If adult adoptees are often seen as “forever children,” it is no wonder that the focus on the lives of adult adoptees has not received the attention it deserves. As an adoptee whose adoption was an inter-country, closed adoption, many have viewed my adoption story as one that ended once I landed on US soil. The word “adopted” embodies not just the act in the past tense, but also the assumption that adoption ends once it is finalized. Reflective of this notion is also the assumption that the relationships with both my US and Korean adoption agencies ceased during my childhood.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the agencies have played, and continue to play a far larger role in my life than I ever expected them to play. I have been beholden to these agencies, seemingly at their mercy for information and guidance while conducting birth parent searches.

Post Adoption Services

I have letters from my US adoption agency from 2001, 2003, and 2006, years in which I thought about conducting a search but never followed through. My US agency dutifully sent me their list of post-adoption services (PAS), outlining the services offered and their corresponding fees. Without much knowledge of the process, I believed my US agency to be the best resource for conducting a search. Looking back on this, my own naiveté allowed me to believe that the US agency had my best interest at heart. The reality, however, was that I paid for the intermediary service. In no way was there a vested interest in if I was to reunite with my birth mother or not. They received their fee from me, and as far as they were concerned, that was the end goal. Harsh? Perhaps. The truth? Absolutely.

As I detailed in a previous post, I initiated a birth mother search in March of 2007. It was not until November of 2008 that there was any movement regarding the search, and the official end of the search occurred in 2009. At that point, I did not think about searching again. Having read many stories (mostly other KAD blogs) regarding failed searches, I took the failure of reunion as writing on the wall. It felt like for every reunion story that I found, there were at least 5 stories that did not result in a reunion. With that knowledge, I thought it was best to close this chapter of my life.

Searching Comes With a Price

This past year I began a new chapter, learning that there was a special adoption act passed in 2012 in Korea that specifically detailed disclosure of information to adoptees (article 36). With this disclosure, I could petition for information such as my birth mother’s last name, my city of birth, and other information that had previously been withheld from me.

After learning this information, I contacted my US agency, inquiring about their intermediary services once again. They responded that there was a 10-12 week waiting list for intermediary services and sent me their service packet that detailed their service fees. After questioning further about my paperwork and the potential falsification of it, they reaffirmed that they could not discuss anything about my file without payment for a file review. They ascertained that with a file review, they would be able to tell if the citizen ID on my paperwork was falsified or if they simply did not have the correct contact information for the corresponding ID. If that was the case, then why didn’t they do that in 2007?

Question Everything

Apparently, a new file review would be able to somehow uncover all of this…which in reality, it would not. I pressed further, asking if a file review procured hard copies of information, and to my dismay, I was told that everything would be sent via email in a summary form and that any additional hard copies would not be provided.

Without them being able to provide any further hard copies from my file, I decided against using them as an intermediary service. To their credit (and yes, I loathe to give them any), they did disclose the option of using KAS or GOA’L, if I decided to search “independently.” What they did not disclose was that using KAS or any of the Korean adoption agencies for disclosure of information would not require a fee.

Eastern Social Welfare Society (ESWS)

Once I decided against using the US agency, my attention turned to my Korean agency. I perused GOA’L’s birth family search guidelines and realized I should try to obtain all of my files from my Korean agency before attempting to work with them. From there, I contacted the Korean Adoption Service (KAS) in October of 2018, with them responding within a month. Due to the 2012 adoption act, they informed me that I must first contact my Korean agency (Eastern Social Welfare Society, ESWS) as this search would be considered a “first” search. Having read blogs that detailed the difficulties with ESWS, I was not optimistic about having to cultivate a relationship with them, however the only other viable option would be to use my US agency. I contacted ESWS with my case number and Korean name and started my journey for information from my adoption file.

My initial service request (November 2018) was to obtain all of my adoption records, including original documents in Korean. I reached out to them after the new year, wondering if they were able to send me my files. They initially sent me documents that I already had, documents in English that I had received even before my initial search in 2007. I was also sent the emailed summary I received in 2008-information that I do not believe is true regarding my birth mother’s upbringing. The agency apparently had all of this information about her upbringing and yet have refused to send me any hard copies to verify their story.

Filtering Information

After pressing further, they sent me some documents in Korean (information I already had, written in English) and revealed another document in English that detailed my birth mother’s last name. Additionally, they also sent me an unseen photo of me with my foster mother, right before I left Korea for the US. Why this information wasn’t given to me upon my first request is a mystery. There really is no reason for withholding this type of information, if only to continue to show the power they still had over me.

During this time, ESWS sent me an email stating they sent my birth mother letters via registered mail several times and did not receive a response. According to the mail carrier, she got the letter. When asked if they could provide evidence that they sent the letter via registered mail/send a receipt, they refused to answer me.

While ESWS filtered these documents to me over the span of 3 months, it is interesting to note that had I used my US agency, I would have only received emailed summaries, with no hard copies/files being exchanged with me.

The Importance of Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOA’L)

Throughout my communication with ESWS, I was guided by GOA’L. They suggested the types of questions for me to ask ESWS, noting that ESWS was one of the more difficult agencies to work with. Not having this type of advocacy before, it became incredibly clear how important it was for me to have someone helping me/advocating in my best interest. The only reason I received the information regarding my birth mother’s last name from ESWS is because of GOA’L’s suggested questioning. Additional questions asked, for which I did not receive any answers include:

  • What type of information ESWS has about my birth parents
  • Did my birth mother go to the adoption agency with my birth father-if not, why did my papers say I was abandoned by “father and mother”
  • Why was the Korean last name given to me spelled 3 different ways throughout my paperwork
  • Why was my name misspelled throughout my paperwork
  • Confirmation of my birth father’s last name
  • What information they had regarding the clergyman who my birth mother consulted before relinquishment

ESWS clearly had access to my file (given they emailed me hard copies of some documents) so answering these questions would not have been difficult. Again, whose interest does it serve to filter information/continue to hide information from an adoptee? By law, they had to provide the last name, age, and the city lived in of my birth mother when she relinquished me. However, had I not pressed them further and reminded them of this, they would not have handed over that information to me at all. Without GOA’L’s advocacy, my search would have ended with accepting what ESWS chose to tell me. It shows just how important it is to have access to adoptee led organizations, how important it is to have adoptee led advocacy.

Korean Adoption Services (KAS)

At the recommendation of GOA’L, I closed my search with ESWS. The volunteer I have been working with at GOA’L contacted KAS and the caseworker there agreed to take on my search. Initially, they did not want to conduct a search given that ESWS purportedly attempted a search in the fall of 2018. I had to explain that I did not believe ESWS contacted the correct person/did not believe they had the correct address, informing KAS that ESWS offered no proof of contact. Upon learning this, they agreed to conduct my search.

The caseworker I have been working with has seemed to be more empathetic than anyone at the Korean or US adoption agencies. At my request, they have shown me the receipt of certified mail (without the address visible) as well as shown me the letter to be sent to my birth mother. Unexpectedly, they also asked if I had any changes I would like made to the letter before they were to send the letter out. While this may seem insignificant, the small gestures of kindness and respect given to me have not gone unnoticed. It has meant a great deal to me that they have tried to be as transparent as possible, especially knowing how much has been hidden from me from other agencies.

The Waiting Game Begins

So now I wait. The initial letter was sent out two weeks ago, and like anything with searching, I understand that if any contact is to be made it most likely will not be instantaneous. Apparently, a co-worker signed for the letter (KAS does not know why), which brings up more questions and no answers. Nonetheless, there is a contingency plan in place, should this search with KAS prove to be a dead end. At the moment, this is all that I can ask for. What is rather peculiar is that the volunteer at GOA’L found KAS’ communication with me to be “interesting.” As to what that means exactly, I don’t know. What I do know is that they have extensive experience working with KAS and ESWS and I take their guidance and recommendations seriously.

Agency Overlords

Looking back on the past 6 months and the inner workings of my search, it has become very apparent that the commodification of adoptees doesn’t stop after an adoption is finalized. With my US agency showing a decline in international adoptions and an increase in post adoptions services, it is a reminder to me what really matters to these agencies-their bottom line. Birth parent searches, birthland tours, all revenue-generating services to offset the decline in revenue from international adoptions. Two exceptional pieces/analysis regarding the South Korean adoption industry and revenue generation can be found here and here.

If by chance a search ends in reunion, then there’s more publicity for the agencies. They can claim how their PAS allowed for an adoptee to be reunited with their birth families. The storyline of “happily ever after” can continue on. What they aren’t transparent about is how for many, reunions are the exception, not the rule. Having read articles and blogs about Korean birth parent searches that have ended without a reunion (also having similar issues with the agencies), I am well aware that my own search may end, as many have before mine. As cynical as that may be, there is also a lot of truth there as well. I would much rather be realistic, albeit cynical, versus being naïve to what difficulties may impede my search.

The truth is something that has thus far evaded me, something that pushes me to continue on. It is something that lies hidden beneath the narratives others choose to believe, blanket statements about adoptees. Assumptions that do more harm than good. The reality of it all, the reality of adoption and its subsequent consequences, reflects a much deeper, darker issue than most care to admit or acknowledge.

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