Lies, love and deception: inside the cut-throat world of international adoption

6 December 2022

Over six decades, a million ‘orphans’ were shipped to the West from around the world. Now many are finding their past was a fabrication

Anja Pedersen-Scholl, 47, has always known she was adopted. Her East Asian heritage stood out in Copenhagen where she arrived as a baby. What she didn't know is that she was smuggled out of South Korea on a dead child’s papers shortly after her birth.

Her natural father would spend much of the rest of his life uncertain of her fate.

“While we were looking into your file, we learned that your adoption paper was written quite differently from the true story”, admitted the Korean Social Service (KSS) in a letter sent to Pedersen-Scholl in 2009, shortly after she began investigating her heritage.

“We understand you’d be very confused with this different information and feel sorry about that.”

Confused indeed. Pedersen-Scholl’s birth name was not Lee Eun Kyung, as she had always been told, and nor was she an orphan when adopted.

Her given name at birth was Son Eun Joo but her parents were poor and unmarried, and an uncle took her to the KSS for adoption without her father’s knowledge.

“[My father] didn’t know where I was,” she said, “so every time he approached one of these adoption agencies nobody knew who I was because I was under the assumed identity of the dead girl.”

The orphanage and the false papers were, as she puts it, just a “cover story” to enable the KSS to put her up for adoption internationally.

Pedersen-Scholl’s is not an isolated case. Some 200,000 South Korean babies were adopted by families in the United States and Europe from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, when military rule ended and tougher domestic and international regulation was brought in.

Many suspect they were put up for adoption under false pretences and there is now a concerted campaign in South Korea for all records from the period to be formally made available and released.

Anja's real baby picture

Anja's real baby picture CREDIT: Supplied

“We want the real information because we think we have the right to our own identity”, said Danish lawyer Peter Møller who, like Pedersen-Scholl, was adopted from South Korea in the 1970s and now heads the 300-strong Danish Korean Rights Group.

The group is pushing the Korean government to lift the lid on the KSS and other inter-country adoption agencies in what has been described as a period of mass “child export”.

“I wish that the agencies would be held accountable for what they did,” Pedersen-Scholl said. “A lot of money went into them and a lot of people got really rich from selling kids”.

What happened in South Korea in the post-war period appears to have taken place in many other countries – from Georgia to Sri Lanka, Israel to Guatemala, and beyond.

Digitisation of official records, advances in DNA technology and the networking power of social media are suddenly shining a light on the international adoption trade of the late twentieth century – and some of it is terrifying.

The idea that the business was always run in the “best interests of the child” turns out to have been horribly naive.

In the worst cases, babies were stolen for profit even if demand from adoptive parents was well-intentioned and reasonably regulated at home. Only in 1995 did the Hague Convention, which regulates international adoption, first come into force and, even now, many countries have yet to ratify it.

‘Babies wrongly declared dead’

“If you have ever come across someone who looks like me, I am asking you from the bottom of my heart, please, get in touch”, pleads Mariam Kobelashvili in a recent post on a Georgian Facebook group dedicated to reuniting children stolen at birth.

Mariam was one of two identical twins born in the main maternity hospital in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in December 1990. Although both infants were healthy, Mariam’s mother was told one had died and she left hospital with only one child.

Now, 32 years later, Mariam is searching for her twin sister who she believes was sold on for adoption.

“It is likely that we have shared the fate of many people who don’t know what happened to their family members,” she says.

The Georgian scheme dates back to the 1980s, and seemingly ran to 2005, with thousands of babies thought to have been wrongly declared dead by hospital doctors and nurses before being sold for adoption, both in and outside the country.

Only now, many years later, have parents come to learn about the existence of children they were told had died, with DNA tests being used to prove the biological connections.

Tamuna Museridze, who set up the Facebook group “I Look For” which has helped expose the scandal, says the country’s adoption scheme operated in multiple hospitals.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, boys were typically sold within Georgia itself for 1,500 maneti (an old Georgian currency), while girls sold for 1,000 maneti – the rough equivalent of an average yearly salary. After 1993, the market became global, with rich Western families paying extortionate prices for the stolen infants, says Tamuna.

“Since 1993, 20-30 babies have been taken out of the country each month,” she adds, citing adoption agency sources in Georgia who did not want to be named.

“As far as we know, the last case occurred in 2005. A high price was the reason they started selling babies abroad. Families from foreign countries were paying around $20,000”.

‘Adoptions were a legal void’

The mass movement of children between countries stretches back to the 1800s and “the best interests of the child” have almost always been cited as justification for it, say experts.

The UK, for example, exported an estimated 150,000 children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other British dominions. Children were still being sent up until 1967.

“The motivation underlying [this] child migration policy was mixed”, concluded a UK Parliamentary Select Committee report on the subject in 1998.

“On the one hand, there was a genuine philanthropic desire to rescue children from destitution and neglect in Britain and send them to a better life in the Colonies.

“[But] child migration was also seen to be of economic benefit both to Britain and to the receiving countries …. evidence shows that they were actually used as cheap labour”.

After the Second World War, the tide shifted and children started to be moved east to west with the emergence of US enterprises like Holt International, now one of the world’s biggest international adoption agencies.

Established by evangelists Henry and Bertha Holt in 1955 (who themselves adopted eight Korean War orphans, taking their total number of children to 14), Holt International started bringing children west in order to “save” them.

“Help heal a child’s broken heart,” read one American advert marketed to prospective adoptive parents by the Everett Swanson Evangelistic Association of Chicago. “Sponsor a needy, neglected Korean orphan. Hundreds are deserted, homeless and hungry.”

Peter Selman, editor of Intercountry Adoption: Development, Trends and Perspectives, estimates that between 1950 and 2021, at least 1.1 million children were adopted between countries.

Dozens of “donor” countries including South Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Guatemala and Mexico were involved. The main receiving countries in the 1970s were the USA, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. In the 1980s, France and Italy joined the top five while Denmark and Norway dropped down.

‘UK was a top 20 receiving country’

There is no reliable data on the number of children brought to the UK prior to 1993. However, it is thought to run into many thousands since the Second World War.

Throughout the 1990s, Britain was in the top 20 receiving countries globally, importing 300 children a year on average between 1998 to 2004. It relied less on international adoption than some other countries because government policy promoted adoption via the public care system, rather than overseas.

“In the 1970s, adoptions [into the UK] came from Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and several from Hong Kong,” said Gill Haworth OBE, founder of the International Adoption Centre (IAC).

In the 1990s, China, India, Romania, Guatemala and Thailand were the main donor countries for the UK. Today, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa are among the most common, said Haworth.

There are currently only around 40 international adoptions a year into the UK, with most children adopted by parents of matching heritage, she added.

For countries including Nigeria, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti and Guatemala, the UK has placed “restriction orders” on international adoptions over fears of abuse.

In Cambodia, for example, there is “evidence relating to the procurement of children for intercountry adoption by facilitators, including by coercion and by paying birth mothers to give up their children”, says the government.

In Ethiopia, there are worries about “private orphanages receiving remuneration in relation to child placement decisions and false claims in relation to children available for adoption”.

And in Nigeria, the UK government notes “evidence of organised child trafficking” within the country.

Nigel Cantwell, the founder of Defence for Children International (DCI) and one of the world’s leading authorities on international adoption, said the type of deception now being uncovered in South Korea and Georgia among others was not uncommon in the past.

“In the 70s and particularly the 80s, when intercountry adoptions were growing … there was no overall international legislation … it was a kind of legal void in which many of these adoptions were taking place.”

He added that throughout the period there was “a very clear pro-adoption mindset” in which people thought it was best for the child to leave the country and be raised in the West. Demand boomed with applications “flooding in”.

“In Guatemala, intercountry adoptions were the second biggest export industry”, said Cantwell. “At one point, one per cent of children being born in Guatemala were being adopted abroad and so you can see the scale.

“What is happening now is that older adoptees are finding their voice and organising together. Many of them are doing an absolutely fantastic job in terms of bringing this issue to light”.

Museridze, the founder of the Georgian “I look for” website, agrees. Through her group, she is joining the dots and connecting adoptees with their birth parents across Europe.

After setting up the Facebook page, she expected only a dozen or so people would join. Today, there are more than 200,000 members, she says, many of whom are searching for missing relatives.

“We realised that something was wrong when a boy contacted us and said he was adopted, and knew the names of his biological parent,” she said.

“He asked for help. We found the family. The physical resemblance between him and his brother was obvious, but the parents claimed that their son died in a maternity hospital many years ago. We did a DNA test and it was positive.”

This was one of the first cases, but hundreds more followed.

‘Some countries had baby farms’

Israel and Sri Lanka are some of the latest countries to fall under scrutiny over historic adoption practices.

Thousands of babies of Yemenite descent are believed to have been abducted by Israeli authorities in the 1950s and sold to childless Jewish families, while Sri Lankan officials have been accused of falsifying documents and creating “baby farms” throughout the 1980s to meet European and US demand.

Kyung Sook Jung, whose father reportedly did not consent to her overseas adoption

Kyung Sook Jung, whose father reportedly did not consent to her overseas adoption CREDIT: Supplied

Up to 11,000 children from Sri Lanka are thought to have been sold to European families, with both parties being given false documents. The abducted babies ended up in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the UK.

In many instances, babies were allegedly handed over to their new parents via “acting mothers”, who pretended to be biological mothers.

Asheni, who asked for her name to be changed, was adopted from Sri Lanka to the UK as a baby. “My birth mother married my birth father, but her family were against the marriage – nobody liked him. When she fell pregnant with me, he left her.

“Her brother was very vocal and said you have to find somewhere else to stay, you’re not welcome here. She then went to live in a convent.

“She had me for two to three months, which is quite a long time, you form an attachment. She was breastfeeding me. I can’t imagine your child being taken from you.”

Asheni has grown up happy in the UK with her adoptive parents. But like many, she was interested in tracing her roots and met her birth mother earlier this year. “We met in July. It was very emotional – more so for her”, she said. “She gave up a child. She was quite hurt.”

‘You must find your little sister’

Møller, the leader of the Danish Korean Rights Group, says the drive among adopted children to find out the details of their past is to do with identity.

Like others, he discovered he was not orphaned in South Korea as an infant but given up for adoption because his biological mother was unmarried.

“My old passport said I was born in Seoul, but I was born in Nonsan. Each time information changed, each time a little bit of your identity moves,” he said.

Peter Møller was adopted from South Korea in the 1970s

Peter Møller was adopted from South Korea in the 1970s CREDIT: WOOHAE CHO/The Telegraph

Denmark was one of the biggest destinations for South Korean children in Europe, receiving about 9,000 from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“To Denmark alone, more than 500 children came every year, and if you then look at the United States and other countries then the streets would literally be flooded with the [baby] baskets,” he said.

Children were also sold across the border in Norway. One harrowing case is that of Kyung Sook Jung, whose father reportedly did not consent to her overseas adoption.

“I know he searched after me for years inside of Korea before he died. My older sister told me that on his deathbed he remembered me and said to her ‘you must find your little sister, you must find Kyung Sook and I want you sisters to be together,’” Jung said.

Jung was able to trace her biological family when she visited Korea aged 18, but what she discovered left her with deep grievances about an adoption process that “shipped” her away from her birth family and culture to an unhappy home in Norway.

She landed in Norway in 1970 after her mother died shortly after giving birth. She was a sick baby and her father put her in temporary care as he could not afford the healthcare bills.

Ms Jung’s sisters told her he never gave permission for her to be sent overseas.

“[My father] never knew I was adopted abroad,” she says. “I believe he thought I was inside of Korea the whole time. He went searching for me at the children’s homes close to his area.”

Jung’s parents died before they had the chance to reunite but, in 2017, she visited Korea again to say goodbye. “It was a lonely grave in a forest up on a hill and it was so incredibly moving,” she said.

“I put my little Norwegian flag beside the grave but that was very hard for me because then my story was complete in a way. I finally came back to my parents but not in the way I wanted it to be.”

Jung would like an official apology from South Korea, and government help with travel and living expenses in her original homeland.

“Korea has in a way taken our life from us, a whole life, we are robbed of our true culture, origins, families and so much more.”

Joakim Bern echoes this sentiment. The authorities who facilitated his adoption by a Danish family said that he had been abandoned on the streets of Busan, on the southern coast of Korea, before being delivered to an orphanage.

But this proved to be a lie. His world turned “upside down” when he learnt he had been born in Seoul to a single mother.

“Why was it necessary to make these falsified documents? Why couldn’t the authorities just write that I was born of a single woman who is living alone and unable to take care of me?” he asked. “Living your whole life without knowing your birth family is terrible.”

‘Legal cases and inquiries multiply’

Confronted with growing pressure, countries like South Korea, Georgia and Sri Lanka are beginning to reassess the role they played in facilitating international adoption schemes. In South Korea, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is set to decide within weeks whether to open a far-reaching inquiry into overseas adoptions.

An application filed by the Danish pressure group cites a broad range of grievances including the falsification of official documents.

Georgia is similarly coming to terms with its dark past. In September, the government’s ministry of internal affairs launched an investigation into the nation’s underground adoption scheme.

The probe is being carried out under the first part of Article 143 of the Criminal Code, which refers to the trafficking of minors.

Many of the doctors suspected of being involved have died, but some are still employed in hospitals throughout Georgia – offering hope that they may be able to provide a way forward for the investigation.

But if campaigners are to stand any hope of explaining these and other scandals, international adoption agencies like Holt and KSS will need to be made to open their archives.

Their records – more than any others – detail the mass exchange of children from east to west throughout the late twentieth century.

Kim Sung-ju, a South Korean politician with the opposition Democratic Party, is at the forefront of efforts to pass new legislation requiring adoption agencies to hand over their historical records.

In the case of Korea, he believes ultimate responsibility for the adoptees’ welfare lay with the government and those countries accepting the children.

While it is “too early” to blame the adoption agencies, he said, only a proper investigation can determine if there have been infractions.

“Even if it was one child, this is a national responsibility,” said Kim. “The country should step forward and shed a light on this problem, to apologise.”

Holt International, headquartered in the United States, said Holt Children’s Services in Korea was a separate and independent agency, and that questions on specific adoption cases should be referred to the appropriate agency.

In response to the Korean cases more generally, Holt International said it “fully supports the right of adoptees to have accurate information regarding their adoption.”

It added: “Since our founding in 1956, Holt International has conducted intercountry adoptions in accordance with the regulations and guidelines set forth by the governments of the countries where we serve, and of the United States of America.”

Yet few believe those regulations were adequate for most of the period in question. They were, say experts, a product of their time.

David Ripp, director of the family search team at the Seoul-based Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOA’L), which helps adoptees trace their blood relatives, said it was important to take historical context into account.

“When the adoption agencies say they operated within the context of the law at the time, it’s probably not that far from the truth,” he said.

In the case of falsified information, it was often unclear at which stage of the relinquishment process details were altered, or whether it was the fault of the agencies, families or other authorities, like the police, he added.

“It is easy to focus on [the agencies], but I think we actually see a bigger breakdown.”

Haworth said that while it was right that any wrongdoing was exposed she cautioned that it was difficult to use the “prism of our current rules and guidelines” to look back and judge decisions made in the 1970s. “Values and views were so very different then”, she said.

For Peter Møller and thousands of others in his position, the quest goes on.

“We are not angry, we don’t want revenge,” he says. “We just need the right to know our own true identity.”

The Telegraph contacted Holt Children’s Services in Korea and the Korean Social Service for a response but both declined to comment.