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Adoptees struggling to find birth families

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By You Soo-sun

<span>A letter issued by the government in 1975 states,

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A letter issued by the government in 1975 states, "We forego somewhat our plans for social welfare and the interests of our children." / Courtesy of Karri Ann Garza
For many adoptees, finding their birth families is a way to mend their past and move forward. In Korea, the process is especially long and costly, lonely and upsetting ― and, more often than not, unfruitful.

What further troubles many of them is the feeling that Korea, the country they were born into, had sold them off.

This may not be just a feeling. In a 1975 letter issued by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, now the Ministry of Health and Welfare, then-Minister Ko Jae-pil wrote, "We forego somewhat our plans for social welfare and the interests of our children." This, he defended, was inevitable to secure a stronger national defense in dealing with constant threats from North Korea.

Yet, over three decades later, there are still not enough resources dedicated to them. In email and phone interviews with The Korea Times, adoptees raised questions over the legitimacy and transparency of the birth family search process, the parties involved and some of the legal provisions stipulated in the Special Adoption Law.

Here are some of the stories that reveal the ordeals adoptees spoke of.

<span>Karri Ann Garza (Kang Hea-ryun) as a baby. / Courtesy of Karri Ann Garza</span><br /><br />
Karri Ann Garza (Kang Hea-ryun) as a baby. / Courtesy of Karri Ann Garza
Karri Ann Garza's (Kang Hea-ryun) story

Karri Ann Garza was born as Kang Hea-ryun in Yeonhui-dong, northwestern Seoul on Jan. 27, 1977. Facilitated by Eastern Social Welfare Society, Garza was adopted by a family in the United States in 1978.

Her search has a medical purpose. She was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain disorder, at a young age. She also has a rare nerve disease and hypothyroidism, commonly associated with a poor immune system, fatigue and depression.

But like many others, it's a longing to know where she came from that has primarily driven her search. Garza explained she does not feel complete, as if there is a hole in her heart. Questions continue to linger: "With adoption, not only did I lose my parents but I lost my whole natural family. Do I have siblings?"

After having her daughter, the impetus became stronger. "One night at dinner, my daughter kept insisting she was Chinese and I didn't understand it. I finally realized that she didn't know she was Korean because I didn't know I was Korean."

While her adoption record tells her she is Korean born to Korean parents, questions about her identity continue to linger. And the information that has been given to her, she believes, is flooded with incongruencies.

"I know I am not the person medically in my file. My file states I had a forehead scar and tuberculosis. I know I had neither."

When she visited the adoption agency in June ― after a $125 filing fee, several letters and forms, and a flight to Korea ― she was told her parents could not be located. She had to fight to get her translator to accompany the file review, and the social worker, she claimed, flipped through merely half the pages.

<span>The mother of Megan Green (Noh Jee-yung) gave this baby picture of Green to Holt Children's Services prior to her adoption. / Courtesy of Megan Green</span><br /><br />
The mother of Megan Green (Noh Jee-yung) gave this baby picture of Green to Holt Children's Services prior to her adoption. / Courtesy of Megan Green
Megan Green's (Noh Jee-yung) story

Megan Green was born in Daejeon on Feb. 21, 1984. Two years later she was given up for adoption through Holt Children's Services. Just two days after she landed in Omaha, Nebraska, to meet her adoptive parents, years of torture began.

"Mom liked to use cruel and unusual forms of punishment," she said. These included sleep deprivation, waterboarding, starvation and physical torture. She grew up with three siblings, two of whom were also adopted and suffered similar childhoods.

Green began her search in May 2016. Both her parents were deceased, yet she still was not granted access to her parents' information, not even their names.

"I asked them if my suicide attempts, diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression could be grounds for releasing my parents' information to me and the Korea Adoption Services said no. I feel as though I am being lied to about something."

When asked what was most difficult for her during the whole process, she said it was the way some of the social workers at Korea Adoption Services, an organization under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, had treated her. "I felt invalidated, like I was just another case number to them and that the abuse, neglect and torture I went through didn't matter to them," she said. She said one told her, in a cold voice, "We hear these kinds of stories from adoptees all the time."

"When we were sent for adoption our Korean identity was erased, as if we never existed. Well, we do exist. We are people, not case numbers."

From 2012 and 2016, just 17 percent of the 7,093 adoptees that had requested the search were given their biological parents' information. For almost half, the information was insufficient or incorrect to continue with the search.

And while some progress has been made, the process is too burdensome on the adoptees. And many adoptees remain skeptical of these agencies.

"Government has over and over stated they have to protect the rights of citizens ― we were once Korean citizens too until we were told to leave the country. We were told to get out, we were sold."


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