Army officer’s clan expands twice in South Korea
January 27, 2009
SEOUL — Like many expectant mothers, Elizabeth Berdine is eager to welcome the newest official member of her family. But she isn’t waiting to go into labor; she’s waiting for a judge’s permission.
When that permission comes, Danny will become the fourth child of Elizabeth and her husband, Lt. Col. Dan Berdine, and the second they’ve adopted from the Hwa Sung Babies’ Home in Seoul.
While the Berdines had to work around obstacles in both adoptions, they said the second time has been far more difficult due to changing laws and attitudes.
According to a 2008 New York Times article, South Korea changed its adoption laws in an effort to rid the country of a reputation as a market for foreign adoptions.
Since 1958, two-thirds of those adoptions have been to U.S. parents. The article said South Korea hopes to end foreign adoption altogether by 2012.
The government is trying to increase local adoptions by allowing single South Koreans to qualify, as well as older people up to age 60.
“South Korea is the world’s 12th largest economy and is now almost an advanced country, so we would like to rid ourselves of the international stigma or disgrace of being a baby-exporting country,” Kim Dong-won, who oversees adoptions at the Ministry of Health, was quoted as saying in the Times article. “It’s embarrassing.”
Many of the children living in Korean orphanages are not what Americans traditionally think of as orphans.
Hwa Sung Babies’ Home director Lee So-young said about 90 percent of the 50 children living in her orphanage have parents, but they’ve been abandoned for reasons ranging from financial difficulty to divorce.
Divorce, she said, is a very common reason to abandon children, because having children hampers the chance of finding a new spouse.
Although waning, there also is a cultural hurdle in local adoption, according to Lee.
“The perception that Koreans used to cling to — the perception of the bloodline’s importance — has been changing gradually, and they’re embracing other kids into their homes,” she said. “The government has been more heavily promoting domestic adoption these days.”
In some cases, Lee said, getting permission from a child’s biological parents before obtaining a judge’s approval is the only way to adopt, and often the easiest path.
“It is because private adoption can be negotiated, settled, decided between birth parents and adoptive parents,” Lee said. “It is like nonstop, direct agreement that helps cut down a large deal of very complicated procedures of an agency-through-adoption that is hard, expensive and time-consuming.”
Elizabeth Berdine said adopting her first son, D.J., then 3, was relatively easy in 2002, before laws tightened.
The only obstacle was D.J.’s grandmother, who wanted him raised by Koreans instead of foreigners.
“The orphanage director explained to her that letting us adopt was his best chance of finding a home,” Elizabeth Berdine said.
The Berdines left South Korea later that year, but returned in 2004 when Dan Berdine was assigned to Operational Intelligence Directorate, Operational Command Post Korea.
Once again, the Berdines took up volunteering at the orphanage and then decided to expand their family once more. And D.J. got what many survivors of sibling rivalry wish for — the chance to help pick his brother. The family decided on Danny, D.J.’s best friend from his days at the orphanage.
“They fit well together as brothers,” Dan Berdine said.
But much had changed in the years since the family’s first adoption. D.J.’s adoption was through a domestic adoption agency. Danny’s had to be handled as a private adoption because of the change in laws, Elizabeth Berdine said.
The Berdines’ private adoption required dealing directly with Danny’s family — starting with his mother, who thought the boy was with his father. His father, however, was in prison.
So the Berdines sought out Danny’s aunt and uncle, who finally gave them permission to adopt their nephew.
The Berdines said they’re confident the judge will approve the adoption.
Danny has been living with the Berdines for two years and is attending fourth grade at Seoul American Elementary School.
He’s developed a close relationship with D.J. and says they play in English.
But even with judicial approval of Danny’s adoption, the Berdines are a long way from being able to take him back to the United States.
Dan Berdine said there’s a two-year waiting list to get Danny a visa — a fact that’s forced him to make some hard choices.
The officer was slated to leave South Korea in June. Unable to get a tour extension from the Army, he said he will retire after 28 years in the military rather than leave Danny behind.
He hopes to find work as a contractor, so he can keep his family together, though he doesn’t have a new job lined up yet.
“We’re not done, and we don’t think we will be done. That kind of forced our hand,” he said. “We can’t leave without him.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.