A fight to change adoption law

By Shannon Heit

November 13, 2009 / koreaherald.co.kr

Leveraging the help of a group of lawyers and a Korean unwed mothers' organization, a group of expats in Seoul are driving a movement to create a major shift in how the country deals with adoptions.

With the support of Democratic Party Representative Choi Young-hee, this coalition presented its bill to revise the current Special Act Relating to Adoption Promotion and Procedure law at a National Assembly public hearing on Nov. 10.

The coalition has been working together for over a year to draw up a proposal for a new adoption law. Involved are three adoption-related groups - Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoptee Community of Korea (TRACK), Adoptee Solidarity Korea, KoRoot - an unwed mothers group, Miss Mama Mia, and the Gonggam Public Interest Lawyers Group.

What initially began last year as a request to the Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission for a probe into cases of allegedly inaccurate or falsified adoption records has expanded into a movement that could change the course of Korea's adoption program.

So Ra Mi, the Gonggam lawyers' group representative, said that while the probe failed to "correct the wrongdoings of the past," she wanted to "help change the present and future" of Korean adoption.

Korea has a long history of international adoption. According to the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, since 1958 over 160,000 children have been sent abroad for adoption. Other estimates put the figure closer to 200,000, due to the many unrecorded adoptions performed in the years before 1958. Inter-country adoption began in Korea during the 1950s after the Korean War, initiated as an effort to help children orphaned by the war and children born to Korean mothers and U.N. coalition fathers.

The adoption program, however, quickly became what critics now say has been a substitute for any real government-level social welfare programs for children.

Adoption rates steadily grew throughout the 1980s, long after war orphans ceased needing homes. It wasn't until the 1988 Olympics in Korea that adoption rates fell, due to a wave of international media dubbing Korea a "baby exporting nation." This stigmatized reputation still holds today, as does Korea's inter-country adoption program that last year sent more than 1,000 children overseas.

Now those who were adopted abroad have returned to change the very program that sent them away.

Although Korea ranks as the fifth-largest "sending" country of international adoption - behind China, Guatemala, Russia, and Ethiopia - it has never ratified the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption, nor does it meet the international standards of the U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child.

The government has been maneuvering in what seems like steps address the issue. In recent years, task forces were created to research and propose revisions to adoption laws. But critics point out that these government task forces didn't originally include any adoptee organizations or single mothers groups, the groups that would be intimately affected by such changes.

TRACK president Jane Jeong Trenka believes that these groups are a valuable voice in the discussion. "It is significant that our bill has been written by a coalition of concerned Korean citizens and diasporic Koreans, international adoptees, and single Korean mothers who will reap absolutely no economic, professional, or social benefit from continuing the adoption system as it has been practiced in the past. Instead, we look forward to meeting international standards of human rights and justice," said Trenka.

Focus on families, unwed mothers

One of the biggest differences in the new bill that the coalition hopes to make into law is taking the focus away from promoting adoption. Instead, more emphasis would be placed on the preservation and support of original families.

According to Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs statistics on adoption, 90 percent of children who are adopted, both internationally and domestically, are children of single mothers. This is indicative of the strong social stigma that unwed mothers face, as well as the lack of financial support from the government should they choose to keep their children.

Currently, single mothers who apply for government assistance can receive only 50,000 won per month ($43), based on whether or not they meet low-income stipulations. During the open floor portion of this week's public hearing, a member from the unwed mothers group Miss Mama Mia questioned the seemingly preferential treatment for adoptive families over single mothers. She raised the point that families who adopt domestically within Korea are able to receive 100,000 won per month in government assistance, with no low-income stipulations, versus the 50,000 won that is provided to unwed mothers.

The discrepancy points to a clear case of institutionalized discrimination against unwed mothers, says the group.

The central government's concern over the plummeting birth rate, and its policies on adoption and social spending for women and children, seems contradictory. Because Korea's birth rate is the lowest of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the government has taken great strides to promote an increase in the birth rate; there are government incentives for families with multiple children, supporting childcare, and education subsidies.

Skeptics say it seems counterproductive, then, that the government is doing little to keep children already here, born to single mothers, in the country. When interviewed about her reasons for spearheading the adoptee coalition's bill, Rep. Choi told Expat Living that more needs to be done to support unwed mothers.

"The government is urging people to have children, but on the other hand, isn't supporting the children of unwed mothers ... it shouldn't just be about encouraging more babies but to also raise well the babies already born ... the most important thing is these babies are not just the children of single mothers, but they are all of our children," she said.

There is a general consensus that giving more adequate support to single mothers would go a long way in both stemming the country's low birth rate and creating a more ethical environment in adoption procedures.

Park, Min-ji, a representative from Miss Mama Mia, spoke during the hearing and gave examples of policies in other advanced countries, such as France, Sweden, Germany and the United States, that have increased the birthrate and helped single mothers keep their children. "In reality, unwed mothers are forced to choose adoption, for lack of another option. Therefore, I think there should be policy measures created to support single mothers," she said.

Her thoughts were echoed by Yang Jung-ja, director of the Korea Family Legal Service Center. Yang spoke above France's success in increasing their birthrate though government support for single mothers or unmarried couples. "In the past, France had the lowest birthrate in the world, but now it has the highest rate in Europe ... 52 percent of its children are born out-of-wedlock but they still get government support."

Miss Mama Mia representative Park also indicated a need for government-sponsored counseling for single mothers during and after their pregnancies. "Adoption agencies pressure you to give up your child ... they don't offer counseling on how to raise your child ... I believe that the goal is to get the mother to give up the baby.

"(Adoption) agencies should not be the first and only ones to provide counseling; there should be a neutral government agency," Park said.

These cases bring up obvious red flags over the questionable ties between unwed mothers' homes and adoption agencies. All four of the major adoption agencies in Korea operate their own unwed mothers' homes, a practice critics have labeled "baby farming."

Park said she was pressured to relinquish her son for adoption within six hours of giving birth. She later retracted her decision to relinquish and had to go through great measures to get her son back. Other mothers like her, she recounted, were forced to pay fees to the agencies for each day that the child stayed in their facilities in order to get their children back.

Park says it's not right that agencies ask mothers to make a decision about adoption so soon after giving birth. "This is not a time when a mother is able to make an informed decision."

In Korea, there are currently no regulations on the timeline of a mother's consent to adoption. The coalition's revisions would include a stipulation that consent from a mother is not valid until 30 days after the birth of the child, giving the mother ample time to get counseling about parenting resources and to understand the all of the implications of such a weighty decision. It also would include an extension on the time period that mothers are able to retract their decision.

Bringing the time period to 30 days would bring Korea up to international standards.

Ethical adoption procedures

International adoption standards aside, there is also a lack of clear national regulations, which can create questions of ethics in adoption agencies' procedures. Adoption agencies here run essentially as private organizations with little to no interference from the government. It is a troubling fact, given that their line of work deals with the welfare of the country's most vulnerable citizens - children.

According to the new bill, agencies would be required to keep accurate records during the entire adoption process. Some of the most common complaints of returning adoptees include a lack of access to adoption records and discrepancies between the adoption records that they are given and the records that are kept at agencies. In the past, these discrepancies have occurred due to a lack of administrative standards or intentional falsification. In her speech, Trenka gave a list of eight types of these abuses, documented by TRACK in real-life cases.

One of these, for example, is a falsified "orphan hojuk." According to the adoption laws of many of the countries where children are sent, the child must be an orphan to be adopted. In order to create the illusion that the child was in fact an orphan - even in cases where children did have families and may have even appeared on their family hojuk (registry) - agencies created "orphan hojuks" to indicate that the child had no family, which is a falsification of a legal document. Trenka says her own case shows multiple examples of these abuses by adoption agencies.

Trenka states that while adoptions may look legal on paper, falsification of records to facilitate adoptions is what prof. David Smolin, an academic expert on international adoption, calls, "child laundering," where children are obtained or sent under false pretenses, but processed to have "legal" adoption papers.

When adoptees come searching for their personal information, these fragmented or inaccurate records make it nearly impossible to track down biological family; the current rate of success is a mere 2.7 percent. Adoption agencies often use the privacy rights of the parent as a reason why information may not be disclosed, but unethical practices in the past may be another motivation to keep adoptees in the dark. The new adoption law proposed by the coalition would require the agencies to surrender all information, excluding any identifying personal information of the parent. In order to enforce the accuracy of adoption records and access to them, the new adoption law proposal stipulates that a central authority should be run by the government. This central authority would house all adoption records, give assistance to adoptees in birth-family searches, and be a watchdog of adoption agencies.

Other parts of the proposal include lowering the age that a child can give their consent to an adoption from 15 to 13 years of age, granting adoptees the right to keep their Korean citizenship, parenting education for prospective adoptive parents to prevent disrupted adoptions, and mandatory birth registration regulations to prevent child trafficking and secret domestic adoptions.

Currently Korea has no law regarding birth registration, so 97 percent of domestic adoption is done in secret, with adoptive parents listing the child as their biological child.

In an interview, Eun Sung-ho, the director of the Family Support Division in the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs emphasized the government's commitment to revamping the country's adoption laws, stating continued talks and plans for another public hearing on the subject by the end of this year. He said it was a priority for his department to promote a bill that makes the adoption procedures more transparent and fair, while preventing cases of disrupted adoptions. "We have to make it a priority to raise Korean children in Korea."

Rep. Choi said that she anticipates some opposition to the bill, which could hit the floor of the National Assembly next year, from proponents of international adoption, such as adoption agencies and prospective adoptive parents, and from those who think that making birth registration mandatory will discourage domestic adoption.

This is Rep. Choi's first time working with a foreign community group, but said that she appreciates when foreign groups want to work to make positive changes in Korean society. She encourages foreign groups who are compelled to activism. "If there is a problem that can affect the relationship between Korea and other countries, it's important to work together to make changes ... not everything can be changed by laws, but when we change laws, we began to change society."

ASK representative Kim Stoker said it's important that expats speak up. "As a foreigner, people might wonder why I'd be interested in changing legislation in Korea. Well, I am a foreigner ... (and) even though I don't hold Korean citizenship, I have lived in this country for more than 10 years. Once I heard that the Special Adoption Law in Korea was going to be revised ... I knew that we as a community living here in Korea had to be involved. Our voices needed to be heard."

For more information, visit the groups' websites: www.adoptionjustice.com or www.adopteesolidarity.org

For non-Koreans who are interested in other forms of social activism, the Seoul Global Center offers free legal counsel Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 2-5 p.m. You can also visit the website http://global.seoul.go.kr or call the hotline at 02-1688-0120.

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