What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
An incident that has sent shockwaves through South Korea in recent weeks is the fatal abuse of a 16-month-old toddler named Jung In.
In February 2020, a Korean couple in their thirties adopted an 8-month old baby who had been in foster care since birth. On October 13, a mere eight months later, the baby was rushed to the emergency room, covered in bruises and unconscious. About eight hours later, she was declared deceased.
On October 16, the incident was first reported as the “death of a 16-month-old covered in bruises after three child abuse reports”.
Then followed one of the first petitions made to Cheong Wa Dae regarding the incident:
In Korea, it is said that the system is structured in a way which makes it difficult to take protective measures for an abused child in the event of strong backlash from the parents. It is difficult to be proactive without clear evidence.
Then are we only able to protect an abused child when a parent is hitting them out in the open?
A growing child had lost a kilogram of weight and had numerous scars, and so a doctor reported it, and the teachers at the daycare who saw the baby every day also filed a report on the suspicions of child abuse. I’m curious what evidence was lacking [to consider it a case of child abuse].
I feel so sorry for the baby who, on top of being abandoned by her birth parents, was adopted and abused for nearly a year before she passed. The baby, who was unable to be protected by her birth parents, adoptive parents, or any others, does not even have anyone to submit a petition for her.
— Petitioner, October 19, 2020.
As news about the death began to circulate, the public soon became enraged for two major reasons.
The first was the fact that there had been three reports of child abuse filed against Jung In’s adoptive parents by three different individuals, yet she continued to live with them. The daycare center staff were the first to alert the authorities in May after noticing strange bruises on her face, stomach, and inner thighs. The second report was filed by an acquaintance of the adoptive parents who had noticed the baby left alone in a car in the heat of June at a kids’ café parking lot. The third was filed in September by a pediatrician who had examined the baby at the request of the day care center staff and noticed a marked difference in Jung In’s appearance since her first examination in May: her skin was a darker shade; she was very thin for her age and had multiple bruises on her body; and she didn’t seem to have the energy to walk or even cry. Unfortunately, the authorities had failed to separate the baby from her parents in all three instances. Less than a month after the last report was filed, Jung In died.
The second aspect that stirred outrage was the condition in which the toddler was found. The emergency medicine doctor who examined the girl on the day of her death later explained that Jung In was virtually dead when she arrived at the hospital, as her heart had stopped in the cab. She was much smaller and thinner than other babies her age, and her skin was pale. Her body was covered in bruises and further examination revealed that her abdomen was swollen with blood from ruptured intestines. In addition, several of her ribs were broken or had been broken at various points in the past. The cause of her death was “blunt force trauma to the abdomen”. The hospital alerted the authorities about possible child abuse, which led to an investigation into Jung In’s case.
Days after her death, South Korean TV show Curious Stories Y reported on the incident. Jung In’s adoptive father was anonymously interviewed, and said:
Let me start by saying that we believe that the three reports of child abuse have been filed against us due to prejudice surrounding adoptive families, and that’s what we will argue [in court]. … She was born in our hearts, and we are extremely sad about her leaving us like this. It’s especially hard because [people] aren’t even giving us time to grieve, and we’re in a situation where we have to keep on defending ourselves about how we didn’t cause her death.
— Jung In’s adoptive father, October 23, 2020.
The show also revealed that earlier in August the family had been featured on an EBS program about “happy adoptive families”, where the baby appeared to have several scars and bruises that no one had seemed to notice.
Then some facts about the adoptive parents were released, inciting even more public outrage—they were both “preachers’ kids” and had attended a Christian university in South Korea; the mother, surnamed Jang, was an interpreter, involved in translating for Korean adoptees; the father, surnamed Ahn, worked for the Christian Broadcasting System (CBS). After the Jung In incident made headlines, CBS fired Ahn and cooperated with the authorities by handing over surveillance camera footage of Jung In and her adoptive parents.
The case was forwarded to the prosecution on November 19. Jang was arrested and charged with child abuse resulting in death, while her husband Ahn was not arrested but charged with aiding and abetting child abuse.
This was not enough to calm the enraged public, who petitioned the government to charge the parents with homicide. Several organizations were also involved in this movement. The Korean Women Lawyers Association issued a statement that said:
First, this association strongly demands that [the prosecution] actively review upgrading the charges of the abuser parents to murder. Current news reports have said that the adoptive mother Jang has been charged with child abuse resulting in death and other offences, and the adoptive father [Ahn] for neglect and other offences. We believe that there is no problem in upgrading their charges to include murder given the evidence of the damage inflicted on Jung In that has already been reported by the press.
— Korean Women Lawyers Association, January 4, 2021.
The Korea Child Abuse Prevention Association, which played a major role in publicizing this incident, also began a #SorryJungIn challenge, attracting participation from many people on social media including Korean celebrities.
One of the people who spoke out about the necessity for severe punishment of the parents was Jung In’s foster mother, who had taken her in as an eight-day-old and raised her for eight months.
They took that baby and abused her for such a long time, so how are they not responsible? They harassed that small child who couldn’t talk or protest. How could that just be abuse resulting in death? And neglect? I saw pictures of the injured baby, and I couldn’t bear to see how cruelly they’d harassed her. It’s really worse than intentional, general murder. What those adoptive parents did to that baby was inhumane. I believe that they should be severely punished. That way, there won’t be others like [Jung In] in the future. Using whatever legal means possible, I believe that the two adoptive parents should be severely punished.
— Jung In’s foster mother, December 16, 2020.
The prosecution did upgrade the adoptive mother Jang’s charges to include murder at the first trial, which was held on January 13. The angry public cried and shouted outside the courthouse, calling for justice for little Jung In.
The incident was also one of the issues addressed by President Moon Jae-in at his New Year’s press conference on January 18, 2021:
First, we need a system that quickly detects any kind of critical symptoms from the abused child, and then I believe we need measures to immediately separate the abused child from the parents or adoptive parents when there are suspicions of child abuse. To do so, it is necessary to drastically increase the number of temporary protection facilities and shelters that can offer protection for the abused children. Last year, we started hiring government employees with expertise in child abuse solely to address these issues, and we need to dramatically increase their number. And I believe that we must establish a comprehensive discussion system with those government employees in the center, along with the police, school or the medical community or society at large, and child protection agencies. As for adoption, I believe it’s necessary to better investigate whether adoptive parents are properly prepared to adopt a child in advance and pay visits in the initial period after adoption to ensure that the child is adjusting well. As for the adoptive parents, various measures are needed to protect adoptees without discouraging adoption, such as allowing the parents to cancel an adoption within a certain period of time, since it is possible that they can change their minds, or to exchange a child if the parents still have a strong desire to adopt but cannot get along with the child. Since there are many bills being submitted in the National Assembly, we will discuss the matter and implement the very necessary measures early on.
— President Moon Jae-in, January 18, 2021.
Moon’s remarks about “cancelling an adoption” and exchanging an adoptee sparked controversy. Adoptive parents were offended at the way the president considered adoption akin to ‘shopping for a child’, while opposition party lawmakers also criticized Moon for treating children as “goods that can be returned, refunded, or exchanged”. Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kang Min-seok explained on MBC Radio that the president’s remarks have been misconstrued, as he was referring to the ‘fostering before adopting’ programs that are in place in countries such as the UK, France, and Sweden. Such a program does not exist in South Korea within the legal framework, although many prospective adoptive parents do request to foster a child they hope to adopt, which ends up working as a ‘fostering before adopting’ program. Unfortunately, due to the lack of relevant laws or regulations, such practices take place in a legal blind spot. It’s neither the government nor public agencies but the adoption agencies, which have no legal authority, that manage the entire adoption process, from pre-screening of prospective parents to post-adoption care. Many of these agencies also have no code of ethics for the parents or standardized tests to evaluate the fitness of prospective parents.
Many also pointed out that the focus of the Jung In incident should be on child abuse and not adoption. Child abuse cases have been increasing in recent months, particularly with children unable to leave their homes due to the Covid pandemic. In May 2020, a ten-year-old girl was found on a road, having escaped from home to avoid abuse from her mother and stepfather. In June, a nine-year-old boy suffocated to death, locked in a traveling case by his stepmother.
But the Jung In incident is a combination of both—the lack of a legal framework for the adoption process and the incompetence of the authorities in addressing child abuse cases. As a result, a 16-month-old has died, leaving us with the task of enacting laws and implementing systems to prevent such incidents from recurring. Rest in peace, little one.