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[Opinion] Adoption must be legal, and serve the interests of children


The recent case of an illegally adopted Korean baby highlights the need for adoption to be transparent and lawful

By Susan Soonkeum Cox, Vice President of Policy & External Affairs, Holt International

January 23, 2013 / thehankyoreh

Adoption is intended to find families for children-not children for families. Every child has a fundamental right to a family, but there is no special entitlement for couples seeking to adopt. Adoption is a life-long experience for everyone in the adoption triad; birth family, adoptive family, and of course the adoptee from child to adult. It is a compassionate, human act to provide a child with a family that will love and cherish them as their own. Adoption is also a legal process. In order for adoption to take place, that legal process must be followed.  

The case of Baby Sehwa Kim, who was taken from Korea by the Duquet family of Chicago, is a devastating example of what happens when compassion and desire for a child take place without following the law. 

 I do not know the Duquet family beyond what is in the media. What is happening is the predictable and tragic reality that happens when prospective adoptive parents attempt to circumvent the process. In countries where there are inadequate safeguards, illegal adoptions take place due to a lack of oversight. Regrettably, such activity can result in closure of intercountry adoption from those countries as shown in the cases of Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Romania and others.  

The Duquet family insists that they did not know they were doing anything wrong when they adopted a baby directly from a center in Korea. Apparently they also did not understand that South Korea has a solid and defined adoption system that has been in place for more than fifty years, and that the Korean government would rightfully not look away at what was clearly an adoption outside of the system 

 The fact that the family was stopped at O’Hare airport and detained for ten hours for inadequate paperwork should have been a clear indication that there were serious problems. At minimum, if the Duquets truly did not that private adoption from Korea is not permitted (although according to media reports the Duquet’s older daughter was adopted from Korea and the laws and policies in place now have not changed since then). That ten-hour detention at the airport would have been the time to evaluate and ask hard questions of the attorneys in both countries who had offered improper legal advice. Upon learning that this was an illegal adoption, they had only to look at websites of the U.S. Department of State, Health and Human Services, and any number of the adoption information websites for confirmation that Korea has a system for private adoptions.  

As painful and difficult as it would have been, the Duquets should have then returned Baby Sehwa to Korea, before bringing her into their home and lives for seven months. It would have been emotionally wrenching for them to do this, having cuddled and loved the baby they thought was their daughter for the brief 18 days of her life. But thoughtful introspection would have made it clear that they had not honored the adoption process and that their attorneys had led them to an untenable situation that couldn’t be untangled with a few simple phone calls or letters. 

 Instead the Duquets and their legal advisors chose the same route as the parents of Baby Jessica, Baby Richard, Baby Emily and others, to proceed at all cost, knowing they had not honored the process. Those families stubbornly dug in for months and years, but the children were ultimately taken from them because they had not followed the law. By the time those adoptions were overturned, the emotional, financial and physical consequences to the families were beyond words. Ultimately it is the voiceless children that are most affected. They are the ones who must live with the consequence of the decisions made by the adults around them.

 I am sympathetic to the Duquets, but I feel profoundly protective of Baby Sehwa. The longing for a child is undeniable, and it can lead some prospective adoptive parents to look the other way or lose sight of the big picture in the quest for a son or daughter.  

But it is wrong.

In the short term, it puts the adoptive parents’ desires ahead of the child they want to adopt. It places the birth mother and family into painful and protracted explanations of their decisions and responding to the second-guessing of others. It pits the legal entity or questioning party, in this case the Korean government, into a situation that is adversarial as they pursue their responsibility to protect a child who is a citizen of their country. It brings a private family matter into the public spotlight to become the latest ‘reality show.’ This diminishes the privacy, humanity and dignity of everyone involved-especially the child.  

In the long term it means the individual adoption will always carry with it the questionable and controversial history that was the beginning of that particular adoption story. It is an understatement to say it isn’t fair-especially to the innocent child.

 South Korea has a long history of intercountry adoption. I am personally familiar with this since I was adopted from Korea in the 1950s when the priority was finding families for the thousands of mixed race children following the Korean War. In the spirit of full disclosure I am also very familiar with Korean adoption as Vice President of Policy & External Affairs at Holt International in Eugene, OR. The organization founders, Harry and Bertha Holt pioneered intercountry adoption from Korea in 1956.  

I am also an advocate for the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international treaty established in 1993 to provide global safeguards and protection for children and families touched by adoption. The Convention states clearly that it is the right and responsibility of every state to protect and care for their children-and that includes Baby Sehwa.

The adoption process from Korea is complex and rigorous. It requires prospective adoptive families to comply with established laws and procedures. Many in Korea view intercountry adoption negatively and they believe it is shameful that children leave Korea for families in other countries. I strongly agree that the ultimate goal should be for all children born in Korea to be raised in Korea by Korean families, preferably the family they were born into. If that is not possible, then in a permanent adoptive family in Korea.  

However, there is a gap between children in Korea without families and families in Korea wanting to adopt. In spite of efforts by the government to encourage domestic adoption, there are not enough Korean adoptive families to meet the needs of the children without families.

I have been surprised by the views of many in the general public in Korea and U.S. that support the Duquets’ efforts to keep Baby Sehwa, and criticizing the government for protecting the baby. In truth, the government is protecting not only Baby Sehwa, but also the process that is required to ensure safe and responsible adoptions for all children. This is not only about this little girl- it is about every child in Korea who would be adopted, both domestically and internationally.  

I am sad this has happened, just as I have felt sadness for other high profile adoptions over the years due to similar concerns. It makes the institution of adoption seem unnatural and fraught with unnecessary requirements, or the other extreme having no requirements at all.

 I’m grateful that the Korean officials are not shirking the difficult responsibility of following this case, and I am hopeful that this will illuminate the need for following standards and policies established in the best interest of children.  

Sadly for Baby Sehwa, she is the ultimate victim. My wish is that she is soon united with one of the families in Korea who are eager to adopt her and she will be able to move on with her life without the raw glare and harsh scrutiny from the actions of the adults around her.

2013 Jan 23