exposing the dark side of adoption
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Korean-Australian woman finds she was falsely adopted


An Australian woman has found she was the subject of a falsified adoption in South Korea, where her biological mother was told her baby was stillborn.

As Australians find it harder to adopt babies from overseas, one woman has discovered she was falsely adopted from South Korea, where her biological mother was told her baby was stillborn. 

Emily Will* was pronounced dead at birth. Born in a small maternity home in the countryside of Geoje, Gyeongsandnam-do, the midwife allegedly told her biological parents the baby was “stillborn”.

“I don’t know how this could have happened to me,” she says. “Why would someone (the midwife) do that? Why would someone make a choice for someone else?”

“Her decision changed my life.”

For 23 years, Ms Will believed she was put up for adoption after her biological parents decided to part ways. Her adoption papers said her parents were in a de facto relationship, a status considered shameful in traditional Korean society, with two daughters.

It was not until she became a mother herself, Ms Will became curious about her biological roots.

“After my daughter was born, something changed. Something changed in me,” she says.

“I didn’t know my medical history. I didn’t know what I could have passed on to my kid. I didn’t know if there were any genetic heart diseases. Nothing.”

After three years of searching and waiting, Ms Will thought she was prepared to meet her biological parents.

“It’s well known that you may possibly or most probably have a false story given to you so you brace yourself,” says Ms Will, 24, a mother of two in Sydney. “But when you finally get the real story, the story you thought you had prepared yourself for… it definitely throws you.”

Her emotional reunion with her biological family was set up in a small room at her South Korean adoption agency, Eastern Social Welfare Society.

“When I saw them my mind went completely blank. I didn’t know what to think at that stage. It was a bit of a shock. I really didn’t think this day would come. It was very surreal.”

It was at this meeting Ms Will became aware of the truth of her past; she was a stolen baby and her parents had in fact been married at the time.

The experience of Ms Will is uncommon, but not unheard of. Intentional fabrication, falsification of documents and unintended adoption has been previously reported in South Korea.

Jane Jeong Trenka, the president of Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK) says many adult Korean adoptees that have returned to be reunited with their Korean parents have found themselves to be the subject of a forced adoption, kidnappings or forged identity.

Ms Trenka says money was the driving force behind illegal adoptions.

“It is widely known today that inter-country adoption is driven by huge sums of money,” she said. “It is, in fact, an industry.”

“In the days when South Korea was not economically developed, it was a way to secure precious foreign currency. Today, the inter-country adoption program is a way to save money on social spending.”

South Korea consistently ranks at, or is near the bottom of, family welfare spending among OECD countries.

“What we have 60 years after the end of the Korean War is, therefore, a very developed adoption system and a nearly non-existent domestic social welfare system that specialises in family separation for adoption, instead of family preservation,” said Ms Trenka.

More than 200,000 Koreans have been adopted overseas since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. But what began as an incentive to save thousands of Korean War orphans, many fathered and then deserted by American GIs, turned into a lucrative industry whereby thousands of children, mostly born to unwed mothers, were put up for adoption.

In 2011, 88.4 per cent of all intercountry adoptees from South Korea were relinquished from unwed mothers, a status often frowned upon in traditional Korean society. Social pressure still drives thousands of unmarried women to choose between abortion and adoption as they risk the life of economic difficulty and disgrace.


Stories such as these have been the motivating factor behind South Korea’s new adoption policy. Under revised laws, pregnant women wanting to have their child adopted are given a seven-day deliberation period on whether to keep or relinquish their child after birth. Prospective parents are mandated to get court approval before adopting abandoned children and adoption agencies are required to accurately register information of their birth parents. Domestic adoption will continue to be prioritised over inter-country adoption, where overseas parents will only be allowed to adopt if no adoptive family can be found domestically.

While the government hopes the change will help encourage birth mothers to keep their children, they believe the move will also prevent the self-identity issues and cultural alienation many overseas adoptees face when they are older.

The change is also part of the government’s move to remove the international stigma of being a “baby-exporting country”.

For decades, South Korea has been among the top ranking countries to provide babies for adoption in Australia. However, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the number of adoptions from South Korea has dropped 76 per cent since 2006 and South Korea is no longer one of the top four countries of origin.

The South Korean government states revised adoption laws is in the best interests of children, in accordance with the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-County Adoption. Yet, South Korea is not a signatory to the Hague Convention.

But the revised adoption laws have come too late for Emily Will.

She’s filed a complaint to the Australian Government Attorney General's department and her case is being investigated.

A spokesperson from the Australian government Attorney General’s department says it had limited involvement in inter-country adoptions in the 1980s, at the time Ms Will was adopted and is not aware of similar cases in Australia.

While Australia has been party to the Hague Convention since 1998, the Australian government can only request the relevant overseas authority make appropriate enquiries into the circumstances surrounding the child trafficking concerns or allegations, once credible concerns are raised.

Yet, Ms Trenka says it’s the joint responsibility of both countries to ensure adoption processes are ethical and transparent.

“Right now governments are only pointing the finger at each other. Adoptees are being told that to take legal action, they would have had to report the crime within the [10 year] statute of limitations,” she says. “But how can an adoptee file a suit when they are still a child?”

“Adoption should not be treated as a retail industry. It’s not an exporting importing thing. We’re human beings. We’re not products. We’re not for sale. You can’t put a price on a human life,” Ms Will says.

* Names have been changed for privacy reasons

2012 Sep 18