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Hurdles remain for Korean adoption

June 26, 2011 - 20:28 By 천성우
Red tape means many de-facto adoptions not included in official figures

For 46-year-old housewife Yoo Hyun-mi, mornings are a nightmare. Her three daughters, Cha Hye-in, Cha Hye-seon and Cha Hye-ju quarrel over clothes, hairstyles and other trivial matters before going to elementary school.

Yoo always has to mediate to make them go to school on time.

“Sometimes I don’t have time to breathe,” Yoo said.

She never loses her smile, though, because she knows the morning fuss is actually a blessing: The three daughters are her adopted children. Yoo, who also has a 26-year-old son at college, said she “gave birth to them through the heart.”

Her first experience was with Hye-ju, the youngest, now 7. It was a battle bringing up a 22-month-old and she admitted that life was full of hardships as she struggled to bond with the new child. However, she went on to adopt Hye-in, the oldest of the three, followed by Hye-seon a little afterwards.

Her toils have paid off, and she said her family life has changed.

Her husband, a public official, strives to squeeze in time for his children, and her son takes care of his young sisters all the time. “The boy says few words. But he enjoys chit-chat with his sisters and often surprise them with presents,” Yoo said with a smile.

Yoo’s three daughters are just a few of Korea’s orphaned children who have managed to find a new family of their own. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, about 1,760 children here are waiting for new parents to take care of them, but only around 1,400 manage to find a new home. 

Now that the government has reduced the quota for overseas adoptions to 1,013 to shed Korea’s image as one of the largest “orphan exporters,” the number of children that need to be adopted in-country is estimated to have taken off at a dramatic pace.

Insiders claim that the actual number of children abandoned and in need of families is actually much higher since some legal restraints keep a substantial number of children from being legally adopted.

“Some children are barred from adoption because their parents, who are alive, haven’t signed the paper giving up their parental rights when they abandoned them,” said an official of the ministry. These children stay at facilities such as orphanages, but still need a family.

Jeon Mi-song, who runs a daycare center in southern Seoul, also fosters two girls, Kim Da-eun (a pseudonym), 13, and Lee Ha-na (also a pseudonym), 11. The parents of the two girls left them at her daycare center when they were little and haven’t been back. Jeon has brought them up for 10 years.

However, she hasn’t adopted the two due to legal restraints. “Of course I would like to adopt them. But there was no way we could get in touch with their parents,” she said. She still claims the two as her own daughters. “I cannot imagine my life without them,” she said.

Regardless of their legal status, experts stress children’s need for family communion.

“According to studies, those brought up out of the conventional family structure could have problems in marriage and in leading ordinary lives,” said Park Han-ah, counselor at the National Foster Care Center.

Currently, the government offers subsidies, two-week leave and advantages in personnel matters to public officials who adopt children. Some large corporations have also given perks to employees with adopted children, but this has done little to boost adoption rates, observers say.

However, many people cite a social atmosphere unfriendly to adoption as one of the hurdles to boosting domestic adoption.

One way, they say, is to encourage open-mindedness about adoption, and to be up front about the fact that the children are adopted early on.

Yoon has taken this approach with her three daughters. She has let her children know that they are adopted, but that has not changed their relationship a bit. “I understand why so many parents want to keep it to themselves, out of concern about their children falling victim to prejudices against adopted kids. Still, being frank and open would help improve social atmosphere for adoption, I believe,” she said.

Government officials agree. “We are well aware of that open-mindedness could encourage adoption and are working on measures to foster favorable conditions to adoption,” Lee Ki-il of the welfare ministry said.

By Bae Ji-sook (