When I started writing about international adoption in South Korea, I soon realised it was impossible to ignore the challenges that single mothers in the country face. Around 90% of adoptees are the children of single mothers.
Together with Jenny Na, I wrote an article for Groove Korea that focused on the varying factors that combine to create very difficult circumstances for single mothers in Korea. What follows is the article in full.
You can also listen to my interview with GrooveCast host Chance Dorland here.
Mok Kyoung-hwa moved into a home for unwed mothers in Seoul in the final month of her pregnancy. She was 32 and her fiancé had recently broken off their engagement because, as she later found out, he had met another woman.
Her pregnancy was a secret from everyone apart from her mother and the father of her child, who had told her to get an abortion before breaking off their engagement. That made entering the facility an especially difficult and degrading experience. Today, her memory of that time is enough to evoke intense emotions.
“When a woman is pregnant, it’s a very celebratory thing, and people always ask the woman if there’s anything they can do or if there’s anything she needs,” Mok says, her voice shaking. “When they’re in labor, other moms receive bouquets and lots of friends and family members come to congratulate them. But us? No one comes to congratulate us.”
In Korea, a high percentage of unwed mothers give their babies up for adoption, a practice that has now become expected. Mok is one of a growing number of women who are choosing to raise their children on their own while combating social conventions that for years have encouraged women to give their children up for adoption.
“At the very least, people shouldn’t be pointing fingers at us,” Mok says. “And because unwed moms don’t want to hear that kind of blame, they stay quiet. That’s what hurts the most.”
Korea’s international adoption industry
Unwed mothers’ advocates argue that adoption agencies hold unchecked power over vulnerable unwed moms who come to them for help, as many of them have nowhere else to go. These women receive little support from the government, their families or the public, causing an increasing number of expectant mothers to enter government homes and shelters, including those run by adoption agencies. Last year, 34 percent of mothers listed economic hardship as a reason for relinquishing their parental rights.
Choi Hyoung-sook gave her son up for adoption in 2005, but days later decided to reclaim him. When she turned to an unwed mothers’ home run by Holt Children’s Services of Korea for help, however, she was encouraged to give up her parental rights.
“When I went in for counseling, they told me I first had to sign the adoption consent form before they would talk to me, even though I was still thinking about what to do,” says Choi. The practice is illegal, but was one of many routinely used tactics by agencies at the time to encourage relinquishment.
The agency also told her she could meet her child and have correspondence with him when he was older, in contrast to domestic adoption, which is usually carried out in secret. She says she’s since learned that the “talk about reunion was a lie” — a bargaining point used by the agencies to encourage relinquishment.
According to Shannon Heit, the volunteer coordinator for the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association, “Half of the unwed mothers’ facilities in the country are currently run by adoption agencies, which is a clear conflict of interest. Many of the unwed mothers homes run by adoption agencies only accept mothers who are giving up for adoption or mothers who have a higher likelihood of choosing adoption (mothers who are younger with no family or support network).”
In the fallout of the Korean War in the 1950s, 90 percent of all adoptions involved mixed-race children, but by 1970 most adoptees were entirely Korean in ancestry. By 2012, at least 90 percent of adoptees were the children of unwed single mothers.
This shift happened around 1970, and the government responded by directing funds toward private maternity homes, creating a system where a lack of social welfare left few options for unwed mothers outside of adoption. Meanwhile, the prevalence of adoption relieved the government of needing to come up with a more lasting solution. By the 1980s, the agencies had started engaging themselves in profit-making activities and real estate investments, and were running their own delivery clinics, foster homes and temporary institutions, explains Korean Studies scholar Tobias Hübinette. “Since then, a growing number of maternity homes for young, unwed mothers have been the main source for newborn and healthy babies,” he says.
Meanwhile, the cost of international adoption has steadily Increased. It’s estimated that together the four agencies collect an average of $35 million per year, according to Eleana Kim, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester.
“Adoption policy has become a seemingly permanent solution to what was, at the time, considered an emergency situation. What was supposed to be a humanitarian effort to rescue mixed-race children and war orphans became the largest and longest-running adoption program in the world.”
Weighing the options
Mok decided to have her baby in a government-subsidized unwed mothers’ home, but because she had plans to raise the child herself, none of the 33 unwed mother facilities in the country at the time would accept her, and only two of them even returned her call.
Unwed mothers who relinquish their children for adoption are able to stay in these facilities for up to two years, with the option of a six-month extension. Women who choose to raise their children on their own, however, must vacate the facilities after one to two years to make space for new residents. When they leave, they confront a whole new set of problems.
Despite the support pledged in the Single Parent Family Support Act in 2007, financial aid from the government continues to be minimal. The act claims to provide expenses for education and child care, as well as legal and counseling services. At present, however, unwed mothers with children under 12 years old and who earn less than roughly 1.2 mil- lion won a month are provided 70,000 won a month by the government, while parents who adopt receive almost three times as much.
Mok says most mothers don’t meet this requirement because the calculation includes income and possessions such as a car or house, as well as their parents’ wealth, even if they aren’t receiving parental support. Their other option is to put themselves below the poverty line, currently measured at 980,000 won per month. She says most moms try to stay within the gap.
Although fathers are required by law to pay child support, the lax enforcement and complex legal process often means that the financial responsibility is often carried by the mothers alone.
When Choi’s son was born, she made it clear that she would only respect the father’s right to see the child if he fulfilled his responsibilities. “He gave me money for about three years when he was young, about 700,000 won a month, but there were times when he did and times when he didn’t,” she says. He maintains a relationship with the child, and might buy him something if he needs it, but he has since stopped paying child support and Choi has no way to compel him to do so.
In addition to the financial burden, Choi also faces discrimination at work, and knows other unwed mothers who have been fired after giving birth.
The women aren’t the only ones facing discrimination — their children are often targeted as well. Choi, whose story has been widely reported in the Korean media, says her son had to change schools last year because he was being teased by his classmates. “When he was in his first year of elementary school, other children kept asking about rumors they had heard about me being an unwed mom and he became a sort of outcast,” she says. “Other kids were told by their parents not to play with him because he was in an unwed mothers’ home.”
She says unwed moms need to show that they are raising their children well by coming forward in society and defying stigmas. “We chose to raise our children and should not be thought of any differently or in a bad light because of that decision,” she says. “We should be respected as any other person is respected to raise our child in peace.”
Unwed mothers also need support because, she says, they aren’t the only ones who have a role in raising their children. “Society does too.”
The lack of support essentially forces women to give up their children, Mok says. “And if that’s the case, then in the end the children will end up in adoptive homes, foster families or in child welfare facilities. And in any of those three situations, they are getting more support from the government than we are.”
Compared to the 70,000 won per month that unwed mothers receive, she notes that foster families receive a monthly stipend of 500,000 won, child welfare facilities such as orphanages get 1.05 million won per child per month and families adopting domestically receive around 150,000 won per month for each child up to 14. Mok uses the metaphor of a broken cup to illustrate her point, saying, “Instead of investing money after the cup’s already been broken, (the government) should invest it in keeping the child in a healthy environment with its parents. The amount would be less than what they’re currently spending, and isn’t that a better investment?”
According to Mok, the women who are giving up their children for adoption are not doing it because they don’t want to raise their kids. “It’s because they don’t have any other choice — especially if the child’s father will not help support, if the parents will not help support … then they really have no other choice. We need to get rid of this public atmosphere that encourages these women to send their children for adoption.”
Mok says agencies claim that women relinquish their children because they want better lives for themselves. In her experience, that’s not the case. However, she acknowledges there are moments when the difficulty of raising a child alone can wear on a person, and it’s in those moments of insecurity or stress that a woman may feel adoption is the only choice.
“Some of these women could get on their feet financially if they were given the chance and the support, but they’re not able to get that,” Mok says. “If society were to allow that moment (of insecurity) to exist and worked to protect the woman, more women could keep their children. But society takes advantage of that moment and in effect forces the mother to choose adoption.”
Paper orphans and the baby box
Revisions to the Special Adoption Law in 2011 aimed to shift the focus of the country’s adoption system to promote the preservation of original families, in line with international standards. It enforces a mandatory seven-day reconsideration period for expectant mothers in the wake of numerous reports of coercion. One woman’s baby was reportedly taken by an agency worker who had her sign relinquishment papers while she was still under anesthesia after delivery. The law will also ban adoption agencies from providing facilities for unwed mothers by 2015.
Mok says the law provides mothers with an extra legal barrier to help protect their right to parent their own child. The seven-day deliberation period “gives women one more chance to think practically about whether or not they can raise their kids,” she says. “Before, mothers were being asked to sign off on adoption before they even gave birth, so they weren’t truly considering whether they could raise their kids. They were being told that it wasn’t possible to raise their child, and they were just accepting it.”
An audit of Holt Children’s Services of Korea in June found the agency to be in violation of the adoption law in a number of areas, including the deliberation period. Although the agency had followed the law for 567 of 600 children born after the law went into effect in August 2012, 33 children were taken from their birth parents before the seven days had passed. The audit also notes that before the law went into effect, 78.7 percent of children sent for adoption, or 1,022 out of 1,299, had been taken from birth parents within seven days.
The new law also enforces birth registration as a way to prevent abuses in the adoption system. In many countries, it’s illegal to adopt a child unless he or she is an orphan. This is also true in Korea, but adoption agencies have often created “paper orphans” to facilitate adoption, cutting all ties between child and family. Proponents of the law are concerned that a child who is not registered would have no legal protection.
Yet some mothers have been unwilling to register their child’s birth, fearing discrimination. It is estimated that about 3,000 children of unwed mothers go unregistered each year.
The government doesn’t list the status of “unwed mother” on official family records. But as Choi says, “The child’s name is on the mother’s hojuk (birth record) and the child’s hojuk will only have the mother’s name, so anybody who looks at it will know.”
Since the law’s implementation, the installation of a baby box in Seoul — an initiative driven by a Korean pastor to provide a safe place to drop off babies — has seen an increase in the number of abandonments.
Proponents of the baby box say it will allow children to be adopted instead of being left on the street, a claim Choi refutes. “Before there was a baby box, expectant mothers were not leaving their children in the street,” she says. “But now, mothers who would not normally have left their children now think the baby box a safe place to leave their children.”
Child abandonment was actually on the decline before the baby box was installed, but increased after the implementation of the Special Adoption Law revisions after heavy media attention.
Heit says the media’s portrayal of the baby box has given the impression that the children will grow up happy. “Unfortunately, this is the way unwed mothers are being convinced that they should put their babies in the baby box,” she says. “There’s this huge misconception that it’s sort of an unselfish choice for the mother to make in order to give their children a happy life.”
The UN officially opposes the use of baby boxes worldwide because they facilitate abandonment, which is illegal in Korea.
Nonetheless, some mothers are desperate enough to use it. Activist Jane Jeong Trenka says that this is because they have not been informed that there is a process called “partial registration,” which allows births to be registered but remain private. Mok says the alternative is to establish a relief center to give women in emergency situations a place to stay. “The way the current system is set up, there all these conditions you have to meet, and if you don’t meet those conditions, then you’re out of luck. For example, if you already have a child and you are pregnant, there’s literally nowhere you can get support. So there needs to be a place that accepts people in emergency situations, crisis situations, unconditionally.”
Family preservation first
Mok says that in order to change the misperceptions about unwed mothers, society needs to create an atmosphere of support — one that includes greater economic assistance, unbiased counseling and enforcement of child support — instead of one that encourages the separation of mother and child. She feels that familial support is especially important, and that families need to embrace rather than reject a woman in crisis as she had been.
Although Mok’s mother had opposed her pregnancy, she helped her find a place to live after the baby was born and would travel two hours by public transportation and back to watch the baby while Mok was at work. “If it hadn’t been for my mom’s support,” Mok says, “I don’t know how I would have done it.”
When it became physically impossible for her mom to continue, Mok moved back home. That’s when her father found out, and when he did, he tried to kick Mok’s mother out of the house and demanded a divorce. He finally agreed to let Mok’s son stay, but wouldn’t let Mok in the house until after a few months later, after her mom convinced him that it would be the best thing for their daughter.
Mok and her son Ho-seong still live with her parents, and her father has since had a change of heart.
“Now, he treats Ho-seong like he’s the king of the house, and because of that, Ho-seong really thinks it’s true. He’ll say things like, ‘Well, grandfather said that I was the best. Grandfather said I was the king for the day, so I’m king for the day.’”
Mok and other unwed mothers are combating the questionable practices that have contributed to the idea that their children are unwanted by telling their stories and participating in policymaking activities, including the revisions to the Special Adoption Law. The women have also launched advocacy and service organizations, and together these groups have reclaimed Adoption Day (a national awareness day created to promote domestic adoption) as Single Moms’ Day to push the government to support their right to raise their children. In fighting discriminative laws and policies, these activists are also aiming to shift perceptions.
According to Heit, “The first question (people) always ask is, ‘Why didn’t you have an abortion?’ The second is, ‘Why didn’t you send for adoption?’ So it got to the point where moms thought, ‘Why is it that I can’t raise my child alone without it being weird or something mentionable?’”
As Choi puts it, “As a mother, it’s a natural instinct to want to keep and raise your child. Even though it’s difficult, I have no regrets, and my child has given me new life. I would do anything for my son.”