S Korea child law sees more ba­bies aban­doned

‘Teenagers give birth in empty houses or pub­lic toi­lets’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The young woman la­bored up the steps, past brightly dec­o­rated walls akin to a child’s nurs­ery, her daugh­ter in her arms. Open­ing a hatch in the wall, she put her inside, turned around and walked away. She ran her hands over her head but did not look back, sur­veil­lance cam­era footage showed. She may never see the girl again.

South Korea has risen from the ru­ins of war to become Asia’s fourth-largest econ­omy and a mem­ber of the OECD club of de­vel­oped coun­tries. It was for a time one of the world’s big­gest sources of un­wanted chil­dren, driven by poverty, a light reg­u­la­tory touch, and a cul­ture of racial pu­rity, fam­ily blood­lines, and shame. Around 110,000 South Kore­ans have been adopted to the United States alone since the 1950s but num­bers have fallen in re­cent years.

Birth rates have plum­meted to the world’s low­est with fac­tors such as high child-rear­ing costs and a worka­holic cul­ture af­fect­ing the sit­u­a­tion. But the num­ber of aban­doned ba­bies has jumped in re­cent years in the wake of a law in­tended to pro­tect chil­dren.

Now more changes are mooted, for sim­i­larly well-in­tended rea­sons that cam­paign­ers say could make the sit­u­a­tion even worse.

The woman in the video footage was among the lat­est of more than 1,000 to have made their way to a house in a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood on the out­skirts of Seoul. Con­verted into a shel­ter by a small Seoul church, a tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled cham­ber built into the wall func­tions as a baby box, en­abling un­wanted new­borns to be taken in without par­ents hav­ing to iden­tify them­selves.

New ar­rivals-al­most 200 last year, an av­er­age of nearly four a week-are de­posited cov­ered in blood, wrapped in ma­te­rial, some­times with the um­bil­i­cal cord still at­tached. Pas­tor Lee Jong-Rak of the Jusarang Com­mu­nity Church set up the fa­cil­ity af­ter hear­ing re­ports of ba­bies be­ing aban­doned in the open air or in pub­lic re­strooms, where they risked dy­ing of hy­pother­mia. “Some teenagers give birth to ba­bies in empty houses or in pub­lic toi­lets. They wrap them in old shirts or tow­els and bring them to us,” he told AFP. On one oc­ca­sion, a young cou­ple brought in a baby cov­ered in dust. The fa­ther had been plan­ning to bury it alive, he ex­plained. “When the fa­ther started shov­el­ling earth over it, the mother could not bear it any more and res­cued the baby.”

In 2010, its first year of op­er­a­tions, just four ba­bies were placed in the box. At the time, South Korean women who wanted to give up un­wanted ba­bies were obliged to give adop­tion agen­cies their writ­ten con­sent, but of­ten gave false de­tails or no records, and oper­a­tors looked the other way.

But two years later the coun­try adopted a law ban­ning adop­tion agen­cies ac­cept­ing un­doc­u­mented ba­bies, in line with the Hague Con­ven­tion, which aims to give adop­tive chil­dren the right to trace their birth par­ents. It also re­quired all adop­tions to be cour­tap­proved. In 2013, 224 ba­bies were aban­doned at the cen­tre by par­ents des­per­ate to hide their iden­ti­ties.

Al­most all who do so are poor sin­gle women. More un­mar­ried moth­ers are keep­ing their chil­dren in South Korea, but face so­cial os­tracism and strug­gle to find hus­bands will­ing to ac­cept such a past. Even em­ploy­ment checks of­ten go into fam­ily back­ground, and would show that a woman had had a child and given it up. The box op­er­ates in a le­gal grey area. Au­thor­i­ties are fully aware of it, and the wel­fare min­istry-which has a spe­cific cat­e­gory for it in its sta­tis­tics-nei­ther sup­ports it nor op­poses it as, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial Kim Hye-Ji, “it saves the lives of new­born ba­bies”. But the Gwanak dis­trict of­fice has re­peat­edly urged Pas­tor Cho to shut it down. “We see the baby box as an il­le­gal fa­cil­ity that en­cour­ages baby aban­don­ment,” said lo­cal of­fi­cial Min Seo-Young.

The shel­ter looks af­ter new ar­rivals for a few days un­til they are moved to or­phan­ages to await new fam­i­lies. But a stigma re­mains around adop­tion in Korea, where a fo­cus on pre­serv­ing fam­ily blood­lines makes the idea of rais­ing some­one else’s child anath­ema to many. It also has a long his­tory of tak­ing pride in its racial ho­mo­gene­ity-many of the first in­ter­na­tional adoptees were the mixed-race chil­dren of Amer­i­can ser­vice­men and Korean moth­ers. In­ter­na­tional adop­tions slumped by three-quar­ters in the wake of the 2012 law which tight­ened re­quire­ments from nat­u­ral and prospec­tive adop­tive par­ents-go­ing from 916 the pre­vi­ous year to 236 in 2013.

Now Seoul says it aims to rat­ify the Hague Con­ven­tion, which says chil­dren should prefer­ably be adopted by fam­i­lies in their home coun­try, by the end of the year. Of­fi­cials say that will see au­thor­i­ties reg­u­late all stages of the adop­tion process, in­clud­ing the rea­sons chil­dren are given up, the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of adopt­ing par­ents, and en­sur­ing that as adults, adoptees will be able to trace their birth fam­i­lies.

Pas­tor Lee’s col­league Cho Tae-Se­ung is con­cerned that the reg­u­la­tions re­sult­ing from the con­ven­tion could back­fire by driv­ing women to aban­don un­wanted ba­bies il­lic­itly and dan­ger­ously. “It’s very hard to strike a bal­ance be­tween re­al­ity and in­ter­na­tional adop­tion norms,” he said. In­stead the group wants moth­ers to be legally al­lowed to give birth and give up their chil­dren anony­mously. Next to the hatch in the wall, a form en­ables par­ents to state a child’s name, date of birth, and vac­ci­na­tions. The mother in the video left it blank. — AFP

— AFP

SEOUL: This photo taken on May 24, 2017 shows so­cial work­ers car­ing for ba­bies at the Jusarang Com­mu­nity Church in south­ern Seoul.

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