The problems we face while helping adoptees’ search for families
In this file photo, children are taken care of by officials from Holt Children’s Services of Korea in an airplane before meeting their adoptive parents overseas. Courtesy of the National Archives of Korea
By Kim Yu-kyeong
I’m a representative of “Banet,” which began in 2018 as a small group of women volunteering to help overseas adoptees search for their origins. The name derives from “banet jeogori,” a type of clothing worn by newborns in Korea. We chose this name after seeing black and white photos of an airplane filled with children ― all of them wearing banet jeogori and destined for overseas adoption. We did not start with adoption-related expertise or knowledge. We are ordinary Korean women: mothers, office workers and citizens who want to support and advocate for overseas adoptees. Since Banet was born three years ago, we’ve formed connections with many adoptees. The search for birth families of adoptees is a long hard journey, which can start with adoptees trying to find traces of their existence left in institutions when they were classified as “children in need of protection,” and continue until the point in which they were handed over to adoption agencies. In the past, agencies often filled out adoption documents with false or incomplete information, so searching for records written by institutions, such as orphanages and local governments, represents a significant and essential element in uncovering the truth about the identities of adoptees. While tracing records in the filing rooms of orphanages and city hall, there have been instances where we’ve discovered the real names of adoptees and confirmed the identities of their birth mothers. However, in some cases, the orphanage records are lost, and the public authorities in the local government do not even know about the existence of records for such “children in need of protection.” However, Daegu City is noteworthy in that it recently provided these files from the 1970s and 1980s to the National Center for the Rights of the Child (NCRC), and I hope that other cities and local governments will follow suit so that more adoptees may benefit. The revisions of the Special Adoption Act in 2012 brought improvements to the adoption system in Korea. The increased regulation of adoption procedures has reduced the reckless overseas adoption of children in need of protection. Despite such developments, finding the birth families of overseas adoptees remains difficult. One issue is that the registered mail system is used for requesting consent from the biological family for information disclosure. In 2017, registered letters were sent to 681 locations after confirming the birth parents’ addresses, but 50 percent of them (335) did not respond. According to the adoption manual provided by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, adoption agencies and the NCRC attempt to confirm whether the birth parents will disclose information by sending registered mail to the birth family’s current address. When an adoptee requests information on their birth family, three attempts are made to contact the family. While a registered mail system is used to protect the privacy of the birth parents, it is difficult to verify and an ineffective means of notification for such matters. It is disappointing to hear adoption agencies and the NCRC, saying that they are fulfilling their duty to both adoptees and birth parents by mailing such surprising news as “your child is looking for you” 30-40 years after the child left for adoption. We were especially disappointed when we recently witnessed a family reunited by the police. The police visited the house last week and discovered that the birth mother had never known that her daughter was searching for her, despite six attempts by an adoption agency and the NCRC to contact the woman through registered mail, which demonstrates the shortcomings of this method. There was also the case of a birth mother who had cut contact for ten years after her first reunion with her adopted child. She later changed her mind and has resumed the relationship after receiving counseling and discussing the matter over the phone. The biggest dream of many overseas adoptees is to reunite with their birth family. While you may think that such a dream would lead to a happy ending, such as those seen in dramas, which bring tears to the viewers’ eyes, the reality is much different. We have witnessed adoptees find their family members but then encounter difficulty in having a true reunion. There are other instances where the two sides never meet again after the first meeting. The language and cultural barriers between adoptees and birth families hinder communication, and I think this aspect is an issue that warrants the attention and expertise of the public authorities. Furthermore, our society should pay greater attention to adoptees seeking to find their roots and identities regardless of whether they are reunited with their birth families or not. The truth is that it’s difficult for most adoptees to find their birth families due to false or incomplete records. Even if it is not possible to achieve such birth family reunions, I wish to see the Korean government and our society welcoming adoptees warmly when they, or even their children or grandchildren, visit Korea in the future to find their origins. A growing number of adoptees are turning to us and contacting Banet’s Facebook page. I get many emails asking for help. The number of adoptees who depend on us ― a group of ordinary citizens with no public authority or legal organizational status ― continues to increase due to the failures of public institutions and legislation to address adoptees’ needs. In the 21st century, Korea is a democratic society that, at the very least, listens to those seeking help and strives to ensure that their voices are heard. With more than 200,000 overseas adoptees, this figure is by no means a small number of people who may raise their voices, and it would be an injustice to pretend that we didn’t hear these voices just because they’re living overseas and speak a different language. Kim Yu-kyeong is a representative of Banet, a group of Korean women supporting and helping Korean overseas adoptees.