In Defense of Adoption(Published in Korean Quarterly, Fall 2010, Vol 14, Num 01)
Stephen C. Morrison/MPAK
The overall mood and climate on adoption in Korea over the past few years has been shifting drastically away from being viewed as positive, to being viewed as negative. Of all the causes, the greatest impact in the Korean society has been from the work of a few adult adoptees groups that have spoken up strongly against the intercountry adoption (or ICA), and even against domestic adoption as well. Some Korea-based adult adoptee organizations have joined forces to bring about the demise of both intercountry and domestic adoption by advocating the closure of adoptions in Korea.
These organizations, in separate efforts, have accused the adoption agencies of profiting from child trafficking, adoption document forging, coercing birthmothers to give up their babies, and have blamed the Korean government for allowing this practice to go on for many years. They have also advocated that the Korean government should do more to create an environment for birthmothers to raise their own children and avoid the separation of children from their birth families. Further, they blame adoption for being the main cause of the separation of children from their birthmothers. Their position is that if adoption can be stopped or discouraged, then there will be more birthmothers that will be able to keep their own children.
Some of their demands are definitely valid and ideal. Creating an environment for birthmothers to be able to raise their own children is a good thing. Most of the groups have proposed particular steps the society could take to achieve this, such as providing single mothers with more substantial financial assistance. They have also helped single mothers’ groups and carried out programs designed to help change the negative social stigma against single mothers so that they won’t feel negative pressure from the society that often makes difficult for them to keep their children.
While I strongly support the notion that birthmothers should be able to raise their own children, I do not agree that the adoption agencies have provided adoption services over the years because of a profit motive, and I do not agree that adoption is the cause of separation between the children and their birthmothers. Indeed, I can show that the main cause of children becoming homeless in Korea is that the majority of birth families who abandon their children simply can’t or won’t raise their children. Therefore, adoption is simply a response to so many children that have already been separated, and not the initiator of the separation.
Allegations against ICA
Allegations abound against ICA, and somewhat less against domestic adoption. Some groups allege that adoption agencies are engaging in child trafficking, which, if true, would be a criminal act. The idea of child trafficking suggests the adoption agencies have conducted fraudulent activities by forging documents to send children abroad solely for economic gain. While I do not deny that adoption agencies often had to make up adoption documents, I disagree that the intent of the agencies was done to increase profit. If any agency has sent children abroad for financial gain, then its activities are criminal and they deserve our contempt. However, I strongly believe that this was not the case; adoption services in Korea were developed for humanitarian purposes. In seeing the needs of so many homeless children, and knowing the obstacles that lie ahead for them as orphans growing up in a society with strong social stigma against them, adoption advocates have acted responsibly to find better opportunities for children to grow up in loving homes abroad.
So what about the agencies making up the adoption documents? In the old days, it was not unusual for the agencies to accept into their care many abandoned children who arrived with little or no information. In the absence of any information, often children’s names were assigned by the agencies. In addition to names, their date of birth and the place of birth were made up as well. There were many children who had no records at all of their birth origins. Children were found on the doorsteps of orphanages, police stations, markets, clinics, and churches. Some of those children had scribbled notes attached to their clothes with only names and the date of birth, but no other information could be found. It was very typical that children came into orphanage care with little or no information. I, for one, did not know the date of my birth when I was first admitted into an orphanage at age six; the orphanage director made up a date. He did what he had to do to establish a portion of my identity that was missing. The orphanages and the adoption agencies in care of these children assigned names, birth dates, and other information about the children because having this information was a critical step before they could be adopted, either domestically or overseas. Can this be labeled as document forging? Can this be alleged as child trafficking? Clearly this is not the case.
However, there have been some cases where orphanages or agencies did questionable things such as changing the records of children so that they could be placed for adoption. While the cases like these certainly do have the look of illegality, I strongly believe that in most situations these decisions were made for the best interest of children as the decision making authorities knew what the consequences of those children would be living in Korea as orphans. One could argue that profit may have been a motive behind in making such decisions by the agencies. Perhaps it was, or perhaps not; it really depends on what you choose to believe.
But having personally lived in an orphanage in Korea for eight long years, and being fully aware at a young age of the very limited opportunities for me in Korea as an orphan, I am fully convinced that the agencies made a humanitarian decision to give me a better opportunity. I strongly believe that this is the driving motive of the agencies which continue to send children abroad. People who work in these agencies are fully aware of the difficulties that orphans will endure if they grow up in the orphanages in Korea.
Allegations have also been made that the agencies have coerced unwed mothers to give up their children for adoption; this has been widely misunderstood as well. While it is true that there have been many cases where social workers in agencies have tried to talk the unwed mothers out of their desire to keep their children, there is also the other side of the coin that most people don’t think about. The social workers in the agencies are all too familiar with the difficulties facing unwed mothers to raise children in Korea. Often the social workers don’t see the determination and the desire by the unwed mothers to keep their children but only see the difficulties ahead of them for both. Most likely, the social workers are mothers themselves, and more experienced and mature than most unwed mothers. In their services to unwed mothers, they have seen many unwed mothers who decide to keep their children, only to return them later for adoptions when they realize how difficult it is for a single mom to raise a child and be accepted by the families, friends, and the community. Knowing the difficulty, social workers may feel that they are compelled to convince the unwed mothers to give up the children rather than be burdened by them at such a young age. Such motivation could easily be misunderstood.
I have also heard instances where some birthmothers relinquished their children, then later returned to reclaim their children, only to discover that those children have been assigned or sent abroad for adoption. In these instances, the agencies should have waited before assigning the children to be adopted. The revised adoption law now being considered by the legislature in South Korea includes a waiting period designed for birthmothers to reconsider their decision to place a child for adoption. It is encouraging, however, that adoption social workers are now a lot more open to a birthmother’s desire to keep her baby.
In recent years, more and more unwed mothers are choosing to go public with their single parent status and take on the challenge of keeping their children. There is now a network of unwed mothers in South Korea called the Korea Unwed Mothers Support Network (KUMSN).
Although I am not affiliated with nor represent any adoption agency in any way, I speak as an adoptee who lived the orphanage experience. Had I not lived in the streets of Korea at age five, and then in an orphanage for eight years, I am quite sure that I would not be able to defend adoption with such conviction. Without having experienced the pain of being homeless and living in an orphanage, I could easily be persuaded to be suspicious of the agencies, as many are.
For without suffering and without having gone through the orphan life, and without understanding what happens to orphans living in Korea, it is quite understandable for adoptees to view the adoption process as a business of adoption agencies which are selling off children for profit. This misunderstanding alone would make any adoptee angry or bitter.
Alternatives to Adoption
So what would have been the alternatives for (now adult) adoptees if they were not adopted through ICA? Orphans growing up in Korea have historically faced incredible challenges as they are subject to strong social stigma. Compared to ordinary children with families, orphans in Korea experience what I call “status discrimination.” I have heard and read about the experiences of racial discrimination as described by adoptees living in Europe or in the U.S. But this type of discrimination is nothing compared to the status discrimination that orphans have to endure. By status discrimination, I am referring the denial of opportunities for good education and good jobs that orphans experience, not only because they lack the financial and social support of a family, but additionally because the society discriminates against them simply because they are orphans.
In the old days, three to five percent of orphans were able to go to college. Although educational opportunities for orphans have increased in recent years, they still fall significantly below educational opportunities of ordinary Korean children with families. By contrast, approximately 70 percent of Korean adoptees in the U.S. and Europe receive a four-year college education or above.
The status discrimination of orphans does not end with limited educational opportunities. If a young man with an orphan background wishes to date and marry a woman with a family, often the woman’s parents reject the man even though the woman loves him. If two men (or women) of equal ability apply for the same job, and one grew up in an orphanage and the other in a normal family, the applicant who grew up in the orphanage usually loses out.
Although the social stigma against orphans has lessened greatly over the years, it still presents a big challenge for children growing up in orphanages. Not many orphans are adopted domestically in Korea, as they are mostly older, and Korean nationals tend to prefer adopting infants, in order to keep the adoptions secret. (By “secret,” I am referring to the practice of a prospective adoptive mother going through an elaborate deception to pretend to be pregnant and/or to plan a well-timed move to another part of the country, then presenting the adopted baby as a birth child at the appropriate moment)
Orphans in Korea must leave the orphanages when they turn 18 years old. Often these orphans are emerging from the orphanage just out of high school, with very few marketable skills. Leaving the orphanages, these young adult orphans are usually given a onetime severance allowance of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. But this meager allowance runs out very quickly.
With no financial support or family support available, going to college would be impossible. These young adults go through extreme hardship once they leave the orphanages. A few find ways to stay with friends and/or extended families, but not all of them are that fortunate. Most wind up working in low-paying jobs at which they work long hours. Some may become successful teachers, pastors, nurses, etc., but these types of successes are very few compared to others who haven’t fared so well. In many areas of their lives, adults with orphan backgrounds must be vigilant to keep their background a secret, for fear of status discrimination.
When I look at the educational accomplishments of some of the adoptees that are strongly against adoption, I have a hard time understanding how they could speak against the very system they have tremendously benefited from. Most of them have college degrees, some of them have Ph.D. degrees and some are college professors. Without being adopted overseas into an environment which supported them to that level of achievement, they most likely would not have received the education or the distinctions they now enjoy. By contrast, the orphans in Korea would die to have the same opportunities the adoptees have. Granted that one’s happiness is not determined by educational achievements; however, there can be no question that ICA has provided opportunities for many orphans that would not have been available had they remained in Korea.
Birthmothers’ Rights vs. Children’s Rights
Adoptees are not the only ones voicing opposition to adoption. Korean nationals have also voiced opposition to ICA. One in particular who is heavily involved in the anti-adoption campaign publicly remarked that adoption is a form of child abuse. They do not understand why ICA continues to this day, now that Korea is experiencing the 13th largest economy in the world, and is about to host the G20 Summit in November 2010. What they fail to realize is that the size of the economy has very little to do with people’s attitudes and hearts towards homeless children. Koreans can be proud of their riches and economic progress, but that doesn’t mean their hearts are more open to orphans. So it is a baseless argument to advocate for the closure of ICA simply because the country is better off economically.
A review of anti-adoption blogs or writings in the media reveals that these writers strongly suspect that adoption agencies are in it for the business or that adoption is promoted by the agencies just to stay in business. The claims are that, to maintain their businesses, the agencies all use the phrases such as “It is better for children to be in homes abroad than to live in the institutions in Korea” to solicit sympathy and support from the Korean public. They claim that this is in opposition to the agencies’ true motive to stay in the business and that if the agencies are truly interested in the children’s welfare, they should make every effort to find ways for birth families to keep their children, and pressure the Korean government to expand the foster care services and group homes using adoption as a last resort.
Some of what they claim is true; I disagree on a couple of key points. While it is true that the agencies and the government should try their best to enable birth families to stay together and look for solutions to enable birthmothers to raise their own children, I disagree that adoption should be a last resort, as they recommend. Adoption should be the second alternative to birth family preservation. Foster care, group homes and institutionalization should be used as a last resort.
I also strongly disagree with the contention that adoption agencies are all in adoption work for business purposes only. After having worked very closely with many adoption agencies in Korea as well as in the U.S. for many years, the agencies I know of are in adoption services for humanitarian purposes. They are sincerely interested in the well being of children. They also know that of all types of social programs available for children; nothing except for adoption can enable children to have families of their own, even if that means a family in another country.
The foster care system in the U.S. has been a failure, with children moving from one home to another on an average of eight moves per child before age 18. Korea is not spared from this. However, foster care can sometimes lead to adoption, and this should be encouraged. Group homes are even worse, because there is no commitment of a parent-child relationship in temporary care. Group homes are essentially miniorphanages with five or six children being cared for by adults who receive funding from the government.
No one would argue that it is better for children to grow up in institutions than to be adopted. Further, in all of these childcare methods only one, adoption, can supply the child with a child’s most basic right ---- their right to their own family. When a homeless child is barred from an opportunity to have his own home, this is a greater child abuse than any alleged “abuse” that may occur because the child is adopted.
The anti-adoption factions in Korea have used the cause of birthmothers’ rights to speak against ICA, as well as against domestic adoption. Because they claim that adoption causes the separation of a child from the birthmother, they use the phrases such as “Family Preservation over Adoption Promotion” to make their points known. However, in their zeal to put an end to adoption by advocating birthmothers’ rights, they have focused more on birthmothers, not on the rights of children.
I believe that, while birthmothers’ rights should be advocated, it is wrong to do so by trampling on children’s rights to their own homes and families. Birthmothers are adults who have voices, and they can make certain choices for themselves, whether good or bad. But the children have no voice. Many adoptees have spoken out to advocate for their own rights and the rights of birthmothers’, but very few have chosen to speak for the rights of children to have their own homes.
Let the Data Speak for Itself
Since 2001, approximately 10,000 children have been abandoned in Korea each year, and 2009 was no exception, with 10,153 children left homeless for various reasons. According to statistics from the Ministry for Health and Welfare and Family Affairs, in 2009, there were 1,314 children (13 percent) domestically adopted within Korea, 1,125 (11 percent) adopted through ICA, 2,947 children (29 percent) were admitted to foster care programs, and 4,767 (47 percent) were admitted to institutionalized care. (see the attached figure).
The figure clearly shows that there are significantly more children that are abandoned by birth families by choice, and that those families will not reclaim their children, except for in a handful of cases. They were not coerced away from the birth families. These children number over 7,600 (76 percent) not counting the children in adoptions. Birth parents have all the time in the world to go back and reclaim this 76 percent of children who are abandoned, but they don’t. If these children don’t get adopted eventually, then most of the 7,600 children will grow up in institutions. So the argument that adoption is the cause of separation between the birthmothers and children just doesn’t hold up when the facts show that so many birth parents have voluntarily abandoned these children.
As for the remaining 2,400 children that are processed through adoption, there is no reliable data to show how many unwed mothers actually wanted to keep their children. A recent survey from an unknown source in Korea found that, if socio-economic conditions were favorable, the percentage of single birthmothers wanting to keep their children in Korea was projected at 38 percent. If this percentage is accurate, then in the current situation, in which single mothers receive little or no socio/economic assistance, the percentage of unwed mothers wanting to keep their children would be far lower.
In 2009 there were 4,075 children born to unwed mothers. Thirty eight percent of this number is 1,549 children. Even very conservatively-speaking, let us assume that all 1,549 children that were adopted (both domestic and ICA) in 2009 were wanted by unwed mothers. That still leaves 8,604 children that were unwanted by their birth families due to all kinds of reasons. So to advocate for birthmothers’ rights by proposing to eliminate adoption really do a disservice to significantly greater number of children who would need homes. Adoption is not the cause of separation of birth families. Adoption is in response to already-separated children that need homes.
Not One Over the Other, but Both
There is an essential question regarding the rights of birthmothers and the rights of children. Why can’t they coexist? Why must one right be sublimated in order to make the other survive? Why does it have to be one or the other and not both? This is the struggle I have with anti-adoption groups or anti-adoption individuals. The promotion of birthmothers’ rights and the promotion of adoption rights must go hand-in-hand and work together for the common good.
Would it not be more effective if these groups focused just on advocating birthmothers’ rights by insisting on the changes needed in society in order to allow single mothers to raise their children? Could they not focus more of their energies in speaking out against unfavorable socio/economic conditions that unwed mothers must endure in Korea? If they did, it would be a matter of time before more unwed mothers are able to keep their children and the need for adoption would be significantly reduced. Blaming adoption for the cause of unwed mothers’ woes, and insisting on the closure of adoption, can only create more suffering for children. For without adoption, the children will face institutionalized living.
Advocating for birthmothers’ rights is definitely needed. Better financial assistance for single mothers and a more favorable social environment in which single mothers may raise their children are both badly needed in Korea. Single mothers must also take on certain responsibilities in order to successfully negotiate single parenthood in Korean society. Demanding rights on the one hand but neglecting duties to raise their children on the other is an issue.
Further, it is a known fact that some birthmothers simply don’t want their children. They are either mentally or emotionally incapable of dealing with the responsibility. Even if appropriate financial and other assistance were available to them, they still could not or would not raise their children. There have been numerous cases where birthmothers chose early on to raise their children but later decided to place them for adoption. At that point, the children would have already been registered into a birth family registry, which makes them harder to place for adoption, unless mothers willingly sign off their parental rights. This is provided that the mothers can be found and are willing to sign the relinquishment papers.
I do believe there have been some mistakes in the ICA adoption process, through which children were sent to parents who were abusive or not capable of loving children that didn’t meet their expectations. This is a tragedy that should have been avoided, and for them, their adoption perhaps was a mistake. However, for the great majority of children adopted through ICA, their adoptions were not mistakes, and have resulted in blessings beyond measure. I am one of those who have benefited tremendously from adoption.
However, to advocate the closure of adoption (ICA or domestic) based on one’s negative experience is not the right thing to do. Just because it hasn’t worked for one does not mean that other homeless children should not have the same chance. While I share and sympathize with painful adoptive experiences some have had, I know that it is the right thing to continue with adoption, because without it there can be very little hope for children who remain in Korea as orphans.
To advocate the elimination of adoption due to some unfavorable risks that one has experienced in life is like advocating for the passage of a law that forbids children from being born because of the many risks of tragedies and pain the children may suffer in their lives. How tragic it would be if such law was enforced. Conflict and pain is not unique to adoptive families. It is quite normal in any ordinary family. We need to look at the whole adoption issue with a bigger mind and heart, and have a bigger perspective than merely focusing our attention on what has not worked. Life is full of risks, and yet we choose to bring forth lives into this world because we want to have hope and we want to love and to be loved. Adoption is much like this. Despite the risks that it brings, it is still a right thing to do for children to give them an opportunity to grow up as part of a family. This is certainly a much preferred option over institutionalized or foster care.
The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption was drafted with a belief that “what is in the best interest of children” should be the primary principle. The Hague Convention priorities state that efforts should be made for children to stay with their birth families first, and if that option is not available, then domestic adoption is the next best choice. If neither option is available, then ICA is the next best option for the children.
If South Korea signs up to join the Hague Convention, then they are signing up to continue to serve children through ICA, perhaps on a smaller scale. The foster care, group homes, institutionalization of children, in this order, should be the last resort for children.
Advocating for the rights of birthmothers is a noble thing to do, and it is really needed in Korea. I hope more birthmothers will make the courageous decision to raise their own children, but this choice comes with responsibility to stick with their decision and not give up their children later due to hardship. Also, if the anti-adoption groups or individuals focus more of their energies on changing the social ills in society that makes it difficult for birthmothers to raise their children, they will see favorable changes much sooner than they would if by concentrating on speaking against adoption. Birthmothers’ rights and the adoption promotion must go hand-in-hand, not be opposing forces.
Adoption does not guarantee happiness or success. The very best environment does not guarantee success nor does the most unfavorable environment result in failure. But I can say with confidence that adoption provides an opportunity for children to realize their full potential in life that would otherwise be very limited if they remain in the institutionalized care in Korea.
At least for this adoptee, adoption has brought me tremendous opportunities. The best of which is my parents that loved me deeply. They had three children by birth, adopted an Amerasian from Korea, and two years later I was adopted as their fifth child. I was 14 years old when adopted. On Mother’s Day of 2009, I sent a little love letter to my mother, who is now 87. In it I wrote, “…Lastly Mom, your son Steve would like to express one more thought of love for you. If God gave me another chance to start my life all over again, I would choose the same path. I would choose the life of being homeless, go hungry, be cold, and become an orphan all over again and live in an orphanage. Yes, I would endure all those hardships again. Why? The answer is simple. It is so that I could meet you and Dad again…”