May 11 is Adoption Day in Korea. Since 2006, the Korean government has marked this day as part of its efforts to create a sound culture of adoption and encourage domestic adoptions.
This year, however, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has canceled the annual ceremony, which was slated for today, in consideration of the mournful atmosphere pervading the nation since the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16.
May 11 is also Single Moms’ Day in Korea. The event was launched in 2011 by a group of private adoption-related organizations to challenge the government’s Adoption Day.
On Thursday, these organizations held an international conference on unwed mothers to mark the day. The conference, held at the National Assembly, offered an occasion to think about the government’s adoption policy.
In recent years, the government has made the focus of its adoption policy clearing the nation of the long-standing dishonor of being a major “orphan exporter.” This focus is justifiable in light of Korea’s growing profile in the international community.
A quick way to shake off the national shame is to reduce the number of overseas adoptions by encouraging domestic adoptions. So the government has pushed hard toward that end. The adoption data shows a steady reduction in international adoptions amid a gradual increase in domestic adoptions until 2011.
Yet in 2012, the pattern began to change: Both overseas and domestic adoptions started to drop sharply. International adoptions fell from 916 in 2011 to 755 in 2012, while domestic adoptions dropped from 1,548 to 1,125.
In 2013, the trend accelerated. Overseas adoptions plummeted to 236 while domestic adoptions plunged to 686.
The sharp decline in adoptions ― domestic as well as overseas ― since 2012 has been attributed largely to the revised adoption law that went into effect in August of that year.
The amendment was partly aimed at reining in international adoptions. For each child offered for adoption, the revised law requires that the central and local governments place the utmost priority on finding adoptive parents in Korea first.
The revised law was also aimed at bringing Korea’s outdated adoption system in line with international standards, which was necessary to pave the way for the nation to join The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.
So it strengthened the rights of adopted children, made the adoption procedure more transparent and toughened the qualification requirements for prospective adoptive parents.
For instance, the new law requires a person who wishes to adopt a child to acquire an adoption order from the family court. This requirement is intended to enhance the rights of the children to be adopted, but makes adoptions, domestic as well as international, more difficult and complicated.
When it comes to reining in international adoptions, the data suggests that the government’s efforts have borne fruit. The latest figures suggest that it may not be long before the nation ceases to be an exporter of children.
Yet this does not necessarily mean that the government’s overall adoption policy has been successful. It is worth noting that along with international adoptions, domestic adoptions have also fallen sharply since 2012.
Partly, this could be the result of more birth parents wishing to raise their children themselves. The new law requires that mothers stay with their newborns for at least seven days before placing them up for adoption. Many mothers reportedly decide to scrap their adoption plans during this period.
But some experts assert that the law also encourages some mothers to abandon their children instead of putting them up for adoption. Under the new law, mothers cannot place their newborns up for adoption without first registering their births with the government.
This means the births are left on the mothers’ records. For those who want to keep their records clean for personal reasons, the option is either killing their babies or abandoning them. This explains the recent surge in the number of babies abandoned anonymously.
According to police data, 152 infants were abandoned in the first seven months of 2013 alone, more than the 139 abandoned in all of 2012. In recent years, a large number of infants have been abandoned through the so-called “baby box” in Seoul.
The baby box is a place where mothers can safely abandon their children without disclosing their identities. It has been operated by a pastor in southwestern Seoul since 2009. The pastor asserts that there should be another option for mothers who don’t want to register their children’s births.
The baby box helps mothers abandon their babies, but it goes against the spirit of the Hague Convention. Children abandoned through it cannot be adopted because their births are not registered. So they end up being placed in an orphanage. The convention stresses that growing up in a family is of primary importance for children.
The increase in the number of abandoned children calls into question the validity of the government’s adoption policy. A well-conceived policy should curb international adoptions and at the same time reduce the number of abandoned children.
Surveys show that more than 90 percent of adopted children come from unwed mothers. It is also mostly unwed mothers who abandon their children. This suggests that the key is helping unwed mothers bring up their children themselves.
This is exactly the message that the advocacy groups for single mothers want to get across. They rightly call on the government to shift its policy focus, noting that currently it provides more financial support for adoptive parents than for unwed mothers.
The government needs to get its priorities right. This is not to say that the government’s efforts to reduce overseas adoptions are ill-conceived. Korea needs to curb international adoptions to avoid being branded an orphan exporter.
While promoting domestic adoptions is necessary, however, the government should put a higher priority on supporting unwed mothers. More financial assistance to these women would bring down the number of children put up for adoption or abandoned.
The government faces a list of tasks regarding single mothers. First it needs to increase awareness of safe and responsible sex among teenagers to prevent young girls from becoming unprepared mothers.
It also needs to endeavor to change people’s negative attitude toward unwed mothers. What makes their lives especially challenging in Korea is the prevalent bias against them. If they were not discriminated against in finding employment, they would have far less difficulty raising their children on their own.
By Yu Kun-ha
Yu Kun-ha is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.