By Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Jane Jeong Trenka
The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family opened a central adoption information service center Wednesday to provide post-adoption services to adoptees searching for their birth families. However, there’s one significant problem that the ministry has ignored: adoptee access.
This center is meant to fulfill the requirement of a “central authority” by the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Click on the central authority’s new Web site (www.kcare.or.kr) featuring images of adoptees for whom their birth families are searching and you’ll find it is completely in the Korean language. Can an overseas adoptee whose first language is either English or French read or use this?
Since 1953, South Korea has sent over 160,000 Korean children abroad to 14 Western countries. It is the oldest and largest adoption program in the world, despite South Korea’s economic miracle.
Reunion with birth families is a primary reason for adoptees to return to South Korea. From 1995-2005, the ministry reported that 78,000 adoptees came to South Korea to search for their families. Yet only 2.7 percent were reunited. What accounts for this low success rate?
Mads Them Nielsen, former director of post-adoption services at Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A.L.) from 2001-2003, said, “In a given year I received approximately 240 requests including e-mail inquiries. I have reunited only 10 cases. The main problem was getting information from the agencies.”
The lack of adoptee access includes not only records and translation, but also active adoptee representation.
Although the central authority has prominent representation by adoption agencies, an overseas adoptee who lives in Seoul, who was a potential candidate for the board, was dropped without explanation.
His replacement, Steven Morrison, is an adoptee living in the United States who is head of Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea. He cannot regularly attend meetings or events in Seoul important to the information service center’s decision-making process due to his overseas residence.
At an institutional level, the ministry continues to view adoptees as a whole as children and discriminates against them as “orphans” and “foreigners” who cannot represent their own interests and who should not make decisions about themselves.
However, adoptees continue to struggle to make their voices heard. The ministry’s second hearing on the revision of South Korea’s civil and overseas adoption laws on July 1, sponsored by the Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI), marked the first time in 56 years of international Korean adoption that a critical mass of overseas Korean adoptees were able to directly communicate their own interests in a governmental forum. The KWDI provided professional, simultaneous translation services.
This public hearing was originally intended to be the last one before the ministry sends its suggested revisions to the Adoption Law to the National Assembly.
However, after seeing the number of adoptees and supporters who turned out to voice their opinions, Park Sook-ja, director of the ministry’s family policy bureau, announced that another public hearing might be necessary to further discuss adoptee and single mother concerns.
But the ministry has not released information about a third public hearing. Instead, it has rushed toward opening the service center both online and onsite without consulting overseas adoptees and without any regard for the comments they gave at the last public hearing.
The ministry intends for the center to bring South Korea into compliance with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.
In accordance with the convention, it should hold the records of the adoptees and assist with birth family searches. It should also serve as a watchdog over the agencies. However, the center is incorporated as a private entity, not a governmental agency with sufficient oversight.
The center’s facilities and problems are the same as the old GAIPS (Global Adoption Information and Post Services Center) Adoption Information Center.
In fact, it is located in the old GAIPS office ― they have yet to even change the sign on the door. GAIPS failed to establish a sufficient working relationship with overseas adoptees because it was not willing to provide language access.
Despite appearing to make improvements, the South Korean government continues to deny the adoption community authentic access and services. Fifty-six years and counting of adoption history, overseas adoptees are still waiting.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, professor of English at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, is the author of “Paper Pavilion.” Jane Jeong Trenka is the author of “The Language of Blood, Fugitive Visions,” and co-editor of “Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption.” They are members of Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK), a group advocating for transparency in adoption practices both past and present to improve the lives of Korean families and adoptees.