Not Another Number, Korean Adoptees Search for Birth Family

Not Another Number, Korean Adoptees Search for Birth Family

Katelyn Hemmeke
Katelyn Hemmeke

Editor’s Note: This article has been written in anticipation of a Korea Exposé panel on Oct. 28, 2017. “Against the Odds” seeks to address the issues raised in the following feature, and generate new discussions about what it means to be Korean.


David Zastrow was 4.5 months old when he was adopted from South Korea to the United States. 26 years later, he came back to South Korea to look for his birth family in the summer of 2017.

This wasn’t his first attempt; his first search in 2009 yielded no results. “I felt like a new search would help find those missing pieces [in my story],” he said. “I feel it is my right to know what the process was to my existence and how I got ‘here.’”

Zastrow’s older brother, also adopted from South Korea, informed him of changes to South Korea’s adoption laws that might be beneficial to his search. “I had not been back to Korea since 2009, so I felt it was a good time to think about going back and conduct a new search under the new legislative rulings,” he said.

Zastrow sent a request to his American adoption agency in Minnesota, Children’s Home Society & Lutheran Social Service (CHLSS). The agency charged him $180, promising the money would cover ‘everything’; but poor transparency and communication made it unclear just what covering ‘everything’ meant.

“I sent multiple emails to CHLSS for follow up after I submitted my documents and payment,” Zastrow said. “I didn’t hear a thing back from them for about a month. Finally, CHLSS notified me that the search worker was too busy to look at my materials due to preparation for the annual tour that CHLSS hosts.”

Zastrow is not the only Korean adoptee to experience delays and frustration with agencies while searching.

I have never felt so institutionalized. I am just another number and file.

The search process is fraught with incredible hurdles, which are reflected in the low rate of birth family reunions. The vast majority of adoptees are unable to reunite with their birth families, leaving them with a whirlwind of unanswerable questions about their personal identities, family backgrounds, and medical histories.

To date, approximately 200,000 people have been adopted from South Korea since the 1950s by families in North America, Europe, and Australia. In 2006, the Overseas Koreans Foundation estimated that only 2.7 percent of Korean adoptees reunited with their birth families. It’s not clear what the statistics are like in more recent years, although it’s certain that more reunions have occurred since 2006. 

Holes and confusion

There’s no guarantee that agencies will have even the most basic information on file, like a family’s mailing address. Often, holes and inaccuracies in the original adoption records severely hinder the search process. If accurate files do exist, the main actors that control these crucial pieces of information are not the adoptees, but the agencies.

After months of sparse communication with CHLSS, Zastrow finally traveled to South Korea to meet his Korean agency, Eastern Social Welfare Society, which had obtained his birth mother’s address.

In a brick building not far from the bustling Hongdae district in Seoul, Zastrow’s meeting at Eastern, one of the country’s leading agencies in international adoption, lasted for over three hours. Zastrow recalls pressing the social workers for more information, and getting vague replies full of mixed signals.

“It seemed like their policies were made up on the fly,” Zastrow said. The Eastern social worker initially agreed to send his birth mother another telegram, then said that the agency couldn’t send any more telegrams because the search process was closed.

She told Zastrow that he couldn’t initiate another search process again, then told him he could try again in one year. Finally, she advised Zastrow to go to KAS instead.

“It felt like she was withholding something from me”

KAS, or Korea Adoption Services, is a government agency established after South Korea’s Special Adoption Law was revised in 2011. The adoption law, first passed in 1961, established a legal framework for international adoption, but lacked any clauses regarding the birth family search — until the landmark revisions in 2011.

“Before [the 2011 revisions], the treatment of adoptees was highly preferential,” said Jane Jeong Trenka, president of TRACK, an adoptee activist organization. “If the social worker didn’t like you, you were out of luck. If you had a powerful Korean friend, you had good luck.”

The revisions sought to provide guidelines to standardize the search process and make it fairer. KAS was established to act as a centralizing organization among all of the adoption agencies.

One of its tasks is to gather adoption records into one database. Progress is slow: KAS recently held a public forum, where staff representatives reported that KAS has collected records from 25 closed orphanages and agencies. But there are over 400 closed institutions in total.

According to the law, KAS and the adoption agencies are required to disclose adoption records at the adoptee’s request.

With consent from the birth parents, the agency can release all information — including the birth parents’ full names and birth dates — to the adoptee. Even without the parents’ consent, the adoptee is still able to receive other non-identifying information from their records, like the circumstances of relinquishment and orphanage notes.

Many adoptees like Zastrow discover firsthand that obtaining their records, even the non-identifying information, can still be a tug-of-war with the adoption agencies.

“My file was held by the social worker the whole time and never set on the table,” Zastrow said. “It felt like the she was withholding something from me.”

When Zastrow requested a copy of his entire file, Eastern gave him only ten photocopied pages out of a 1.5-inch-thick pile of paper. None of the information Zastrow received was substantial enough to locate his family.

Zastrow also requested the confirmation receipt for the telegram that Eastern had sent to his birth mother. The social worker told him that making a redacted copy of the receipt would be “inconvenient.”

“What we asked to see would have taken two seconds and a Sharpie to remove identifying information,” said Zastrow. “[The telegram receipt] would have given me another piece to my puzzle, more information about my story and identity.”

On the condition of anonymity, a social worker from Eastern’s post-adoption services department told Korea Exposé that the agencies just didn’t have enough current information about birth families to help adoptees.

“In many cases, we cannot make adoptees satisfied or answer their questions. It makes them complain to us. Korean society has changed a lot. There are laws about protecting people’s privacy,” the social worker said, referring to the need to protect the biological parents. “Adoptees cannot understand all this, so it makes them complain.”

The law falls short

Despite the 2011 revisions to the adoptee law, the agencies continue to fall short in post-adoption services. Adoptee activists are still working with lawyers to make further revisions to the Special Adoption Law.

“Most adoption agencies and Korean Adoption Services have been interpreting the Special Adoption Law in the most narrow way,” said Simone Eun Mi, the International Public Affairs Manager at KoRoot, an NGO fighting for adoptee rights.

The narrow interpretation of the law can come down to simple typographical errors.

For example, there are three conditions which allow adoptees adoptees to receive crucial identifying information about their birth parents, without their consent: The birth parent(s) cannot be found; the birth parent(s) have passed away; and the adoptee has a medical reason for needing their family history.

“It only makes sense that only one of the three criteria has to be met,” said Trenka, president of TRACK. “For instance, it logically doesn’t make any sense that the parent both cannot be found and is dead, because we have found them if we know they are dead!”

However, a small mistake in the wording of the law — the use of ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ — severely limits the release of identifying information to adoptees who meet all three criteria.

“The adoption agencies and KAS have exploited this mistake and hurt a lot of adoptees, so this needs to be corrected,” said Trenka, who is currently part of a team of adoptees and lawyers drafting another revision to the law.

Adoptee activists are lobbying to create a government-run DNA database for birth family search and expand the range of biological relatives whom the agencies are allowed to contact. Currently, the agencies can only contact birth parents; the activists aim to include relatives up to the third degree of kinship, such as siblings and aunts/uncles.

“Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is a right to know one’s heritage, name, and identity,” Simone said. “The Korean government should honor the rights of the UNCRC and properly implement these rights.”

In the end, David Zastrow left his meeting at Eastern without any new information about his birth family or his adoption story.

“I have never felt so institutionalized,” Zastrow said. “I am just another number and file in Eastern’s and CHLSS’s systems.”


Cover image: Most Korean children sent abroad never reunite with their birth families. (Source: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)


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