Korean orphans languish in system as tradition, new laws make adoption difficult

Because of the emphasis on family lineage, Korean parents are unenthusiastic about adoption, and orphans are socially stigmatized. Pictured, a volunteer holds a baby abandoned at a church's "baby box." (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)

SEOUL — At around 1:30 p.m., Jae Min’s mother carried him up the worn green steps of Jusarang Community Church on a steep hillside on the outskirts of Seoul. Jae Min was screeching. His mother clutched him tightly to her chest to shield him from the brisk late winter air.

She opened the metal hatch built into the wall of the church. The lone mother gently laid her newborn in the temperature-controlled box like hundreds of desperate and fearful single mothers before her. Inscribed in Korean, below the handle of the hatch was a scripture from Psalm 27:10: “For my father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.”

The baby box in Jusarang Community Church has a verse from the Bible. Single, unwed mothers can safely abandon their babies in the baby box. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)
The baby box in Jusarang Community Church has a verse from the Bible. Single, unwed mothers can safely abandon their babies in the baby box. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)

A Fur Elise chime rang to notify the staff that another baby had been left in the box. The pastor of the church came out to talk, in hopes of persuading the mother to change her mind.

“I try to give a compliment to these mothers because they did all they could to save these babies,” said Lee Jongrak, the reverend of Jusarang Community Church who started Seoul’s baby box program in 2009. “After I give the blessing to these mothers, I ask them one more time, ‘Do you want to give up your baby?’”

Lee began the baby box program so single, unwed mothers could safely abandon their babies. Having a baby before marriage is still frowned upon in Korea.

Unintended consequences

A 2012 law, pushed through by international Korean adoptees who wanted to find their biological parents, has had unexpected consequences for these single mothers. The law mandates that birth mothers list their babies in their family registry in order for them to be eligible for international adoption. But registering their babies in these public databases would out the mothers as unwed, the equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter. To avoid being discovered, more single mothers are turning to Jusarang Church’s baby box.

According to meticulous records kept by the church, from 2009 and 2012, an average of three babies were found in the baby box per month. Following the enactment of the birth registration law in 2012 to today, that average has jumped to 25 to 30 babies a month.

“They created this law, to address the desires of adoptees to come back and find their roots … it did not have ill intentions at all,” Steve Morrison, a Korean adoptee himself who started Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea, said. “It’s just that it backfired, very severely. And who got hurt? Children.”

More often than not, the infants in the box remain unregistered, making them ineligible for international adoption. Although they can still be adopted domestically, according to Holt International Adoption Agency Director Eun Jeong Lee, very few couples in Korea adopt.

Domestic adoptions make up four percent of all adoptions in the country. With those odds, many of these baby box infants are sent to orphanages in Seoul and beyond. These infants will join the ranks of nearly 30,000 children in the welfare system. Most of them will live in an orphanage until age 18, when they are legally adults and must live on their own.

Jae Min, a baby abandoned at Junsarang Community Church's "baby box" sleeps in the church nursery, before being processed and taken to an orphanage. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)
Jae Min, a baby abandoned at Junsarang Community Church’s “baby box” sleeps in the church nursery, before being processed and taken to an orphanage. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)

To avoid registering Jae Min (a name we’re using to protect his identity) in her family registry, his mother most likely did not give birth in a hospital. Lee says Jae Min’s mother probably gave birth to Jae Min in a public restroom or an empty house.

“It’s so sad… Why do they put their babies in the baby box? Sometimes I’m angry, but I understand why,” said Anette Jun, a 27-year-old single mother who lives and works at Jusarang. Jun (a name we’re using to protect her privacy) was there when Jae Min was dropped off.

Stigma for single, unwed mothers

Being a single mother in Korea is particularly grueling, as they carry an enormous social stigma on top of being the sole provider for their child. In Korean and other Confucian-founded cultures, “saving face” and maintaining a certain image is paramount to one’s livelihood. The decision to give up their child and leave them unregistered is motivated in large part by their desire to remain anonymous.

Jun understands the shame associated with single motherhood all too well. “If my parents know, I’m going to die,” said Jun, who lives secretly at Jusarang. Her parents don’t know she decided to raise her son instead of giving him up for adoption. Jun also isolated herself from her friends who don’t even know she was pregnant. When her pregnancy became apparent, Jun quit her job as a translator for a plastic surgery center and went into hiding.

“Single moms are embarrassing to their friends. I’m embarrassing too, that’s why I have to hide. It makes me feel lonely, sad, and worried,” Jun said quietly.

A volunteer reads with an orphan at ShinMang Won Orphanage. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)
A volunteer reads with an orphan at ShinMang Won Orphanage. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)

However, forcing mothers to list their child under their family registry has repercussions beyond harming their reputation; there are tangible consequences as well. Family registry documents are readily accessible to any and all potential employers and spouses, making it difficult to find jobs and be in a relationship.

For this reason, Lee has expanded his ministry to support and advocate for single mothers. “I started to feel bad for the mothers … they saved the lives of these babies. They didn’t just abandon them on the street,” Lee said. “I saw a lot of mothers with sorrow and sadness when they did what they did.”

Lee and Morrison of Mission to Promote Adoption are currently advocating for legislation that will allow mothers to give birth anonymously in hospitals and later consent to give their child access to their real identity. They believe this law could be the solution, allowing single mothers to remain anonymous in Korean society and satisfy the international adoptees looking for their birth mothers.

Lee will convince about a third of the mothers who come to the baby box to either keep their child or list it in the family registry. But he’ll be unable to convince two thirds of the women who come to register the babies.

Being processed into the Korean welfare system

Once his mother leaves, staff members at Jusarang report Jae Min to the police and created detailed documentation describing what he looks like, what he is wearing, how big he is and more. Unlike safe haven laws in the U.S. that allow parents to drop off infants anonymously in hospitals and fire stations, abandoning a baby is a crime South Korea.

On Thursday, a few days later after his mother abandons him, a government social worker parks a large silver van in front of the “Baby Box” Church at 2 p.m. to pick up Jae Min. The social worker picks up three to four unregistered infants every Thursday.

The social worker takes Jae Min to the Seoul Metropolitan Children’s Hospital where nurses in lavender scrubs record the Jae Min’s gender, size and weight. Jae Min screams as a volunteer presses white gauze to his head where blood had been drawn to test for viruses and sexually transmitted diseases. She lifts the pad to reveal a small smattering of blood.

According to Holt Adoption Agency Director Eun Jeong Lee, potential adoptive parent are hesitant to adopt a child with little to no information.

“Legally, they can be adopted. But, without information, no one wants to adopt them,” she explained. “They don’t have any information — any maternal care history, any parent history, especially mental or psychological problems.”

However, this is just one of many barriers to the adoption of baby box children. At the same time the birth registration law was passed in 2012, special adoption laws were also enacted that made the process of adopting a Korean child both domestically and internationally longer and more complex. Lee, the director of Holt Adoption, says the new domestic adoption law — which requires public court appearances and takes longer to place a child — discourages families who want to adopt quietly and anonymously.

Ancestry and blood line continue to be a defining part of Korean society. Families treasure records delineating one’s ancestry back hundreds of years. Family registry documents influence one’s chances at jobs, relationships and more. It’s why families don’t want to adopt, and why orphans are stigmatized.

“Throughout the centuries, women who are unable to have children would go to great lengths just to appear to be normal. Couples would fake a pregnancy as a way to adopt a child,” said Morrison.

With no blood line to trace, orphans are at the lowest caste of Korean society and treated as a “nonperson,” according to Julie Duvall, herself  an adult Korean orphan who grew up in Korean orphanages in the 1960s and 70s.

“Family line is so important to this day that orphans are being constantly ostracized, rejected, and taken advantage of. There is no one to say that you’re important and that this should be stopped,” she said.

Three infants from the baby box are swaddled and ready to be transported to the public children's hospital. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)
Three infants from the baby box are swaddled and ready to be transported to the public children’s hospital. (Paulina Cachero/GroundTruth)

In his two weeks of life, Jae Min had been coddled in the arms of countless strangers, passed back and forth among Jusarang staff, volunteers, social workers, child services representatives and many more strangers to come.

While there is no “typical” state-run orphanage in Korea, there are facility and care requirements that every orphanage must fulfill. For infants, there may be two “unit moms” for eight to 12 infants in one room. For ages beyond that, there is likely one unit mom for 10 to 12 children in a room. The caretakers rotate every 24 to 48 hours depending on the facility.

With the overwhelming influx of infants entering the welfare system and few caregivers, Jae Min will likely fail to form a bond with one consistent caregiver. According to psychology studies on attachment theory, this can be detrimental to the social, emotional and cognitive development of these children.

Whether or not this period will result in Jae Min developing attachment and behavioral issues is to be determined. Jae Min could end up at an orphanage like ShinMang Won with 55 kids or Seoul Dream Tree Village with over 700 kids. Of ShinMang Won’s 55 children, 33 are from the baby box.

What to expect as an orphan

ShinMang Won orphanage’s caregiver-to-child ratio is slightly smaller than an average orphanage. However, Director MyungHee Park still feels like the best of care she can provide will never be enough: “My kids, they are loved and cared for. But at the same time, they wonder, ‘Why am I not with my parents?’ So some kids feel very miserable…They just blame themselves… So I’m trying to make them confident and feel that it’s not their fault.”

At 18, many South Korean high school students are graduating and preparing to leave their homes for the first time to go to university. Meanwhile, South Korean orphans are aging out of the welfare system, leaving their orphanages with $5,000 from the government and nowhere to go. “When they age out, they’re just kids. And yet, you have to make every decision on your own. You’re not trained to make good sound decisions most of the time,” Duvall said.

Growing up in an institution where everything is provided for them, many of these orphans struggle when they leave the welfare system and must fend for themselves for the first time ever. Even with programs designed to teach self-sufficiency, many will live unstable, insecure lives.

While there are no official numbers, a frequently cited statistic amongst those familiar with the welfare system is that 90 percent of South Korean orphans will not be able to support themselves when they leave the system.

“Being an orphan in Korea is really hard. When I left the orphanage, I faced constant abuse from people around me,” said Duvall. She experienced abuse and neglect in this system and founded Love Beyond the Orphanage, a group that seeks to empower and support adult Korean orphans who have also experienced trauma in the Korean welfare system. Although Duvall is currently a happy mother herself living in the U.S., when she goes back to Korea, she still feels like she doesn’t belong.

Back at Seoul Metropolitan Children’s Hospital, Jae Min is given a clean bill of health. In the time he’s been waiting, Jae Min has become friendly with another baby at the hospital, a seven-month old in a navy onesie waiting with his mom. They coo at each other.

Before Jae Min is loaded up into the social worker’s silver van, the volunteer attending him takes his hand and waves goodbye to his new friend, who is held in his mother’s arms.

Jae Min and the other baby box babies set off for the Children’s Welfare Center. There, a social worker will snap a picture of Jae Min,  put a blue or pink tag on his ankle and collect the little information that exists about him in a white folder. It will be filed away alongside the nearly 30,000 files of other orphans.