Although in a state of flux, international adoption from South Korea is still moving forward. Here, Holt’s Korea team explains the current state of adoption from Korea — and why the program is still a strong option for many prospective families.
For over 56 years, South Korea has partnered with agencies in the U.S. to find loving, stable homes for orphaned and abandoned children. The partnership began in 1955, in the wake of the Korean War, when Harry and Bertha Holt urged Congress to pass a special act allowing them to adopt eight Korean orphans. In the decades that followed, more than 160,000 Korean-born children joined families through international adoption.
The Korea program has long been one of Holt’s strongest and most reliable adoption programs. Although rumors of end times in Korean adoption have ebbed and flowed over the years, children from Korea have continued to find homes overseas at a steady, uninterrupted pace. But some recent significant changes in adoption from Korea have caused growing concern among prospective adoptive families, as well as many families currently in the process of adopting from Korea.
We would like to bring some clarity to these changes – both to address legitimate concerns and dispel some of the misperceptions surrounding them.
In the mid-1970s, Korea stated its intent to end the practice of international adoption, and has since then systematically worked toward that goal. But despite efforts to promote alternatives, there still exists a strong and urgent need for international adoption from Korea. Today, the Korean government continues to refer many children for placement, and Holt continues to find families for them. And so long as the need remains, Holt does not foresee the government of Korea halting the process.
What has changed are some of the rules governing the practice of adoption, as well as the profile of child in need of international adoption from Korea.
A Changing Profile
Korea has long advocated for domestic adoption within Korea, and actively taken steps to promote it. Giving children the opportunity to grow up in their birth country and culture is central to an ethical system of adoption, and we have also long supported Korea’s efforts. But unfortunately, domestic adoption is not keeping pace with the number of children relinquished into care every year. The children who do find homes in Korea are often younger children with no known health conditions. In Korea, girls are also preferred to boys. As a result, the children left in care frequently have medical or developmental conditions, are often older, and are mostly male.
Through international adoption, many of these children are able to find the loving families they deserve. The vast majority of children Holt now places with families have at least some normal neonatal conditions, and most of them are boys.
In recent years, however, the pace at which children are placed has grown progressively slower.
At the heart of the slowdown is a quota system Korea imposed in 1994. Designed with the goal of eventually phasing out all international adoptions from Korea, the government began limiting the number of children allowed to leave the country each year to join families overseas. The quota applies to Emigration Permits (EPs), the documents that officially give permission for children to leave Korea with their adoptive family. Each agency has a set quota of EPs, which decreases every year. But every year, agencies also continue to receive new referrals of children to match with families. This has, in effect, created a backlog in families matched but waiting for permission to travel – and a gradual lengthening in the process to adopt from Korea.
The average timeframe from home study approval to travel now stands at approximately 15-17 months.
As a result of the slowdown, children are now also older both at the time of referral and at the time of travel. The majority of children are now18-24 months when they join their families.
The Special Law on Adoption
Last June, Korea instituted more changes to the adoption process to take effect in 2012. On June 29, 2011, the Korean National Assembly passed a Special Law on Adoption with multiple goals in mind – including promoting domestic adoption, providing better oversight of the process and encouraging unwed mothers to parent their children. (In Korean society, the recurring stigma against unwed mothers is still the primary reason why women relinquish their children for adoption.)
While this new law has multiple components and implications for the adoption process, none of the proposed changes have yet been finalized. We hope to have more confirmation on the changes – and what they mean for families – later this Spring.
Throughout the years, Korea has always set a target date to end international adoption – and periodically revised it based on the continuing needs of children. With this new law, the Korean National Assembly decided not to set a deadline for ending international adoption – a very positive sign.
International adoption from our flagship country of Korea is evolving – in many ways for the better. As the new law is implemented and we learn how it will impact the adoption process, this will be a year of transition for the Korea program. Due to the extended timeframes and changes with the new law, we have also lowered the maximum age of eligibility to adopt from Korea. Families must be no older than 41 at the time of application and no older than 42 at the time the home study is approved and sent to Korea. As we begin to see timeframes decrease and we learn about the new court process, we will again adjust the maximum age.
The Korea Program – Still Strong, Still Moving
Despite these changes and setbacks, adoption from Korea is still moving forward, and the Korea program is still one of our strongest. Even though the process has slowed, it now moves at a comparable pace to other country programs – with 5-6 months from completion of home study to match, and sooner if families are open to more involved special needs. With no dossier to complete – only a home study – paperwork required of families is minimal.
Although all children referred from Korea now have at least some health issues, their conditions are often so minor that many children are considered healthy once home. Common conditions include prematurity, low birth weight or a minor heart murmur. Korea also has a very modern and sophisticated healthcare system, and children receive excellent medical care while in country. All children receive monthly well-baby visits, appropriate immunizations and routine tests. Because most children in Korea are relinquished by their birth mothers, Holt Korea also has excellent health records on each child – and documents the child’s progress while in care. Rather than relying solely on information in a report – which is sometimes the case with other programs – a prospective family and their doctor may directly inquire with the child’s doctor in Korea. When considering whether to accept a referral, that can be critical to families.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the Korea program is the extraordinary care children receive before joining their families. Almost all children relinquished to Holt Korea are quickly transferred into the care of a specially trained foster family. Unlike in many orphanage settings, children in foster care receive the nurturing, individual attention they need to reach developmental milestones, and to form healthy attachments. Children who have already bonded with their foster parents have a much easier time bonding with their adoptive parents. As a result, the vast majority of children adopted through the Korea program do wonderfully once home.
As Korea continues to revise and re-evaluate international adoption, Holt will continue expressing our mission and belief to the Korean government, National Assembly and the public that all children deserve a home and family of their own. And we hope our advocacy will continue to influence policymakers as they make decisions that impact children’s lives.
In the meantime, we will continue our work finding families for children.
For the families waiting for EPs, we assure you that your children will come home. And for prospective families, we assure you that orphaned and abandoned children in Korea still need homes overseas where they can grow and thrive in the unconditional love, support and care of a family.
After adopting a healthy boy from Korea in 2006, Chris and Elizabeth Tiernan returned to Holt to adopt again in 2010. Embracing the changing needs among children in Korea, the Tiernans adopted Noah – a boy born with a normal neonatal health condition. In many ways, their journey to Noah reflects the recent changes in international adoption from Korea. Click here to read their story.