updated 25 Oct 2012, 18:52
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Thu, Oct 18, 2012
The Korea Herald/ANN
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Social worker helps single mothers and their babies

Nurses and baby sitters cradle crying babies at a clinic inside the Eastern Social Welfare Society, an adoption agency in Mapo, Seoul. They check each baby's health before starting a journey to find a new family.

At the end of each baby's bed, a small tag shows their name, birth date and destination.

Oh Ji-young, 40, who has been serving at the ESWS since 1995, is now helping single mothers stand on their own.

Her dedication to single mothers, adopted babies and adoptive families earned her an award from the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2011.

"I feel responsible whenever I see single moms struggle with bringing up their babies while facing prejudice."

Government policies have changed to encourage single parents to raise their babies or put them up for a domestic adoption rather than for one abroad.

"Whether a baby is adopted by a domestic family or a foreign family, I think all babies need families anyway," Oh said.

Her job does not guarantee huge financial rewards, but the gratitude and happiness of adoptive families keep her moving forward.

For Oh, the moment when a baby with a disability is adopted is the most memorable since people tend to prefer to adopt non-disabled children.

A baby who was born missing one eye and one side of his nose was adopted by a family in Colorado in the early 2000s. His adoptive parents ran fundraisers to get him a prosthetic eye and facial surgery.

It might have been hard to raise the kid in Korea, Oh said.

Even though she says jokingly that she thought at first the social welfare services were a kind of business for profit, she has both the expertise and social skills required in the sector.

She has taken charge in different parts of the agency from adoption to supportive programs for single mothers.

"For 12 to 13 years, I liked this work since I enjoy meeting adoptive parents. Those who do not love to meet people cannot do this work."

She is now in charge of a project to provide barista and nail care training programs for unmarried mothers, supported by Startbucks Coffee Korea and a nail salon organisation.

Two single mothers are currently working for a cafe run by the adoption agency on the first floor of the ESWS building.

Working to help unwed mothers is not an easy job.

In the 1990s, single mothers debated whether they should put up their baby up for adoption or send him to an orphanage, but now they ponder over two other options ― adoption or raising their child themselves.

"It is hard, however, to ask single teenage mothers who have little money, no job and no family support to raise their babies. In Korea where there is insufficient systematic support for single moms, raising babies is almost impossible," Oh said.

"Housing and daycare problems are the ones that should be solved first," she said.

The monthly rent fee for a one-room apartment around the Hongdae area in Mapo-gu ranges from 700,000 won (S$772,000) to 800,000 won, according to her.

"Single moms cannot afford to pay such rent fees with the around 1-million-won monthly salary they earn." Oh said.

Even though more and more businesses like coffee shops, bakeries and nail salons are willing to give help, most small businesses are not equipped with day-care centers.

Single mothers are among the first in line to be applicable for state-run rental houses, but the housing supply is insufficient and mothers must remain in the lowest income bracket to receive the benefit.

She also emphasizes that the nation has to provide post-care services for single mothers and adopted children.

"After they put their babies up for adoption, single mothers often become emotionally unstable. Many of them need psychological therapy. And many adoptees who return to Korea often have undergone hard times in their adopted nations due to abuses or discrimination," Oh said.

"Since adoption is sort of a shameful part of the nation, it is hard to publically deal with it for the government. I think, however, we should sincerely face up to it," Oh said.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than 100 babies a month waited for adoption; there were 70 babies waiting on average over the past several years before the new adoption law was introduced in August. The figure has dropped to 30 to 40 a month since August.

The tightened law requires adoptive parents to submit documents to prove their financial status and to undergo alcohol and psychological tests.

The new law makes the adoption process more rigorous and assesses the eligibility of the adoptive family.

However, it needs improvement as the revision was made in a short time without much consultation with people working on the frontline, Oh said.

"Stringent adoption laws are necessary but I wish that it was a steadier change. What's more important than adoptive parents' education background or financial status is how much the adoptive family is able to love the baby," Oh said.

She started a support programme this year for single mothers of Korean-Filipinos, also known as "Kopinos" in the Philippines. Many Filipino single mothers are left alone with their babies by Korean men. Many of the women often struggle in poverty. The ESWS will soon prepare detailed plans to give help to around 30 single mothers.

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