Child welfare

Australia’s National Apology for forced adoption practices, Korea, and Social Work

What happened?!

For many across the globe, March 21st, 2013, will be remembered as a very important day in child welfare. It was on this day that Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, delivered a National Apology to those impacted by forced adoption practices in Australia, which you can view here:

Australia’s National Apology for forced adoption practices

My first impression:

When I first listened to this speech, I was taken by surprise at how great it was. The speech was well written, very informed, and well-delivered byPM Gillard. She not only made an official apology to members of the adoption triad and others who had been affected (including natural fathers and extended family members) but she also spoke to the systemic and societal environment between the 1950’s and 1970’s which left unmarried mothers feeling as if they had no choice but to give up their children for adoption. Even mothers who intended to keep and raise their child on their own, were often coerced, disempowered, and even bullied into signing the consent form which would free their child for adoption.

According to a report that the Australian government released last year, it was found that many medical personnel, social workers, and adoption agencies used coercion and even administered prescription drugs to unwed mothers as a way of attaining their infants for adoption.  These methods were frequently used in maternity facilities in order to obtain more infants and meet the demand of the adoption industry.

This reminded me of what I had learned through journal articles and class discussions about truth and reconciliation as well as national apologies came to mind. I also wondered if the social workers, agencies, organizations, and hospitals that implemented these methods felt the need to apologize since they were the ultimate system which oppressed and exploited these women. After the weekend had passed and I searched the internet news, I was surprised to find that one of the hospitals did issue an apology.

Melb hospital joins PM in adoption apology

While these apologies do not take away from the disenfranchised grief and marginalization that unwed mothers and others in the adoption triad experienced, recognizing the experiences of “victims”, the unethical malpractice of adoption, and as Gillard put it perfectly, the denial of the “fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support” by “the bullying arrogance of a society that presumed to know what was best” is one way the Australian government can take responsibility.

How is the South Korean government and/or public reacting to Australia’s National Apology for forced adoption?

I was not surprised to learn that the news of this historical moment in Australia did not reach headlines in Korea, especially with everything being centered on the increasing tensions between North and South Korea and the recent cyber attack on South Korea. However, I didn’t think it would be almost invisible since South Korea is noted by many as the “#1 baby exporter” and one of the “founding fathers of adoption practice”. If there were to be another national apology for forced adoption practices, I would immediately expect it to be South Korea next (or possibly China).

While searching for more information about the case of Australia, I was not able to find any kind of coverage from a Korean publisher about this issue. Using the keywords “Australia”, “forced adoption”, “South Korea”, “Korean adoption” on a Google search, I was not able to find any news articles related to the issue. In fact, I could not locate any recognition or news story written about the forced adoption apology in Australia on the three Korean news websites published in English: Korea Times, Korea Herald, and Chosun Ilbo. Since I have a barrier with Korean language, it is possible that I am wrong about it being “missing” from Korean discussion. If this is the case, please let know if and where there is any information about Australia’s National Apology in the Korean news (written in English or Korean) or discussion, please let me know since I’d be interested to hear the opinions and views of Koreans on the recent event.

On the other hand, Australia’s National Apology has had an international impact and seems to have started a movement as other countries are beginning to question their own adoption practice and policies in their own countries: New Zealand, Canada, Scotland, and most recently, Great Britain and Ireland. I found it very interesting, but not surprising, that adoption practices and child welfare programs across the globe are in speculation. I think I can make an educated guess that the use of coercion and force, the lack of economic and government support, and the societal stigma and values surrounding unwed or single mothers is not specific to Australia (i.e. similar experiences and historical context of women, children, and families in the U.S.)

Calls for probe into forced adoptions (Ireland)

Irish Women emerge from shadows of ‘National Shame’ (Ireland)

Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries: I hope my birth mother can now rest in peace (Ireland)

Australia’s scandal of forced adoption is happening here in Britain (Great Britain)

Origins Canada

Origins Scotland

I believe that organizations in Korea such as KUMSN, unwed mothers, and other organization’s or women’s groups should look to Australia as an example of the power that collective social movements can have. I also think it is also important to increase public access to these types of stories and help them to make the connection between what has happened in Australia and what is still a common practice in the maternity homes and hospitals in Korea. Since the majority of the population is not getting the information from the news media and may not be aware there is an issue, it is the responsibility of NGO’s, volunteers, and anyone else who feel strongly about the issue and social justice for unwed mothers and women in Korea, should assume this responsibility.

Forced adoption practice and the role of social workers

In the U.S., many people do not fully understand or are unable to explain what social workers do or who they are because social workers work in a variety of environments and in a variety of roles. However, a common perception of the social worker’s role is the ‘family divider’ or ‘child remover’. This is most likely because of the establishment of Child Protective Services and the role of social workers in America’s child welfare history. As the privacy of the family and home became a public issue and the issue of child maltreatment and domestic violence was revealed, CPS workers (called social workers) removed children from their families and home for their protection. While the focus has shifted to the preservation of families with programs such as kinship care and the increase in parental rights, some still have negative views of social workers.

The exposure of unethical and malpractice in adoption by social workers, medical professionals, religious groups and non-profit or charitable organizations in Australia will most likely perpetuate these views and the perception that social workers are “breaking families apart”. In reality, it IS what social workers did and it IS what happened. While I’d like to believe that most of those involved in practice at that time were well-intentioned and following the practice standards of the time, social workers from that time and afterward should take responsibility. It wouldn’t be the first time that the social work field has evaluated past practice as being poor or malpractice, but it is more important that future social workers learn from past practice and work towards improving the standard of practice. It is also important for social workers to advocate and seek social justice for the populations we serve to prevent systemic marginalization and oppression as exemplified by the recent events in Australia.

More resources:

Australia PM Gillard sorry for ‘shameful’ forced adoptions

Categories: Child welfare, Family issues, Field Experience, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Birth mother syndrome”

Just wanted to update everyone on how things have been going here in Korea and I have much to report! After finally demonstrating that I am a capable student and have an understanding of the situation of unwed mothers and women in Korea, I have been involved in many KUMSN activities and projects. Most recently, I developed a curriculum for KUMSN’s study group with research regarding “birth mother syndrome”, which is not actually a clinical term but encompasses all the long-term effects experienced by the birth mother as a result of relinquishing a child for adoption.

Birthmothers by Merry Bloch Jones

Because of the language challenges and the difficulty of reading research articles (especially for those not used to reading them), I created a comprehensive summary of the literature that I reviewed in English and provided to the study group members ahead of time. Topics include the working definition of “birth mother syndrome” as described by Merry Bloc Jones in her book Birthmothers,

various theories contributing to the issue, the “symptoms”, possible causes, the situation of birth mothers viewed through a human rights perspective, and how the experience of birth mothers relates to the issue and problem that unwed mothers face in Korea. The summary is still about 15 pages long and does not include all the research that I would have liked to include but for the sake of time and interest of the study group, I shortened it.  Two themes that I found to be the most significant because they underlie every aspect of adoption are social constructionism and gender inequality through mostly a feminist perspective.

The study group will begin discussing the subject of “birth mother syndrome” beginning with the theories and symptoms or effects.  The research topic was very interesting to me and I did not have any frustrations or impatience with the readings. I also learned a lot thanks to the work of others and was able to access a lot of material related to PTSD, trauma, and the effects of state/regional and national apologies for forced adoptions that occurred in Australia.

Australia’s National Forced Adoption Apology 3/21/13

There are also national inquiries by Origins International in Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States.

Origins International

I wonder when it will begin to catch on in South Korea because of it’s reputation as the #1 Baby Exporter and one of the leading supplying countries of intercountry adoptions. Actually, the majority of my research on birth mothers and the long term effects of relinquishing a child for adoption was based on the studies and narratives of those in other countries. I suspect that coercion and possibly even the use of prescription drugs in some rural areas is still prevalent in Korea given the strong stigma that still exists for out-of-wedlock pregnancies and domestic adoptions.  Similarly, there still seems to be a great amount of shame, secrecy, and silence among birth mothers in Korea and I am not quite sure where or how this population could be accessed. If there are any studies or research on Korean birth mothers, they must be in Korean because I was not able to locate them in any of the U.S. databases that I am allowed access to.

If anyone has any information or insight about the experiences of Korean birth mothers and the absence of their voice, I would be very interested to learn and understand.

Categories: Child welfare, Family issues, Field Experience, Human Rights issues, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons in self-awareness and self-care

First, I would like to apologize for not posting on a regular basis, especially because many of you are probably curious or concerned about how things have been going. The reason II haven’t posted in awhile is not because I’ve been too busy or because I don’t have anything interesting to share (it is very much the opposite actually). The problem that I am having is that whenever I am writing about my thoughts and views about my field experience with KUMSN, I struggle with trying to be objective and sensitive to the impact it may have on the various people who I know are reading.

As the blog title suggests, I have been having to set aside time for a lot of processing and self-care because my field interest and current placement with KUMSN and the issues faced by Korean women are interconnected with my personal history and experiences as a Korean adoptee. I even completed my undergraduate studies and entered this social work program with the interest area of transracial, intercountry adoption and the long-term goal of working in the field of adoption and child welfare.

When I approached the field department about completing my advanced field placement in South Korea, I had already given a lot of thought and consideration to the possible meaning and impact of being in my birth country and working with issues and people who are related to the practice of Korean intercountry adoption. I felt that I was making a very conscious and informed decision.

But since my arrival and after only a month of living and “working” in Korea, I have developed feelings of anger and resentment towards Korea and Korean society in general. From learning and practicing self-awareness in this program and its importance in the social work field, I was able to notice and identify these feelings and have been trying to recognize why I am having these feelings and their meaning as well as what I need to be mindful of when I am working with others.

After seeking the support and guidance from members of the department as well as family, friends, and other Korean adoptees, I realized that these feelings aren’t a result of culture shock, language barriers, or the loss of independence I am struggling with – but from the knowledge, values, and beliefs that I have developed through both my personal experiences and my journey to become a social worker.

Based only on my own experiences, perspectives, and opinions, it is both frustrating and annoying when Korean nationals expect and then tell me that I should learn the language and culture because I am Korean. Some have tried to explain that it is similar to the expectation that many Americans often have for immigrants in learning American English, which I both agree and disagree with because most developed nations in the world require students to learn English however their practical conversation skills are limited or they lack confidence. Some are refugees or displaced persons from impoverished, oppressed, and violent countries and who, often, are not even accustomed to having their basic needs met such as having clean water or food. However, I realize that in certain circumstances it is not unreasonable to expect foreigners to have a basic knowledge or a willingness to learn the first language of the country they are going to be living in and it is something that I would imagine most people would want to learn just because it is helpful if you plan on living, working, or receiving an education in a different culture with a different language.

Now this is where it has become difficult for me because of my personal connection:

But what I am encountering in Korea is much more complicated and carries a completely different meaning because I am a Korean adopted. White Americans and other non-Koreans living and working in Korea are generally not expected to know or become proficient in the language. While there are some Korean nationals with a strong negative view of foreigners or expats living and working in Korea, they can accept that they are unable to or lack the interest in learning Korean. I think it’s only because I look Korean and am Korean that Korean nationals are much more “unforgiving” about my hesitancy and poor proficiency in my Korean language ability. Even after I explain that I am adopted and grew up in the U.S., they still expect and almost demand that I learn Korean.

While I have experienced this in the U.S. with members of the Korean American community to some extent, I still think that this learning Korean “requirement” is not for me at all. I did take Korean language courses at UB when I was an undergrad and even learned the traditional percussion folk art called “sa-mul-no-ri”, but I think that is as far as I am willing to go. It’s difficult for me to explain but my opinion is that Korean nationals can not and should not expect adoptees to learn the language or embrace Korean cultural norms, values, traditions, and history. At the very least, adoptees should not be made to feel guilty or bad about not knowing these things by Korean nationals when they scold us or make a big deal out of it. This has also been experienced by some of the later generations of Korean Americans.

Why should I have to feel bad because I am not proficient in the language? I was sent away from Korea when I was less than a year old because society degraded women with premarital births and their “illegitimate children”. So instead, I grew up learning American English and American norms and values – not that I agree with or believe these to be any superior which is beside the point.

After I am done being sad, upset, angry, and then oppositional, I try to look at it through the lens of a social worker and what I have come up with is that many Korean nationals are not sure what to do or how to interact with Korean adoptees who return to Korea. I think that they are taken by surprise when an adoptee begins to speak another language and cannot understand or converse in Korean. I think that the historical context in which international Korean adoptions occurred and the international recognition by many scholars, public officials, and adoption professionals of South Korea as being the “birth place” of modern international adoption practice and the #1 baby exporter that contribute to most of the confrontations between returning Korean adoptees and Korean nationals.  It has been publicly stated that many Korean nationals regard this is label as a national shame.

The largest waves of of Korean adoptions occurred during the mid 1980’s with almost 9,000 children adopted internationally each year. Now as adults, Korean adoptees are returning to South Korea (for various reasons) in greater numbers so subsequently Korean nationals are more likely to encounter this forgotten population. I believe that these encounters are difficult and uncomfortable for many Koreans because of the national shame that surrounds adoption which they may have forgotten or ignored despite the fact that the societal conditions for international adoption (attitudes, values, and beliefs) are still prevalent. In an effort to compensate or make themselves feel better, they scold the adoptee for not having knowledge of Korean language, culture, or history which places the guilt and shame onto the adoptee. Keep in mind that this is just my personal belief.

Looking at Korea from the position of a social work student, I have observed and learned about many of the social dynamics and other marginalized populations which has contributed to my feelings of anger and frustration.

visit to the cat cafe in sinchon, seoul

Practicing self-care: Visit to the Cat Cafe in Sinchon, Seoul

People often ask me what I think of Korea as it is my first visit and experience and I struggle to answer them in a way that respects the strong pride and nationalism that many Koreans possess. To be honest though, my first impression of Korea is that it is very deceptive. For those who vacation or visit Korea briefly or those who are informed by mass communication such as the news – you may not see or understand what is really happening. The capital and largest city of Seoul is highly urban and developed. There are sophisticated road systems, a very accessible and extensive public transportation system, and almost any kind of business or service that you can imagine. They even have a Cat Café where you can order coffee and play with different breeds of cats (which I visited the first week I was here because I was so homesick and missed my cats).

To be totally honest, because Korea is not well known for its social issues, I often felt embarrassed when people asked me why I was going to South Korea for my advanced field experience. South Korea has an international reputation of being economically and technologically modern and could be considered a global power. The standard of living is much higher than the countries where social work students frequently study abroad or volunteer. I also had concerns about how others in the program including social work professors and my peers would react to my choice in going to South Korea for an advanced field placement, especially because a fellow student and colleague is doing some very important and meaningful work with a very vulnerable population and an area where there is a much greater need.

But I really wanted to come to Korea to see for myself and experience first-hand what I had heard from others and read about the huge gap between the fast economic growth and standard of living and the severe lag in social progress. Even in the short amount of time that I’ve been living here, I’ve discovered that everything I had previously learned and heard about the general attitude and treatment of unwed mothers by Korean society, is not only true – it is much worse and extensive than I had imagined.

Because I didn’t really have any idea of the situation or the welfare state in South Korea except for what I had researched with regard to international adoption, I did not realize how the social dynamics marginalize many other sub-groups and populations. Inequality and oppression is not specific to unwed mothers alone. For Korean women in general, the gender gap is still very wide. Social trends that I am commonly exposed to in the U.S. such as increased divorce rates and the increase in educational attainment and independence for women are still relatively new concepts in Korea. I will write much more about this later. The nuclear family, with the male “breadwinner” and female “homemaker/child-rearer” as the “traditional” family is still emphasized in part because of the strong emphasis on Confucian values and beliefs. There is little acceptance or support for people with physical and intellectual disabilities and they are kept hidden from society most of the time. Mental health is still taboo and considered an individual’s problem and personal deficit which has contributed to the drastic increase in suicide rates in Korea. As for child welfare, domestic adoptions are still not accepted because of the Confucian value on blood-ties and patriarchy. While the occurrence and efforts to increase domestic adoptions are being made, it is all kept closed and secret from others with a lot of shame and guilt surrounding it. For 2012, South Korea was the 4th largest source of international adoptions despite the claims of the Korean government and adoption agencies to reduce and eventually end Korean adoption back in 1976 and most recently in 2007.

While this experience has been very difficult both personally and as a developing social work professional, I think it is a valuable learning experience and has really forced me to take the time and consciously exercise everything that I’ve learned about self-awareness and self-care in the program. Concepts such as the integration of the personal and professional self, transference and counter-transference, and being mindful have really “hit home” as a result of this field experience and time spent abroad. And although my initial feelings and thoughts were not the most positive (anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, and frustration), I am optimistic that I will be able to leave Korea and walk away with many positive feelings, thoughts, and experiences that I have gained a better understanding and learned a lot more about myself, social work, and my direction after graduation.


Related links:

Gender equality slightly improved last year: gov’t report

Korea ranked last in OECD in employment of female college graduates

Korea 4th-largest source for adoptees in U.S.

Mental health problems major cause of suicide

Human Rights Korea

Categories: Child welfare, Family issues, Field Experience, Korean Culture, Other Social Welfare Issues, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Meeting KUMSN

It has been only three days since I started my field placement with KUMSN and so far I’ve found it to be energizing and exciting, but also difficult and at times frustrating.

The KUMSN office is actually located in an apartment building rather than a formal office building, so it is a very home-like environment. Based on the stigma on unwed mothers and those that openly support them, finding affordable office space may have been difficult for KUMSN. Their sole office is located in a district called Mapo-gu (which is not too far from where I am staying in Seodaemun-gu). There are three full-time office staff including the Executive Director, the Project Public Relations Chief Manager, and my field educator, Han Seo, Seung-hee (family name, given name), who is the Research & Education Chief Manager. The board chairperson, Angela Kang, also has her office here but only comes once or twice a week.

KUMSN cute sticky notes that say  "All the mothers of the world have the right to raise their own children,"

Translation: “All the mothers of the world have the right to raise their own children,”

After getting lost on the bus system and walking in the freezing cold, I finally arrived (an hour late) on my first day. I met with Seung-hee and learned about KUMSN’s current activities. She provided me with brochures in Korean and English, as well as some cute post-it notes with their information on them.

Although KUMSN was founded in 2007, they were registered as an organization in the U.S. Very recently in 2011, KUMSN became a registered organization with the Korean government although they do not receive any government funding or support. Through the foundation that Dr. Boas established in the U.S., KUMSN will have a funding source for its first two years in Korea with the goal of becoming self-supporting by June 2014. Additional funding is obtained through donations (both monetary and in-kind), sponsoring members, and memberships for their budget. However, because of the stigma on unwed mothers, it is difficult to gain the support of businesses and organizations who do not want to be affiliated with KUMSN.

This month, they have been very busy preparing for their U.S. tax audit that they must complete since they receive funding through Dr. Boas’ foundation. At this time, I have been helping by doing miscellaneous office tasks such as copying, filing, organizing, etc. Although these tasks are not directly related to our roles as social workers, I have come to accept that paperwork and organization are important and will always be part of the job, especially in an administrative or management position.

My other responsibilities will include reviewing and proofreading the English website as well as the news and academic articles after they have been translated by KUMSN volunteers from Korean to English. I also search for academic research and news articles (in English) related to unwed mothers, intercountry adoption, birthmothers, and families in Korea and other areas of the world.

It is also a reflection of cultural differences in that Korea has a very different work environment than what I am used to working in the U.S. It is common for the newest person to the company or organization to do these kinds of activities such as copying, getting coffee, and filing. Working beyond the designated work hours is also common and a regular occurrence, but is not reflected in their salary or wages. For example, a friend of mine who is a Korean National, started working for KT Telecom and has been working from 9 am until 11 pm most days although he’s only paid until 6 pm.

I am very excited to work with KUMSN because of my own thoughts and feelings about the issues unwed mothers face in Korea and I do believe that woman have the right to become mothers and to keep and raise their children. It is also important to me because it is this stigma that has really fueled the Korean international adoption industry.

KUMSN's banner on adopted children

As a woman, it is also important to me because of the traditional Korean beliefs and norms that historically and continues to place greater value on men: not only in families which are the private and domestic sector, but also in employment, owning property, politically, economically, educationally, and even in everyday public and social interactions. I hope to go into greater detail with my thoughts and understanding of these aspects throughout the time that I am here, but I think that I have written enough for tonight.


Categories: Child welfare, Field Experience, Korean Culture, Social Work, Women's Issues | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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