The Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees (page 2)
"Many of us were from the same orphanages. Many of us came over the same flights. Many of us were adopted into predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon communities, many rural. Many of us considered ourselves white trapped in Asian bodies. Many of us realized the significance of this event, that this was the first meeting of Korean adult adoptees, that we are the first voice...We wanted to share the same experience, meet people who had shared the same experience, not to have to educate people about our experiences, but to listen..."
- Kurt Streyffeler, adoptee
The Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees was the first of its kind. From September 9-12, 1999, nearly 400 adult Korean adoptees, adopted between the years 1955 and 1985, gathered in Washington, D.C. They represented over thirty states in the United States and several European countries. This first generation of Korean adoptees became part of their adoptive families well before international adoption became the broadly accepted practice it became in the 1990s, and the majority of the participants and their adoptive families did not have the benefit of the many resources currently available. At a time when interest in intercountry adoptions is at a high point, there are questions about how well this group of individuals has fared - questions that can best be answered by the adoptees themselves.
The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, in conjunction with Holt International Children's Services, undertook a survey of the participants in The Gathering to gain greater insight into the experiences of Korean adoptees since they began arriving in the U.S. and Europe in 1955 and to utilize these insights in the planning of The Gathering itself. The three day event further enriched the understanding of Korean adoptees' experiences as they shared all that had happened in their lives, clarified the lessons learned, and lent advice to the field of international adoption.
This report contains an historical overview of the international adoption of Korean children; the results of the survey that was conducted prior to The Gathering; a synopsis of the discussions in which adoptees participated at The Gathering; a synthesis of the observations of the professional facilitators who worked with each of the adoptee discussion groups; and a discussion of the implications for international adoption policy and practice. The experiences and insights of adult Korean adoptees can provide important guidance to the field of international adoption - both in understanding the impact of past practice on adoptees and shaping international adoption practice for the future.
The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute gratefully acknowledges the expertise provided by Dr. Mary Ann Jones and Michael Botsko in the analysis of the survey data.
The Historical Context of International Adoption of Korean Children
The concept of adoption was virtually nonexistent in South Korea prior to the 1950s. Adoption began to be recognized in South Korea in connection with the Korean War, but this process occurred initially with little planning. Ultimately, however, adoption evolved into an important component of South Korean social policy for orphaned and abandoned children over the course of more than forty years [Sarri, et al. 1998].
The adoption of children internationally by U.S. and European families began just after World War II in response to the number of children orphaned as a result of the civil war in Greece and the aftermath of the world war in Germany [Carp 1998]. The second and largest wave of international adoption was of South Korean children as a result of the Korean War. This group of children - representing the first generation of Korean children adopted by U.S. and European families - were of mixed race, having Korean birth mothers and military fathers from different countries. International adoption became an important service for the growing number of children in South Korean institutions who were not accepted in Korean society because of illegitimacy and/or their non-Korean status. Later, the international adoption of Korean children continued because of a range of factors: a growing demand for the adoption of healthy newborns; South Korea's ongoing relationship with charitable organizations that opened orphanages in the country; Korea's unstable economic situation; the limited interest in adopting among couples in Korea; the perception that international Korean adoptions were successful; and internal challenges within South Korea related to establishing domestic child welfare policy in response to the large number of abandoned and orphaned children [Sarri, et al. 1998]. Social attitudes in South Korea also contributed to the continuation of intercountry adoptions: nominal government support for single mothers; the trend toward family size reduction from the 1960s through the one-child policy of 1986; a pervasive stigma regarding adoption; and an ongoing belief that abandoning a child could provide the child with the benefit of an opportunity for a better future [Sarri, et al. 1998].
Korean adoptions began officially in 1954 with a presidential order establishing Children Placement Services (presently Social Welfare Society). It is estimated that more than 98,000 Koreans were adopted by U.S. families between 1955 and 1998 [U.S. Department of State 1999; S. Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare 1999; Holt Korea 1999]. An estimated 141,000 Korean children were adopted worldwide during that time period [Holt Korea 1999; S. Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare 1999]. The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare  reports that 42% of these adoptees were male and 58% female.
In 1955, South Korea began to establish private adoption agencies to process intercountry adoptions, including the Holt Adoption Agency. In 1961, the Orphan Adoption Special Law was enacted to protect orphaned and dependent children adopted by families from abroad [Sarri, et al. 1998]. The law continued to evolve, and by 1966, only licensed agencies could conduct intercountry adoptions. The number of international adoptions continued to grow so that by 1970, more than 9,500 Korean children had been adopted internationally. Ninety percent of these children were mixed-race or orphans [also-known-as, inc. 1999; Holt Korea 1999].
In the 1970s, with the Korean War in the distant past, South Korea began to experience an upsurge of economic growth and industrialization. Societal values and lifestyles changed, with increased rates of divorce and separation and a rise in teenage pregnancy. The stigma associated with out-of-wedlock birth remained. During the 1970s, only half of the children placed for adoption were orphans, with most of the remaining children born out of wedlock [Holt Korea 1999]. Because of societal values emphasizing the importance of bloodline, children were adopted domestically only by extended family or blood relatives [Sarri, et al. 1998]. By 1976, international adoptions of Korean children had reached an all time high of 6,597 children, with approximately 4,000 of these children adopted by families in the U.S. [also-known-as, inc. 1999]. That same year, in response to North Korean criticism of South Korea's new "export," South Korea enacted the Five Year Plan for Adoption and Foster Care (1976-1981) to limit the number of children adopted overseas while encouraging domestic adoptions [Sarri, et al. 1998]. Intercountry adoptions, however, continued at relatively high levels. The challenge remained to encourage more South Korean parents to adopt Korean children who were otherwise being adopted by families in the United States or Europe.
In 1981, as neighboring countries continued to criticize South Korea's level of international adoption, the government altered its approach to intercountry adoption to one of a "good-will ambassador" policy [Sarri 1998]. International adoption agencies were encouraged to hire Korean social workers as part of their staff to help adopted Korean children adjust to their new homes in other countries. With support staff to ensure the welfare of the children, this emigration plan expanded the number of Korean children being adopted internationally to a new high of 8,837 children in 1985 [S. Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare 1999].
During the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea faced increased international criticism about its adoption policies. Major policy changes with regard to helping children and families, however, were well under way by then, including a plan to steadily decrease on an annual basis the number of children adopted internationally. By 1989, the South Korean government enacted a policy to begin the termination of international adoption, with the goal of limiting overseas adoption by 1995 to only mixed-race children and children with disabilities [Sarri 1998]. This goal, however, was not achieved.
In 1996, the South Korean Ministry released "The Special Law on the Adoption Promotion and Procedure," which emphasized its promotion of domestic adoption but which did not address the earlier goal of significantly limiting intercountry adoption [Holt Korea 1999; Sarri 1998]. Still, the number of Korean children adopted internationally since 1986 has continuously decreased, with the total adoptions by U.S. families at fewer than 2000 children annually. Additionally, for the last six years, China and Russia have ranked above South Korea in the number of children adopted internationally from each of those countries. Only recently, with the current economic crisis in Asia, has South Korea allowed the number of children placed internationally for adoption to increase slightly [U.S. Department of State 1999].
The Western concept of "open adoption" with identifying information shared between birth and adoptive families, is still generally unaccepted in South Korea. Children placed internationally for adoption typically have single mothers, either widows or unwed women. The stigma associated with single motherhood remains strong and the majority of the children placed in overseas adoptions have been children of unmarried women (75% of children in 1986) [Holt Korea 1999]. None of the reports released from South Korea suggests that any child available for adoption was part of an intact family at the time the parent agreed to place her child for adoption. The concept of open adoption conflicts with Korean societal and cultural values that would subject women to harsh criticism if their adoption plans were to be revealed. As a consequence, significant challenges to developing and maintaining open communication between Korean birth mothers and adoptive families remain.
The South Korean government has worked diligently to establish connections with Korean children who were adopted internationally. Resources have been made available to Korean adoptees and their adoptive families to assist them in establishing closer ties to Korea. Although the South Korean government is committed to limiting the need to place Korean children with adoptive families abroad, the reality is that intercountry adoption of Korean children will continue at some level, as will international adoptions of children from other Asian, European and Latin American countries. The experiences of these children are likely to be similar to those of Korean adoptees and the lessons that can be learned from Korean adoptees - the largest contingency of international adoptees - can provide critical guidance to the field of international adoption. The experiences of Korean adoptees, as revealed in the survey and discussions at The Gathering - all reported from the perspective of adulthood - provide information which will allow the field to examine international adoption in relation to race, culture, ethnicity, identity, and family; shape services and support for the growing number of children adopted from other countries; and develop stronger preparation and post-adoption programs for their multi-ethnic families.
also-known-as, inc. (1999). Korean Adoptees: Statistics. Available: http://akaworld.org/Koreanstat.html.
Carp, E. W. (1998). Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure of the History of Adoption. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Holt Children's Services. (1999). Status of Adoption (1955-1998). Seoul, South Korea: Holt International.
Holt Korea (1999, August 11). Personal communication with Dr. Byung-Kook Cho, Holt International, South Korea.
National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. (1999). Intercountry Adoption. [On-line]. Available: http://www.calib.com/naic/adptsear...on/research/stats/intercounty.html.
Sarri, R.C., Baik, Y., & Bombyk, M. (1998). Goal Displacement and Dependency in South Korean-United States Intercountry Adoption. Children and Youth Services Review, 20(1/2), 87-114.
South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (1999). Overseas Adoption Status According to Receiving Nations. Seoul, South Korea: South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare.
United States Department of State. (1999). Korea: International Adoption. [On-line]. Available: http://travel.state.gov/adoption_korea.html.
Reprinted with the permission of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. © 2007 Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. All rights reserved.
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