdworld countries are not about bad parenting but rather a situation of a lack of resources. If a mother cannot afford to provide for her child, she will do anything to ensure that her child will have a better life. Few individuals see the altruistic actions of desperate mothers. These mothers are willing to give away their children to afford them a better life. Furthermore, nobody has dethroned the archaic ways of doing business and management of governance in South Korea. Rights and laws go to protect the same patriarchal men who hold the keys to the power in South Korea. Nothing is being done to provide for the millions of women and children left vulnerable when the man decides to abandon the family. Nothing is done to ensure child support is provided and a safety net developed by a government who chooses to bury its head in the sand, instead of dealing with issues that have plagued them for over 5 decades.
“Although Korean women are participating more in the labour market than in previous years, the gap in the level of employment between men and women, regardless of their education level, is enormous. In fact, the gender gap is wider among those with a tertiary education than among those with only preprimary and primary-level education; and South Korea is the only OECD country that shows such an effect”. (Source: OECD)
The last time I called home, my adoptive father asked me to come and visit. I spoke to my biological sister who was raised with me and she told me the last time she was home, our adoptive father apologized to her. I’m guessing he will do the same when I go home. Unlike my sister, I cannot accept his hollow apologies and allow him to live his life as though nothing has happened. I want to address the major wrongs he has done to me, things I always wanted to raise but never had the courage to, until now.
You may be hurt or upset by the fact I have addressed you as “stranger”. It’s not done intentionally to evoke anger, resentment or animosity. However, I use this term on purpose. To me, you are a stranger. We have had minimal contact throughout the 30 years I have been on my own. I refuse to call you father because I am a father and I know the joys and pains of being a father. You are not deserving of that title. You have done nothing to build this relationship and I do not know anything about your life. As a father, I have placed the needs of my children first, I have given them every opportunity to grow and flourish, and I have loved them unconditionally. I am their father and everyone who knows my children, knows me too.
Your request for atonement? I’m assuming you will ask for forgiveness. I know you want atonement in exchange for a simple, “I’m sorry”. How can one single phrase ever be reparation for the wrongs you committed, over many years? I cannot give this to you. There is a saying that one can forgive but never forget. This is how I feel. When I write about you and what you have done – this is not lashing out, this is not done to discredit you, this is not done to make you embarrassed … it is simply my own therapy on how to live through the trauma and pain you instilled on me as a vulnerable child. This is recalling only a fraction of the things you did to me and my sister.
You are toxic and here are the reasons why I know you are toxic:
You failed to provide me with affirmation and security In your mind what you did was tough love. I’ve lived my entire life thinking I was a failure, not worthy. This perceived failure and rejection stems from your toxic refusal to provide me with the right amount of security and affirmation during my formative years. I have beaten myself up enough and I no longer need affirmation from you. I know I am a good human being. I know I am smart enough. The long list of accomplishments throughout my life give me this affirmation – not you.
You were overly critical You disapproved of everything I did. I didn’t do it right, fast enough, or I did it incorrectly. You criticized everything. You believed I needed to learn to do things properly but this caused me to be a harsh inner critic – to the point that it became crippling. It took me a long time to stop being overly critical of myself. Do you remember the time you pushed my face into a pile of mashed potatoes because I was unable to say the word gravy? Why was it hard for you to understand that learning a new language as a four and a half year old boy was difficult? It was more frustrating for me than it was for you.
You constantly made fun of me You called me “stupid” and “wimpy” all the time. You constantly made jokes about me and stated that my actions would lead me to a life of crime. I don’t know why any parent would say such damaging things. It was never funny to me. Your words were hurtful.
You constantly justified your actions and tried to make out that I was the problem You twisted normal behavior to be wrong, to suit your thoughts and beliefs. I remember all the times you made me read biblical scriptures and gave me lectures on why my actions were wrong. I was a damn good kid and I had no mean or evil bone in my body. Yet in your eyes, having a snack was stealing. Watching TV was evil. Listening to music was evil. How did you have such twisted logic for two small children entrusted to your care? You also thought it was normal for other children to do the same things that you denied us.
You never allowed me to express emotions If I expressed a different opinion, you called it “sassing back” and often metred out some form of punishment. You never considered my feelings or the way I perceived the world or situation. Even more hurtful were the slaps I had to endure from your wife each time she perceived me to be talking back. I had to suppress the things I wanted to share with you as my parent. The bullying I endured all through high school and the racism I felt from the community I lived in. I suppressed these things because you didn’t want to deal with these issues. When racism occurred, your advice was to, “ignore it!”
You used guilt to manipulate I remember the letter you shared with me that was written by Philip. It stated I was an unruly child because I did not sit still and listen to his instructions. It’s amazing to me that you preferred to take instructions from a man who never had children of his own. You used that letter to justify what you did and you used manipulation like that letter to make me feel ashamed, guilty, and worthless. You used words and your religion to make me feel guilty for being a kid.
You placed your needs and desires before my own Your priorities were always about the businesses you ran. I wanted to do sports – but I was not allowed to participate. Boy scouts and numerous other things that I wanted to participate in, were always shelved. I was seen only as slave labor and never allowed to pursue things I was interested in.
You never established healthy boundaries I did not have any safe spaces to be my own person. My room was open to inspection at any given time. The “traps” that were laid to catch me doing something “wrong” that any other parent would deem as normal was your way of proving I was a bad child. The tactics used were the same tactics used by the Nazi’s to entrap and capture the Jews during World War II. You felt that every aspect of my life was open to ridicule and I had no safe place to flourish. I was always in fear as a child. I lived in fear of reprisal and never had any privacy. No healthy boundaries were ever set.
You made us responsible for your own happiness Your wife forced me to clean the bathrooms. I was forced to clean your filth. I was asked to massage your wife’s feet, back and shoulders at her beck and call. I was told that my actions were the reasons why you were unhappy and miserable -because I could nothing right. As a child, it was never my responsibility to make you or your wife happy.
You were a control freak I was punished for playing with other children at the gym while you played basketball. I was yelled at. I was told to sit still and watch the game. I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. I was told, “Children were meant to be seen and not heard”. When I wanted a soda, you forced me to drink milk with every meal. Most Asians are lactose intolerant but you didn’t care. You forced us to drink gallons and gallons of milk.
You robbed me of my childhood When was I ever allowed to have friends over? When was I allowed to stay at my friends’ homes? Where were the trips to Disneyland or places where children want to go? You told me to grow up and be an adult when I was only a child. On my 12th birthday, you told me I was “no longer able to eat off the children’s menu” and needed to start acting like an adult. My entire childhood was filled with memories of getting up early in the morning and going to work. Baling hay in the hot summer sun until exhaustion. Being covered head-to-toe in filthy dust and allowed to shower only once a week. Where was the carefree, worry free childhood? I had none.
You were never my advocate An advocate is a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy. What I remember is that you threatened me. You stated you had good standing in the community and nobody would believe a person like me. You said these things when I threatened to expose the cruel things you did to me and my sister. When I wanted to go to college, you mater of factly told me to find a way to do it on my own. You had no vested interest in making me a better person. You were never present at any mile marker of any achievements or important dates of my adult life. You were never present at my wedding, the birth of my children, college graduation, sworn in as an officer, and the dozens of other important milestones of my life. I can count on one hand the number of times you called me in the thirty years of adulthood. The real reason why you never called is you did not care.
You lacked empathy The word empathy means that a person has the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When the bully wrote on my face with a permanent marker – what did you do to ensure I wasn’t bullied? I was bullied because of my race. I was bullied all through high school. I sat alone at every meal at the lunch room. You always assumed I was the culprit, that somehow, I committed some offense. In fact, you told others you suspected I was on drugs. With what money did I buy drugs? How could I have obtained drugs when I was isolated in school? You were always quick to assume the worst in me. If you hated us so much, why did you adopt?
Acknowledge your behaviour was emotionally abusive Can you acknowledge that you yelled, name called and belittled me? This by itself is not emotional abuse. Your attempt to control me by using emotion is however the definition of emotional abuse. Your belief that you knew best, your threats, name calling, shaming and criticism was damaging to my spirit. You also spoke to other family members and neighbors about me in a negative manner to destroy my credibility and isolate me from being able to tell my side of the story. This is abuse. You allowed your wife to constantly play mind games with me and my sister: checking to see if we watched tv, adjusting the container of ice-cream to see if we ate any of it, the lack of privacy, the pitting the siblings against one another. This was emotional abuse.
Acknowledge your actions were physically abusive You purposefully made me fearful of you. I felt I had to avoid certain topics and was walking on eggshells because of your anger. You believed you had the authority to be abusive. Despite your Christ-like example of gentleness, kindness and understanding – you chose to hold onto the mentality of “spare the rod and spoil the child”. In fact, you referenced this numerous time when you exercised corporal punishment on me and my sister. You often denied us food when we were “bad”. You used physical restraint techniques of pinching and grabbing us by the neck. Your overpowering frame that is 6 feet four inches was intimidating alone but you felt the need to use physical force on us by whipping, spanking using belts and razor straps. You blamed us for your violent behavior. We were punished for every minor infraction. I suffered hypo-glycemia and one of the symptoms is extreme hunger. I didn’t understand what my body was going through but when I had a cookie to increase my blood sugar, you considered this to be stealing. Later, I would eat entire packets of cookies and throw the wrapper into the woods to avoid the ridicule of being a “thief and sinner” in your eyes. Lastly, the beating you gave me in front of the milk tester was not justified. It was embarrassing. Your violence was NEVER justified.
Acknowledge you neglected me (us) I know you believe that you cared for me to the best of your ability – but to me, this is the furthest from the truth. You refused medical care for me and made me suffer on numerous occasions. When I had appendicitis, you made up some story that I had a stomach ache from eating apples off the tree. Eating fruit off a tree typically does not induce vomiting and severe abdominal pain, where a person needs to be hunched over when attempting to walk. Your disregarded my health and it resulted in me staying in the hospital for a week on IV antibiotics. When I got ring worm, you allowed the fungus to spread across my arms, torso and buttocks. It was “treated” by my grandmother by smearing a strong cleaner on my skin. The ringworm and cleaner left scars on my skin. Furthermore, you refused to provide me with sufficient clothing and gloves. I had to work outside in sub-zero Minnesota temperatures without gloves and proper outwear. I have deep fissures in my hands and the tight shoes caused me foot pain. When a boy’s foot protrudes from holes worn at the toes it is not caused by neglect from the child! It happens because the child has outgrown their shoes and it is neglect on your part as parent. A child should not have to beg to be given gloves to work outside nor put up with wounds in their skin because no gloves were provided.
Acknowledge you refused a child from personal growth and self-fulfillment You never gave me encouragement nor surrounded me with positivity. You did not allow me to pursue things I was interested in. The music I listened to was “devils music.” I don’t think many people would call Madonna, The Commodores and Tiffany as “devil’s music.” Gewirth notes that “to seek for a good human life is to seek for self-fulfillment”. Can you honestly say you provided a good life or childhood for me and my biological sister?
Acknowledge there was no reciprocation When your parents needed things, I sent money home. I did the same for your wife’s mother. Have you ever asked me if I needed anything? When you were hospitalized, I flew home to make sure you were okay. You never flew home to be with me when I underwent numerous surgeries in my life. When important people in your life passed, I made every effort to fly home to show support. You missed all the important mile markers of my life. Most of all you never reciprocated the love that I gave you as a child. I have worked hard to share my life. I have traveled to see you. I have sent numerous letters and phone calls. You have not. We have grown apart over the years and I do not know you at all. We have become total strangers.
Acknowledge you lied Abusive people will stop at nothing to make sure they are seen as the “nice” person. They do this so they don’t have to admit the bad things they have done. As a child, I saw your willingness to help others. You were willing to give the shirt off your back to assist anyone. It’s amazed me that you did not hold the same regard for me. Now I understand why. You lied about me. You painted me to be a monster. You gave half truths about what you did and reasons for why you did these horrible things. You talked yourself into believing your own lies. Why would a person say such things if they love someone? It’s because you had to hide this lie from others.
Acknowledge your religious fervor was destructive “Most of our world’s major religions each assume that it is their faith alone that is the “absolute truth” and refuse to concede that those traditions may be mistaken. Instead, they discover ways to force conflicting information to adapt to their own doctrine.”
You, like many other religious adherents, have no problems in understating the irrationality of other religions yet you were unable to apply the same logic when came to your own faith. Your revered bible has hundreds of verses where it literally instructs people to kill disobedient children, kill disobedient women, commit genocide, subdue and silence women and to enslave people. If one committed any of the offenses today, they would be committed, incarcerated and deemed evil. You used these texts to intrude, torture, and hurt me and my sister. You used your scriptures to subjugate, to justify inequality, and to control. I cannot believe in a faith that is so evil. You lived this evil instead of the love and acceptance that was also mentioned in the same scriptures.
It’s too late to apologize You had a lifetime to offer an olive branch to me. You had your chance to visit me and my family. You had your chance to call me. You made NO effort to be a part of my life. It’s been said that “our life is the sum total of all the decisions we make every day, and those decisions are determined by our priorities”. With that said, I was never a priority to you. As a child I was hurt by your lack of empathy. As a young adult I was hurt by your lack of interaction. I didn’t expect you to make me your priority, I was hoping, however, that you’d be there when I needed you. This has not been the case and I have learned that I have no need for a person who has been a stranger to me all my life. The best we can be is … apart.
Click on the link above. You will then be asked to OPEN or SAVE the file. If you want to watch it – click OPEN. If you want to keep the file – click SAVE.
This is a Microsoft PowerPoint slide show with audio inserted in most pages.
Click onto the speaker symbol on the middle of the page and hit the play button.
The powerpoint show is about my own DNA History. How I became who I am today. How did I get British gene’s? Japanese? Chinese? And Korean? Is it coincidence that my birthday and my sister’s birthday have landed on Korean holidays that celebrate the Japanese liberation movement?
I use my background in Biology and History to explain how I think I became who I am today. It takes about 1-2 minutes to download. File size is 39.5MB.
Many adoptees were sent to orphanages before they were adopted and many do not remember the experiences they had before being sent to their forever homes. At one time, we adoptees may have begun the same journey in life as one of the millions of orphans placed in orphanages. However, a choice made by someone across the globe or down the street changed the course of our lives forever. What started as the same path in life bifurcated into contrasting lives.
Every year, millions of children worldwide remain in orphanages while 40,000 children are moved between more than 100 countries via intercountry adoption. As children, our lives are intertwined and as adults, our lives unravel into separate groups and we do not include the orphans who remain in orphanages when we talk about our journey. When we do talk about orphans who remain behind, we imagine the worst and assume we would have been far worse off than we are now, as adopted people. I hope to discuss the possibilities of being left behind versus the path our lives took as adoptees.
Bad Orphanages Exist
During the past 25 years, I have logged thousands of hours as a volunteer inside over a dozen orphanages located on 5 continents. Many of the places I saw were deplorable and evidence shows that many orphans will suffer from poor health, have underdeveloped brains and experience developmental delays and psychological disorders. The outcomes are bad for many of these children because they will have lower intellectual, behavioral and social abilities than children growing up within a family. These issues seem to be permanent after the age of three and almost every orphanage where I interviewed staff, the orphanage was overwhelmed and poorly equipped to give the one on one individual attention required to promote social and intellectual development for positive outcomes.
Bad Adoptions Exist
If you want to read cases of adoptee abuse, neglect, and murders all you have to do is take a look at the Pound Pup Legacy repository that contains nearly 1,000 horror stories on neglect and abuse. The US Government provides an estimate that 75% of children in foster care have been sexually abused, whereas only 8.4% of investigations of the general public conducted by US Child Protective Services were determined to have been a result of sexual abuse. Adoptee Facebook groups or attendance at adoptee events provides you a learning experience about multiple stories such as mine, of neglect and abuse in adoptive families.
Great Adoptions Can Result in Negative Outcomes
Even when adoptees have loving and nourishing families, they can still end up with negative outcomes. In a recent ten year study published in the online journal Pediatrics, their report stated that adoptees were 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adopted children. Other studies state that adoptees have a higher incarceration rate and suffer from greater mental health issues than the general public. There are preliminary studies from Canada and Sweden showing the damage is done in-utero and pose lifelong consequences with poor health outcomes and even permanent changes to genes.
Despite the popularity of adoption, there is a persistent concern that adopted children may be at heightened risk for mental health or adjustment problems. Margaret A. Keyes, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Great Orphanages Exist
I have learned that one should never generalize any group and this holds true, even to orphanages. In my 2.5 year tour as a diplomat to Kenya and as the CFO for medical research labs, I ran across a modern saint by the name of Sister Placida. Sister Placida is a Scottish nun who has been working in the remote town called Kericho, in Western Kenya. She has lived in the area for over 40 years and was taking care of individuals dying from AIDS and giving them proper burials before the disease became identified.
The outcome of the disease left thousands of children as orphans and Sister Placida found a program that helped surviving family members take care of the orphans. Later after the United States had promised to provide billions of dollars worth of free retroviral medications, she started an orphanage to provide food, medicine, and a nurturing environment so those street children had the best chance of survival.
Sister Placida expanded the program and offered training programs to spur entrepreneurship in the local economy as well as educational opportunities through the Live with Hope Centre in Kericho.
Orphans Can have Positive Outcomes
Being adopted doesn’t necessarily mean our life was spared. I see many adoptees cling to this narrative even when they do not know if this is true or not. I think many Sth Korean adoptees would have had productive and meaningful lives if they had stayed in Sth Korea instead of being adopted. My point of view comes from my eight years of experience living on the peninsula as an adult and the lengthy conversations I had with one of Sth Korea’s premier economists while I was working with him in Afghanistan.
South Korea’s economy is ranked as the fourth largest in Asia and ranked as the 11th largest in the world. South Korea broke out into high-tech industries and has become a leading producer of ships, automobiles, cell phones and other consumer electronics. Currently, South Korea had the fastest average internet connection in the world and enjoys having one of the lowest levels of unemployment. This doesn’t apply only to South Korea. I learned about an orphan from Rwanda when I was working in Kenya by the name of Immanuel Simugomwa who became a millionaire in an impoverished country with the aid of an NGO. I have heard numerous stories all over the world where orphans were thriving within their own country, despite the bad hand life had dealt them.
Adoptees can have Positive Outcomes
One of the perks I have in working for the DNA testing NGO to match adoptees with their biological families is meeting thousands of adoptees all over the world. The adoptee community is as varied as the general public. Someone who works in my line of work is LTG Naja West. She is the current Army Surgeon General, a three-star general and the highest ranking officer in the US Army Medical Department. LTG Naja West is also an adoptee.
LTG West is one of the numerous successful adoptees whom I have met. Others are a professional musician, a prominent actor, globally renowned artisan and author, film producer and successful businessman that runs a multi-million dollar firm. Successful adoptees represent a varied cross-section of life and many are successful in their own rights by achieving their goals.
We shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy about what could have happened instead of being adopted. The simple answer is we don’t know and what we think of as truth may be far from reality. The possibilities could have been endless and I wanted to remind my fellow adoptees that we often overlook and exclude orphans out of the equation when we speak. We often gravitate towards relinquishment, adoption and major highlights of adoption.
Sharing: My question is, where were you placed before you were adopted? Do you remember the other children or have any memories of them? Do we forget the other half?
I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota. Minnesota is a state, located in the north central region of the United States and borders Canada. Most people do not know the most northern point of the lower 48 states is located in Minnesota. It should be no surprise to learn Minnesota ranks in the top ten states for being the coldest and having the most snowfall. The Minnesota winters are known for dumping heavy wet blankets of lake-effect snow and its frigid temperatures.
If you live in a Northern climate, you gain experiences that only those who live in that region can understand. One learns to watch the weather the night before to know if one should plug in their car so the radiator will not freeze overnight. You learn to bundle up in loose layers to keep out the cold. As kids you learn not to lick metal surfaces when its below freezing otherwise you freeze your tongue on the object licked. Lastly, one learns to never eat yellow snow.
The straw stain that pops out against the white background is the recording of a human or animal’s presence as they relieve themselves in the great outdoors. This mustard stain that violates the white backdrop symbolizes discarded waste and something that is disgusting. Waste of course, is thrown away because it has no value. Garbage is ugly to look at and is an eyesore to the beauty that surrounds us. We put a lot of effort to hide, throw away and rid ourselves of trash. This is the way I felt during my childhood. I lived a childhood where I was taught I had no importance or value. I was the real living breathing ugly duckling. Worse yet, I was Asian. I symbolized that urine yellow stain in the snow.
The counselor at school insisted I take an IQ test and even though I tested a couple of deviations above the norm, I was placed in a “special” class. In the 5 years I was forced to attend this class, I befriended a boy named Raymond. The general public knew Raymond was intellectually disabled. My friend’s face seemed distorted, his pants seemed bulky due to the diaper he wore and his gait could be described as a stumbling walk. Many children mad fun of Raymond’s speech, his simple, s-l-o-w, slurred replies were the brunt of many jokes. I refused to partake in the taunts because I learned Raymond was a human being and like myself, he had feelings and ideas of his own.
After spending “special” classes with him for nearly 5 years, we grew to become great friends. I learned that Raymond loved collecting baseball cards and he would bring extra candy to class to share with me. Some people have asked me whether attending this special program hamper my intellectual growth. It may have but it also allowed me to learn a valuable life lesson. I learned to have compassion for all people. Black, white, yellow, tan, brown … the color of people did not matter. I believe that individuals who have a strong support network can do anything. Nothing can limit an individual in obtaining their dreams and goals. Little did I realize that Raymond and I had much more in common. Like Raymond, I also had to cope with being different, stared at and labeled as an outsider by society.
There was a kid that tormented me on the school bus. He was in high school and I was in first grade. It started out with threats and then it turned into gut punches. He hated me for being Asian. I hid this shame to myself and it was exposed when he took a permanent marker and used it to spell “gook” and “chink” on my face. The physical torment continued on when I entered high school. I endured an occasional punch, oratory lashings, and the constant fear that I would get beaten up. A kid several grades below me would twist my tiny frame into a pretzel on the long journey on the yellow school bus. My thin, waifish 16 year old Asian 100lb frame was no match for his 6ft 2in frame. He was the corn-fed farmer’s son who took pleasure in bending my small frame into a pretzel in the back of the bus. I was forced to feel the shame alone. I felt helpless, emasculated, and humiliated.
I felt further castrated by being taught that I was undatable. I was no match for the jocks. They were strong and good looking. I didn’t belong to the geeks because they were at least smart. I was the outsider to the outsiders. Being raised on a dairy farm meant I had to pull my weight with the chores. I had to carry heavy bushel baskets full of feed through manure covered feed lots and clean the calf pens each morning. I was the target of hate as I arrived to school with a distinct smell of cow faeces. I was the smelly kid in class because my adoptive parents did not allow me to shower before arriving to school. Then to add insult to injury, I was also the brunt of all fashion jokes. I often wore old “hand-me-downs”, garage sale and KMART specials. Needless to say, I was not popular at school.
Not only did I feel belittled but I also felt stupid. I had poor grades. I often fell asleep in class and also at night when I did my homework. My parents never helped me with my homework and without a tutor or a peer to study with, I had nobody to learn from. Many nights I stared into the blank pages of my text books and wondered about the meanings of the literary works or the simple algebraic equations. Nothing made sense to me.
Fear gripped the depths of my soul. Fear of the unknown. Fear for my own future. Later on, when I became an adult I learnt the proper name of the fear that prevented me from doing just about anything. This thing that had a chokehold on my life was called anxiety. My adopted parents described this behavior as being wimpy.
When I did overcome my fears, my behavior could be described as socially awkward. I didn’t know how to act around people because I had little interactions. Other times I would ramble and stay glued to a person because I was so starved for attention. No matter what the scenario, I would act inappropriately and my parents would later reprimand me verbally for my short comings. I never had a chance to be a kid or do simple things such as go to movies, watch popular TV shows, or hang out with friends. It was never an option. I was lacking in personal skills because I was isolated. I had no identity. I was simply a small kid alone in this big world.
My adoptive parents never thought to teach me about my Korean heritage. It never occurred to them to buy me a book about my ethnic origins. When I inquired, they refused to allow me to look at my own adoption paperwork. I was reminded I was American and told to be grateful. I was only taught about their Scandinavian roots. Racial issues that I brought up were immediately dismissed. It was met with the question of what I might have done to provoke someone or it was replied that this was a part of life and I had to toughen up. They called it “tough love”.
When they sicked the dog on me and howled with laughter when the dog tore into my flesh, it was supposedly done out of love too. I never felt like their child. Then again, most parents don’t do these things to their kids. Furthermore, society did not view us as a family either. The mismatch of large, looming Caucasian parents and tiny Asian children looked like the giant bearded lady and dwarf in a circus freak show. I felt awkward showing my face in public. People gawked at us when we entered the room. Our strangeness gave total strangers the courage to walk up and pry into my personal life asking questions like, “Hey are you getting married to your own kind? Are you Chinese? Japanese? Vietnamese?” I have even been mistaken to be Native American, Mexican, and Eskimo. Nobody in Minnesota seemed to know of the existance of a group of people called Koreans. With all this questioning and odd looks I wondered as a child if I was the only Korean left alive on God’s green earth?
A guidance counselor in my high school year was blunt with me when I walked into his office for the mandatory visit. I answered truthfully when he asked me what I wanted to do after high school. I told him I wanted to attend college and work in healthcare. The man told me in a stern voice that I was not college material and that I would steal an opportunity away from someone more deserving. I wondered if he would have said the same things to a Caucasian boy with poor grades? Did he take into consideration the hand I was dealt as child of being bullied, thrusted into child labor and a person who had all self esteem pummeled out of him? I have always wondered why he never offered any encouragement. Isn’t this what guidance counselors are supposed to do? To give individuals the best route towards the goals they were aiming for? Like the rest of the community I grew up in, he saw no value in me. But I ignored all the negativity I faced through out my childhood and focused on achieving everything said to be impossible.
The best way that I could explain my childhood was to compare it to a prison. A small, cold dirty Mexican prison. I was isolated from people. I was not allowed to pursue things I was curious about. My life was filled with hard manual labor, misery, abuse and filth. Despite these beginnings and the statistical chance of being successful, I persevered. I took remedial college course and taught myself how to write simple sentences. I studied evenings and learned the math I was unfamiliar with. I observed people and learned to shed my social awkwardness. I opened myself up to possibilities and fell in love. After several attempts, I married and was blessed with two wonderful children. I earned five degrees and two were graduate degrees from a reputable university. I traveled to more than 40 countries across the globe. One of the countries I visited was my birth country and I found my biological family. I have dined with presidents and met with dignitaries. I can say that I have had a fruitful life and entered into a profession as the CFO of hospitals.
I hope in telling my story, I can encourage others to take steps to push away their fears. I experienced numerous years of conditioning from others saying I was not good enough, strong enough or capable. I encourage everyone to break free from the chains of violence, hate, and anger. I tried as hard as they did in breaking me and I reached for the impossible. I made it despite the odds!
I encourage you to take a chance on yourself. You are worth the wait!
I was reared on a small dairy farm that rested on the edge of the Red River Valley on the Minnesota side. I grew up in a rural farming community that was filled with a lush green forest of corn, amber waves of grain and intermittent dots of farm homesteads covered with thick deciduous trees. On these vast plains lived a curious little bird, in scientific terms, called a Charadrius vociferous. These small insignificant brown birds with long thin spindly legs made their nests on the ground in the fields and shoreline all over North America. The locals, where I grew up, name this bird by the falsetto cry it makes … kill deer, kill deer. I am certain, if birds could speak, they would poke fun at the killdeer’s pencil-thin legs and scrawny body.
What makes this benign lusterless outward appearance memorable are the bird’s acting abilities. This bird pretends to have a broken wing to draw predators and trespassers such as a curious dog or small children away from their precious eggs. It’s amazing to observe these birds screaming around and flapping their wings and then dart away when you get near them. The birds deserve an Emmy Award for their dramatic performances. I have fond childhood memories of chasing these small feathered friends and was tricked into believing they needed medical attention. I never located the bird’s eggs but remember seeing fluffy plumed chicks darting about like a group of frolicking school children on the playgrounds.
In my studies I learned that the killdeer birds were aboriginal to North America, so I was dumbfounded to see similar antics during my travels to Korea. At first, I thought the kids waving at the soldiers were the average child as we passed in our armored track vehicles. Moments later, I realized these masqueraders were actually professionals pulling a scam. These acting children reminded me of the pretentious wounded Killdeers back home on the Minnesota prairies. Like the birds, they played wounded. Instead of broken wings, they acted out with alligator tears and pouting faces. The familiar killdeer, killdeer cries of distress were replaced with childish voices begging for items, “M.R.E., M.R.E.,” “GI gimme M.R.E.!” The children were asking for prepackaged Army food called Meals Ready to Eat or MRE’s for short. I eyed the children with caution and was disrupted from my stare by my friend.
“Hey, Hansen! I ate part of my lunch during our drive and I’m gonna give the rest of my meal. Watcha think?” “I don’t care,” I answered. I deliberated for a second and focused the children back into view. “Hmmm, to be honest, I really don’t think they want your leftovers.” Barrick jumped off the vehicle before I could finish my reply. Barrick seemed like a towering giant compared to the two little girls and it was comical to see him trying to speak Korean with them. I watched with amusement as the little girls refused his opened MRE package. They gestured that they wanted whole MRE packages that lay on top of my armored personnel carrier. Barrick insisted that the items inside the familiar brown plastic bag were indeed still good. “See,” he contended as he held the sealed crackers in the air and made facial gestures that the items were delicious.
I could tell that the eldest girl who was around 8 years old, was getting annoyed. She huffed several times and then blatantly refused the offer by waving her hands for him to get lost. As he made his final offer, the older girl stuck her fist in the air and gave Barrick the bird!
Barrick turned to me in shock and asked in disbelief, “Did you see that? She stuck up her middle finger!” Barrick took a few steps back toward the track vehicle and looked back once more to watch the little girl stick out her tongue at him. He shook his head in disbelief and said, “Just to think, I felt sorry for her!”
Another soldier walked up to the small children and handed the youngest some candy, she appeared to be about 5 years old. The tiny fingers clutched the pieces of hard candy and she began to place a piece inside her mouth. Then fast as lightning, the eldest child struck the littlest one with candy in the face. She landed a couple of hard blows to the small cheeks with her open palms. The eldest child’s face filled with rage. Then as punishment, the larger of the girls pulled the thinning mittens off the smaller one and stuffed them inside her coat pockets.
We all stared at the scene with horror and disbelief. I asked my KATUSA (Korean Augmentee to the US Army), a Korean National soldier who was attached to our unit, to come with me and translate for me. I kneeled in the snow and gingerly grasped the eldest girl by the shoulders and asked her why she was hitting her sister. The girl pulled away from me and put her back towards my face. I got up and walked in front of her and kneeled. This time I asked her if she loved her younger sister and if so why she had hit her in the face. The KATUSA again translated my message, and after a few minutes of questioning the eldest girl’s strong cold glare dissipated and she began to sob in my arms.
The crying girl blurted out a stream of words and left my hug to embrace her little sister. After a short conversation, I learned that the children were forced to stand outside in the twenty degrees below temperature to beg for MRE’s from the passing US Soldiers that trained near her home. Her parents were poor farmers and they supplemented their meager income by selling the Army rations on the black market. As I was listening to her story I started to see the telltale signs of neglect. I noticed that the exposed fingers were red and swollen from mild frostbite and the cheeks chapped from exposure. The hair was matted and dull flakes of dandruff were present in their hair and the horribly tight clothes barely kept them warm from the chilling mountainous winds of Korea.
So many questions fill my mind as I recount this story that happened so many years ago. I wonder what asshole would teach a little girl the meaning of the middle finger. I hope I made a better impact on her and that she has learned to cherish and love her sisters, despite the burden her parents placed on her shoulders as an 8 year old. I revisit this story from time to time and ponder on how this girl is doing. Would she have been better off adopted like me and suffer like I, or was she better off to have been kept with her poor family in Korea? The “once in a lifetime” trip to see my “homeland” taught me more about myself than I imagined possible. I hope this girl has grown up to be a strong, independent woman who has nothing but happiness.
For many of us adoption is a cross we must bear alone. The deep pangs of loneliness, emptiness and sorrow lingers – even amongst the perfect backdrop of life filled with success and wealth. Even in a crowd, I can still be alone.
Who am I is not a question but rather a reoccurring nightmare that haunts me on a daily basis. No matter where I run. No matter how I hide. No matter what I do. It still remains. No matter how I change .. it has a way of finding me. It reminds me that I do not fit in. It casts shadows of self-doubt. It also fills me with shame.
I am that odd jigsaw puzzle that was placed in the wrong box. I am misplaced. Misshaped. I do not belong to the world that I was forced into and a foreigner to the world I seek to find. People call it my home land but it doesn’t feel like home to me. Strangers look at me as oddly as the place were I was raised. I look like them but looks are not everything.
They know I am different. Different language. Different mannerisms. Different smells. They know I am .. unlike them. As I pass through their space, it’s as though I am wearing a scarlet letter. During my childhood that letter is in the shape of my almond eyes, yellow complexion, and shiny black hair. I am reminded of the shame of who I am each time I stare at my own reflection. A shame for being different. Like I said. Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I!
I hear from more and more adult intercountry adoptees, adopted at older ages, about some of their traumatic experiences in transition from their homeland to their adoptive country. I acknowledge this is not the only layer of trauma we experience in our adoption or relinquishment and that transition for younger age adoptees can be just as traumatic. The key difference for younger aged adoptees is they may grow up not being able to verbalise the experience due to a lack of language development at the time of transition.
I question why adoption agencies and governments are not putting more resources into ensuring these major transitions are done better, especially considering it is older age adoptions that are the majority of intercountry adoptions done today around the world.
Children who are older aged and have language skills need to be given clearer understandings of what being adopted to another country and family means, apart from the “heaps of toys and food” examples that are the obvious material benefits. Perhaps the orphanages themselves have little idea of the impacts and complications experienced in intercountry adoption, so how would they know to better prepare children emotionally? Sending and receiving governments who licence adoption agencies to facilitate adoptions should hold the responsibility to better prepare children and lessen the trauma of transition!
Adoptive parents could be required to visit the orphanage and the child in it’s birth country more times, before the child is flown overseas. Have some experiences to bond and connect together in the child’s country before being flown out.
Adoptive parents could be required to live for x months in the town of the child after the adoption before bringing the child home to ensure not too many changes are occuring at once and to allow the child some continuity to stay in contact with the other children or carers from the orphanage. The parents would then get to know the other children who were of importance to their newly adopted child.
A carer of the child, someone the child knows and trusts, could travel with the child and remain with the family for the first few months to lessen the trauma. This would help the orphanage staff become more aware of the realities of the transition for the child upon entering their new adopted country, and feedback into better preparing future children.
Education could be given to orphanages about the trauma the transition creates, from adult adoptees themselves.
Adoptive parents could be required to become fluent in the child’s language before receiving the child. This would ensure one element of the transition which can potentially create trauma due to not being able to communicate, doesn’t unnecessarily add to the overall whole of being an overwhelming experience.
Both sending and receiving governments could listen to adult intercountry adoptees more about the experience of transition and learn from our views.
The child could be assessed psychologically, from an emotional well-being point of view, to establish how additional trauma of transition and uprooting them from everything they know, might impact them – and then develop a plan with a timeframe that is reasonable for the child’s well being.
Isn’t adoption supposed to be in the ‘interests of the child’? We need to move towards a model of incorporating a ‘whole journey’ view about the interests of the child who grows up – not just the immediate life or death survival extremist position that seems to justify intercountry adoption and how it is still conducted today.
I want to share Jayme’s experience to highlight my points above. Jayme is a Korean intercountry adoptee, raised in the USA from the age of 4.5 years old. His experience tells us just how strong the memories and trauma is of his transition from Korea to the USA.
I did previously share another from Thai adoptee Min and she briefly mentioned the trauma she remembered in her transition.
I hope in sharing these experiences, it will serve to remind us of how intercountry adoption is experienced by the child. We do grow up and our experiences need to be acknowledged. Intercountry adoption policy and processes by governments and agencies around the world would do well to ensure better outcomes for those who follow by learning from us who live it.