Seoul pastor’s drop box orphanage underscores South Korea's adoption plight

A South Korean pastor's "Baby Box," where mothers can leave unwanted infants, gets a spotlight shone on it in a new documentary.

SEOUL —  Lee Jong-rak's church is accepting donations, no questions asked, but in this case, his solicitation might not be what you think it is.

Lee, a pastor in the Nangok district of Seoul, built a small wooden box into his church in December 2009. Instead of collecting clothes, toys or other charitable donations, the box serves one purpose. It is a means to take in children who might otherwise be abandoned on the streets of the sprawling, densely populated city.

The "Baby Box" is the subject of a new documentary, "The Drop Box," which recently won the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival's "Best of Festival" Jubilee Award.

Lee's invention is relatively simple in execution but profound in its result. On the box, Lee's message is clear: His Jusarang orphanage accepts unwanted children. When a parent opens the door on the outside of the church and lays a child in the box, a bell rings to alert Lee, who then opens a door on the inside and recovers the child. The Baby Box has allowed Lee to bring dozens of abandoned children under his roof. Historically, these have been special needs children whose parents lack the means or desire to care for them.

Lee is also part of a committee that held a press conference last month to address adoption laws in South Korea. Many believe child abandonment has increased because of a new law aimed at protecting the rights of children.

The law is aimed at ensuring adoption is more transparent and makes it mandatory for parents to register newborns if they want to give them up. But the problem with that law, says Lee and his supporters, is that adoptions, orphans and adoptees (and especially special needs adoptees) are stigmatized in Korean culture.

"A child born out of wedlock by an unwed mother provokes rejection, denial or a strong desire to hide the evidence (not wanting others to know)," Stephen Morrison, founder of MPAK and a Korean adoptee himself, told MSN News, "thus they abandon or give the child for adoption.

"The culture values very much how they are viewed by others, so there is a natural tendency to avoid or reject those who have special needs. In many cases, if a child is discovered to have birth defects or other forms of special needs, they [are] abandoned or put up in an institution."

Many children left in the Baby Box are accompanied with heartrending notes from parents who have nowhere else to turn. "I am sorry to do this upon my baby who hasn't even seen the light of the world," wrote one mother in a letter translated on the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea's blog, "because I can't raise this child nor have the ability, the adoption is a better alternative."

Lee has special relationship with many of his charges, because his own son was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy; the affliction has confined his son, named Eun-man, to a bed and rendered him non-verbal. But rather than give his son up, Lee turned to religion. In 1992, he started training to become a Christian minister, a path that would lead him to his first adopted child, according to the Los Angeles Times.

During one of his routine visits to other disabled children in the hospital, a woman told Lee she would convert to Christianity on the condition that Lee take over care of her paralyzed granddaughter. Lee agreed and welcomed the first of many orphans.

Over the last decade, international adoptions from South Korea have steadily decreased to the point that domestic adoptions now exceed international adoptions. This decline, combined with the country's societal views, has frequently resulted in secret or undocumented adoptions.

Last year, South Korea's government attempted to curb such adoptions with the Special Adoption Law Revision, which requires birth mothers to register their names with the children they give up for adoption, according to Morrison. Unless the child is adopted (which frequently doesn't happen), this record stays with the mother, which many see as a mark of shame. Wanting to avoid this, mothers frequently abandon their children or turn to options such as Lee's Baby Box. After the passage of the Revision on Aug. 5, 2012, the number of babies left in the box has skyrocketed, with most of the new additions being healthy babies with no disability.

"Pastor Lee's Baby Box is a lifesaving concept that has saved many lives of babies," Morrison said. "I fully support what he does."

Despite the Baby Box and Lee's orphanage, Morrison said that real change needs to come at the legislative level.

"The solution is to revise the law and do away with the policy of forced registration of babies in order to be adopted.  This will save the lives of many children, and not put the birthmothers in such a tight bind."

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