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In South Korea, quest to recast views of single motherhood

A group of adoptees, who say they were given up because their mothers couldn’t raise them, are spearheading efforts to make single motherhood less of a social taboo and financial constraint.

SEOUL, South Korea – In 2008, Shannon Heit appeared on K-Pop Star, the South Korean equivalent of American Idol, with an unusual goal in mind. She wasn’t seeking fame as a performer, but was instead trying to locate the mother she believed had put her up for adoption more than twenty years earlier.

The TV exposure and Ms. Heit’s knack for singing resulted in a reunion with her mother. But that’s when she learned that the story that underpinned her adoption at age four to a family who raised her in the United States had been a lie.

Rather than being abandoned by her mother as the adoption agency told her, she and her sister were given up by their grandmother when their mother was working away from home. 

Heit is part of a vocal group of Korean adoptees arguing that the primary reason Korean children are given up for adoption is a society that stigmatizes unmarried mothers. They are working to shift that cultural outlook, and are also speaking out against Korean adoption agencies, which they say are focused on growing profits to the detriment of child protection. The recent death of a Korean adoptee in the United States has added zeal to their cause.

On March 13, an adoptive father in Maryland was indicted on charges of murder and child abuse related to the Feb. 3 death of Hyunsu, a three-year-old boy who was adopted from South Korea by the former Marine and his wife last year.

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“Single mothers are often told that it’s selfish of them to want to keep their children, that the kids will be better off with another family,” says Heit, who now works with civic groups to assist unwed mothers and provides counseling to adopted children. “For me coming back here [to South Korea] and helping them raise their kids on their own, I feel like I’m signaling as someone who was adopted that it’s ok to be a single mother.”

Ninety percent unwed mothers  

Ninety percent of South Korean children adopted internationally are born to unwed mothers, for whom it is taboo and financially difficult to raise children. Domestic adoption is uncommon in South Korea, as Confucian values make many families reluctant to raise a child from outside their bloodline.

Overseas adoptions from South Korea developed in the immediate aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War, which caused widespread devastation and left large numbers of children orphaned or with desperately poor parents who were unable to care for them. Though South Korea underwent rapid economic development in the following decades, hundreds of children are still adopted internationally each year.

Advocates for international adoption argue that overseas families can provide loving homes to children who would otherwise grow up in orphanages, and that though there are tragic cases like Hyunsu’s, they make up a tiny portion of all overseas adoptions. Out of a total 110,000 total Korean children adopted by American families, 13 Korean adoptees are known to have been killed by their adoptive parents in the US, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Holt International, the agency that placed Hyunsu in the US and accepted Heit and her sister – and that Heit says concocted a false story about where they’d come from – declined to comment on the specifics of Heit’s case when reached by phone. Holt has issued a statement expressing condolences for Hyunsu’s death.

Changing social stigmas  

Kim Hyo-jin, a researcher specializing in adoption at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, a think tank affiliated with the Prime Minister’s Office in Seoul, says that the prejudice against unwed mothers comes from South Korea’s patriarchal culture. “Korean people generally regard unwed mothers in a very negative way. This is for cultural reasons, the belief that households should be led by a man,” says Ms. Kim.

In an effort to help South Koreans become more tolerant of women who raise their children out of wedlock, civic groups, including the organization with which Heit volunteers, have held an annual holiday for single mothers since 2011. Each May, the same month that South Koreans celebrate designated days for children and parents, unwed mothers, along with their children and supporters, hold a conference and outdoor demonstrations in an effort to spread images of healthy families led by single mothers. 

Overseas adoptions from South Korea have been in gradual decline for years from a peak of 8,680 in 1986 to only around 300 last year. The lower numbers are largely attributable to legal amendments, most notably the Special Adoption Law, which took effect in August 2012. The law made it mandatory for mothers to remain with their babies for a minimum of one week before putting them up for adoption, and enforced a regulation requiring all babies’ births to be registered with the government before they can be adopted. 

Heit and other adoptee advocates were supportive of the law, arguing that under the previous system it was too easy for children to be given up anonymously to adoption agencies.

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Government stipends  

Advocates for unwed mothers have pointed to a lack of government support as a problem. Unwed mothers are eligible for a small government stipend of 70,000 South Korean won (about $65) per month, while families with adopted children receive more than twice that amount (150,000 won). 

Heit is now married and settled in the country of her birth, where she works as an editor and translator. She maintains contact with her adoptive parents in the US but says, “my case shows how traumatic adoption can be, even when the adoptive parents are loving and have the best intentions.

“I still always wonder, if only someone had helped my mother, would things have been different? Could she have raised me on her own?”