Can an Adopted Child Be Returned?

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Date: 2007-12-18

Peter Ritter

Every child is a gift, as the saying goes. But in a case that has stoked outrage on two continents, a Dutch diplomat posted in Hong Kong has been accused of returning his eight-year-old adopted daughter like an unwanted Christmas necktie. The story, which first appeared in the South China Morning Post on Dec. 9, began seven years ago, when Dutch vice consul Raymond Poeteray and his wife, Meta, adopted then-four-months-old Jade in South Korea. The couple, who also have two biological children, brought Jade with them to Indonesia and then to Hong Kong in 2004, although Poeteray never applied for Dutch nationality for the child — a curious oversight, given that he worked in a consulate. Then, last year, the Poeterays put Jade in the care of Hong Kong's Social Welfare Department, saying they could no longer care for her because of the girl's emotional remoteness.

In an open letter that appeared in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf on Dec. 13, Poeteray explained that Jade was diagnosed with emotional problems when the family moved to Hong Kong, including a "severe form of fear of emotional attachment." Adopted children are sometimes diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, which manifests as a debilitating inability to form normal emotional bonds. According to Rene Hoksbergen, an adoption specialist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, even very young children can be affected by the disorder when their needs are disregarded or they are shuffled among caregivers. Poeteray claimed that, despite intensive family therapy, Jade did not seem to improve. "On the advice of known medical specialists, professionals from the adoption organization Mother's Choice and the social services of Hong Kong, it was decided that in her interest she should be placed in a separate house and we would not be allowed to have any contact with her," he wrote. Hong Kong-based Mother's Choice and the Social Welfare Department both declined to answer specific questions about the case, but Fernando Cheung, a Hong Kong lawmaker who has been in contact with the Welfare Department, says he does not believe social workers advised the family to give up the child. "I don't think that's true," he says.

According to a spokesman from the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong, the family also said that Jade did not adapt to Dutch culture or food. "They said she had not adjusted to a new home, that there were some problems," he says. But some specialists are skeptical of that explanation as well. "My gut feeling is it's just an excuse," says Law Chi-kwong, an associate professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong. "That only happens when the adoption took place when the child is already six or seven years old. It would not happen to a child they raised for several years, raised in the family."

Media reports have raised questions about just how well integrated into the family Jade was. The South China Morning Post quoted a babysitter who looked after Jade while the family was in Indonesia as saying that the girl was cared for by nannies. "She was rarely in her mother's arms," the babysitter said. "I also found it strange that she was so quiet." A babysitter told a Dutch newspaper that Poeteray's wife did not treat Jade as a "real daughter."

While it is illegal to abandon a child in Hong Kong, says Law, children are sometimes ceded to the Welfare Department: "if for very difficult reasons, you can't look after a child, you can sign off your rights." Cheung says he believes the Poeteray family is in the process of doing that. "From what I understand," he says, "they're ready to relinquish their rights to the child."

While uncommon, it is not unprecedented for an adoption to fail and a child to be returned to foster care. According to The Times of London, an estimated 10% of British adoptions of children under 10 ultimately fail. International adoptions, which may involve children suffering from neglect or deprivation, can be particularly difficult, according to a U.K. government advisory quoted in the article. According to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, young adult international adoptees in the Netherlands were much more likely than native-born adolescents to develop mood disorders and substance abuse problems.

It is impossible to know the details of what happened in the diplomat's household. In his letter to De Telegraaf, Poeteray appealed for sympathy and privacy, saying that, despite what has been written in the media, "We are Jade's parents and we feel responsible for her well-being." Sympathy hasn't been forthcoming in the Netherlands, though; the paper accused the family of discarding the child like "a piece of household rubbish."

Jade's case has also attracted particular attention in South Korea, where international adoption has often been a fiercely debated social and political issue. In the past half-century, more than 150,000 South Korean children have been adopted internationally. More than 2,000 were adopted by overseas parents in 2005, although the government has taken steps to reverse this trend. Some lawmakers have argued for restrictions, or even a ban, on international adoption — and particularly on private adoptions, which may not include rigorous vetting of prospective parents.

As for Jade herself, Cheung says she is now living with an English-speaking foster family and attending a Hong Kong school. "She's living rather happily, and she seems to be a normal little girl," he says. A spokesman for the Social Welfare Department says that the government is working on making future arrangements for her care. Cheung says that he believes the girl will be allowed to stay in Hong Kong despite the fact that she is a South Korean citizen. "The part that I think our government can do is respect the wishes of the child." That will ensure that Jade has a city, if not yet a family, to call her own


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