On October 29, 2015, Secretary General Nikolaj Leschly gave the following speech at the National Assembly building during the Forum to Improve Birth Family Search.
I’m here today to share my perspective on birth family search and the Special Adoption Law.
Since 1998, G.O.A.’L has provided many services for the adoptee community that are practical, necessary, and appropriate for an adoptee-led organization. They include assistance with obtaining dual citizenship or the F-4 visa, getting connected with a trained volunteer interpreter for reunions with birth family members, access to Korean language scholarships, one-on-one counseling with trained therapists, and more.
Arguably one of the most important services that G.O.A.’L offers is assisting adoptees with their birth family search. I believe that we at G.O.A.’L are well-suited to assist other adoptees with this process because we know firsthand how deeply personal this journey is and as such are willing to go the extra mile to help the person searching find the answers they are looking for and to support them along the way with compassion and understanding.
For many adoptees, the decision to search does not come lightly. Many adoptees have shared stories of how harmful the decision to search for birth family can be to their relationships with their adoptive family. Sometimes, the adoptive family is not supportive of an adoptee reconnecting with Korea, forcing the adoptee to choose between loyalty to their adoptive family and a desire to better understand their Korean roots. Sometimes despite the adoptive family’s feelings, adoptees choose to seek answers about their past and risk alienating themselves from the only family they have known because the desire to know where they came from is so strong.
Outside of how a birth family search affects the adoptive family, all adoptees have something to lose when it comes to searching for birth family. Until the moment when we actively search for our birth families, we are allowed to entertain fantasies about who our birth family might be. Maybe we’re from royalty. Maybe our parents didn’t mean to put us up for adoption, and it was all a mistake. Maybe we were misplaced and our family has been searching for us for the past twenty or thirty years. These thoughts might have served as a security blanket for us when we were children, surviving in the recesses of our minds as we became adults, because we didn’t face the adopted side of our identity.
When we send that first email to the adoption agency, however, reality looms on the horizon and it can be terrifying. What will I find? Will I be one of the “lucky” ones that gets reunited? Or will I be one of the many who has no information? What if my birth father is a lousy person and wants money after reunion? Despite all of these uncertainties, many adoptees decide that knowing the truth is better than living with questions left unanswered. We understand the risks that adoptees take and do our best to support them along the way.
For some, birth family search is a way to obtain one’s medical history so they can know what they are at-risk of getting as they get older. Does cancer run in my family history? Will I be bald when I’m older? Will I have a difficult pregnancy? Knowing what genes we are passing on to our children is important to many adoptees who are considering starting or who already have families. These questions can only be answered by finding our birth families.
Learning the landscape of agencies, organizations and resources available to adoptees in Korea is challenging for many. Adoptees already have language and cultural barriers to contend with when trying to reconnect with Korea, but the lack of actionable information from the agencies and KAS about what birth family search entails along with what some of the common pitfalls are add to the confusion. Where will I get the most help from? How much does it cost? Who is better at replying to my emails? Will I get more access to information from KAS than from the adoption agency? But beyond the landscape, adoptees have many questions about birth family search because the process isn’t transparent and for many, it has drawn on for countless years.
However despite natural barriers and a general lack of actionable information, many of the problems with birth family search are due to poor communication, inconsistent behavior, and unsatisfactory procedures and policies regarding birth family search within KAS and the agencies. Why does my caseworker tell me that the Special Adoption Law prevents her from searching for my aunt? Why is my agency charging me money for access to my file when other adoptees aren’t being charged? Why did the agency tell me that they didn’t have any information about my birth parents last time, but when I went back again this year, they said they have lots of information? How long should it take to get a response from the telegram? Why is the agency telling me to try again in three years? How does that make a difference? How does the agency know that the person who called is my birth mother or father? Why is there nothing else that can be done to find my family? These are recurring issues that don’t seem to be improving, and could be fixed with proper training of staff, education about what the Special Adoption Law allows, and implementing the changes we are proposing today.
Many adoptees tell us that they have been told nothing else can be done since there isn’t enough information about their birth parents in the file. It’s usually at this point where the caseworker will tell the adoptee that there is nothing else they can do and they should consider contacting G.O.A.’L to get connected with the Korean media.
Last year the media option took a hit when KBS announced in the spring that they were no longer airing the show that adoptees were able to go on to get national coverage with the hopes that their birth family would recognize them. However, G.O.A.’L was still able to help a handful of adoptees find their birth families through our Birth Family Search team’s investigative determination and perseverance. They help the adoptee come up with a plan of action and provide volunteers that accompany the adoptees as they retrace the narratives written in their adoption files. We are able to help adoptees reunite because we believe in following up on every lead and piece of information that exists in an adoptee’s file.
One example of how we follow up on every lead is the case of an adoptee that was part of our First Trip Home program a couple years ago. He had the address of where he was found in his file at the agency, but his caseworker told him that the address was old and didn’t look into it any further. We visited the address with the adoptee hoping to ask the landlord if she remembered anything that maybe wasn’t included in the file that could lead us to finding his birth family. The landlord in this case turned out to be the adoptee’s grandmother!
We had a similar case this year during First Trip Home where an address was in the adoptee’s file, but the caseworker at the agency assumed that it was a dead end. We visited the address with the adoptee and found out that her aunt owned the building!
Much of the success that we have had comes from on-the-ground efforts like going and talking with people in person. We have people go with the adoptee to post flyers near important places in their file. We spend time in their neighborhoods talking with people and try to generate more leads to follow. These may seem like futile tasks, especially in a densely populated city like Seoul, but it doesn’t hurt to try and we have been successful in the past.
On top of that, by going to these lengths with adoptees to visit their hometowns, or the streets where they were found, or the orphanage they stayed in, adoptees gain more than just the words in their file; they can start to have a sense of connection with the land they left long ago. It may not seem like much, but for those who have very little, it can mean the world.
Caseworkers involved in birth family search need to realize this and approach every file with the same investigative mindset and follow up on every lead. It’s important to make sure that the caseworkers are trained well to recognize that these leads might be the key to finding the birth family.
Birth family search is complicated. No two adoption stories are the same because our origins are all different. The reasons for how we came to be put up for adoption are not as black and white as our adoption files make them out to be. The context of the time when we were adopted along with the conditions of a quickly modernizing Korea makes retracing our steps frustratingly difficult.
Additionally, the actors involved are all different with different motivations for doing what they did, and indeed we adoptees are all different based on our upbringings in our adoptive families and environments.
Combine all of that with a system that struggles to balance privacy concerns versus the demand for transparency, and one can see that birth family search is complicated.
This is a big reason why it’s hard to train people in birth family search because every adoptee’s case is different. This is also why it’s incredibly difficult to make standard operating procedures and policies that can ensure each adoptee’s search for their family is done properly.
It is further complicated because adoptees were sent with a copy of their file when they were adopted, but it doesn’t always match the file that is kept by the agencies. In fact, it is common for the files to not match, resulting in the necessity for adoptees to do a file review at the Korean adoption agency before any plan of action can be made. That’s why we always tell adoptees to contact their agency for a file review whenever they contact us to ask about how to search for their birth family.
When adoptees contact their adoption agency in Korea for a file review, the caseworker makes them submit a copy of the Petition for Adoption Information Disclosure among other forms. The petition is confusing because adoptees aren’t always told what the purpose of the form is, and many end up filling out the form with information from their copy of the file, when the actual purpose of the petition is to request more information from the adoption agency! After bringing this up with KAS, I was told that they were aware of the problem, but couldn’t change the form since it had already been approved for use by Ministry of Health and Welfare. This type of response really illustrates how frustrating birth family search can be for adoptees in Korea.
From this point, the direction of the search and what progress is made varies greatly depending on how much information on the birth family is in the file, how much energy is put into the investigation, and assistance from the media, among other factors.
Something we always advise adoptees about is that at the time of initiating the search, they must be very specific about who they want to initiate a search for. There have been many stories of adoptees who have had information withheld from them during the file review simply because they did not explicitly state that they wanted to know about someone. Many adoptees assume that by doing the file review, they will learn about whoever is included in the file, but it’s not always the case.
During my time as Secretary General at G.O.A.’L, KAS employees and adoption agency caseworkers alike have directly informed me that the SAL does not permit them to search for anyone except for the adoptee’s birth parents because the law only mentions birth parents. However, the law does not in any way state that birth family searches are limited to only birth parents, but strangely this is the conclusion that adoption agency and KAS caseworkers have come to. Indeed, the same individuals also think that they aren’t allowed to search for the foster families that took care of the adoptees before they were adopted because they aren’t mentioned in the law. This narrow interpretation of the law has caused much distress for those searching for birth families and much time has been wasted as a result.
An adoptee recently told us of her experience with her adoption agency. Her birth mother had written a letter to the adoptee with the hope of meeting her again, and placed it in her file at her adoption agency. The agency did not contact the adoptee about the letter, and by the time the adoptee contacted the agency ten years later, the letter was given to the adoptee, but it was too late. Both parents had already passed away by that time and now that adoptee will never be able to meet her birth parents.
Time is not on our side when it comes to birth family search. Our birth parents and relatives are getting older by the day and we don’t have the luxury of waiting years and years for broken policies and procedures to reunite adoptees with birth families. There should be a greater sense of urgency by the adoption agencies and KAS when it comes to birth family search to check every lead and make sure their findings are based on verifiable data.
The lack of verification is apparent when we look at the notification procedures that adoption agencies and KAS use when they try to get in touch with the birth family member. I’ve heard many stories from adoptees that went something like this. After a telegram is sent, weeks go by before any follow up is initiated. The caseworker who sent the telegram can see that there was a signature, and believing that the birth parent received the message, concludes that the birth parent understood the telegram, and made an educated decision to not respond, thereby indicating that they don’t want to meet the adoptee, let alone give consent to release their information. The caseworker then tells the adoptee that the birth parent refused to meet and that the adoptee should give up. Without having received any actual response from the birth parent, that a caseworker gives the devastating news to an adoptee that their birth parent has been located, but doesn’t want to meet them, is beyond forgiveness.
The fact is that once that telegram has been sent, the sender has no idea what happens after it has been received or who it was received by. Another recent example comes from an adoptee that was reunited through her agency. Her caseworker sent several telegrams but didn’t receive any responses. It turned out that the nephew of the birth parent was at the residence and had signed for the telegrams, but forgotten to give them to the birth parent. In this case, luckily the birth parent eventually received the telegram from the nephew and contacted the agency, but how many times has the opposite been true and the birth parent never received the telegram?
According to data from Ministry of Health and Welfare, more than 64% of telegrams sent out last year went unanswered. 30% received a positive response of wanting to meet, and less than 6% refused to meet. The data supports our belief that more often than not, birth parents want to meet their children.
Another point worth investigating is, even if someone responds to the telegram, how can the adoption agency or KAS be sure that the person they are speaking to is in fact the intended recipient? From what I’ve been told by caseworkers and adoptees, responses to telegrams are usually by phone. Whether there are procedures in place to verify the person’s identity and ensure that the person calling is in fact the birth parent is unclear, but in order for a refusal by the birth parent to meet or release information to be considered valid, more verifiable methods should be required.
We encourage adoptees to get a DNA test before they are reunited to make sure beyond a doubt that the person who they are reunited with is their birth parent. The same should be true for those who refuse to meet the adoptee. If the person calling says they refuse to meet the adoptee, but isn’t actually the birth parent, the search should continue by the agency or KAS, but it doesn’t.
One of the narratives that we’d like to dispel is that birth parents don’t want to be found. It’s not as simple as that. There is a law in place that doesn’t make it safe for a birth mother to come forward if she has remarried. The new husband could press charges against her for having hidden this truth from him, and she could lose her family. When someone is in that situation, they don’t really have a choice but to remain hidden.
We want to remove as many unnecessary barriers as possible that prevent adoptees and birth families from reuniting because we believe that more parents want reunion than those who don’t. The reasons why we were put up for adoption are various and diverse, and don’t always come from a place where the adoptee is a secret to the family. Sometimes, adoptees got separated from their parents in a busy market, taken to a police station and sent off to an orphanage before the parents could locate them. Sometimes a relative with good or bad intentions took the child while the parent was gone to an orphanage and told the parent when they returned that the child had died. Sometimes, the parent was forced to give up the child by other relatives. Sometimes, the parents intended to only leave the adoptee at the orphanage for a short time until they could get a steady job and when they came back for them, they were already gone. Sometimes, the parent doesn’t know that their child was taken to X or Y adoption agency, and when they receive a telegram from the agency, they don’t connect that it might have anything to do with their child.
We can see even on KAS’s website that nearly 100 birth parents are searching for their children that were adopted and have posted information hoping the adoptee will contact them. To my knowledge KAS is not actively seeking birth parents for this part of the website, so imagine how many more posts there would be if it was more actively promoted in Korea!
With that in mind, we are addressing you all here today to encourage you to be brave enough to try and imagine this process as one where both sides want to find each other. What would the birth family search process look like then and how different would that be from what it is now? We would like to work with the agencies and KAS to make this possible, but keep hearing that the SAL is preventing them from doing more. We’d like to revise the law so they can work without the current limitations of the SAL and focus their efforts and energy on bringing long-lost families together again.