Then Sweden became the largest in adoptions
7 March 2021

Sweden was a driving force in creating the international adoption movement.

The political unity was total - adopting became a matter of course.

This is the story of how Swedish governments have acted to increase adoptions to the country.

Patrik Lundberg


Josefin Sköld


Alexander Mahmoud


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Sliced leeks, large jars of caviar and Vikabröd are set on the table. Margareta and Lars Ingelstam place stackable plastic chairs along the wall.

It is the end of April 1969. The family's newly built villa in Bromma Trädgårdsstad is equipped with folding walls, to be able to accommodate large meetings.

Margareta Ingelstam is a committed foster mother with five daughters, and a well-known face for a relatively newly established phenomenon: international adoptions.

She has just published a handbook on adoption as an alternative to traditional family formation and told about it in Aftonbladet. The article was entitled "One brown, one white, one yellow!" below the picture of three of the daughters.

The phone has been ringing ever since.

Three of Margareta Ingelstam's daughters adorn Aftonbladet's front page. After that, Ingelstam becomes something of a front figure for the adoption movement. In the autumn of 1969, she became the Adoption Center's first chairman.Three of Margareta Ingelstam's daughters adorn Aftonbladet's front page. After that, Ingelstam becomes something of a front figure for the adoption movement. In the autumn of 1969, she became the Adoption Center's first chairman. Photo: Roger Turesson

Now everyone who wants to get involved is welcome to the villa in Bromma. The motto has already been decided: Children are looking for parents, children are looking for - and so on.

- This is a time when everything is possible, the year after 1968. We want to make a difference. There are hundreds of thousands of orphans who need parents. Why should we give birth to all our children ourselves? says Margareta Ingelstam, who is now 83 years old.

She has invited and bought light beer for about twenty guests. There will be 105.

Six months later, on a November evening in the ABF building's largest hall, the non-profit association Adoptionscentrum is formed.

- They are the bluest blue moderates together with the reddest left parties in the new board. We do not think about our different political views. It is a straight track, says Margareta Ingelstam, who will be the association's first chairman.

- We will improve the situation for the orphans and work to ensure that adoption appears as far as possible as an equivalent alternative to giving birth to our own children.

Eighteen years earlier, the midsummer weekend in 1950, the Korean War broke out.

The Tage Erlander government offers humanitarian aid and gives the assignment to the Red Cross, which is setting up a field hospital in the South Korean port city of Busan. In time, some of the Swedish aid workers decide to adopt orphans of war.

Margareta Ingelstam is 20 years old when she travels to the USA for the first time. It's 1957 and she's babysitting her cousin's eldest daughter, a girl adopted from South Korea. They fall in love with each other. Margareta Ingelstam thinks:

- There are as many as she. I actually shudder when I think about it, says Margareta Ingelstam.

She decides to try and talks to her husband, Lars.

- Everyone thinks I'm crazy, except him, she says.

The social agency in Täby says no. Adoption is only for the childless, they announce. Margareta Ingelstam gives birth to three daughters instead.

The thought of adoption does not leave them. They contact the newly established South Korean adoption authority Child Placement Service (CPS) and are approved for adoption.

Ingelstam sees an opportunity to inspire others. She says that she gets the idea to call Sweden's Minister of Communications, Olof Palme, who is on his way to Japan, and ask for help to fly the girl to Sweden.

- We probably only have time to talk for a couple of minutes before he says that "I can do that".

However, the intended adopted daughter becomes ill and Palme has to go home without her, says Margareta Ingelstam.

But through an acquaintance who is a flight attendant, the couple gets their girl home.

A few Swedes contact CPS and apply for adopted children. In the late autumn of 1958, Aftonbladet has a Korean sibling couple on the front page.

The father, a carpenter from Dalarna, says: "It only costs half a car and you save two lives."

A few years later, CPS begins to actively look for adoptive parents. In the autumn of 1964, a South Korean official tells Expressen that Swedish couples can contact CPS directly via the embassy in Stockholm.

In the summer of 1974, the news agency AP reports that South Korean parents are being pressured to leave their children for adoption. According to the AP, the adoptions of childless couples take place in the USA and Europe, "not least Scandinavia".In the summer of 1974, the news agency AP reports that South Korean parents are being pressured to leave their children for adoption. According to the AP, the adoptions of childless couples take place in the USA and Europe, "not least Scandinavia". Photo: Roger Turesson

South Korea thus has more orphaned children than the country considers itself able to take care of. But Swedish opinion is divided.

Göteborgs-Tidningen wonders if it is better to grow up in misery or to have a happy childhood in "our prosperous folk home".

The critical side warns of "racial mixing". The National Board of Health and Welfare's expert in the matter is criticized after the media has condemned "cross between two races" as "undesirable from the point of view of the higher race".

In social democratic Sweden, politics revolves around the nuclear family.

Given the nuclear family ideal, children are a matter of course. This is how you should live your life, says Cecilia Lindgren, assistant professor at Tema barn, Linköping University.

She has researched Swedish adoption history and is the author of the book "International Adoption in Sweden - politics and practice from the sixties to the nineties".

Cecilia Lindgren points to a number of factors that contribute to the growth of the adoption movement: The nuclear family ideal. Internationalization. That national adoption already exists. Consensus that children should grow up in a family, not in an institution.

- There are optimal conditions for international adoption to be large, Lindgren says.

In the Swedish newspapers, the reports about the families are exclusively about the positive sides of adoptions. The "race-critical" voices are silenced.

- There is a very large demand, says Cecilia Lindgren.

The government appoints a state inquiry that is tasked with finding more countries to adopt from.

In the mid-1960s, the National Board of Health and Welfare concludes two world-unique agreements. First with the Greek orphanage Metera. Then with South Korean CPS.

The fact that CPS is a state authority plays a major role in the decision - it guarantees quality.

Shortly afterwards, South Korea chooses to privatize CPS.

We are now here at the ABF House in November 1969. The stated purpose of the association will be "Expanded opportunities for adoption of foreign children."

Within a couple of years, the Adoption Center (AC) will establish contacts in about twenty countries. According to the association's membership magazine, the contacts often consist of Swedes abroad.

Margareta Ingelstam leaves AC's board in the mid - 70s, but continues to be involved and works for a long time with parent education.

In 1974, adoption is so large that the state forms the International Adoption Committee, NIA, which will review the adoptions, but also take over the mediation of children from South Korea and Greece.

An adoption association may handle applications, but the responsibility for the mediation itself lies with the Swedish authority.

In January 1971, DN reports on 50 Korean children who, despite promises, do not arrive in Sweden.

A rumor spread through the North Korean information agency, which has established itself in Stockholm, says: South Korea has nothing to export but people. Due to the rumor, the adoptions have been stopped.

At the time, 800 Korean children had a Swedish family - and the queues for adoption were longer than ever.

The first Palme government is now involving the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Sweden's ambassador to Tokyo will be sent to Seoul to process the South Korean government, according to documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that DN has read. It is Gunnar Heckscher who travels, former party leader for the Conservative Party. Judging by the Foreign Ministry protocols, Heckscher believes that this "is not an issue for the government", but he still puts forward Sweden's wishes.

A couple of weeks after the stop, he announces that South Korea is once again positive about adoptions.

But there is a legal obstacle. A Swedish district court may not club an adoption if it has not been approved in the country of origin.

In 1972, the Riksdag changes the law. Now a Swedish court may revoke all legal ties between the child and the biological parents. It will thus be the Swedish district court that decides whether the adoption is legal. The district courts' documentation in turn consists of documents from orphanages and adoption agencies in dictatorships and weak democracies.

- It is a way to facilitate adoption. The 1972 law will be a legal milestone, says Cecilia Lindgren.

A couple of years later, the government enters the Cold War to continue adopting from South Korea. It begins in 1973, when the government decides that Sweden will recognize North Korea.

The signal goes straight to South Korea, where the matter is extremely sensitive.

Every year, the "Korea issue" is discussed in the UN General Assembly. South Korea is allied with the United States and has a majority for its cause - but the fear that the balance of power will be upset in favor of North Korea and the Soviet Union is palpable.

In the mid-1970s, Sweden entered the Cold War to lift an arrest ban ordered by South Korea. According to several Foreign Ministry documents, which DN has read, Sweden threatens with its vote in the "Korea issue" which is to be debated in the UN General Assembly.In the mid-1970s, Sweden entered the Cold War to lift an adoption ban ordered by South Korea. According to several Foreign Ministry documents, which DN has read, Sweden threatens with its vote on the "Korea issue" which will be debated in the UN General Assembly. Photo: Roger Turesson

South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee's counterattack: He orders another adoption ban. The dictator is afraid that South Korea will appear too poor to take care of its children.

A domestic debate is raging. The news agency AP writes that the adoption agencies are accused of selling children who are not orphans at all. DN's Asia correspondent also reports on a South Korean boy who got lost on his way to his father's factory. He had then been taken care of by the police and adopted to Sweden. The father had spent 15 months looking for his son, before he received this message.

The director of the adoption agency Social Welfare Society (which changed its name from CPS) tells Korean media that the adoption cannot be revoked.

The Swedish authority, NIA, in turn, can not find a boy who fits the description.

But the big headlines get the adoption stopped. At the turn of the year to 1975, almost 3,000 families are in line for adoption. Losing the agreement with South Korea is not an option.

The Palme government once again lets Gunnar Heckscher handle the issue and sends him to Seoul. In several meetings, he addresses the adoption ban, he believes that this may develop a negative Swedish view of South Korea.

According to the Foreign Ministry protocols, which DN has read, he says that the country "may need our friendship and should not provoke us unnecessarily through discriminatory measures".

Heckscher refers to Sweden's vote in the Korea issue, which will be discussed in the UN General Assembly during the autumn.

Shortly before the vote in the UN General Assembly, South Korea lifts the adoption ban.

Never have so many adopted children arrived in Sweden as in 1977: 1,864.

At the same time, there are alarms about irregularities. In Chile, the police accuse AC's representatives in the country of engaging in child trafficking, but the investigations are closed for lack of evidence. DN has sought the representative's lawyer who does not want to comment on this.

Foreign media reveal that children have been abducted for adoption in Colombia and Thailand. This results in a temporary halt to adoption from Thailand, but in Colombia operations continue.

Alarms are also coming in from Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam and Nepal.

However, the stolen boy from South Korea has been tracked down, but he will remain in Sweden. For DN's Asia correspondent, the director of the adoption agency admits that 50-60 children a year, which the agency registers as abandoned, have in fact only got lost.

In a protocol from 1980, which DN has read, the supervisory authority NIA warns Swedish embassies of "pillow adoptions": the adoptive mother enters BB with a pillow under the shirt and goes out with a child, as well as a false birth certificate.

According to the NIA, this occurs in South Korea, Sri Lanka and on the American continents. The authority writes that they have discovered Swedish cases in Brazil, Argentina and Portugal. From Portugal, a man has returned home with an alleged biological child, despite the fact that his wife "evidently always did his job" in his Swedish hometown. It is not clear from the minutes how many cases there are.

At the same time as the alarms about irregularities are pouring in, the state decides to let the adoption associations run the mediation activities, but under state control.

- It is a huge change, because it is fundamental, says Cecilia Lindgren.

She points out an important reason: By allowing more adoption associations to be formed, private adoptions - where couples adopt on their own - will be reduced, as they are arranged beyond the authority's control.

- Private adoptions have always been seen as problematic and the main cause of the problems of unethical and illegal mediation. But instead of tightening the regulation of them, they try to open more controlled roads, Lindgren says.

The change has the desired effect: Several Swedish associations start operations, and the Adoption Center takes over the state's agreement with the South Korean adoption agency.

Fertility rates are falling. Sweden has more involuntarily childless couples than ever before. Adoption is now a common way to start a family.

But there is a time in the child's life that no Swedish authorities can have full insight into: the time between the child being born and it becoming available for adoption.

The Swedish district court decisions are based on documents from foreign agencies and orphanages.

The end of the beginning of the Swedish international adoption history is 1984. Adopting should not be a class issue, according to five Social Democrats who exercise on the issue.

The result: the Riksdag decides to consider the possibility of introducing an adoption grant.

This did not become a reality until 1989, but many families can still afford it - between 1975 and 1986, more than 25,000 children arrived.

Sweden has now adopted the most children in the world, per capita.

Then we did:

DN has read thousands of newspaper articles about international adoption, from the 1950s to the 1980s.

We have read hundreds of public documents such as government investigations, government minutes and letter correspondence, as well as adoption associations' membership magazines.

Read more:

They want to know the truth about their adoptions

The cousins were adopted from two continents - both documents were forged

"My happiness over becoming a mother became her great sorrow"

All parties agree on the adoptions - must be investigated