[Hankyoreh 21 Cover Story] Holt International’s price for children

24 July 2009

Her siblings hated Leanne. She had small eyes and black hair. Leanne was the only person of Asian descent that lived in her small neighborhood located in the city of Detroit, Michigan. Her three siblings bullied her and her adoptive parents abused her. It was a different story though when Leanne was first received into the arms of her adoptive parents in December of 1966. They voluntarily adopted Leanne. They must have once had sympathy for a baby coming from a poor country.

However, Leanne’s adoptive mother began to treat her coldly. Later the mother attempted a suicide ? she had a weak character and was unable to give Leanne the motherly love that she was supposed to receive. The adoptive father sexually abused Leanne until she was 13 years old. Leanne did not know what he was doing to her when she was little, and did not realize what it was until she grew up, but by that point, she had to remain silent because she did not want to be abandoned again. She found herself surrounded by white people like her adoptive father and she ran away from home when she was 18 years old. She got married before she reached 20 years of age, but got divorced five years later.

Is she unhappy? It is too soon to tell. Leanne Leith, now 44 years old, says that her life was one of “continuous isolation,” but she still has hope in her life--to meet her biological parents. For a year she has been requesting Holt International to let her see her records. Holt International U.S. replied that they do not have any of her records from South Korea, and Holt Children’s Service in South Korea said that they had passed her record to the U.S. After 42 years, Leanne returned to South Korea last February.

The only part of her record she has managed to extract from the adoption agency is a page of paperwork and a photograph of a two year-old baby who has no idea about her future. The photographed is labeled ‘#4708.’ That was the number given to the baby who was abandoned outside Wonju City hall in Gangwon province on March 1966. The photo must have been sent to the adoptive father who sexually abused Leanne and the adoptive mother who suffered from depression. Now the photo is the key to meeting her biological parents. It has been over three months since she arrived in South Korea, but she has not had much success. Her tragedy has not yet reached its conclusion.

Leanne shares the future of thousands of South Korean children that are being abroad for adoption every year. Not all of them will end up living tragic lives; however, there will be sadness and complications throughout their lives. The wrongs of adults are put onto the shoulders of children, and it is the State’s fault.

This cannot be brushed off as a story of the past.

Since the beginning of the 21st century to 2007, 16,790 Korean children have been sent abroad for adoption. The Orphan Adoption Act came into place in 1961 to deal with the situation of war orphans after the Korea war. Half a century later, there are no longer any war orphans in South Korea, but the practice of intercountry adoption nevertheless remains intact.

Last year, 1,250 Korean children were sent abroad for adoption. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs data shows 161,558 Korean children have been sent abroad for adoption between 1958 and 2008. The Welfare Ministry’s records show 108,222 (67 percent) were sent to the U.S., followed by 11,165 to France, 9,297 to Sweden and 8,702 to Denmark.

U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 data shows that of children adopted into the U.S., South Korean children accounted for the largest proportion (24 percent) followed by China and Russia. Since 2000, the number of children sent to the U.S. has declined by a small margin, taking the label ‘World’s greatest baby exporting nation’ off of South Korea. However, South Korea still placed as the 5th sending country after Guatemala, China, Russia and Ethiopia. South Korea still accounts for a significant proportion of adoptees sent to the U.S..

There is more. The Hague Conference on Private Intercountry Law produced the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption in 1993. In the fifteen years since the creation of the Convention, South Korea has yet to ratify it. The Hague Convention requires governments to install a central government agency to oversee adoption in order to prevent unlawful intercountry adoptions. As of February 2009, 78 States are party to the Convention and all have such an agency to manage intercountry adoption.

Number of intercountry adoptees living in the U.S. (2000) from the sending countries of: South Korea, China, Russia, Mexico, India, Guatemala, Colombia, the Philippines. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on hold

Eight countries, including the U.S., Canada and Sweden, receive South Korean children for adoption. These countries have ratified the Hague Convention, and have central government agencies in charge of adoption. In the U.S., the Department of State oversees intercountry adoption, and Sweden has the Swedish Intercountry Adoptions Authority (MIA) in place. South Korea, meanwhile, has no such agency that manages adoption.?

South Korea became party to the 1989 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Child in 2005, but has postponed the enforcement of the three articles of the Convention relating to adoption. The Convention requires all adoption, whether domestic or intercountry, to be authorized only by a State authority. It also states that intercountry adoption is an alternative to domestic adoption, and intercountry adoption should not yield financial gains to those involved. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea has made a recommendation for the South Korea’s government to sign the Hague Convention and to stop postponing its full compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Child; there has been no such change.

In the past century, South Korea managed to clear the remains of Japanese imperial rule and of military dictatorship, however, intercountry adoption remains. In 1988, prior to the Seoul Olympic Games, foreign media such as New York Times criticized South Korea’s ‘orphan exporting.’ The government for the first time mentioned banning intercountry adoption, but no action followed. President Kim Dae-jung officially apologized to Korean adoptees who returned to South Korea as adults in 1998. He recognized that the State was wrong to engage in the practice intercountry adoption, but the apology was little more than a symbolic gesture.

In 2005, Kim Geun-tae, then Minister of Health and Welfare under the Roh administration, promised to put an end to intercountry adoption within 4 or 5 years. That was also just empty rhetoric. The number of intercountry adoptions decreased from 2101 in 2005 to 1250 in 2008, but there is still a long way to go until there are no further intercountry adoptions. Even from an optimistic perspective on the rate of decrease, intercountry adoption may continue for the next 10 years.

There is a reason why the State’s promise is repeatedly nullified. In South Korea, intercountry adoption is not managed by the State, but instead, is left to the market. Holt International’s Website lists the price that a family from the U.S. should expect to pay to adopt a Korean child. It is 17,215 dollars. In this ‘adoption market,’ Korean babies are the most expensive because they are known to be ‘smart’ and therefore popular among foreign adoptive parents-to-be. A Bulgarian baby costs 16,000 dollars, a Chinese baby 11,360 dollars, and a Nepalese baby 12,000 dollars. Registration fees, administration fees and escorts fee are not included. These prices should serve well as an index of how these States are blind to children’s rights.

The money that adoptive parents pay is split between an adoption agency in their country and an adoption agency in South Korea. Holt Children’s Service in South Korea says, “About 6400-9600 dollars out of the over 17,000 dollars paid by adoptive parents come to us.” The rest goes to Holt International U.S.. This money is used to cover the cost of foster care and that of supporting unwed mothers until they give birth.

“Money flowing back and forth proves the existence of adoption business”

The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs carried out a special inspection on Holt Children’s Services and Social Welfare Society in June of last year. The concluding report says, “The excessively high commission that adoption agencies receive from overseas necessitates an appropriate measure to be taken.” The inspection revealed that the Social Welfare Society receives 16,000 dollars from the U.S., 22,000 dollars from Canada, and 12,000 euros from Sweden per adoption; Holt Children’s Service was found to be receiving 11,000 dollars from the U.S. and 17,000 euros from Europe per adoption.

Adoption agencies have their argument ready. Children need parents, and someone should find parents for children without parents. It would be good if domestic adoption would cover all needs, but current levels of social awareness means that a ‘second best’ is necessary. “Money received in the process is used to support unwed mothers or children that require care” said an official with an adoption agency in South Korea. The official added, “We are actually so short of funds that we need to receive government subsidies.”?

However, NGOs that help intercountry adoptees have a different perspective on the situation. Reverend Kim Do-hyun of Koroot, a group that provides support for intercountry adoptees, says, “The money that changes hands in the process of an intercountry adoption itself proves that there is an ‘adoption business.’” He adds, “The State has the duty to provide adequate care for children born in South Korea, and if parents are experiencing hardship, it is also the State’s duty to help them to survive it together with their children.” Kim offers the following criticism, “At the moment, overseas adoption is a convenient escape for the State that leaves the burden to its people, pushing the costs to foreign families and producing the availability of more intercountry adoptees in the future.”

Once it has been decided that a child should be sent abroad, the child’s destination is also determined by an adoption agency. Different agencies have agreements with different countries. Currently Holt Children’s Service works with adoption agencies in the U.S., Denmark, Norway, France and Luxemburg; Eastern Social Welfare Society works with the U.S. and Australia; Social Welfare Society works with the U.S., Sweden, Canada and Italy; and Korea Social Services works solely with the U.S. ?

The reality of Korean children sent to the U.S. in particular reveals a market principle. Although the U.S. State Department authorizes adoption, the private sector has the strongest influence on intercountry adoption in the U.S. out of all States that are party to the Hague Convention. Private adoption agencies authorized by the State, encourage U.S. families to adopt foreign children, and these same adoption agencies receive money from U.S. parents for intercountry adoption. Hence the pricing of foreign children. It is no brainer that having the ‘more expensive’ children adopted would be good for the adoption agencies.

Why, then, do U.S. parents adopt children from South Korea instead of children in the U.S.? Huh Nam-soon, a professor of social welfare at Hallym University, explains, “For U.S. parents to adopt domestically, the legal process could cost them over 10,000 dollars just in lawyer fees, and whereas adopting a foreign child poses the difficult challenge of raising them, it is widely thought that adopting a Korean child is the most cost-effective option.”

Kang Young-sil, the director of Aeranwon, an unwed mothers group home, says, “When adoption agencies in South Korea and the U.S. sign an agreements to set adoption fees, the U.S. government does not intervene, and the Korean government has no legal grounds or manpower to control such processes.” Herein lies the reason why a country that has no war or famine or a desperate need to recover a trade deficit by exporting babies is still sending its children abroad. The inertia of private adoption agencies is very much still in action. There are people whose job and salary depends on the continuation of intercountry adoption.

A photograph taken of ‘#4708’ when she was reborn as Leanne Leith in 1966. Leanne came to South Korea to find the two years of life she had before this photograph was taken.

Intercountry adoptions increased when war orphans decreased in number.

There are four private organizations that handle intercountry adoption in South Korea. Since the creation of the Orphan Adoption Act in 1961, Holt Children’s Services, the Social Welfare Society, Korea Social Services, and Eastern Social Welfare Society received authorization from the government to operate as an intercountry adoption agency between 1966 and 1972. Holt Children’s Services, the largest of them all, has 142 employees devoted to adoption work as of December 2004. Adoption administration is also handled through its 11 regional offices.

Since war orphans have effectively ceased to exist after the 1970’s, intercountry adoption has been directly related to the issue of unwed mothers. The four intercountry adoption agencies in South Korea run unwed mothers’ shelters. Of 25 unwed mothers’ shelters in South Korea, 17 are run by intercountry adoption agencies like Holt.

What is interesting is that the number of children sent abroad from South Korea began to increase rapidly at a time when the number of war orphans began to decrease. The number of intercountry adoptions went from 7275 in the 1960s to 48,247 in the 1970s when adoption agencies began their work, and rose up to 65,321 in the 1980s. Adoption agencies have effectively developed the market for intercountry adoption. Experts say that the increase in intercountry adoption was not due to an increase in the number of unwed mothers, but due to the increase in the number of private adoption agencies that sent children abroad. In other words, adoption agencies actively searched for babies to send abroad.

According to “The 50 Years of Holt Children’s Services” report, “941 cases of intercountry adoption to countries such as the U.S. and France have been planned, and by the third quarter of 2005, 668 cases have been actualized to fulfill 70 percent of the initial plan.” This tells us that adoption agencies set internal target goals for intercountry adoption and assessments for whether they meet them.

In fall 2006, a birth mother by the pseudonym of Choi Mi-eun, age 22, got pregnant. She had run away from home after the divorce of her parents and was yearning for love and care. She easily opened herself up to those she hung out with, and her child was born at an unwed mothers’ shelter run by an intercountry adoption agency. Even before the child was born, the shelter manager suggested giving up custody and brought an example of an adoption agreement. Choi was told that the baby would be better off in the U.S., learning English and growing up in a better environment. Choi happily agreed to adoption. When a family in South Korea volunteered to take the baby for adoption, the adoption agency declined the offer by saying that it had already been decided that the child should be sent to the U.S. The principle [add(in the Hague Convention on the Rights of the Child)] which prioritizes domestic adoption was ignored. About a year after the child’s birth, Choi’s baby was sent to the U.S.

Choi only knows that her baby was sent to the U.S. She knows nothing about the age, occupation, family relations or address of the adoptive parents. Whether the adoptive parents have any medical history or criminal records, or what kind of academic background they have, or whether they have sufficient financial means to support the baby are all unanswered questions for Choi. The adoption agency does not provide any information regarding the identity of adopting parents.

It has been two years since Choi sent the child to the U.S., and she is now regretting her choice. She has married and is now raising a child that allows her to see things differently. “I would have made a different choice had I given it more thought after childbirth,” she said. The adoption agency did not give her enough time to think.

At the shelter where Choi had her baby, 80 unwed mothers gave birth last year and 70 percent opted for intercountry adoption. A manager of the shelter said, “There is practically no demand for boys in South Korea, so most of them are sent abroad.” Half of eighty babies born last year were boys. That means at least half of the babies born at the shelter were sent abroad.

Legal obligations to maintain confidentiality

Intercountry adoptees who have been exported from South Korea are on their own to settle in with their adoptive parents and into a new life. Hyun-deok Kim Skoglund, a psychologist who has been treating intercountry adoptees in Sweden for 30 years, comments that adoptees are likely to suffer from psychological issues, and the most frequent include: depression due to the lasting scar of separation, fear of abandonment, obsession with peoples’ perceptions, difficulties in relationships, and identity crises. And, there have been instances where adoptees have taken their own lives.

Frederick, who was adopted to Sweden in 1974 when he was only six months olds, visited South Korea when he was 19. He stayed in South Korea for 8 months before returning to Sweden where he began to suffer from depression and killed himself in 2001. In June 1993, Ji Yuhn Engel, a Korean adoptee to Switzerland, threw herself into the Rhine leaving a note that said, “I am choosing this path order to be reunited with my birth mother.” A Swedish research report shows that the suicide rate among adoptees is four times higher than that of non-adoptees.

While these instances of psychological issues and suicide are being noted during the intercountry adoptee’s adult life, issues experienced during childhood have also been reported. If an adopted child is abandoned by adoptive parents, the child becomes homeless. In 2006, a Dutch diplomat couple canceled their adoption of a Korean child in Hong Kong, leaving the child with no one to care her. Fortunately because the story hit the media, new adoptive parents were found. However, it is not possible to know exactly how many children are abandoned by their adoptive parents. Adding nonreported cases of abusive family situations, like that of Leanne Leith, the number of children who have a ‘normal’ childhood with their intercountry adoptive families is bound to be even smaller.

The reason intercountry adoptees are so desperately looking for their roots is not unrelated. For them, it is a life’s mission to overcome the scar of separation. In South Korea, even this is not so easy. The records of intercountry adoptees are in the hands of adoption agencies. Many adoptees visit South Korea to find their birth parents, but not many succeed either because an adoption agency refuses to release their records or because the records are inaccurate. A Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs report shows between 1995 and 2005 76,646 adoptees returned to South Korea to find their birth parents and only 2,113 (2.7 percent) succeeded.

Some had no records at all, and some had their request for record rejected. Currently the adoption law stipulates that current and past employees of adoption agencies are obligated to maintaining confidentiality. Reverend Kim of KoRoot says, “The excessively inclusive area of confidentiality makes it difficult not just to obtain the records of adoptees, but also to investigate any corruption within adoption agencies.” Dr. Tobias Hubinette, an adoptee to Sweden, argues in his research that “Ever since North Korea criticized South Korea for exporting orphans in the early 1970s, South Korea has turned adoption practice into something of a national secret.”

Essentially, adoption work in the hands of a private adoption agency is the cause of all of this trouble. The story of a grown-up adoptee finding birth parents with the approval of courts or a government authority is only possible in countries that have signed the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention states that the right of an adopted child to know about their birth parents should be protected even when it contradicts the rights of the birth parents or those of adoptive parents.

More Leanne Leith-like cases

Last year, seven adoptees including Jeong Kyung-ah, the author of the autobiographical novel “The Language of Blood,” filed a formal complaint with the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission against the four adoption agencies that have failed to keep adequate records of adoption and refused to release records despite legal requests. Jeung says, “The information on my original registration information, orphan registration and records of my adoption to the U.S. in 1972 differ from each other, and the documents in Korean do not match with those in English.” The complaint cited inconsistencies in the release adoptees’ records, and instances where the adoption process was handled without the approval of the birth mother, and where a child was recorded as a missing child even though the agency had been aware of the parents’ whereabouts. The Commission replied by saying, “The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs will reinforce the supervision and management of adoption agencies, and will moreover, be moving to improve relevant legislation so as to prevent further failings in the future.” However, at the time of this article’s printing, no such improvement have been made.

For the last half a century, South Korea sent nearly 200 thousand children abroad. Even if intercountry adoptions are stopped now, there will be a second and a third Leanne Leith who returns to South Korea asking the same questions. The reality is that there still are children leaving South Korea with labeled photographs.

Treaties to protect the rights of intercountry adoptees and an emphasis on the role of the central government agency.

There are two intercountry treaties that offer protection for the rights of intercountry adoptees; the 1989 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1993 Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The Hague Convention so far has 78 member States. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the most universal human rights treaty; Somalia and the U.S. are the only two UN member States that have not ratified the Convention.

The Hague Convention says, “A State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.” It also says, “Intercountry adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of origin.” It also specifies that member States must cooperate “to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children.”

The main emphasis of the Hague Convention lies on the role of central authority that handles intercountry adoption. According to the Hague Convention, adoption is to be managed by the central authority in the State of origin of the children. The Central authority should prevent any improper financial gains arising from adoption and prepare a report about the child’s identity, eligibility and suitability for adoption, background, family and medical history. The judgment that intercountry adoption is in the best interests of the child should be made by that central authority, and it is up to the State to provide sufficient counseling to families and adopted children. Also, the central authority should collect and store information about children and adoptive parents, as well as supervise the operations and financing of authorized adoption agencies.

Articles on adoption are also included in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. South Korea, however, when signing the UN Convention, considered itself not to be bound by the provisions of paragraph (a) of Article 21 and sub-paragraph (b) (v) of paragraph 2 of Article 40. Paragraph (a) of Article 21 says, “State Parties shall ensure that the adoption of a child is authorized only by competent authorities who determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures and on the basis of all pertinent and reliable information, that the adoption is permissible in view of the child‘s status concerning parents, relatives and legal guardians and that, if required, the persons concerned have given their informed consent to the adoption on the basis of such counseling as may be necessary.” Paragraph 3 of Article 9 says, “State Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests. Paragraph 4 says, “Where such separation results from any action initiated by a State Party, such as the detention, imprisonment, exile, deportation or death (including death arising from any cause while the person is in the custody of the State) of one or both parents or of the child, that State Party shall, upon request, provide the parents, the child or, if appropriate, another member of the family with the essential information concerning the whereabouts of the absent member(s) of the family unless the provision of the information would be detrimental to the well-being of the child. States Parties shall further ensure that the submission of such a request shall of itself entail no adverse consequences for the person(s) concerned.”

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern about South Korea’s approach to adoption and the practice of cancelling adoption in 1996 and in 2003, recommended ratification of the Hague Convention. In May 2005, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea also recommend the withdrawal of reservations on some articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and ratification of the Hague Convention.