All records must be unsealed for Korean adoptees who want it, argue experts : National : News : The Hankyoreh

18 May 2023

FORGED ADOPTIONS 6: Personal notes or memos that could serve as important clues to tracking down birth parents have often been withheld from adoptees under the current scheme

The oldest international adoptee to share their story with the Hankyoreh was Margaret Conlon, adopted in 1965, while the youngest was Mia Lee Sorensen, adopted in 1988. Regardless of the period in which they were adopted, the majority of adoptees are unable to trust the personal information and records about them held by adoption agencies, and they expressed frustration over the difficulty of even accessing this information.

The National Center for the Rights of the Child (formerly Korea Adoption Services) was established under the Ministry of Health and Welfare in line with an amendment to the Act on Special Cases Concerning Adoption in 2012 for the purpose of post-adoption follow-up services. The transfer and release of information on adoptees became a hot topic at this time, but adoption agencies including the national center still only entered 51 basic items of factual information including the names and addresses of adoptees and their birth parents. Other information such as consultation records and personal notes or memos that could serve as important clues to tracking down birth parents were not released.

Adoption experts believe adoption agencies should apologize for the common practice of illegally forging documents in the past and release the original copies of all documents, including consultation records, with no filters.

“To adoptees, even a small note that pertains to their roots is very precious,” said Noh Hye-ryeon, a professor of social welfare at Soongsil University who formerly worked in the overseas division of Holt Children’s Services and an adoption agency in San Jose, California. “They even say the documents are imbued with the life of the mother who gave them up, and want a chance to personally hold them in their hands.”

The 20 adoptees the Hankyoreh spoke also wanted to know the truth about the multitude of illegal acts that took place during the adoption process, including the kidnapping, death and identity switching their fellow adoptees have testified about. Danish Korean Rights Group (DKRG) co-founder Han Boon-young stated she hopes to see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission agree to the following requests.

1. Hold Korean adoption agencies accountable for child abductions.

2. Reveal the role that adoption agencies played in the expulsion of Korean children.

3. Release information on the number of children who died in the care of adoption agencies.

4. Acknowledge that forged documents were used during the adoption process.

5. Investigate incidents of child sexual abuse carried out at the hands of adoption agencies and the practice of excluding sexual minorities from adopting children.

6. Put an end to the trafficking and human rights violations of Korean children.

In Korea, the four major adoption agencies — Holt Children’s Services, Korea Social Services, Korea Welfare Services, and Eastern Social Welfare Society — have traditionally been in charge of everything from international adoption consulting to sponsorship and follow-up services.

The government has long been criticized for failing to provide proper management and oversight of these organizations. International adoption agencies are the only type of social welfare facility that must receive a license. The adoptees affiliated with DKRG were all adopted through Holt Children’s Services and Korea Social Services.

Regarding DKRG’s claims, Holt Children’s Services stated they were “not all based on facts,” and that it would “engage in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation in good faith.”

Korea Social Services responded, “It is difficult to give an answer on this matter.”

The Netherlands and France recently completed a fact-finding investigation into Korean adoption agencies. Investigations are also ongoing in Denmark and Sweden, while Norway is believed to be in the preparatory stage.

According to Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics and a white paper on international adoptees by the Overseas Koreans Foundation, a total of 169,360 Korean children were adopted internationally between 1953 and 2022. When unofficial statistics on the adoption of mixed-race children directly after the Korean War are included, the figure is estimated to be 200,000.

Adoptions peaked at 9,287 in 1985. The number of international adoptees fell to below 3,000 per year in the 1990s, but adoption patterns did not change throughout the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments.

Following the 2012 amendment to the Act on Special Cases Concerning Adoption, forging documents became more difficult due to the requirement of registering births and obtaining permission from the family court. The system was also improved to require agencies to spend five months searching for a domestic adopter before looking internationally. The most recent statistics show that 142 Korean children were adopted internationally in 2022.

“Considering Korea’s high level of economic development, low fertility rate and demand for domestic adoptions, I don’t see any reason to continue with international adoptions,”  Noh said.

By Koh Kyoung-tae, senior staff writer