A generation fights to reform adoption
Korea Joongang Daily November 11,
Six Korean adoptees filed an appeal
with the Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission last year to
request a probe into irregularities in their adoption documents and
possible illegal procedures at local adoption agencies.
Now, they’re involved in a full-fledged battle to reform adoption laws
and procedures, and they’re getting help from some heavyweights.
Adoptee rights and community groups as well as unwed mothers, the public
interest law firm Gong-Gam and Democratic Party Representative Choi
Young-hee have joined forces with the adoptees in an effort to convince
lawmakers to revise the Special Law Relating to the Promotion and
Procedure of Adoption.
The National Assembly has now taken up the issue and is exploring
changes through a series of hearings.
The latest hearing took place yesterday.
If their efforts succeed, the groups
will drastically change the landscape of domestic and international
adoption in Korea, a country which lawmaker Choi said at yesterday’s
hearing said “still has a stigma attached to it as one of the major
exporters of children.”
It would also rank as one of the few cases in the world where adoptees
returned to their original country and changed adoption practices
When they started this quest, the adoptees, hailing from three different
countries, said their adoption records contained contradictory
In one case, an adoptee only identified
by her initials, SIA, said her adoptive parents in Denmark were informed
by an adoption agency in 1977 that it did not have the records of her
birth parents. But when SIA came to Korea in 1998 and asked for
information about them, the agency did in fact have information about
her birth mother. SIA also found that the adoption was done without her
In another case, an adoptee only identified as PYJ said her adoption
agency created a new identity for her when she was sent to Norway for
adoption in 1975.
Their initial attempt to delve into the issue hit a brick wall when the
civil rights commission dismissed the appeal, citing a lack of proper
administrative procedures in Korea at the time of their adoption.
Taking on the law
The adoptees, however, did not stop there. Instead of filing another
petition or begging for the release of their records at adoption
agencies, they decided to try to revise adoption-related laws to find
out the truth and improve the system.
According to the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs,
161,588 Korean children were sent overseas for adoption from 1958
through 2008. Korea is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of children
behind China, Guatemala, Russia and Ethiopia as of 2007, according to
World Partners Adoption Inc.
“Most Korean adoptees are growing up in foreign countries and facing
confusion over their identity. Even though they come to Korea to find
their roots, there are few cases in which they are given accurate
information on their birth or succeed in locating their birth parents.
To improve the situation, we decided to hold a hearing on revising the
Special Act,” lawmaker Choi said.
Need for stricter regulations
The proposed bill starts with the idea that foreign, and even domestic,
adoption is not the best option for children and that public assistance
should be given to mothers to help them raise their children, a concept
that follows international adoption practices. It also incorporates the
notion that adoption processes need to be more strictly regulated to
prevent possible abuses by adoption agencies.
“The government wants to push domestic adoption, but all the children
already have mothers,” said Jane Jeong Trenka, the president of the
Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea and one of
the adoptees who filed the appeal at the commission. “The children can
stay with their mothers. Single mothers should be given resources to
raise their own children. It is still a matter of social prejudice in
Trenka added that a number of adoptees
had families but were reclassified as orphans before they were sent
abroad for adoption. “Because their records were manipulated, only 2.7
percent of adoptees succeed in locating their birth parents,” she
The majority of children relinquished for adoption in Korea are the
children of unwed mothers. Of the 2,556 adoptions in 2008, international
and domestic, 2,170 were the children of unwed mothers. Others were from
low-income families or broken homes.
One of the biggest obstacles that prevents these women from raising
their children on their own is the social stigma they face as unwed
mothers. Another is the lack of social welfare services available to
them should they choose to raise their child.
Trenka was adopted by a couple in Minnesota in the United States in 1972
when she was six months old. In 2007, Trenka and other Korean adoptees
founded TRACK to help get the government to fully acknowledge its past
and present adoption practices.
Reverend Kim Do-hyun, who is the director of KoRoot, which provides
accommodation for Korean adoptees returning to the country, echoed those
“Behind the Special Law is an idea that adoption needs to be
encouraged,” Kim said. “But adoption is not something that we should
promote. Rather than pushing adoption, we should reinforce the original
family to prevent further separation between mothers and their
Adoption as a business
One of the major changes proposed by the bill drafted by the public
interest law firm Gong-Gam is that it would require court approval for
all types of adoptions - currently they’re needed only for domestic
adoptions - and increase government intervention in matters dealt with
mostly by private adoption agencies.
The adoptees say there needs to be more government involvement in
adoption because as more adult adoptees reunite with their birth parents
and gain access to their records, examples of dubious international
adoption practices have surfaced.
TRACK has been documenting these cases through interviews with adoptees
and their birth families. They found that in some cases an orphan hojeok
(family registry) is produced for a child sent for international
adoption, even if the child has a family. Contradictions were also found
between the records held by adoptive parents and those kept by the
adoption agency. In one case the child was malnourished at the time of
adoption but the records sent to the adoptive parents overseas stated
the child was healthy. In another case, a child was given up for
domestic adoption but was sent abroad for international adoption.
The adoptee coalition believes such irregularities occurred because
adoption agencies manipulated records to push international adoption,
which is very profitable.
According to the Health Ministry, the four adoption agencies authorized
to facilitate international adoptions charge 13 million won ($17,211) to
20 million won for each child sent for international adoption.
Pressure on moms
Another proposed revision would give women a minimum of 30 days to make
a decision on adoption, which is standard in Western countries. There is
no set period for this in South Korea.
Observers say women are often forced to sign an agreement on adoption
almost right after giving birth. If the mothers change their mind, the
agencies charge them for all expenses they’ve incurred, from child
delivery to the shelters they run. They said adoption agencies tend to
encourage adoption rather than telling the women that there are other
options available such as raising their child on their own.
“Adoption agencies pressure you to give up your child,” Choi
Hyang-sook, a member of the group Miss Mamma Mia, which is also part of
the adoptee coalition, said at yesterday’s hearing.
Access to records
Third, the agencies would be obligated to provide adoptees with all
information on their birth parents, with the exception of name and
registration number if the birth parents do not want their identities
revealed. Kim said adoption agencies are often reluctant to share
information with adoptees who are looking for their birth parents and
vice versa because they are afraid that past abuses could become public
“Adoption agencies provide adult adoptees with only partial
information, citing the protection of their birth parents’ privacy,”
Kim said. “The agencies have often falsified data to suit adoptive
parents’ taste or to abide by the laws of the country to which they
are sending a child. There were cases in which adoptees were classified
as orphans when they were not. The more information they reveal, the
more their reputation can be damaged.”
One adoption agency disputed the accusations. “There are records we
can open but there are those we can’t,” said Choi An-yeo, a manager
at Holt Children’s Services Inc., the biggest and oldest adoption
agency in Korea.
Choi said things were different a few decades ago. “Then, it was
possible to send an abandoned child abroad for adoption. If someone
brought in a child and lied that he or she was a legal guardian, there
would be no way for us to find out. We only have followed the laws and
we will continue to do so,” she added.
Unifying adoption bills
Democratic Party Representative Choi is sponsoring the proposal while
the Health Ministry is also drawing up its own bill. It is not certain
how the government bill is going to be shaped but Park Sook-ja, the
director of the Office for Child, Youth and Family Policy at the Health
Ministry, said she generally sympathizes with the adoptee coalition.
“We share similar ideas in general, but we need to take it one step at
a time,” Park said.
The ministry has already held two hearings on the bill, however, Park
said it is too early to talk about the bill as the final version has not
been made yet.
Choi said the differences between the two bills will likely be ironed
out before a unified bill is presented to the Assembly early next year.
Based on ‘lies’
Dozens of adoptees including Trenka attended the hearing yesterday in
the hope that the bill Choi presented can transform adoption practices
Trenka commented, “Adoption may be an act of love, but all adoptions
are meant to separate children from their mothers.”
Trenka started writing to her birth parents regularly when she was 16
years old. Her adoptive parents did not like her keeping in touch with
her birth parents but one day she found letters from her birth mother in
her adoptive parents’ mailbox. Her birth mother had found her adoptive
parents’ address and kept sending her letters. Trenka said she still
remembers the time she reunited with her birth mother.
“My mother was so emotional. I’d never seen a person so
emotional,” she said. “She sat on the floor and poured her heart
Trenka reunited with the rest of her birth family in the 1990s.
“Adoption is a big lie. Its success depends on everyone believing in
that lie. They [my adoptive parents] wanted to believe in that lie but I
could not do that.” Asked why she is devoting herself to creating the
law, she said, “For my mother. My mother died but if I don’t try to
change things, my suffering has no meaning.”
By Limb Jae-un [email@example.com]
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