April 2014 Issue: After Terrible Tragedy, This Adoptee Asks: ‘What Is a Korean Child Worth?’ (Commentary 1 of 2)

What Is a Korean Child Worth?

The debate over intercountry adoption from Korea was reignited recently by news of the death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan, a 3-year-old special needs child adopted from Korea to an American family, Brian and Jennifer O’Callaghan of Maryland. Authorities allege that the adoptive father, employed by the U.S. National Security Agency, beat Hyunsu to death, though Brian O’Callaghan has maintained his innocence. Last month, O’Callaghan was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree child abuse, after a grand jury determined there was enough evidence to move forward with charges against him. Following is the first of two commentaries written by Korean American adoptees advocating for very different responses to this tragedy. 


Let us take a moment of silence for Hyunsu O’Callaghan.

On Feb. 21, at the Hongdae Children’s Park in Seoul, members of KoRoot, Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, Adoptee Solidarity Korea, Dandelions and The Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association gathered together to remember this Korean child who was adopted to the United States last October and entrusted to the care of Brian Patrick O’Callaghan, chief of the U.S. National Security Agency Korea division. Yet, at 3 years old, Hyunsu is dead.


Since news broke of Hyunsu’s autopsy results—including a fracture at the base of his skull, bruises to the forehead, and swelling of the brain—and his adoptive father stands trial for the alleged murder, people around the world have engaged in passionate dialogue about intercountry adoption. As a social worker and a Korean American adoptee, I am professionally and intimately involved in this dialogue. It’s an issue that affects some 250,000 infants and children, who were born in Korea and adopted overseas since the 1950s. With both Adoptee Solidarity Korea, an adult adoptee advocacy organization, and KoRoot, a guest house and NGO in Seoul, I do advocacy work around policies and practices that directly impact the lives of overseas adult adoptees and their families. As a result, I am reminded daily of the lifelong consequences to Korean-born children, who were displaced from their families and cultures of origin and adopted to the United States. They confront issues many people take for granted. With the medical histories of their biological parents unknown, they lack even the knowledge to fill out basic forms during doctor’s visits and that could help prevent diseases, for example. After moving to the U.S., many adoptees also often experience alienation in educational environments, where it’s assumed each student knows his or her actual birthday and can make a family tree, or deals with racism at school or work, to which their white adoptive families may be ignorant. Given such issues, it is my professional opinion that in order to protect children, social welfare professionals must advocate for biological family preservation first, especially in the cases of single parents and poor families. If family preservation is not an option, my fundamental assumption inherent in supporting adoption is that social workers, adoption agencies and adoptive parents can, at the very least, provide and enforce the safety of adopted children and infants. [ad#336]

But, in the case of Hyunsu, I was dead wrong.

I am tempted to dismiss this tragedy in Maryland as a random act of violence and an exception to adoption. However, as a social work professional, I cannot ignore the voices of adult adoptees and Korean unwed mothers who assert that Hyunsu’s death is a result of the inadequate protections to Korean children adopted overseas.

And, after 60 years of Korean adoption and this tragedy, I am left with the question all of us must confront: What is a Korean child worth?

I urge my colleagues—child welfare advocates, social welfare practitioners, educators, policy makers and students—to join current efforts advocating for an end to overseas Korean adoption, while simultaneously addressing the factors that lead to families giving up their children in the first place: namely, economic disparities targeting women, exasperated by a weak social welfare system in Korea.

According to the 2013 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index Report, South Korea ranks 111thout of 136 countries, and Korean women are far less likely to participate economically (118th), have equal wages (120th), and be enrolled in tertiary education (100th). With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Ministry of Health and Welfare reported that more than 90 percent of international adoptees in 2011 were born to unwed mothers. In South Korea, where these women do not have access to the money and services necessary to raise their children, adoption is not really a choice. Nor should it be a solution.


Nearly two years ago at KoRoot, U.S. Ambassador Susan Jacobs, special advisor for Children’s Issues, responded to concerns raised by unwed mothers and adult adoptees advocating for an end to intercountry adoption with the question: What about disabled children? She was suggesting that, without international adoption, many disabled children in Korea would have trouble finding homes in their own country. But, in the case of Hyunsu, who was categorized as a special needs child by Catholic Charities, he was no safer in the United States than in Korea. Our failure to find a solution to these persistent child welfare questions was paid with his life. Despite the 250,000 distinct experiences of Korean adoptees, each of us commonly grapples with the tensions between the realities and the fantasies of adoption. But, in loving memory of Hyunsu, we must accept the devastating truth that adoption does not guarantee infants and children a better life. In this case, not even life. Laura Klunder/Seungmi Ly is a Korean American adoptee living in Seoul. She received her master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She works at KoRoot, a guesthouse and NGO that is finding solutions to overseas adoption matters. She also serves as a member of the Adoptee Solidarity Korea steering committee, and is a monthly columnist for Gazillion Voices Magazine. Read her personal blog at coloringout.blogspot.com. [ad#336]

This article was published in the April 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).