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Can Korea shed image of orphan exporter?

The Korea Times, 5th January 2011

Government’s tougher regulations expected to bring drastic change to adoptions

By Lee Hyo-sik

South Korea has a notorious reputation of an “orphan exporter” over the years as thousands of abandoned children here have been adopted by foreigners, mostly Americans and Europeans.

In a bid to polish its tarnished status abroad and prevent possible child abuse, the Korean government has been encouraging domestic adoptions by providing foster parents with financial subsidies and other incentives. Since 2007, the number of domestic adoptions has exceeded that of overseas ones — but only as the government made regulations for the latter tougher.

Experts say the country still has a long way to go until all of its abandoned children find a new family and receive adequate childcare, stressing that kinship-conscious Koreans should be more open to raising the children of others.

They also say the recent government move to oblige those seeking to adopt Korean kids to obtain prior approval from courts will not dampen domestic adoption, noting the measure only targets ones administered between individuals under the civil law, which could expose adopted children to potential abuse.

They stress adoptions through state-certified agencies are safe and will continue to increase.

According to the Korea Central Adoption Resources (KCAR), affiliated with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of orphans adopted at home came to 1,388 in 2007, exceeding 1,264 cases of overseas adoption for the first time. In 2009, a total of 1,314 kids were adopted by Koreans, compared to 1,125 by foreigners.

These numbers reflect children adopted at home and overseas only through 22 state-certified adoption agencies. In reality, hundreds of children are adopted through deals made by birthparents and foster parents each year under the civil law, with many more illegally sent abroad.

“It seemed almost impossible in the past to see more Korean kids adopted at home than overseas. But in 2007, the number of domestic adoption surpassed that of overseas adoption for the first time in the nation’s history. If the current trend continues, local adoptions will outpace those by foreigners by a larger margin in the future,” KCAR Chairman Yi Bae-keun told The Korea Times.

He attributed a rise in the number of domestic adoptions to the expanded state financial incentives, including the provision of a 100,000 won allowance per adopted child, and a growing number of infertile parents.

Yi then stressed the importance of local adoptions to removing Korea’s image as an orphan exporter.

Construction of database

“But still a large number of children find a new home in foreign countries. Many of them are physically and mentally-handicapped children because it is hard to find foster parents for them in Korea. Besides, many Koreans are still reluctant to raise children of others, due to Confucian values regarding blood ties,” the chairman said.

When asked about whether the recent government move to strengthen the screening of foster parents will negatively affect adoption, Yi said it will not dampen domestic adoptions through official channels because they are in accordance with a Special Act on Adoption.

“But it will likely bring about a drastic change to adoptions carried out among individuals. Under the civil law, birthparents can hand over custody of their children to other adults. But many such cases ended up exposing adopted kids to abuse. I think the government seeks to rein in such cases.”

In September, the Ministry of Justice unveiled a plan to revise the civil law concerning the adoption and other related matters. It plans to finalize the revision within the first half of 2011 and submit it to the National Assembly for approval. Among others, a mandatory screening system will be introduced to check whether individuals looking to foster children are fit to do so or not.

Those seeking to adopt children will be required to gain prior approval from the court.

Currently, adults seeking to adopt children here only need to obtain a written approval from either the biological parents or grandparents. Children growing up in orphanages can be adopted without consent. This has made adopted kids vulnerable to potential physical and psychological abuse.

Yi projected that the number of domestic adoptions will continue to increase in the future, while the number of children sent to foreign countries will show a downward curve. “With low birthrates and other social changes in Korea, adoptions will be more popular among Koreans.”

The chairman said KCAR will play a greater role in bolostering domestic adoptions by carrying out a range of promotion campaigns and changing Koreans’ perception toward adopting somebody else’s children and raising them as their own.

“We will also try to build up a comprehensive database containing information on children adopted by foreigners and their birthparents. A total of 160,000 Koreans have been adopted and raised by foreign foster families over the past 50 years. A large number of children born here and raised by foreigners are coming back to find their birthparents. We would like to be a great help to them in finding their biological roots,” Yi said.

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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