exposing the dark side of adoption
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Boston Globe

Author: Mary Tabor, Contributing Reporter

Several years ago Roger and Nancy Proulx decided to stop worrying over inconclusive fertility tests and adopt.

But instead of waiting years for a healthy white American baby, the Proulxes applied to an international adoption agency. Four months later they had their first child -- a Korean baby named Julie.

In 1986, the Proulxes applied for a second Korean child, and four months later they picked up a baby girl at New York's JFK airport.

"It's been fabulous," said Nancy Proulx as her two daughters, Julie, 5, and Amy, 3, giggle and kiss each other on their living room couch in Natick.

But for many others who have recently tried Korean adoptions, the story is not so happy.

Linda Patterson and John Watts of Needham applied for a Korean baby in 1987. Since then, the estimated wait at their international adoption agency has stretched from two years to four years or more.

Ready for a child, they switched to a Chilean adoption program and even began Spanish lessons to learn about Latin culture. But when a special needs, or disabled, Korean child became available, they decided to accept the Korean referral instead of waiting for the Chilean child.

The end of this story, at least for now, is that Patterson and Watts are still staring at an empty crib.

"This is very frustrating," said Patterson, who is awaiting medical information on baby "Grace." "From an emotional perspective it is just grueling to have to keep changing your perspective."

In recent years, Korea's improved economic health and fewer US immigration officers to process applications have combined to slow the flow of these Asian children to the United States. In addition, since 1986, when 6,188 Korean children arrived here for adoption, the Korean government has refocused efforts to stem the flow of children being sent out of the country for adoption, Korean officials say. By 1988, the number had dropped about 20 percent to 4,942.

In the last year, however, the number of Korean babies available for adoption has dropped way below expected levels.

Official numbers from the Korean government are unavailable, but US agency officials say their quotas have been cut, and in some cases, cut drastically.

The most obvious reason for the abrupt change, US officials said, is Korean indignance at negative press that surfaced during the 1988 summer Olympics Games in Seoul -- a time when Korea was preening itself before the world.

"What has had the greatest impact has been the negative publicity in the US media about the number of children placed from Korea in the US," said Vicki Peterson, director of

Wide Horizons for Children

Inc. in Waltham.

"There were some very distorted reports about Koreans selling babies in which there is no truth and a misrepresentation of the situation," she said. In 1985, Wide Horizons, one of two agencies in Massachusetts that handle Korean adoptions, placed about 250 Korean children with American families.

This year, the international adoption agency expects to receive only 130 Korean children for placement, and already has more than 300 families on its waiting list -- all of whom must be willing to adopt a disabled child. Wide Horizons also is insisting that parents apply for a child from another country as well.

Love the Children

of Massachusetts, the other Korean adoption agency, does not keep waiting lists and continues to place Asian children with American families with relatively short waiting periods, said

Theresa Weisberger

, the Massachusetts office director. But while the agency expects to continue placing children, Weisberger said, the agency had felt a cutback, especially with older children.

"With this agency, it has been apparent in older children -- children between the ages of 2 and 9. Fewer are being referred to us," said Weisberger, director of the Massachusetts office, in Cambridge.

Like Peterson, Weisberger blames the media for being "destructive" and points to two specific sore spots.

"Babies for Sale,"

a magazine article in The Progressive by Matthew Rothschild, charged the Korean government with advocating baby-selling as a way to cut a profit while addressing the social quandary of having unwed mothers and fatherless babies in a patriarchal society.

But more controversial was a two-minute television report on Korean adoptions that aired during NBC's coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

"Though the Koreans enjoy showing off their country to the world during these Games, there are some aspects of their society they'd prefer we'd not examine so closely, and one of those concerns the exportation of Korean orphans for adoption abroad," commented host Bryant Gumbel before a two- minute report by David Diaz.

"Some 6,000 children were sent to the United States for adoption last year alone," said Diaz. "It's a form of export that many Koreans would rather not talk about. They feel perhaps it's embarrassing, perhaps even a national shame."

After explaining that many Korean orphans are illegitimate children who "are considered outcasts in this society," Diaz featured a pair of 2- year-old twins who he said were abandoned in the street with only a note pinned on them. At a time when national pride is being celebrated, some may debate what the exportation of children really says about Korea," said Diaz.

Koreans, many of whom relied on Korean media for interpretation of the NBC broadcast, reportedly found the TV coverage offensive.

"The TV portrayed things in an inhumane manner," said Baeksang Cho, consul at the Korean embassy in Washington. "Things such as exporting children for money."

Yun-Soo Cho of the Korean consulate in Boston said he was disappointed that the American television only portrayed "the dark side" of Korean society.

But NBC officials, who say Koreans protested NBC's coverage of everything from a brawl involving a Korean boxer to pigs' heads in the market, contest the complaint.

"The Koreans are very PR conscious," said Kevin Monaghan, director of NBC's sports information. "They thought we were purposely trying to embarrass them."

Monaghan said the problem was due in large part to the way Korea's journalists, who he says are mostly anti-American students, covered the story.

"We became the personification of US foreign policy," said Monaghan. "Ronald Reagan was supporting President Roh Tae Woo and that was not popular. . . . They really had cracked down on a lot of the student demonstrations at the time. The NBC coverage became kind of an alternative target."

Both Baeksang Cho and Yun-Soo Cho prefer to pin the change in Korean adoptions on a healthier economy and an increasingly prominent profile in international affairs.

Beginning in 1961, under the rule of Gen. Park Chung Hee, the postwar nation's emphasis was strictly focused on economic development. "We didn't take care of Korean children, so they were sent out to other countries," said Yun-Soo Cho.

But with a rapidly growing economy and President Roh's emphasis on improving the nation's welfare system, more money is going into orphanages and homes for children, he said. Internal adoptions are being encouraged.

"Korean government officials are ashamed that children are being taken care of by foreign hands," said Baeksang Cho. "So the numbers are decreasing for foreign adoptions. But it is just a trend, not a government policy."

Yun-Soo Cho said the Korean press also has pressured its government to end the international adoptions. "Recently the young intellectuals have recognized these internal problems and have wanted to let them the children grow up in Korea instead of in other countries."

Ever since Henry Holt, a born-again Christian from Eugene, Ore., first brought Korean War orphans to the states in 1955, Koreans have been the most sought-after of international infants in the United States.

Many US parents who cannot pay $8,000 to $20,000 or more for a healthy white baby have opted for Koreans over African-American or Hispanic infants.

Korean adoptions also have been easier and less expensive.

Many governments do not allow their children to be adopted in other countries. And in those that do, such as several Latin American nations, parents usually are required to spend several weeks in the country before the adoption. These adoptions may cost from $3,000 to $11,000 each.

South Korea, on the other hand, has allowed its young to emigrate to the United States and Europe with a Korean adult chaperone for the overseas flight, and with minimal paperwork. And at Wide Horizons, Korean adoptions cost just under $5,000. So far, the cost has not changed, they said.

Still, money was only a minor factor in the adoption decision for Brad and Kathy Willis of Foxborough. In 1987, after eight years of trying to have a baby on their own, the Willises decided they were more than ready for a child and applied to a Korean program. A year and a half later, they heard it would be at least another year and a half before a baby came.

"It was like an emotional roller coaster," said Kathy Willis, 30.

Frustrated with the wait, the couple applied for a South American baby, went to Brazil, and brought home an 8-day-old baby named Jeffrey last June.

Kathy Willis said regardless of her original plan to have a Korean child, she expects the new Willis family will live happily ever after.

"It really didn't matter" what nationality Jeffrey was, she said. "We just wanted a baby.


The Proulx children, Julie, 5, and Amy, 3. 2. Brad and Kathy Willis adopted their baby, Jeffrey, from Brazil, after almost two years of trying to adopt a Korean baby.

1987 Nov 6