A Reflection on Deann Borshay Leim’s film, In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee

The 1960s were a dark time for intercountry adoptions. Although there were many well-intentioned parties, the absence of regulation and oversight opened the door to a wide range of questionable practices and dishonest behavior.

As Deann Borshay Liem’s film poignantly illustrates, those most frequently hurt were highly vulnerable children. Like all adoptees, these children struggled with issues of identity, love, loss, and belonging – issues that were compounded because their adoptions crossed international borders.

At ISS-USA, we understand these issues because we encounter cases of
international separation every day. Each story is unique, but the common thread is
the brokenness that comes with loss of family, loss of heritage, and loss of connection to the fundamental underpinnings that make us all what we are. No caring person can watch Deann’s film without feelings of sadness, anger and betrayal.

There is good news, however. Much has changed since the 1960s, and I am very proud to report that ISS – through a network of social workers, lawyers, psychologists, mediators and volunteers operating in 120 countries – has been at the center of the groundswell which has fostered meaningful reform and a burgeoning international acceptance of a set of principles and practices that are grounded in defending the best interests of the child. While we handle all types of cases of international separation, our outreach in advocacy and training are making transformative differences.

For more than eight decades, International Social Service (ISS) has been the lead agency practicing and refining intercountry casework. It was founded in 1924 under its original name, the International Migration Service, by representatives from the United States, the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Poland and Switzerland in response to increased migration from Europe between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Our network gradually expanded to re-establish family links, and protect and defend children deprived or separated of their family across borders. Renamed International Social Service in 1946, we at ISS have provided psychosocial and legal expertise in child and family matters in an international context. To see some of our many success stories, please visit our website or that of our international federation.

Over the years, we have learned a great deal from the people we have served, and have translated that knowledge into providing better services; developing and advocating for best practices; and providing training and capacity building. As a network, we can provide and advocate for the best possible care of children separated from their families across borders around the globe. These efforts are aimed at protecting the rights of the children involved so that situations like those in Korea in the 1960s are not repeated.

One of the tenets of our advocacy work is the Hague Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. As an organization, we were instrumental in shaping, writing and promoting the ratification of the Hague Adoption Convention, a groundbreaking document that guides the protection of the best interests of children involved in intercountry adoptions. According to the Hague Conference on Private Law’s website, there are now 83 countries signed on to this convention – a convention that has transformed intercountry adoption dogma from finding children for families to finding families for children. In the last few years, ISS, through our international offices in Switzerland, has worked closely with states such as Kazakhstan, Viet Nam, Kyrgyzstan and Côte d’Ivoire to reform their intercountry adoption practices and assist them on their path to ratification of the Hague Adoption Convention.

Hague has created many safeguards to protect children throughout the adoption process, including developing central authorities in each country, reducing the likelihood of the abduction, sale and trafficking of children via intercountry adoption, ensuring that children are clearly without family and that no suitable domestic options exist before an intercountry adoption can be finalized, requiring adoption agencies to operate with transparent procedures and to obtain accreditation. Most important in the context of Deann’s film is that the Hague Adoption Convention establishes a strict framework for clearly identifying the origins of the child and establishing his/her adoptability prior to the proposal of an adoption for the child. This is wholly consistent with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which together with Hague Adoption, guides our casework throughout the world.

The ISS General Secretariat International Reference Centre for the Rights of Children Deprived of their Family (IRC) is a division within ISS specifically dedicated to the questions linked to adoption and children without parental care. It is a service-provider for twenty inter-country adoption central authorities in receiving countries, provides its services freely to all central authorities in countries of origin and serves a network of over 3000 professionals worldwide. Through this center, the ISS IRC has developed many important documents with other key stakeholders such as UNICEF and SOS Children’s Villages that promote best practices in the care and protection of children, including the Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children recently approved by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as well as tools for adoption of older children and those with special health needs.

Our advocacy work takes on many forms. When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January, many questions surfaced about international adoptions originating there. ISS had to determine how international standards applied to expediting adoptions already in process. ISS recently released: Expediting inter-country adoptions in the aftermath of a natural disaster … preventing future harm. The report includes a signed Forward written by Mr Hans van Loon, Secretary General of the Hague Conference on Private International Law. This report examines intercountry adoption practices in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Its principal objective is to identify lessons to be learned from our experiences in Haiti and to provide an objective analysis of the fast-tracking measures implemented against the backdrop of international norms.

Our efforts have also spawned new opportunities to build on the successes of recent years. Just last year, ISS-USA was awarded a Fostering Connections Discretionary Grant from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. The three-year grant, which exceeds $1.4 million, will fund the work of ISS-USA and its partners in New Jersey to improve permanency placement options for children in the New Jersey foster care system by developing and implementing intensive family finding services for all children who have potential kinship placement outside the United States. It is hoped that the Demonstration Grant will result in more family placement options for children, and a training and best practices model that will be replicated throughout the United States.

We sincerely appreciate the opportunity POV has provided us to bring some additional perspective on international adoptions and the work that we at ISS do. To that end, we invite any adoptee or family member searching for relatives to contact us through our website, by email, [email protected] or by calling 443-451-1200. We have connected a great number of people by providing information, closure and reunions for people around the globe. We also welcome contact from anyone who would like more information about how to access historical information about ISS for the purpose of scholarly research at the Social Welfare History Archives at The University of Minnesota. The records document a wide range of ISS-USA’s international social services, including services to refugees and migrants and, particularly, international adoptions by families in the United States.

While heart wrenching and sad, Deann’s film will bring important attention and hope to the issues surrounding international adoption. While there is still much work to do, the film underscores how far we have come since the 1960s. We at ISS are gratified that we have played a role in these advances and remain committed to the continued care for the best interests of children.

About The Film
In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee will be broadcast this evening, September 14, 2010 on PBS.  It is the third of POV’s series on adoption, which has included Wo Ai Ni Mommy ( http://www.pbs.org/pov/woainimommy/) and Off and Running ( http://www.pbs.org/pov/offandrunning/).  Check your local listings for the exact time of the broadcast in your area.  The film can be viewed online at (http://www.pbs.org/pov/chajunghee/) from September 15, 2010 through October 15, 2010.

Her passport said she was Cha Jung Hee. She knew she was not. So began a 40-year deception for a Korean adoptee who came to the United States in 1966. Told to keep her true identity secret from her new American family, the 8-year-old girl quickly forgot she had ever been anyone else. But why had her identity been switched? And who was the real Cha Jung Hee? In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is the search to find the answers, as acclaimed filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem (First Person Plural, POV 2000) returns to her native Korea to find her “double,” the mysterious girl whose place she took in America. A co-production of ITVS in association with the Center for Asian American Media and American Documentary/POV.