CASA / GAL Community:   State & Local ProgramsJudges' PageAdvocacy ResourcesMember Network Board Resources

Intercountry Adoption and Reciprocity

Susan CoxSusan Soonkeum Cox
Vice President of Policy & External Affairs, Holt International Children’s Services

Summary: The author shares her own story of intercountry adoption and information about the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children in Intercountry Adoption.


The modern era of intercountry adoption began in the 1950s when orphaned and abandoned children from Korea were placed for adoption with families in the US. More than 200,000 children have come to their families through overseas adoption. I was number 167.

In 1956 I arrived in Portland, OR—to a new family, a new nationality and a new life. Growing up in a rural community as the only minority in my little town of 500 did not seem strange to me—it was the only life I knew.

Those first international adoptions pioneered the concept of trans-racial adoption. It was a new and unfamiliar way for families to be born. This very visible and unconventional process was not eagerly accepted within the child welfare community. It was acknowledged that the situation of these mixed-race orphans from Korea was desperate. There was no future for them in Korea, a desperately poor country, with a society that fiercely protected the Confusian commitment to family lineage. For children born to Korean mothers and UN soldier fathers, life was bleak at best.

The brave pioneering parents who adopted these children from Korea followed the advice of the day: to embrace their children without boundaries of race, culture, language and heritage. Families were encouraged to “Americanize” their new sons and daughters as quickly as possible. It was believed that a family’s love could overcome boundaries of race and nationality, that the love between a parent and child would be the same as a child born into the family.

More than 50 years later, adoption practices have evolved and are very different from previous decades. Issues of race, culture, heritage and nationality are given far greater attention and significance as a priority for the well-being of adoptees and the life-long issues of adoption. The lessons learned from previous generations of adoptees have been essential in providing insights and clarity about how to improve adoption policies and practices. The unwavering priority must be the commitment that intercountry adoption is finding families for children—not children for families.

Adoption is complicated. International adoption is further complicated by differences of race, nationality, culture, language and geography. And yet for countless children it is their only opportunity to have a family. In the little rural community where I grew up, I had nothing else to compare it to. I knew my parents loved me as their daughter, in spite of our differences. When I was asked how I felt about being adopted, looking Korean, or finding my “real” parents, it seemed that those questions did not truly reflect how I felt about myself and my family. Of course I knew that I was adopted, that I was Korean and my parents were not, but they were my “real parents” and that trumped everything else. Looking back I can see that there were times I was isolated and lacked the connection to others who looked like me or shared my experience.

I did not meet another Korean adoptee until I was 17 years old. I will never forget how it felt, and the profound understanding that we shared of who we were and how much we had in common. That feeling of shared community is deeply felt by an expanding global community of international adoptees.

It has been my blessing to have searched for and been reunited with my Korean birth family. It is beyond words to express meeting family who looked liked me, who loved and were connected to me beyond space and time, and who held the answers to questions I thought were lost to me forever. That experience also made me understand that adoption is shared history, more than shared biology.

I was 26 years old when I returned to Korea the first time. I went to my orphanage and met people my age that had never been adopted nor had a family. Over the years I have visited these same men and women and the contrast in our lives and mine is beyond measure. The difference is not that I left Korea to go to the US—the difference is that I left an orphanage to go to a family.

That is the truth of intercountry adoption.

Intercountry Adoption and Reciprocity

In the 1990s the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children in Intercountry Adoption was introduced, establishing a global context for international adoption practices. Concerns of unethical adoption practices and lack of transparency and uniform procedures to protect birth families, adoptive families and children prompted this treaty.

One of the changes resulting from the Hague Convention affected adoption practices regarding US children adopted abroad. The idea that the US is not only a receiving country, but also a sending country, takes most people by surprise. One of the concerns about this practice is the lack of information regarding how many children go abroad for adoption, where they go and what happens to them. The convention changes that, mandating that those adoptions must now be recorded and documented by our central authority at the department of state.

A common response when someone learns that children from the US are adopted by families in other countries is disbelief. The idea that “our children” would become the children of families of another country seems impossible. This is the natural reaction of other countries to the idea that “their children” are being adopted into the US. There is a critical issue of reciprocity. If it is acceptable for children from other countries to be adopted by families in the US, then it should be acceptable for children from the US to be adopted by families in other countries. It is a foreign idea to us and it requires that US children be assured the same protection and security through a consistent, transparent and ethical adoption system—including assurance that efforts were made to find a family for the child in their birth country; that consideration was given to the race, culture and heritage of the child; and that the child is being adopted by a loving family who will embrace the child’s birth culture and heritage and is committed to maintaining that connection for their child. It is simply the reverse order of what is an ethical intercountry adoption.



Editor’s Note: Susan Soonkeum Cox was a founder of the Gathering of Korean Adoptees in Washington DC; is editor of Voices from Another Place, an anthology of Korean Adoptees; and is a member of the Hague Special Commission on Intercountry Adoption.


The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
This Web site is funded in part through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. Neither the US Department of Justice nor any of its components operate, control, are responsible for, or necessarily endorse, this Web site (including, without limitation, its content, technical infrastructure, and policies, and any services or tools provided).