Is Adoption in Children's Best Interest
Korean children in an orphanage waiting for adoption.

I received this long question via email and can’t get it off my mind. Please take a few moments to read because her dilemma is real and I’d love to hear what you think.

Hello, I am writing you because I do not know where else to turn for advice and I feel from your blogs posts that you will be honest and direct with me, and I have come to respect your opinions on adoption related matters.

I am a not yet adoptive parent. My husband and I have been matched with an 18 month old Korean boy for adoption. We started the adoption process with the same level of ignorance as most adoptive parents — we thought that this would be in the best interest of the little boy since his mom felt she could not parent him. From the paperwork, it looks like she did not have the financial resources (or felt she didn’t) to raise him as a single mom.

In the months since our match, I have read your blog plus many, many other adoptee blogs, the Child Catchers book, Adoptee Restoration, Lost Daughters, and have learned about groups in Korea trying to work for cultural changes for single moms and their children (KOROOT, TRACK, etc). I have also read the work by Jane Jeong Trenka.

Our attitude towards adoption has completely changed and we have come to understand the tremendous loss and grief that is faced by adoptees — to the best of our ability since we are not adoptees ourselves. We no longer see adoption as the best option for relinquished children, but realize that the children should be with their family. We have become aware of the corruption and power issues within adoption as well.

My question to you is: What should we do now? I don’t know if it is best for this little boy to continue with the adoption (I don’t care about losing money –we are school teachers — not rich) or my own sadness about not being a mom — I care what is best for the little boy and his mom). I do worry that if he is not adopted by us, that he will end up in an orphanage — but at least he will be in his own culture and grow up in Korea. Is that a better option than being adopted to the US???? I don’t have a framework for knowing what is best because I am not an adoptee nor have I grown up in an orphanage.

Of course, his mom might decide to parent him in the future so that option will be open if he stays in Korea. We are also willing to offer some level of support to his mom should she decide to parent — it wouldn’t be tons of money — but it might make things easier. I know this is a lot to ask but I would love your thoughts. [bold text added]

Whew, what a lot to think about. I am so proud of you for jumping into the world of adoption ethics with an open mind and heart. Although you raise the question in relation to adopting from Korea, the same issues apply to adopting from Ethiopia, adopting from Bulgaria, and adopting a baby in the US. If only the answers were more clear for any of us who want to do the right thing for children and for families. All issues involving the best interest of children are a bit of an ethical quicksand, with the “high ground” different for every person. I can only share my personal thoughts.

Adoption is Not the Best Option for Relinquished Children?

I think you are confusing two related but separate issues. What is in children’s best interest pre relinquishment and what is in their best interest post relinquishment. While I think we need to think long and hard about how we keep birth families together, regardless of support, there will always be expectant mothers and birth mothers who decide that they are not in a position to parent, thus there will always be children in need of families.

Why do Women Relinquish Children to Adoption?

In my experience talking with expectant woman and birth mothers, it is usually not one reason, but a combination of many, that influence their decision to place a child for adoption. Economics is often one factor, but seldom the sole factor.

In Korea, most women place children for adoption because of societal and familial disapproval and lack of support for single motherhood. The Korean government is providing more support for single moms, but societal attitudes are slow to change.

In the US, many expectant women considering adoption are already single parents to at least one child. They know full well the emotional energy, time, and money it takes to parent and often feel it would be unfair to all to bring another child into their family.

Every expectant woman has her own combination of reasons for relinquishment. It is true that sometimes undue pressure from family, society, adoption agencies, adoption counselors, or adoptive parents can be a factor. If we care about adoption we will do all in our power to stop these abuses, but even without abuse, adoption will be a necessary option for some kids.

Change Takes Time, but is that Just an Excuse

We have a bit of a chicken and egg situation here.  Changing society’s values, such as is Korea’s stigma against unwed motherhood, takes time. Some will argue that the speed of change would accelerate if we do away with adoptions completely and immediately.  They may be right, but this approach is not in the best interest of children being born now and is not in the best interest of all unmarried pregnant women. In fact, if feels very paternalistic to say that all pregnant women, either in Korea or the US, should be single parents regardless of what they think is in their and their child’s best interest.

What’s in the Child’s Best Interest

In South Korea in 2010 there were 8,590 abandoned and relinquished babies and children, 1,462 were adopted domestically and 1,013 were adopted abroad.  What happened to the remaining 6,115 babies and children?  The sad truth is that they will join the 19,151 other Korean children living in child welfare institutions.  Most will spend their childhoods in one of the large orphanages throughout Korea, aging out at 18 to a society deeply prejudiced against them with limited job and social opportunities. Children born to single mothers and children abandoned (presumably many born out of wedlock) make up the majority of children in these institutions.*

Once a child is relinquished, as is the case of the child with whom you’ve been matched, in my opinion, adoption is absolutely in his best interest. We know from years of research that institutional care is not good for children’s physical or emotional development. We also know from talking with some who grew up in orphanages and later adopted into good homes, that adoption can be best. (Check out some blogs by Steve Morrison, over at MPAK.) Obviously, not all adoptive families are good, or even adequate; I’ve heard some pretty sad situations from some adoptees. Assuming love and some degree of competence,  however, I have no doubt that family trumps orphanage regardless of cultural exposure.

You are right that his birth mother can change her mind to parent if he remains in Korea. Keep in mind that you are likely at least 6- 12 months away from traveling to finalize his adoption, so his first mother will have this time to reassess whether she can and should parent. Birth mothers should have a reasonable amount of time to change their mind, but not an unlimited amount of time because that is not fair to the child.

What Should You Do?

I realize you are not really asking me what to do, nor would I be so presumptuous as to say. However, if you do not adopt, I am almost certain that your adoption agency will have no problem finding another international family for this little boy. He will almost certainly not be placed domestically since Koreans strongly prefer to adopt newborn girls.

If you continue to have such deep questions about the ethics of this adoption, you should not go forward since you will continue to worry and this worry will influence how you raise your son. Children pick up on our feelings and attitudes even if never spoken.

Perhaps you should consider US foster care adoption, although there are ethical questions in this type of adoption as well. Many biological parents feel that their children were taken from them unjustly, but at least you would have the “blessing” of the US court system, which may or may not help with your late night ethical questionings. Another option is to become a foster parent. Your role as a foster parent is to care for children while their birth families heal. Fostering is not the same as becoming a forever parent, but if you’re looking for a safe moral high ground maybe you’ll find it there. In my experience though, there is plenty of high ground and quagmires in every situation where children are in need of care. What’s high and what’s low shifts depending on where you’re standing.

What All Adoptive Parents Can Do

Regardless of the type of adoption, every adoptive parent needs to be invested in supporting expectant women and birth moms both before and after placement. We must be their allies for their sake, but also for our children. In Korea, check out the Korean Unwed Mother Support Network. In the US check out On Your Feet Foundation and Birth Mom Buds.

OK guys, now I really really would like to know what you think and how you would have answered this question.

* The information in this paragraph was taken from an article I wrote 2 years ago-South Korean Adoptions: Canary In The International Adoption Mine?


Image credit: Jason Jones