Mixed-race children face new obstacles

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Mixed-race children face new obstacles


Jeromy, now 2, on the day of his discovery on March 20, 2010. He was found a day after his birth on the doorstep of a Korean woman’s house in Bangbae-dong, southern Seoul. The Seoul Child Welfare Center transferred him to the Eden I Ville infants’ home in central Seoul soon after, and he has been there ever since.

It was around 5 a.m. on the morning of March 20, 2010, when a woman surnamed Park from Bangbae-dong, southern Seoul, heard a baby crying and ran to her door. On her doorstep was a dark-skinned newborn in a box with a note that said, “Please take good care of my baby. His name in English is Jeromy. I don’t have enough money to support him. I really love him. He was born at home on March 19, 2010, at 10:15 a.m.”

Park called the police, and Jeromy was transferred to the Seoul Child Welfare Center, which found a permanent home for him at Eden I Ville, an infants’ home in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul.

“We predict Jeromy was born of a Korean father and a Filipino mother,” said Lee So-young, the director of Eden I Ville. “As we want all children who were abandoned to be adopted and find a family, we wanted Jeromy to be adopted as well, but because he differs in appearance from other Korean children, most of the Korean couples who have visited our center have been reluctant to consider him.”

Lee said, however, that a multiethnic couple recently became interested in adopting Jeromy. She said she now has to look for Jeromy’s biological mother in order to successfully arrange an adoption, though it will be difficult because the mother is a foreign national. But she may have a lead.


The note written by Jeromy’s mother that was discovered with the child. Provided by Seoul Child Welfare Center

Lee went on to say that the woman who found Jeromy believes she knows how to locate the mother. The woman told Lee that she has adopted children of her own and has a helper at home named Cherry, who is from the Philippines.

“Mrs. Park told me that Cherry used to go to a church for foreigners in Itaewon and she thinks that Cherry must have told one of her friends about her,” Lee said. “One of them could be Jeromy’s mother.”

The rise in international marriages has helped the country move closer to becoming a multiracial society, but one of the early consequences of this development is a corresponding increase in the number of mixed-race children who are abandoned, according to Lee Ki-young, the director of the Seoul Child Welfare Center, where Jeromy is now living. “And these children rarely get adopted,” Lee said.

According to the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the number of children of cross-cultural marriages has risen as much as four times in less than four years, or 25,000 annually, from 44,258 in May 2007 to 151,154 in January last year, as the country has seen an increase in the number of migrant workers and cross-cultural couples.

Another problem that has emerged is child abuse.

The center has placed 12 mixed-race children in other facilities since 2008. Four of the 12 had been abused, Lee said.

According to the National Child Protection Agency, of the 5,657 cases of child abuse reported in 2010, 243 cases involved mixed-race children, accounting for 4.3 percent of the total number of child abuse cases in the country.

The most common type of abuse reported was negligence, which accounted for 43 percent of cases, followed by emotional abuse, accounting for 35.7 percent. Those surveyed said their biggest obstacles are communication and differences in parenting styles.

Experts say that protecting these children - many of whom don’t have Korean citizenship - is more difficult than protecting children with Korean citizenship.

Korea does not automatically grant citizenship to immigrant children born on Korean soil; therefore, only children with one Korean parent can become citizens. If the parents are illegal immigrants, the child could be stateless.

The National Child Protection Agency recently handled the case of a three-year-old girl, identified only as “A,” with Congo citizenship who was taken into a child support facility in Gyeonggi about a year ago because her father, who works as a day laborer, had failed to take care of her.

The father had a room at a motel and locked the girl up all day long while he was out working. When the father was investigated, he had no desire to raise the girl, who was in poor health.

She is currently being cared for at a child protection center, but her stay will be temporary. Because she is not a Korean citizen, she is ineligible for the government subsidies that would enable her to stay at a long-term protection facility.

“There needs to be a law that allows children with foreign citizenship to be admitted to child protection facilities,” said Lee Ji-mi, an employee with the National Child Protection Agency.

To make matters worse, the divorce rate for multiracial couples in Korea is on the rise, putting their children at risk of abandonment.

According to Statistics Korea, a total of 11,245 multiethnic couples in which one of the partners is Korean got divorced in 2010, accounting for 32.8 percent of international marriages.

As more couples break up, the number of mixed-race children who have been abandoned has also risen. Statistics Korea said that in 2010 there were 1,500 children from multiethnic families who were living with one parent or who had been abandoned, an increase of more than three times in seven years from 500 in 2004. Yet the data does not reflect how many children are being abandoned.

Experts say that mixed-race children from divorced families suffer more both emotionally and financially than Korean children in the same situation.

Jeong Yu-jin, an employee at Woori Multicultural Support Center in Seoul, said, “After a divorce, if the mother doesn’t have a Korean visa and goes back to her home country, leaving the child with the father, the child will feel more out of place. If the mother stays in Korea to raise the child by herself, they will both suffer financially because the mother will have difficulty getting a job here, not to mention the mother’s struggle to take care of her child.”

Troubles at school

In addition to neglect and mistreatment, children from multiethnic families also have difficulty entering schools in Korea, largely because of the language barrier.

Lee Cheon-young, the principal of the New World School in Gwangju, an alternative elementary and middle school for mixed-race children, said he is worried about the students at his school who are ready to proceed to high school because they are “not welcomed” by public high schools.

Most of the students at the school don’t have Korean citizenship, as their parents are both foreign nationals who came to Korea to earn a living, Lee said.

Meanwhile, the children at the school who do have Korean citizenship have difficulty adapting to Korean schools, the principal said.

“Because public high schools don’t believe these students have the ability to enter high school or do well there, most of our students weren’t admitted for the upcoming academic year [which starts in March],” Lee said. “Moreover, most of our students have been abandoned by their parents and live in school dorms.”

The school, which was established in 2007, currently has 85 elementary and middle school students from 14 countries, including China, Japan, Russia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Indonesia and North Korea.

Thirty-eight students at the school who are of age to graduate from middle school have not yet been admitted to a high school.

The Gwangju Metropolitan Office of Education explained that the principals at the high schools to which the New World students applied rejected the students’ applications, saying that “their academic level is too low to keep pace with regular high schoolers.”

Language is the biggest obstacle to bringing the students up to grade level, Lee said, but his school has also struggled with obtaining the necessary certification to qualify as an educational institution. The school was certified in June 2011, but prior to that, its students’ work wasn’t recognized by public schools.

Twenty of the 38 middle schoolers have been admitted to Dasom High School in Jaecheon, North Chungcheong. The school is a newly established, state-run alternative school for students from multiethnic families that is slated to open in March.

But the remaining 18 students will have to continue at New World.

“We have no choice but to keep the rest of the students here and help them prepare for the national qualification exam so they can gain admission to public high schools,” Lee said. “The country should admit that these students have limitations in terms of their ability to meet the academic standards and find a way to embrace them so they can better adapt to Korean society.”

Kim Hae-sung, the president of Global Sarang Organization, which operates a network of support centers for multiethnic families including the Global School, a school for multiracial children, said the problem needs to be addressed on two fronts.

“I believe our future depends on how we educate these children and our ability to change the awareness Koreans have about being a racially homogenous nation,” he said.

“Children from multicultural families could easily become the top victims of how a country handles multiculturalism unless we take good care of them,” he said.

Struggles with language

Another obstacle the children from multiethnic families face is delayed language development. Some parents have tried to address this through language lessons, which are provided for free by local governments.

A 31-year-old ethnic Korean woman from China, surnamed Choi, who married a Korean man in 2008, brought her three-year-old son to the Guro District Multicultural Family Support Center on Feb. 6 for the free language lessons. Choi’s son, who is surnamed Jeong, receives two 40-minute private sessions with a language tutor per week.

“I think my son has made some progress with memorizing words, but he still can’t make full sentences and only communicates with me using the few words he knows,” said Choi, who is quite fluent in Korean.

She said she is still worried that her son’s language development is “a little slow.”

“Although I’m fairly fluent in Korean, my pronunciation is different and my grammar may not always be correct,” Choi said. “But if I’m this worried about my son, I wonder how much the other immigrant mothers I know [who can’t speak Korean as well] worry about their children.”

According to Jeong’s language tutor Kim Hyo-ran, “Children from multicultural families, like Jeong, lack the verbal stimulation they need to speak Korean, as most immigrant mothers are not fluent in Korean.”

In addition to her worries about her son’s language development, Choi said she and her friends worry about getting enough information about educating their children here. She said she has learned most of what she knows by talking to other mothers in her neighborhood but confessed that she hasn’t ever told them she is from China.

“I told them I’m from Daegu and they believed me because my pronunciation is somewhat similar to the dialect in that region,” she said. “I am afraid they might judge me and won’t share things with me anymore.”

Kim, the language tutor at Guro District Multicultural Family Support Center, said most foreign brides who come to Korea haven’t learned the language before they arrive and get pregnant as soon as they get married. She said this is often the source of their children’s struggle with language because the mothers do not communicate with their children.

“One mother from the Philippines who brings her two children here said she hardly talks to her children, who are ages five and six, and makes them watch TV after coming home from kindergarten,” Kim said. “The children could be at risk for ADHD or socialization problems, not to mention language development delays.”

According to Kim, the mother has been living in Korea for seven years but her alcoholic husband has forbidden her to leave the house out of fear she will run away. The mother can’t speak Korean, and the two children can only reply to questions with “yes” or “no” answers rather than making full sentences, Kim said.

“They are very lethargic and passive,” Kim said. “I’m worried how they are going to adapt to elementary school.”

Shin Jeong-bok, a social worker who has volunteered at many events for multiethnic families, also believes the government should give more attention to these children. She said “multiculturalism” has become a nominal signboard that attracts government funding and believes the focus should not be on celebrating multiculturalism but on real policies that focus on aiding multiethnic families and their children.

“So much money is being wasted under the banner of multiculturalism,” Shin said. “We have to concentrate on bringing these children who are in the dark into the light.”

By Yim Seung-hye [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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