Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Dismantling stereotypes about overseas adoptees

Overseas adoption has long been somewhat common in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and there have long been stereotypes and biases regarding children adopted from Korea, China, Colombia, Romania, Mexico, Russia, etc.

An article in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), however, says that many of the stereotypes of overseas adoptees as "problem kids" are simply not true: international adoptees have fewer behavior problems than domestic adoptees.

The money quote:
Most international children who are adopted are well-adjusted and have fewer behavioral problems than children who are adopted domestically, according to an article in the May 25 issue of JAMA.
This is a big issue, with 40,000 children per year moving between more than 100 countries, according to the JAMA study's authors, Femmie Juffer, Ph.D., and Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn, Ph.D., both from Leiden University in the Netherlands. They used medical literature from 1950 to January 2005 to estimate the effects of international adoption on behavioral problems and mental health referrals.

The authors acknowledge that prior to adoption, "international adoptees often experience insufficient medical care, malnutrition, maternal separation, and neglect and abuse in orphanages." But this doesn't translate into long-term problems, as their analysis "showed that the majority of international adoptees are well-adjusted."

They do acknowledge that international adoptees do have slightly more of such problems than non-adoptees (the control group in the research), but that "the effect sizes were small."

Surprisingly, age at adoption was "not important for the development of behavioral problems." But the authors warn that "clinicians should be aware of higher risks for problem behaviors in domestic adoptees and in international adoptees who experienced neglect or maltreatment in the preadoptive period." This, of course, would be true even for children raised by their biological parents.

In Korea overseas adoption is a big issue. Prior to the Olympics it was considered natural that children of mixed ancestry, or children whose parents had died or couldn't care for them, would live better lives if adopted by loving parents in North America or Europe.

But the American media—particularly NBC—cast a negative light on the situation, depicting Korea as a nation of "baby exporters." Domestically, the embarrassment from this unfavorable press resulted in a very strong movement to end overseas adoption. Overseas adoptions were to end in 1996, with exceptions made for "mixed" children (honhyŏra, 혼혈아; or honyŏrin 혼혈인) or children with physical or mental disabilities. This caused an outcry of a different kind: Korea was now seen as a cruel country just trying to get rid of its "undesirables."

The problem was that the overseas adoption debate in Korea was being driven by concerns about the rising economic star's public image, not by the best interests of the children involved. There were many Koreans who supported the continuation of overseas adoption for the sake of the children. These proponents pointed out that there were too few people willing to adopt a child in this increasingly prosperous country, primarily because of the strong emphasis on blood ties within a family structure.

But opposition to overseas adoption remained high, with the public exposed to media designed to mold their opinion. The 1991 movie "Susan Brink's Arirang" stood out among the anti-overseas adoption fare. This well-acted movie, starring Choi Jinshil [최진실], depicted the life of real-life Susan Brink as told through her autobiography. With an emotionally abusive adoptive mother, her life in Sweden was quite difficult, and it made her miserable enough to attempt suicide.

Many Koreans were touched by the film, which also showed interviews of actual European adoptees from Korea telling how much they hated Korea and the biological parents who gave them up. With so little evidence to the contrary, many Koreans were convinced that overseas adoption was cruel and must be stopped.

The necessity of finding homes for thousands of children without homes ended up being the deciding factor, and the 1996 deadline came and went. But the issue does occasionally rear its ugly head. I say the "issue" has an ugly head, because overseas adoptees, like children of mixed ancestry, are enjoying something of a renaissance. At the very least, it is much less common for them to be viewed as freaks or undesirables. Many are greeted "back" with special programs and outreached arms.

And in this respect, the report in JAMA can only help things. People in Korea can feel good that—despite the propaganda to the contrary—overseas adoptees are generally leading happy and healthy lives.


  1. The European adoptees interviewed for the movie harbored a hatred for Korea and all things Korean.

    I think the purpose of the interviews was a devious attempt to drive home the idea that adoption was bad, with these selected adoptees as Exhibit A.

  2. a very fascinating read. thanks for sharing.

    i do think it's a hard thing to measure though. i mean, there are so many complicated factors to be considered besides the adoptive family.

    anyway, while i do feel for international adoptees who hate their korean parents for giving them up for adoption because they have been unfortunate to have miserable lives in their adoptive homes (and i myself have met adoptees who fall into this category), it does seem especially painful to witness such anger because how can we know for sure life would have been any easier had they stayed in korea?

    you just have to think though: life in their adoptive lands/homes must be so incredibly bad that it would cause someone to think living in korea with their birth parents who perhaps were unable to properly care for them would have been easier.

    i think that is one reason why korean parents decided to give their children up for adoption in the first place--because in their judgement, at least the child had a fighting chance of having a brighter life than they would in korea considering the circumstances which drove them to make such a decision...

    of course it is a gamble as we know that happiness is not always the end result.

  3. I'm glad you appreciated the post, Jodi.

    I, too, know some "angry adoptees" or people who were otherwise miserable in their adoptive homes. But one has to put this into perspective: life as a teen is no picnic regardless of where you came from or who gave birth to you, so in some cases at least it's wrong to blame teenage angst on having been adopted from overseas.

  4. I know several people who searched for and eventually found their birth parents. The first person I know who did this, someone from Minnesota, found the birth mother to be willing to meet her but distant. She never really developed a close relationship with her while she was here, but after the first meeting she didn't want to.

    Another friend, also from Minnesota, was easily able to find her birth parents (with the adoption agencies assistant and with the birth mother's permission, of course), and she ended up having an incredibly close relationship with them, This is an extremely well adjusted and happy person who has an excellent relationship with her parents and family in Minnesota, so the close relationship with the birth family was just a "bonus."

    I have met quite a few adoptees here who just want to expose themselves to the culture of their "heritage" but have zero interest in tracking down their birth families. A lot of it is due not to a lack of interest, but a fear of how the birth family will react and regard them. Some just don't want the "burden" of an entire new family (which, in family relationship-oriented Korea, has to be the equivalent of getting a set of in-laws).

    I think the success of a relationship with one's birth parents largely depends on the circumstances in which the birth mother gave up her son or daugther. If it was an unwanted pregnancy, there may be too much shame for the mother to want to have a good relationship with this son or daughter who suddenly pops up twenty years later. Especially if the woman's husband and kids didn't know about it.

    On the other hand, if giving up the child was due to financial circumstances, like not being able to afford to feed all of one's kids (not uncommon), a death in the family (of the birth mother or the birth father), etc., etc., then there can be great joy in seeing this returned family member.

    Of course, there are exceptions to both. Maybe I should start a private-eye service for adoptees seeking their birth families so they can find out what kind of people they actually are before they commit to meeting them. :)


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