Persistence is key for Americans facing Korea's frustrating adoption process
January 31, 2005
SEOUL — All children are extraordinary to their parents, and Mia Jocz certainly is no exception.
The headstrong 2-year-old wants attention from anyone she sees, especially when a newcomer visits her parents’ apartment at Yongsan Garrison. She offers kisses and hugs to her brother, 7-year-old Miros, apparently forgiving his roughhousing that moments earlier caused her head to bump the floor. She mimics a reporter’s note-taking, making it clear that if she chose, she could easily start asking the questions herself.
Mia, however, is exceptional for an additional reason. Her American parents accomplished the none-too-easy feat of adopting the South Korea-born girl while they were stationed in Seoul.
Each year, Americans adopt about 1,800 South Korean children, according to U.S. Embassy officials. It’s extremely rare, however, for those adoptions to occur while U.S. families are living in South Korea, according to the embassy and officials at two South Korean adoption agencies.
The South Korean agencies don’t always have the resources to maneuver through both American and their own adoption laws, officials from both countries acknowledge. The two countries’ systems of approving prospective parents for adoption — a process that includes everything from criminal background checks to visiting the family’s home — is geared almost exclusively for parents living stateside, officials say.
For a handful of American couples living in Seoul, that system has proved frustrating. It can postpone a family’s growth, some of the couples say, and can mean a lost opportunity to expose the child to his or her native land.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” said Mia’s mother, Lulu Jocz. “I’ve picked up a lot of the culture already, and I can take that with me. I think that’s just a plus.”
U.S. Embassy officials acknowledge those frustrations, but say the reasons behind them are meant to protect the children.
“Here, the child’s history is clear,” said Michael D. Kirby, consul general at the U.S. Embassy. “They’re trying to avoid (a situation) where children are being bought and sold. Yes, it is rigid. But it looks after the interest of the child and parent.
“The idea in Korea is to have you know everything about the child before the ‘shock,’” he added. The “shocks” in other nations’ programs have involved incomplete and sometimes incorrect information about the child, such as undisclosed health problems or even falsified consent by the natural parents, he said.
There are two basic ways for Americans to adopt a South Korean child, embassy officials said. One is to adopt an orphan through an agency, a process that involves thorough background checks on the prospective parents, a home visit and a cost of a few thousand dollars. This is the method the Joczes used. The entire adoption can take as long as a year this way, but the parents may apply for the child’s U.S. citizenship and visa as soon as the adoption is finalized.
The second method deals not with an agency but more likely with the natural family, though a minister or friend may act as an intermediary. The adoption process is simpler, but the South Korean government requires that the child live with his or her new family for at least two years before relinquishing visa status — meaning the child cannot live outside South Korea during that time.
Meeting that two-year threshold can be nearly impossible for servicemembers who expect to be in South Korea for only a year, Kirby said.
Kim Kyung-bok of the South Korean-based Eastern Social Welfare Society adoption agency said servicemembers’ one-year stints in South Korea also impact how his agency handles adoptions.
A servicemember assigned to U.S. Forces Korea might stay on the peninsula for a year then transfer to another overseas assignment rather than returning to America. That scenario makes it difficult for agencies to follow up with home visits and post-adoption paperwork, he said.
Home visits are one of the key factors an agency uses in deciding whether to approve adoptive parents. For Americans living in South Korea, this is one of the main obstacles, Kirby said, because an American social worker must do the visit. Because the South Korean adoption offices don’t staff American workers, that makes the adoption virtually impossible.
“The home-study has to be done by an American,” he said. South Korean agency workers don’t have access or resources enough to do a thorough background check on Americans or determine if prospective families have a suitable home, he added.
Another potential obstacle for Americans in South Korea looking to adopt, Kim said, is a South Korean government effort to persuade more South Korean families to adopt the orphans. In 2004, the Eastern agency placed 700 children in homes outside of South Korea, with 600 of those going to the United States, according to the agency. Another 450 children went to families throughout the Korean peninsula, he said.
Lulu Jocz and her husband, Norburt, a lieutenant colonel with the 2nd Infantry Division, consider themselves lucky to have been able to adopt Mia, despite living only a few miles from her nursery and the Eastern agency, which they used for the process.
Kim said it’s been two years since his agency helped an American family living here adopt a South Korean child. He didn’t answer questions directly about the Joczes adoption.
Part of the Joczes’ success can be chalked up to foresight. The couple already had spent more than a year considering adoption, and they had done research on South Korean children before leaving their last stateside assignment in Georgia, Lulu Jocz said.
Four days after arriving in South Korea in June 2002, the couple went to the Eastern office in Seoul. Their persistence surprised the staff, but the Joczes managed to get an appointment with the agency, complete the proper paperwork and have their home approved by a local social worker.
By the time the paperwork was ready, Eastern officials had said they would no longer do adoptions for Americans living in South Korea, Jocz said.
“This was really upsetting to me,” she remembered. “I went through that scary moment when my world just crumbled.”
Again, they persisted, asking Eastern to reconsider its decision since the Joczes already had started the process. The agency agreed, according to Lulu, and on Feb. 13, 2003 — when Mia was about 5 weeks old — they brought her home.
Embassy officials also declined to comment on specific cases, but they did give this advice: “Work through someone in the States,” consul general Kirby said. Go through a U.S.-based agency and adopt as if you were living at home, using your home-of-record, he advised.
That’s what Sheryn Moore and her husband, Tom Hays, are doing. They already have adopted one South Korean child, Zealand, who will be 2 in March. They finished up that adoption as they moved in June 2003 from Kansas to South Korea, where Hays, an Army major, was assigned to theater-level staff at USFK headquarters.
A month later, Zealand was theirs.
“It was an unusual case,” Moore said in early January. “But everything worked out extremely well.”
But even with the advance work in the States, Zealand’s adoption proved hard at times, the couple admitted. They had to fly to Hawaii to get his passport and Social Security number. A trip to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul for part of the adoption process was frustrating, Moore said.
“They weren’t sure how to handle our case,” she said.
Now they want to expand their family by adopting another Korean child, but they won’t do it while in Seoul.
Moore and Hays hired an American social worker to travel overseas and conduct the home visit for the process of adopting Zealand. For their next adoption, they’ve decided to wait until Hays transfers back to Kansas next summer. But they’ve started the paperwork already, they said.
Adoption questions don’t come to embassy officials very often, Kirby said. In the past couple of years, the embassy has received a handful of questions about adopting South Korean children, he said, most about the two-year residency requirement in a personal adoption, rather than inquiries about the adoption agencies’ process.
Lulu Jocz, however, said she gets approached all the time.
“People are always asking me how,” Jocz said. “I give them the number, but little hope.”
>Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this article.