Dr. Robert “Bert” Ballard of Pepperdine University Offers His Thoughts on Recent Korean Legislation

I admit that some of my thoughts as it relates to the new Korean adoption legislation can easily (and perhaps even legitimately) be swept under the rug.  After all, I once wore my “agency professional” badge loud and proud.  Additionally, I stepped away from the adoption community for a few years and a lot happened during that time.  And, as some have figured out, I’m facetious 50% of the time on Land of Gazillion Adoptees and so it’s difficult to determine how serious some of my statements are.  In light of this, I’ve approached a few other adoptees to get their opinions and insights.

Unlike me, Dr. Robert “Bert” Ballard, a professor at Pepperdine University in communication, isn’t easy to dismiss.  Bert, a Vietnamese adoptee, has the chops (academic/researcher/educator/expert on intercountry adoption), and he has been gracious enough to offer the following thoughts.


P.S. As an update to the “Let’s Give Away $10,000” post, we’re currently sitting at 12 pledges ($600), 188 away from the 200 pledge goal.  What do you say, dear reader?  Want to send me an email, kostvollmers(at)gmail.com, and join the resistance?

I do plead both ignorance and naiveté on the specifics related to S. Korean adoptions. However, as a member of the adult adoptee community, as well as a researcher and someone who has convened an international conversation on intercountry adoption, I do have a response to what is and has happened. I offer these thoughts in the spirit of dialogue among and with my adopted brethren as a way to model conversation, collaboration, and complex thinking for the rest of the international adoption world to follow.

First, I think the legislation that has passed aims for family preservation and that is laudable.  (Although I wonder about the real material effects of such legislation, but again plead naiveté to S. Korea’s governance system.)  From what little I know about the adult Korean adoptees involved in this effort, this has been a high priority for their community. Indeed, family preservation should be the goal for all families everywhere in all cultures and in all countries. However, in the case of S. Korea, is this the best legislation for the current problems related to intercountry adoption? Is this, as we might say in communication, a fitting response? Is using intercountry adoption as the foil for family preservation the best way to address intercountry adoption? I don’t know the answer for S. Korea, but I do wonder if this might be an “unfunded mandate” so to speak, whereby prioritizing domestic options increases pressure on an already strained social support system. If this is the case, the question emerges: are we trading a “smaller” set of problems that are not under the purview of intercountry adoption for a larger set of problems domestically?

Second, if there is anything I have learned in my research as well as in the outcomes from the Summit I convened last September (http://adoptionsummit.uwaterloo.ca/outcomes.html), it is that intercountry adoption is extremely complex. It is hubris to think that one legislation, one policy, one process, or one standard will address the multiplicity of problems plaguing intercountry adoption. The system is simply too complex, too big, and encompasses too many players, agencies, governments, and political and monetary interests. If anything, when addressing the problems, and there are many, in intercountry adoption, we need surgical solutions. Is this a surgical solution, one targeted at addressing intercountry adoption AND, in this case, the dissolution of first families in S. Korea? I draw upon my own experience with Vietnam when they were shut down in 2008. There were a small number of provinces, orphanages, and hospitals involved in the corruption related to the adoption of some of the children, but because there was no legislative flexibility or precedent, all adoptions had to be shut down. Of course this is a completely different kind of problem than what is occurring in S. Korea, and the legislation that has passed related to family preservation would have no bearing on Vietnam’s situation, but that is exactly my point. Different countries, different cultures. Different governance processes emerge from and cultivate different kinds of values, and different kinds of values and cultures demand (command?) different kinds of legislative, relational, and cultural responses.

This brings me to my third point, which is the assertion that the Hague can be used as a justification for domestic, social issues. While any country that accedes to the Hague legislation will make changes to domestic policies, it is done because that country has made a conscious, intentional decision to follow the Hague standards. But to push forth legislation in a non-Hague country based on the Hague seems colonial. I state this because the Hague is primarily a Western document, crafted mostly by receiving/adopting countries from Europe and North America. Countries of origin should strongly consider Hague and interested groups – adoptees, birth families, agencies, etc. – should lobby them to do so, but we also need to respect the cultural context and framework within which those countries make those decisions and would have to implement the Hague. To cut to the chase, the Hague is a great starting point, but there needs to be more culturally sensitive conversation, decision making based on subsidiarity, and less colonial mentality in international adoption reform.

My fourth point is that adoptees are growing in voice and we need to handle that voice responsibly. The Korean adoptees are leaders and many international adoptee communities should be envious of their success and their leadership. However, I have often wondered if their efforts are about themselves or truly about international adoption and Korea. Is addressing the present day problems of Korea really a cure for all the terrible things we adults faced because of poor education or a poor system? Is our/their motivation really about Korea, future adopted children, or international adoption as a whole or is it about trying to fix ourselves and undo the things that happened to us? As adoptees, I believe we are in a unique position to affect the future of international adoption. But we must handle our positionality with responsibility that is not merely about ourselves and our own pain, but rather for others – other people, cultures, and posterity. We cannot go back and fix us or the past; we can, however, go forward in a way that does not duplicate what we have experienced.

I’m a dick: Part 2

Update 2: Tobias Hübinette and Jane Trenka offered additional comments via Facebook.  You can see their replies at the end of this post.

Update 1: Tobias Hübinette offered a very thoughtful response via Facebook.  You can see it and my reply to him at the end of this post.

In “I’m a dick: Part 1,” I asked Susan Cox of Holt some facetious questions. For Part 2, I’m changing the tone.

Let’s begin again, shall we?

Dear Jane Trenka, Tammy Ko Robinson, Kim Stoker, and Tobias Hübinette:

Unfortunately for all of us, we adoptees exist in a fractured community. As a result, sometimes there’s a level of distrust toward other adoptees, questions about motivations, etc. Considering the fact that I once promoted the business of adoption and attempted to marginalize folks like you at the same time, I absolutely understand when individuals look at me with skeptical eyes. I bear that burden, which I brought upon myself.

In light of this, I want to say for the record here at Land of Gazillion Adoptees that this post is NOT an attack piece. I have genuine respect for all of you and what you’ve accomplished throughout your careers; I’m with you ideologically. Like the vast majority of KADs who don’t have the drive, resources, and know how, I frankly want all of you to tell me, as a member of your constituency, what I should know about all things Korean adoption, including the most recent legislation.

You’ve been very proactive in sharing information about “The Special Act Relating to Adoption” (Bill#1812414). Nevertheless, like many KADs who’ve been following your efforts, I’m a bit foggy on a few details. So, I would like to ask you the following clarification questions.

Doesn’t it strike you odd that agencies, such as Holt International, Bethany Christian Services, Dillon International, and Children’s Home Society & Family Services (CHSFS), haven’t publicly made statements about the Korean adoption legislation? Go take a look at their websites. None of them say anything about the legislation; they’re all acting like it’s business as usual. Trust me. As someone who once worked in the industry, this is highly unusual behavior for agencies. If you recall, when the Russian adoption fiasco happened a year back, many agencies, afraid that the situation would lead to the closing of the Russian intercountry adoption door, went berserk and talked with whomever they thought would listen. Here in Minnesota, CHSFS even held a press conference with Senator Amy Klobuchar and two well known parents in the Minnesota Russian adoption community.

As I mentioned in “I’m a dick: Part 1,” I have my theories in regards to this question, but they are only theories. Thus, I would really like to hear why you think that these agencies remain silent. If the Korean adoption legislation works as many of us understand it, referrals of children to be placed for adoption will go down significantly for these agencies, which, as businesses, have a vested interest in their bottom line (less referrals = less money).

Are you comfortable with the idea that Korean adoption legislation, which, in your words, helps “bring Korea up to international standards as per the Hague Adoption Convention,” (source) legitimizes intercountry adoption? To paraphrase the words of a former JCICS Board Member, standardizing and bringing transparency to intercountry adoption was the main theme that came out of the Hague Adoption Convention. The Hague is “pro-system.” It recognizes intercountry adoption, and all of its key players. It makes sure that the system works efficiently. As an example, I point you to the US State Department’s (the central entity that oversees intercountry adoption here in the States) website. As you’ll see, the language isn’t written for adoptees or first families. Rather, the website is geared toward agency professionals and adoptive parents, two of the major players who drive the adoption market.

I’ve read some of your past thoughts and perspectives on intercountry adoption: the movement of children from the “have not countries” to “have countries”; what this exchange of children symbolizes; and the role that the business of adoption plays. So, how does the “pro-system” Hague Adoption Convention, which as you know DOES NOT have anything to do with domestic adoptions in any country, jive with the way you understand the world? Bringing “Korea up to the international standards as per the Hague Adoption Convention” is incongruent with your past efforts, right…or am I missing something?

Please don’t get me wrong. I fully believe that the new Korean adoption legislation is progressive. There’s a lot there that protects the rights of adoptees and unwed parents. Nevertheless, the Hague influenced legislation is a part of a much larger geopolitical system that participates in a market driven by forces that thrive on/need the worldwide sending and receiving of children. So, again, I’d like to hear your take because I believe that many of us Korean adoptees, as members of your constituency, want to hear your nuanced thoughts. Beyond us, individuals adopted from other countries are looking to you as well. You are setting a monumental precedent that other communities will certainly use as a major touch point.

Jane, Tammy, Kim, and Tobias, per my earlier statement, my motivations and questions are genuine. At your earliest convenience, I would greatly appreciate if one of you took the time to answer my questions via e-mail, in the comment section, or in whatever manner you find appropriate. When you do, I’ll be happy to share your thoughts with other members of the broad adoption community.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all that you do.

Tobias’ Facebook Response: “My take on the Hague Convention is that I am fully aware that it is pro-(world) system (pro-West) and pro-(transnational) adoption, but it is better for all parties involved to go with it than to go without it, and as long as adoption from the non-West to the West continues (which it will also in the coming future, although to a smaller extent), it is therefore better to advocate for its standards than to accept the unregulated market that is usually the norm in non-Hague Convention states.”

My reply: “Thanks, Tobias. This actually clarifies things for me quite a bit. So, if you’re accepting of Hague’s tenants, then you must be accepting of Hague compliance realities and how they impact countries like S. Korea:

  1. Western control: Countries like the US use – as a system of control – the threat of “noncompliance”/”non-Hague Convention process” against “sending countries.”  All hail Western hegemony!
  2. The reality of “Non-Hague” status for S. Korea: In all practical purpose, S. Korea doesn’t need the “Hague Convention” label or participate in the Hague standards. It already has a smooth adoption process that favors adoptive parents and adoption agencies. The Korean agencies have longstanding relationships with agencies like Holt, Dillon, etc. The “Hague Convention” for Korea is merely a label to help justify the exchange of children (for money) between Korea and receiving countries like the US. In other words, unfortunately your advocacy for implementing the Hague standards in S. Korea is, in reality, a moot point.
  3. The Hague doesn’t impact domestic social welfare systems: The Hague doesn’t care about us adoptees and how Korea interacts with us. The Hague doesn’t care about unwed families and how countries interact with them. So, if you truly believe that Korean government is ready to advocate for adoptees, unwed families, and a strong social welfare system, then I’m elated. Just don’t let anyone tell you that the Hague has anything to do with this.
Tobias’ Second Facebook Response: “No, I am not accepting Western hegemony, but I cannot see any other solution right now when it comes to Korea. Also, I’ve had my share of oppression and violence due to my anti-continuous adoption from Korea stance, so I don’t want to be viewed as a pro-adoption advocate.”
Jane Trenka’s Facebook Response: “since stoker and tammy are out of the country now and i have my final exam next week, maybe it would be nice to give us some time to respond collectively. i hope your readers dont interpret the lack of response as anything but vacation season. if it is addressed to just me i can answer by myself but since you kind of called us out as a group i think we should answer as a group.”

I’m a dick: Part 1

“So it ever must be in the conflicting scenes of life, in the long, weary march, each one walks alone. We may have many friends, love, kindness, sympathy, and charity to smoothe our pathway in everyday life, but in the tragedies and triumphs of human experience each mortal stands alone.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Solitude of Self

For my next two unsolicited editorials, I’ll ask fairly rude questions. They’re not going to be popular. Let’s just say that I’m certain some will call me a dick, as well as other colorful descriptions. To be honest, though, in recent years I haven’t been the type of person who seeks out “Mr. Congeniality.” So, frankly I don’t care if people call me a dick after reading the following because I’m a firm believer in the right of each individual to question. To question is to be human.

The point of the rude questions is to seek out some answers from a few adoptee heavyweights. In particular, I’d like to hear from Susan Cox, whom others have described as the poster adoptee for adoption agencies. Additionally, I would like to get some clarification from Jane Trenka, Tobias Hübinette, Tammy Ko Robinson, and Kim Stoker, four individuals involved in the most recent Korean adoption legislation.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Ms. Susan Cox,

I’m totally going on a hunch here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you and other members of the Holt leadership know something about the new Korean legislation (at least the way that it will play itself out) that most of the adoption community doesn’t know. Specifically, you know that the Korean legislation won’t impact Holt’s bottom line, right? It’ll be business as usual for Holt? Holt has some plans? Holt, along with the Bethany’s of the world, is teaming up with the Korean Church Coalition to push through the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011? You’re all chatting it up with the folks behind the rise of the new evangelical adoption crusade?

Seriously. Why hasn’t Holt, which arguably originated on the backs of Korean adoptees, adoptive parents, and first mothers, said much about anything in regards to the bill? For that matter, why haven’t you?

Come on. Does my hunch come close to being right? Am I wrong? Either way, I believe that you, as someone who touts her credentials as a leader in the adoptee community (generally among the folks whom you hang out with the most – adoption professionals, state/national lawmakers, donors with deep pockets and influence), have a responsibility to offer your thoughts and perspectives on The Special Law Relating to Adoption. As a gentle reminder, leaders lead by setting an example. Leaders lead by sharing information with the community. Leaders lead by telling the truth.

Susan, I’m very much aware of the fact that you won’t stoop to my level by responding to my questions. After all, I’m just an adoptee blogger, and you’re “Susan Cox,” who is simultaneously respected, admired, feared, and hated by your peers, i.e., other adoption professionals. You’re Susan Cox, who has been known to disregard the expertise of accomplished adoptees like Bert Ballard and Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter. They’re not “professional” enough for you. You’re Susan Cox, who is notorious for committing what I like to call adoptee-on-adoptee crimes. Those of us who were a part of the Mavin Foundation’s Adoptee Empowerment Project fondly recall your utter disrespect for the experiences of individuals like Richie Bauer and Reena Vogt and your belief that the role of adoptees is to simply come up with ideas that adoption professionals implement. You’re Susan Cox, who makes presentations in which you offer solutions to adoption professionals on ways to dismantle the arguments of adoption reformers/activists like Jane Trenka, Tobias Hübinette, Tammy Ko Robinson, and Kim Stoker.

Yeah, you know what? Nevermind the questions. I’m a simpleton. I’m just a member of the adoptee masses who has the audacity to ask you, Susan Cox, for some answers.


Part 2, dear reader, will be published next week. Stay tuned.