SEOUL, South Korea -- A South Korean court on Tuesday ordered the country's biggest adoption agency to pay 100 million won ($74,700) in damages to a 48-year-old man for mishandling his adoption as a child to the United States, where he faced legal troubles after surviving an abusive childhood before being deported in 2016.
However, the Seoul Central District Court dismissed Adam Crapser’s accusations against the South Korean government, which he saw as responsible for creating an aggressive, profit-driven adoption industry that carelessly removed thousands of children from their families during a child export frenzy in the 1970s and '80s.
The civil case, tried for over four years, was the first in which a South Korean adoptee sued the country’s government and a domestic adoption agency over fraudulent paperwork and screening failures.
Holt Children’s Service, which handled Crapser’s adoption to American parents in 1979, and South Korea’s Justice Ministry, which represents the government in lawsuits, did not immediately comment.
In reading out the verdict, Judge Park Jun-min did not elaborate on why the court refused to hold the government accountable. Crapser’s lawyers said they will review the full version of the ruling, which the court didn’t immediately release, before deciding whether to appeal.
“We want to express our very serious regret,” said Kim Soo-jung, one of Crapser’s lawyers.
“The (government) knew that children procured for adoptions were not being (properly) protected, that their human rights were being violated — they should have done something about it, but they didn't. … It seems that the court simply saw the government as a monitoring institution, and not as an actor that directly committed illegal acts.”
Crapser, who left South Korea last year and currently lives in Mexico, did not attend the ruling.
It remains to be seen whether Crapser’s case inspires more lawsuits by adoptees, who are becoming more vocal with their criticism of past South Korean corruption in adoption practices, which caused a huge but unknown number of wrongful family separations and stymied thousands from reconnecting with their roots.
Tuesday’s verdict came months after hundreds of Korean adoptees from Europe and North America asked South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate their adoption circumstances. They say their status and identities were laundered to facilitate marred adoptions.
The commission has opened investigations of dozens of those applications and may take more cases in the coming months, as it proceeds with the most far-reaching inquiry into South Korea’s foreign adoptions yet.
The commission’s potential findings could allow more adoptees to launch legal actions against agencies or the government, which would otherwise be difficult because South Korean civil courts put the burden of proof entirely on plaintiffs, who often lack information and resources.
Crapser, who was named Shin Seong-hyeok by his South Korean mother, had sought 200,000 won ($149,000) in damages from South Korea’s government and Holt. His lawsuit, filed in 2019, accuses the defendants of manipulating his paperwork, employing poor background checks that failed to weed out his abusive adopters, and not following up on whether he obtained U.S. citizenship.
While describing Crapser’s plight as unfortunate, the government and Holt denied any legal wrongdoing, saying his adoption went according to procedure and it was the responsibility of his American adopters -– not theirs -– to ensure that he obtained U.S. citizenship.
Crapser’s lawyers have claimed that his case exposes how South Korea failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens from an adoption industry that sent thousands of children abroad every year to meet Western demands during its heyday, and how often those adoptions amounted to “child selling.”
Crapser revealed his plans for his lawsuit during an interview with The Associated Press in 2019, in which he described being abused and abandoned by two different sets of U.S. parents and then being deported after run-ins with the law because none of his guardians filed citizenship papers for him.
Forcibly separated from his then-wife and children and friends in America, Crapser said he struggled with intense anxiety and depression in South Korea, where he found himself isolated by language and culture four decades after being sent to his initial adopters in Michigan at age 3.
Crapser said he “definitely didn’t win the lottery” when it came to his two American families. Flown out of South Korea, he and his sister were first sent to what he described as an abusive couple in 1979. Seven years later the couple abandoned the siblings, who were then separated by the foster care system.
Crapser was housed in several foster and group homes before ending up with Thomas and Dolly Crapser when he was around 12. He said the Oregon couple would sometimes slam their children’s heads against walls, strike them with kitchen utensils and burn them with heated objects.
In 1991, the couple was arrested on charges of physical child abuse, sexual abuse and rape. They were reportedly convicted in 1992 on multiple counts of criminal mistreatment and assault. Kicked out of his parents’ house after an argument, Crapser pleaded guilty to burglary after he said he later broke into their home to retrieve a Korean-language Bible and a stuffed dog that came with him from a Korean orphanage. He was later convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm and assault.
Crapser thought he had turned a corner, opening a barber shop and an upholstery business and starting a family, before being served his deportation paperwork in 2015 after a green card application triggered a background check.
About 200,000 South Koreans were adopted overseas during the past six decades, the majority to white families in the West, representing what’s now the world’s largest diaspora of adoptees. More than 4,000 Korean children were sent abroad in 1979, the year Crapser arrived in the United States.
South Korea’s foreign adoption boom from the late 1970s to the 1980s was driven by Seoul’s then-military dictatorships, which were focused on economic growth and reducing the number of mouths to feed.
Adoption agencies, governed by board members close to the military leaders, were notorious for aggressive child-gathering activities and falsified paperwork that manipulated children's origins as they raced to send more adoptees abroad.
It wasn’t until 2013 that South Korea required foreign adoptions of children to be vetted at family courts, ending a decades-long practice of allowing the private agencies to dictate the cross-border transfers of custodies.
Crapser was among thousands of South Korean adoptees who were described in their paperwork as abandoned orphans, despite their having known Korean relatives who could be easily identified and found, which made them easily adoptable under U.S. laws.
Crapser’s birth mother, Kwon Pil-ju, told the AP that she was single, disabled and desperately poor, and that she finally decided to give Crapser and his sister away because of fears that they’d starve.
Crapser’s lawsuit cited the government as responsible for allowing adoptions to be controlled by profit-driven agencies that ran on fees collected from foreign parents, and also for allowing foreigners to adopt children without actually coming to South Korea, which he blames for screening failures that matched him with abusive parents.
His case also highlights the shaky legal status of many South Korean adoptees in the United States whose parents may have failed to get them citizenship, potentially leaving them vulnerable to deportation if they acquire a criminal record.