Childhood, in the custody of a strangerIt was only a day after Cho-hui returned to the child welfare center that she disappeared.
The 11 teachers at Sangrok Children’s Home scoured the building for the 7-year-old girl, but Cho-hui, who had just returned from a six-month stay with her mother, was nowhere in the facilities. She was, in fact, sitting in an nearby classroom pretending to be a student. The teacher hadn’t noticed her.
Cho-hui, now 10, is typical of a growing class of children in Korea who have been abandoned by divorced parents. These children are not orphans, but the losers of a reverse-custody battle by divorced parents who want to foist their child on someone else in order to more easily remarry. The parents typically say they don’t have the time and money to take care of their children after the divorce.
The existence of such children is shocking in a country where couples will pay enormous sums of money to educate their children.
According to the Ministry of Health & Welfare, since 2001 on average 1,000 kids are abandoned by their parents every year because of divorce. As of August this year, 522 children were sent to care homes around the nation.
“Most of the kids we are taking care of came here after their parents divorced,” said Hwang Yang-soo, the president of Kangnam Children’s Home. “The parents don’t want to bring them up, and end up trying to shift responsibility to each other.”
One such child was a 4-year-old boy who was alone at Kangnam Children’s Home while waiting for his friends to come back from kindergarten. Asked what he was doing, he tried to explain the books he was reading and ask questions about them, but his speech was so undeveloped as to be almost unintelligible.
“His language skills are developing slowly because he didn’t have someone to talk with and to teach him how to properly pronounce words when he was younger,” Ms. Hwang said. The boy and his sister, who is also learning-impaired, came to the care home when he was two, after his parents divorced.
Cho Soo-churl, a pediatric psychiatrist at the Seoul National University hospital, has seen many such cases. “More often now, the parents of kids who come to our hospital are separated or divorced,” he said. “Before the divorce, the children must have seen verbal or physical abuse in the family, and that could have caused anxiety or depression.” Dr. Cho said that although the kids can recover from the illness, as adults they could face depression from even small setbacks.
“Parents have changed from loving blindly to being more calculating. They now consider raising kids to be costly,” said Choi Kyu-reon, a professor of Child and Family Studies at the University of Suwon. The other factor, she said, was that it is far easier to remarry if a divorcee is not burdened with a child.
Aggravating the problem is the decay of large traditional family networks in Korea, Ms. Choi said. Men typically have had custody rights over children and would be able to draw on the support of grandparents, parents and relatives. Single fathers these days, in contrast, must raise children alone or not at all.
“The parents are irresponsible and selfish,” said Boo Chung-ha, head of Sangrok Children’s Home. “They visit their kids only when they want to see them, without considering how the kids feel.”
Indeed, a parental visit is a mixed blessing. If a parent comes on a surprise visit to to Sangrok, the other children also expect visits and wait patiently for their parents. The disappointment can be crushing ― some of the youngest will cry for days.
“One day a boy came to me and asked, ‘Did my dad die?’” Mr. Boo said. But the saddest part was that there was no emotion in his voice, he added. Mr. Boo knows how it feels: he lived in an orphanage for 12 years after the death of his parents.
Cho-hui meets her mother on national holidays and said that she tries not to cry whenever she comes back from her mother’s home. “I tell myself that I’ll be fine again only if I sleep two more nights,” she said.
Although she said it’s better staying with her mom than in the children’s home, her stepfather makes it difficult to do so. When asked which was better, staying with her mom or her dad, she replied, “With grandparents!”
Chae-bin, 11, is worse off than Cho-hui. Chae-bin was born in the United States when her parents were studying there. When she was eight years old, her parents divorced and her father was given custody of Chae-bin and her younger sister Chae-yeon, now 9. But not surprisingly, he couldn’t bring the girls up alone, and took them to Seoul Child Guidance Center, where kids stay temporarily before being routed to centers like Sangrok and Kangnam.
After a year, her mother found out that the girls were sent to the children’s home, and she visited Sangrok. But Chae-bin didn’t like being caught in between her parents’ arguments. Eventually, her father remarried and took the girls back, but the new marriage also collapsed, her stepmother left, and her father once again gave up on his children.
“My dad’s personality is shit,” Chae-bin said. “When he gets pissed, he shouts at us and throws whatever he sees.” Once during one of his rages, he threw an object that cut Chae-bin’s hand.
“Of course, I want to live with my parents. Who doesn’t?” Chae-bin said. Her voice was angry. “But I know that I can’t.”
“If we can’t stop divorce, we need to do something to take care of the kids,” said Ms. Choi, the professor at the University of Suwon. “The government should make a system that educates parents about the details of how to raise their kids, how often they should meet their children, and how to solve problems if the kids are in trouble.”
“The government should make it compulsory that the parents visit their kids regularly, at least once a month, and pay for a certain amount of money to raise them, no matter how small it is,” Mr. Boo said. “The government should make a law to force them to take responsibility, or send them to jail if they don’t.”
“My mom told me that I will live with her when I enter middle school,” said Cho-hui. She was smiling brightly. “I want to be a judge if I grow up, because I want to help good people and punish bad people.”
by Park Sung-ha