"We gave him up to save his life"
For five increasingly horrific years, the adoption agencies insisted that Chad Ostrowski's memory of a father in Korea was fantasy. When Anne Marie and John finally learned the truth about their beloved boy, they made the ultimate sacrifice.
By Peg Tyre, Published Feb 22, 1999
On August 11, 1989, a pale, anxious 8-year-old boy wearing a thin cotton T-shirt and shorts walked through the arrivals gate at Kennedy airport and into the arms of John and Anne Marie Ostrowski. They held balloons inscribed mom and dad in Korean, the only language their new son, whom they had already named Chad, understood. A shy, skinny boy with liquid brown eyes, his gleaming hair teeming with lice, Chad had no luggage, no toys to occupy him for the 24-hour journey.
"He didn't carry a teddy bear, a blanket, a stuffed animal, nothing," recalls Anne Marie, a slight, intense woman with the physical exuberance of an aerobics instructor. "Not even a jacket for a flight halfway around the world."
Chad had been placed with the Westchester couple by New Beginnings Family and Children's Services, a Mineola, Long Island, agency specializing in the adoption of foreign-born children. His birth mother was unmarried, New Beginnings had told the Ostrowskis, whose first son, John II, was 10 years old. Chad had no other family, they were told, and his mother, too poor to raise him, had abandoned him at an orphanage near the southern tip of Korea.
Chad, who was soon wearing spanking-new jeans and a black Members Only jacket -- the late-eighties uniform of every suburban kid -- immediately began to struggle with English. It wasn't long before he was able to make himself understood. But what he told his American parents in his halting English shocked the Ostrowskis and launched them on a painful journey that would stretch over a turbulent decade. Before it was over, their dream family would be in tatters. And Chad, their beautiful, bright child, would be on the brink of self-destruction.
"You say you are my family, but I already have a family," Chad told Anne Marie and John. "I have a father, brothers, and sisters back in Korea. Aunts and uncles, too. My father loves me, and I want to know what happened to him."
Nine years after Chad uttered those words, the Ostrowskis would travel with him back to Korea to reunite their son with his biological father. It was a heartrending decision, the Ostrowskis say, because they love Chad as much as any parent can love a child. But after years of battling doctors, psychologists, the courts, and adoption agencies here and in Korea, Anne Marie and John say they did what they knew was right. Chad had showed them over and over that he could not -- would not -- live a lie.
"I needed to know my family," he says simply.
Now nearly 18, Chad -- born Yong Seong Park -- lives with his father, Ki Joon Park, near Chinju in southern Korea. And even while the Ostrowskis continue to talk almost daily with him and plan for his college education, this week they are filing a multi-million-dollar suit against New Beginnings and its Korean partner, charging the agencies with negligence, breach of contract, and fraud for allowing them to adopt a child they claim the agencies knew from the beginning was not the orphan they'd been assured he was.
Thousands of foreign-born children are adopted by American parents each year, and experts say most of these adoptions go smoothly as once-abandoned children and their newfound parents cleave together to become a family. Foreign-adoption horror stories, the ones that make the news, are the exceptions to the rule. Mentally impaired kids -- those suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome or those with catastrophic emotional damage -- are palmed off on eager would-be parents whose love and financial resources are quickly tapped out. Every year, a handful of parents of these difficult and sometimes dangerous children essentially throw up their hands and return their adopted children to the care of strangers. Officials at New Beginnings insist that is what happened with the Ostrowskis.
"From our records of our counseling sessions with the Ostrowskis before they returned Chad to Korea, it was clear that their intention was to sever ties with their son," says Tim Sutfin, executive director of New Beginnings. "Once they took Chad back to Korea, they took his passport and his green card in order to ensure he never came back."
The Ostrowskis angrily deny that assertion. They say they allowed Ki Joon Park to take back his son in order to give the boy a chance to live the life he ought to have had all along -- not as Chad Ostrowski but as Yong Seong Park.
"People ask me, how could you give up your son," says John Ostrowski, wiping away tears. "But they don't understand. We love Chad. We felt we had to act to save his life. Any parent would have done it."
John and Anne Marie Ostrowski seem like the kind of well-to-do, good-looking couple you'd find on the sidelines of a suburban soccer game. They live in a big wood-frame house on a tailored country lane in the heart of post-and-rail northern Westchester County -- a place where bridle paths can be better maintained than back roads. Theirs is one of the newer homes on a subdivided estate; it's spacious and light and modern, surrounded by manicured beds of perennials and dogwood, apple, and plum trees -- gardening is Anne Marie's passion. Tall and solid, John Ostrowski speaks with the steady deliberation of a man who knows his mind. After 22 years of marriage, John still inclines toward his wife when they talk, and there is something about the Ostrowskis that makes you think of two teenagers on a date.
John has made a good living as the operations director of a New Jersey-based real-estate trust. Throughout the house there are snapshots of the family on the beach during their annual vacation in Cape May, from winter trips to the Caribbean, of Chad and John II with Mickey during one of the family's eight trips to Disney World. In most of the pictures, Anne Marie, then an executive at Marine Midland bank in Rockland County, looks tanned, happy, and slightly hassled, like any mother of two on vacation. John II has a carefree smile. As a boy, Chad also grinned at the camera. Later on, he would only scowl, typically adolescent and moody. The Ostrowskis' photo album reflects an average family. But Anne Marie knows that those pictures tell only a small part of the truth about their life.
It was 1989, a decade since their first son was born, and Anne Marie, in her mid-thirties, found she could not get pregnant again. After a few bruising attempts at in-vitro fertilization, the Ostrowskis decided to adopt. Anne Marie herself had grown up in foster homes and had thrived. Maybe it was her destiny, she reasoned then, to become a life raft for other children without parents. She dreamed of a large family, maybe five kids in all. But she and John agreed to start off slowly, with a baby and maybe a 6-year-old. They opted for an overseas adoption -- and paid New Beginnings some $9,000 to find their first child.
The caseworker at New Beginnings, Anne Marie says, showed her pictures of Chad -- then 7 -- and promised that if the placement worked out, an infant would quickly follow.
From the first weeks they spent together, Anne Marie and John could tell Chad was very bright. He picked up English quickly, excelled at math, and became passionate about basketball and running. He could almost keep up with John II when they biked around the neighborhood.
But from the outset, Anne Marie recalls, Chad seemed emotionally withdrawn. He could not respond to loving words or small gestures of affection. He could not talk about his feelings. He had a hard time striking up friendships with other children. Even as a small boy, he seemed determined to keep his feelings to himself.
When Chad did talk, it was about his childhood in Korea. He told his American parents that before he was taken to the orphanage, he lived with his father's mean girlfriend. His father would visit, laden with gifts of clothes and toys. After he left, the furious girlfriend would break the toys and throw away the clothes. During his first Christmas with the Ostrowskis, Chad happily tore through the wrappings on his presents. A few hours later, John found the presents in the trash.
"I won't play with them, they're broken," Chad said, his boyish features puckered in an angry scowl.
Troubled by these revelations, Anne Marie and John called New Beginnings. The caseworker dismissed Chad's claims as "pure fantasy," Anne Marie recalls, but promised to research Chad's history with Eastern Child Welfare Society, the Korean agency. The news from Korea was sobering: The Ostrowskis were told that Chad had been badly neglected as a small boy; while his mother was at work, Chad had roamed the streets, fending for himself until she returned at the end of the day. The Ostrowskis say the news only made them love him more. They also became fiercely protective of him.
"He had been a street kid," says Anne Marie. "He'd made himself tough just to survive. And I was ready to deal with it. After all, healing takes time."
While Anne Marie spoke to Chad about the importance of love and trust in their family, Chad responded with memories of his father. He was a towering man, Chad remembered, who'd taught him math on an abacus. Although family circumstances had forced Chad to stay with his grandmother and aunt, he remembered that more than once he'd run away to be with his father. Oddly, Chad never talked about his mother.
Eastern had sent Anne Marie a picture of Chad taken at the orphanage. A scowling Chad is holding an identity card bearing what the Ostrowskis were told was Chad's Korean name, Yong Seong Kang.
"He hated that picture," says Anne Marie. "He told me his name was Park, not Kang, but they made him hold that card anyway. The day that picture was taken, Chad said, they took away his real name, along with his father's business card and a prized denim jacket that his father had given him."
Anne Marie called the caseworker again. This time, word came back from Korea that the man Chad thought was his father was a married boyfriend of his mother. "He would struggle with these memories, trying to piece them together," Anne Marie remembers.
The Ostrowskis assured Chad that in time they would help him get the answers he needed. For now, they urged him to build emotional connections to his new brother, his schoolmates, his community. Slowly Chad's memories of his old life began to fade. But the fissures never completely closed. Although his grades were good, he had few friends, and in the nearly all-white environs, he was an outsider.
Eventually, he started acting like one. Some of his teachers wrote him off as a troublemaker. The Ostrowskis' idyllic life began to turn upside down. Anne Marie was on the telephone constantly from her office, mediating, soothing, trying to manage an increasingly chaotic household. Her parish priest suggested sending Chad to a local Catholic school, where classes were smaller. But while he did very well academically, he became increasingly disruptive. He would bully kids who were smaller and meeker. Other parents began to complain. Teachers caught him lying needlessly. After a few months, Chad was expelled. "It shook my faith," recalls Anne Marie. "I didn't know what to do. I was super-stressed at work. Weekends were a nightmare. Chad wasn't getting any better."
John II says it wasn't all bad. He remembers sprawling with his brother in the den, watching videos, sharing English-muffin pizzas and soda.
"At first when he got into fights, I defended him," says John II, now 20 years old and a student at suny New Paltz. "I'd tell my mother, 'Give him the benefit of the doubt. You don't know how rough other kids can be.' "
But Chad was soon expelled from another parochial school after joining a ring of runty robbers to steal money from the teachers' cabinet.
The family had moved to a bigger house in a more affluent neighborhood, and Chad entered eighth grade at John Jay Middle School, midway between Katonah and Lewisboro. Anne Marie knew they were running out of options. By then, she had quit her job at the bank and made Chad her full-time occupation.
"I became obsessed with him," she recalls. All the attention seemed to finally pay off. In early adolescence, Chad began to blossom. For the first time, he formed real friendships: Chad, Aaron, and Phil -- three boys from the same neighborhood -- became an inseparable trio. They caddied together at Waccabuc Country Club, watched videos, and just hung out at Phil's house and talked. As always, Chad excelled in academics, tackling test after test like a competitive sport. He also discovered music, playing guitar with a garage band, and developed a love of drawing. He usually signed his delicately rendered illustrations Yong Seong Park.
Yet the emotional thaw his parents prayed for never came. Chad was still unable to express love, even warmth, for his adoptive parents. "It was like I had these words in my head," he says of that time. "I knew what they were, but I could never, never say them. They just wouldn't come out."
Instead, he raged at the Ostrowskis, especially his father and brother, with an inchoate frustration. The handyman was frequently at the house, repairing a window sill or a door frame broken during a physical confrontation between Chad and his brother. Still, Anne Marie defended him.
"I didn't want him to fail," said Anne Marie. "I would be constantly mediating between him and the rest of the world. My husband became bitter. He would say, 'You know, you have other family besides Chad.' "
In the winter of 1995, Anne Marie, always policing her son, picked him up after school and was driving him home past snow-covered pastures and well-tended horse barns. "I said, 'Chad, you're doing so well. You're on the high-honor roll, you have friends, but still you don't seem happy.' " Chad watched Anne Marie for a while as she drove, unable to speak. Then he did. "I can't be happy," he said quietly, "until I know what happened to my real father."
That February, Anne Marie wrote another letter to the adoption agency, asking for help. Three months later, the agency in Korea responded. A mistake had been made. The woman the agency thought was Chad's mother was not. They had located Chad's father, now a ginseng salesman in Chinju, and he missed his son terribly. The agency refused to include the father's address but agreed to act as a go-between for the families. A price list for forwarding and translating letters was enclosed.
"It was unbelievable, a bombshell," says John. "For five years, we had begged for information, only to be told that Chad's memories were wrong. Now it turns out they were right. What could we do?"
Anne Marie sets her mouth with anger when she talks about that day. "A child is not a rubber ball that you can reshape."
Tim Sutfin understands the Ostrowskis' anger. But, he says, according to his records, Chad's father was willing to give him up but had left the task to his girlfriend. It was the girlfriend, Sutfin claims, not Eastern or New Beginnings, who gave Chad's last name as Kang instead of Park. Both agencies took her word over that of the 7-year-old child.
For Chad, the news was all the proof he needed. He quickly wrote a letter, in English: "Dear Dad," he wrote, "this is your son, Yong Seong." He told his long-lost father about his sports activities and asked about his brothers and sisters. After a few months, he got back a carefully worded letter from his sister. At the time of his adoption, the family had been scattered, she explained. "Don't resent your father for what he did," she wrote. "We will always be family. But stay in the U.S. and get a good education."
For the Ostrowskis, those letters marked the beginning of Chad's plunge into darkness. The fighting at home veered out of control. Punished, he would be sent to his room, where he would systematically vandalize his bedroom furniture. He punched his walls so hard they were dented.
"One time I woke up from a nap to hear Chad pulling down his bookshelves, throwing chairs at the wall," recalls John II. "My mother had gone into his room, and he was screaming, 'Don't tell me what to do! You are not my real mother.' I put my pillow over my head and thought, 'I can't believe this is my life.' "
Between imbroglios, Chad would try to come up with practical, if adolescent, solutions to his inner turmoil. If he improved his behavior, would Anne Marie and John let him become a foreign-exchange student? Would they let him spend a year in Korea?
"We'd tell him if his behavior improved, we would work out a way for him to return," Anne Marie says. "He would try not to make mistakes, but it was almost like he couldn't help it."
But the "mistakes" grew more frequent and more serious. They worried that Chad was stealing money after he brought home an expensive guitar, valuable comic books, and stacks of CDs. He hot-wired a neighbor's boat and returned it to its slip with much of its equipment ruined. A few times he ended a violent family fight by running away.
"I always had these questions in my mind. My family was on the other side of the world. It brought me down," says Chad. "I didn't try to get in trouble. But somehow I needed to make myself feel better."
The Ostrowskis enrolled Chad at an exclusive boarding school in northern Connecticut. Just as they were drawing a sigh of relief, the school called. Chad had put his hand through a plate-glass window, cutting himself from wrist to elbow. By Halloween, he had run away and was expelled. They enrolled him in a public high school, but he was suspended after three days. The psychologist he was seeing then told Chad's parents their son was talking about suicide.
"I thought about it a lot," said Chad, with chilling calmness. "But I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
Chad would tell them -- often at the top of his voice -- that he needed his father in Korea. After one blistering fight, Chad slammed the door of his bedroom and shouted words at his parents they will always remember.
"You're not my parents," he screamed. "You wanted a son, and people were willing to sell me and you bought me." By this time, it seemed to the Ostrowskis that their decision to adopt Chad was all wrong. "We knew we had to do something. We had to fix this terrible thing," says John. "We didn't know if bringing him back to Korea would help, but we had so few options."
Almost ten years after they were united that day at JFK airport, the Ostrowskis told New Beginnings they wanted to take Chad home. The agency flatly rejected the suggestion. John hired a lawyer and began a series of negotiations to get Chad repatriated. After being contacted by the Ostrowskis' lawyer, New Beginnings came up with a distant relative of Chad's in Dallas and suggested they send their son there.
"In our opinion, returning him to Korea was too drastic a measure," said Sutfin.
"It was so frustrating. They didn't seem to get it. The point was not to send Chad away; the point was to give him back his father," John said.
In February, Chad got in a fight so bad his opponent's father threatened to press assault charges. Anne Marie no longer trusted him to be in the house alone. His grandmother refused to be alone with Chad after they'd had a screaming argument. To compound matters, he was smoking pot and drinking.
"I was afraid for my parents," says John II. "Afraid that he might hurt them."
Last April, Anne Marie, John, and Chad boarded a plane for Korea. Not even Chad's grandparents knew they were going. He left his books and sports jersey in his locker at school, and his beloved guitar at home in Westchester. Officials at Eastern were aware the Ostrowskis were coming to reunite Chad with his father but had promised them nothing. The Ostrowskis left a folder of documents with their congresswoman, Sue Kelly, and a lawyer in New York, in case they ran afoul of Korean immigration officials.
"We simply didn't know what was going to happen," said John. Maybe Chad's biological father would turn out to be inept, or cruel or criminal. Maybe a short visit would change Chad's mind. "But we had to do something." On their second day in Korea, the director of Eastern met John and Anne Marie without Chad and did his best to dissuade them.
"The director said, 'Don't leave him here, there is money in the U.S.,' " John recalls with disgust. "I said, 'This is a child, not a commodity.' "
That afternoon, the agency finally produced Ki Joon Park, a small man with a weathered face carrying a crushed fedora. The Ostrowskis and Ki Joon Park sat staring at each other in an airless room, unable to communicate, while Eastern officials supplied spotty translation.
"They took advantage of us because we didn't know the language," said Anne Marie. Ki Joon Park seemed nervous and listened passively, with downcast eyes, as Eastern officials argued with him. But on one point Ki Joon was clear -- he wanted to sign the hastily drawn legal document the Ostrowskis had brought. With the stroke of a black pen, Ki Joon reclaimed his son.
The Ostrowskis and Ki Joon decided to leave Eastern and the hectoring officials and reconvene, with Chad, at a nearby restaurant. John, Anne Marie, and Chad were ushered into the private room upstairs. There they were greeted by the entire Park family -- Ki Joon, along with Chad's brother, sister, aunt, and niece. Ki Joon Park struggled to his feet. Chad's biological father, the "towering" figure in Chad's memory, stood a head shorter than his fully grown son. The resemblance between them was unmistakable. Park began sobbing, hugging Chad and hanging on his arm. Chad stood frozen.
"It was surreal," says Chad. "I was being pulled in two directions. Pulled apart."
From the look on Ki Joon Park's face, Anne Marie Ostrowski knew in a flash she would lose her son.
"I saw Chad was not reacting, and I realized that he was holding back for our sake," she recalls. "He looked at me, and I said, 'Chad, it's okay. It's your dad. You can have feelings for him. It won't hurt us. This is for you. You can love us both.' "
With many breaks for tears and translation, the boy's real story finally emerged. His mother died when Yong Seong Park was an infant. His father, destitute and mourning, left him, the youngest family member, with the boy's aunt, grandmother, and eventually a girlfriend, who mistreated Yong Seong. She eventually brought him to Eastern, which provides children to adoptive parents overseas. She convinced Ki Joon Park that the boy would be better off. Two days later, though, Ki Joon Park says, he changed his mind and tried to get his son back from the agency. Eastern apparently had no record of a little boy named Yong Seong Park, only Yong Seong Kang. Not realizing that his son's identity had been obliterated, Ki Joon Park continued to register him on the national rolls, hoping the boy would find his way back. Over and over, Ki Joon thanked the Ostrowskis and apologized for giving up a son he'd never stopped loving.
"We had terrible doubts about what we were doing," says John. "But seeing Chad and Ki Joon together erased our doubts. We saw the boy we hadn't seen in years."
Today, Chad lives in a remote part of Korea. He is struggling to relearn the language and misses his American friends. Every morning, he takes a fifteen-minute bus ride to Chinju, a city of about 25,000. At school, he is expected to learn his lessons by rote, and his teachers aren't afraid to dole out slaps and punches to lazy students.
If Ki Joon drives the family one and a half hours to Pusan, Korea's second-largest city, they can gorge on Pizza Hut and Popeye's chicken. At home, the American food Chad cooks, like spaghetti and meatballs, baffles his family. He is taking guitar lessons and Tae Kwon Do. Recently, he has asked Anne Marie to send him a personal computer and a care package including grated Parmesan cheese, spices, and an Italian cookbook. He hopes to attend college in the U.S., but he is no longer Chad Ostrowski. To get a visa here, he will have to resolve his legal identity and probably will have to serve three years in the Korean military.
"If the Ostrowskis hadn't taken his passport, he could just swallow his pride and go to the airport and say, 'I'm Chad Ostrowski,' and get on the plane," says Tim Sutfin.
That, the Ostrowskis say, is exactly what they have come to expect from New Beginnings. "He's not Chad Ostrowski -- and he never was," Anne Marie insists (though the Ostrowskis themselves continue to call him Chad). "Forcing him to assume a false identity took us to hell and back." She wants her son to return to the U.S. as Yong Seong Park.
Chad seems bewildered by these problems, and he expects his mom in Westchester to somehow work them out for him. Despite the challenges of his new life, he says, for the first time the part of him that was unfinished feels complete. "I like spending time with my family," he says. "Especially my sister, who can tell me what life was like before I was taken away."
Anne Marie and John sit alone in their living room in Westchester, struggling with tears when the talk turns to their lost son. Anne Marie still has the shorts Chad wore the day he arrived, and just looking through the box containing his old primary-school drawings can ruin the day. She figures they spent more than $15,000 on travel costs, lawyers, and translators to reunite Chad with his father. And the bills haven't stopped coming. They send Ki Joon $500 a month to help with expenses. They spend almost $300 a month simply to hear Chad's voice over the telephone. They have been beseeching their elected officials to help their son get a passport so he can come back to the U.S. and attend college. They say they'll pay for that too. More than anything, they want to visit his Korean family again and talk. "I share a child with a Korean man," says Anne Marie, bewildered and amused. "I'm not married to him, and he speaks no English, but we share a child."
Tim Sutfin sympathizes with the Ostrowskis but insists there is little more New Beginnings or Eastern could have done. In 1995, he points out, the Korean government stopped the overseas adoption of older children.
In their darkest moments, Anne Marie and John remind each other of what Chad told them before driving off with Ki Joon to begin life with his rediscovered family.
"I know what you have done for me," the boy told his sobbing mother. "I know what it took for you to bring me here." Then he said the words that Anne Marie and John had walked through fire to hear: "I know that you love me. And I love you."