Adoptions to Sweden – accomplishments and consequences. Statement by Fredrika Ornbrant, Embassy of Sweden, on February 12, 2002.
First of all, I want to thank Ms Park In Sun, who has invited me to participate in this very important conference. Adoptions are a very sensitive issue and in Sweden, where I come from, we have, for the past year, had a tremendous debate going on how we could improve the conditions for the adoptees and the adoptive families. Some people have even questioned international adoptions, while others belive it is a necessary way out as an alternativ to place children in institutions.
Sweden has the highest rate of international adoptions in the world, compared to its population. One out of every 50 children is an adoptee. Every year around 1 000 international adoptions are carried out in Sweden. Last year 1 044 children came to Sweden in order to live with their adoptive parents. 117 of them were from South Korea. This makes Korea the second largest sending country of adoptees to Sweden. Not one of the Korean adopted children was older than one year of age.
Why are there so many Swedes that would like to adopt a child from abroad? And why from Korea? The reasons differ, but the start of international adoptions in Sweden came about when the domestic adoptions decreased dramatically because of the changing status of unmarried women. Earlier, it had been synonymous with bad behaviour to give birth to a child without being married and it was also very difficult for these mothers to survive economically. Therefore, families adopted children from unmarried Swedish women.
In the 60's the Welfare State began to take root in the Swedish society. Women were demanded in the labour market and if they were to work, the government had to provide the families with child care facilities. And the government did. Once the women had entered the labour market, they got economic independence and earned money of their own. Therefore, the Welfare State laid the ground for unmarried women to keep their child instead of giving the baby up for adoption.
Other parts of the Swedish welfare system, which made it easier for unmarried women with children, are the introduction of child allowance and parental leave, the housing subsidies for the ones in low income brackets, unemployment insurance etc. All these factors paved the way for unmarried mothers not to give their children up for adoption. Family planning was another important factor.
With the unmarried mothers keeping their babies, the attitudes also changed. They were no longer seen as a disgrace for their families, but as ordinary citizens. Nor were their children seen as unwanted. They were treated as everybody else, and their classmates did not bully them due to the lack of a father.
Since an increasing number of children stayed with their biological mother, the conditions for domestic adoptions changed. The families wanting to adopt a child had to turn to other countries, and since some adoptions from Korea had started already in the late 50's it was natural to continue on the same path. Adopt children from Korea.
Last year, approximately one out of every 10 adopted children in Sweden came from Korea. What are the basic principles for the Swedish adoption policy? There is one principle superiour to all other considerations. The focus has to be on the child and the main goal is to do what is best for him/her and his/her future development. The decision of what is the best for the child can never be taken in Sweden. It has to be settled in the child's country of origin. For example in Korea. We all know that a child's separation from its mother is traumatic. A majority of adopted children can handle that experience, a few can not. Therefore, the first goal should always be to try to keep the child with its biological parents, or, if there is no father, its biological mother. In cases where it is impossible for the biological parents/mother to take care of the child, the child should be adopted to people in its native country. As a last and final resource, international adoptions are an option. It is an alternative solution for a child who otherwise might grow up in an institution.
It is important to stress this overriding principle for the Swedish adoption policy, taken by the Parliament in 1979, stated in the UN-convention on the Rights of the Child, which Sweden also has adopted, and repeated by different acts of each individual Adoption Organisation. My country only has a say when the "sending countries" have already decided that international adoptions is the only way to secure a future for the specific child. What Sweden can do, and is doing, is to try to find the best suitable parents for the adopted children. This is done by the local Child Welfare Authorities. After the requets from the future adoptive parents, a local professional social worker is carrying out an investigation, which, when it is finished, is presented in a homestudy report. It contains the following:
After the homestudy is done, it is up to the local Social Welfare Committe to take a decision. Every year a number of people want to adopt a child and the homestudy procedure starts. Few people are turned down. Normally, the local social welfare committe talks the unsuitable parents out of the idea of adoptions before a formal decision is made. When it happens, it is often single people failing to meet the demands. The adoptive parents are usually middle-class people. They are better off than the average population economically as well as when it comes to education. But, as you will see in a few minutes, this has caused some problems. How are the adopted children doing when they grow up? And can we see any differences between adoptive children and Swedish born-children?
An overwhelming majority of the adopted children are doing well as adolscents and young adults. They are like any other Swede, but for, sometimes, their skin color. They have not been bullied at school nor discriminated at work. Their adjustments to the Swedish society and to the adoptive family have been smooth. A minority though, have had a hard time growing up in Sweden. A recent study made by professor Anders Hjern, shows that a larger share of the adopted children, compared to other children, experiences difficult problems. Intercountry adoptees are three to four times more likely to have serious mental health problems such as suicide, suicide attempts and psychiatric admissions. Intercountry adoptees are five more times likely to be addicted to drugs and two to three times more likely to committ crimes or abuse alcohol, compared to other children in the Swedish society living in similar socioeconomic circumstances.
The report has created an outcry in Sweden. Some people are questioning international adoptions and one of the public tv-channels made a very emotional documentary on the "negative effects" of adoptions. The debate has been very heated and some people tend to forget that 82 percent of the boys in Anders Hjern's study, and 92 percent of the girls have no indication of mental health disorders or social maladjustment.
When speaking to the Adoptions Organisations, they say the results are well-known facts in their circles. Professor Wun Jung Kim says the results are similar to other studies done in the US and Europe: around 80 percent of the adopted children are doing well. There is one group in Sweden which thinks the issue of the maladjustments of adoptees is far too exaggerated. The adoptees having adjusted themselves to a normal life in Sweden.
One of them, Tove Lifvendahl, adoptee from Korea, and one of the most prominent politicians within the Moderate Party in Sweden, wrote an article in the biggest paper in Sweden asking to stop the chase of adoptive children and their parents. We must never forget that the overwhelming majority are living as happy life as any one else in Sweden, with no use of drugs, suicide attempts or what so ever.
Still, the Hjern-study points at some important tendencies. And we have to deal with them, in order to diminish the group of adoptees having difficulties in adjusting themselves into the Swedish society even though they are in minority. What can we do?
Accordning to Anders Hjern, the adoptive families and the adoptive children have to get the psychatric help they are in the need of as early as possible. Until now, many psychiatrists have had the attitude, quoting Anders Hjern: "Here comes a well-adjusted family with a problem, but they have such resources, they can cope on their own". Being a well-off family has been an obstacle rather than an advantage in these cases.
Another important measure , also accordning to Anders Hjern, would be to inform the adoptive familes about the higher risks of maladjustments. During the 70's it was popular to think that a foreign adoptee had exactly the same conditions for a good life as a child born in the family. Love and respect were the clues. Today, we know better.
Talking to Adoptionscentrum, the largets and oldest of the Swedish Adoption Organisations, they would like to see more money channeled into the local Social Welfare Committes in order for them to employ local social workers specialising in adoption issues. They would also like to have an increased exchange with South Korea concerning return-trips for the adoptees. Perhaps the Swedish Adoptioncenter could contribute to an understanding on how Sweden succeded to diminish the domestic adoptions.
There are problably a wide variaty of measures that could be taken in order to give the adoptees better chances of avoiding misadjustments. A year ago, the Swedish government appointed a Committee to study these issues, and they will come up with a report in May, 2003.
Hoping to have given you a different angle of the adoption issue, the Swedish one, I would like to quit by quoting a Korean adoptee about return-trips:
"For me, it is about finding what no one can give me in Sweden. I want to have my Swedish part, which I have got naturally, and my Korean part, which requires more work. These parts together are the human being I am today."