Toddler's murder reopens old wounds for Korean adoptees

Toddler's murder reopens old wounds for Korean adoptees
Shannon Heit (right), a Korean-American adoptee, and members of the Korean Unwed Mothers Families' association hold a rally in front of an adoption agency in Seoul which arranged the adoption of a 3-year-old boy beaten to death by his adoptive father in February in the US

Shannon Heit, 33, trembled with rage as she recalled the moment two months ago when she heard that a Korean boy had been killed by his adoptive father in the US

Heit, a freelance translator in Seoul, is not related to the boy. But she said that, as a Korean-American adoptee herself, she felt a deep connection to him, and a greater pain.

Hyunsu O'Callaghan, 3, died on Feb. 3 at a children's hospital in Maryland, just four months after he was adopted by an American couple.

Brian O'Callaghan, the boy's father, claimed that the boy slipped while taking a shower, but an autopsy revealed a fractured skull, bruises to the forehead, swelling of the brain and multiple contusions consistent with impact trauma. Authorities in the US said the evidence showed that the boy had been "basically beaten from head to toe" by his adoptive father.

O'Callaghan was arrested and indicted last month with first-degree murder and child abuse for the death of his own son.

"To me it's just like really sad and heartbreaking … even just thinking about the last minutes that he would have spent not even being able to express himself," she said, adding that the boy, who was disabled, may not have been able to communicate with any of his family in the US

Out of despair, she took to the streets to tell people about how Hyunsu died and the organisations she thought should be held responsible.

Heit has been standing outside offices of those organisations, from the National Assembly to the adoption agency that arranged Hyunsu's inter-country adoption, holding a picture of the boy and sign saying, "Sorry we couldn't protect you."

"Hyunsu is not the only one. There are more to protect," she said.

Heit is one of several Korean adoptees raising concerns about Korea's inter-country adoption system, which they say fails to protect young adoptees' basic human rights.

Jane Jeong Trenka and Ross Oke, both adoptees themselves, have also been assertive in raising the issue. The two currently lead Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, or TRACK, a Seoul-based advocacy group for adoptees' rights. The group has worked with other human rights groups, including Save The Children, to ask the Ministry of Health and Welfare last month to open an investigation into Hyunsu's case.

They urged the government to ask itself whether it had done enough to find him a Korean family before approving his overseas adoption.

Adoptee groups say the intercountry adoption of children like Hyunsu, who was born prematurely with hydrocephalus, must be stopped.

"It is hard enough for a child with special needs to adapt to that kind of particular environment. To do that to a child who needs special care is devastating. That is not at the child's best interest at all," Heit said.

Holt, one of the largest adoption agencies here, has also been under fire for sending Hyunsu overseas, even though it knew that his foster mom in Korea wanted to keep him.

"Holt simply ignored my request, saying it was illegal to adopt a foster child. But I later learned that was a lie," Hyunsu's foster mother said in a TV interview. Holt countered that she was not "willing" to adopt him and didn't go through the official procedures to adopt him.

Adoptee and children's groups such as TRACK and Save The Children blamed Holt, arguing that Hyunsu could still be alive if the adoption agency had carried out a thorough background check of the family in the US before he was adopted.

Activists suggested that the agency was trying to send him overseas because the money it receives for arranging international adoptions was higher than for domestic adoptions. Adoptive parents from overseas pay about $20,000 per child to agencies for arranging the process, they claimed.

Holt declined to comment on the matter.

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