April 2014 Issue: Advocate Says Tragic Adoption Case ‘Does Not Represent All’

One Adoption Does Not Represent All

The debate over intercountry adoption from Korea was reignited recently by news of the death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan, a 3-year-old special needs child adopted from Korea to an American family, Brian and Jennifer O’Callaghan of Maryland. Authorities allege that the adoptive father, employed by the U.S. National Security Agency, beat Hyunsu to death, though Brian O’Callaghan has maintained his innocence. Last month, O’Callaghan was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and first-degree child abuse, after a grand jury determined there was enough evidence to move forward with charges against him. Following is the second of two commentaries written by Korean American adoptees advocating for very different responses to this tragedy. 


Many adoptees and Koreans are justifiably upset at the death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan, who was allegedly murdered by his adoptive father Brian O’Callaghan. Mr. O’Callaghan has served in the Iraq War and is an employee of the NSA overseeing the Korea Project. The tragedy for 3-year-old Hyunsu occurred only four months after his arrival to his new home. The adoptive father has been charged with first-degree murder, and the investigation continues to determine how and why this innocent little life was snuffed out. The father maintains the boy fell down and hit his head while taking a shower, but the investigation showed multiple injuries, including skull fractures at the front and back part of his head, thus raising suspicion that the death was not a mere accident as the father had claimed.

The news of this tragedy has shocked the entire Korean adoption community, and resulted in numerous protests and calls for justice in Korea.  In particular, a group of adoptees and Koreans who have long been opposed to the intercountry adoption program in Korea set up memorials with banners that read, “Sorry Hyunsu, for not being able to protect you …” or “Hyunsu was adopted to the U.S. and beaten to death by his father.”


While such passionate demonstrations are understandable, as the days went by, these activists started to use this tragedy as a political platform to paint an ugly picture of intercountry adoption, and to put an end to the program in Korea. While the public has the right to demand answers in this tragic case, and every effort must be made to correct the flaws in the system so it won’t ever be repeated, I strongly disagree with some of the messages being advocated by these activists.

Some have stated that Hyunsu would have been better off staying with his foster parents in Korea. Perhaps, or perhaps not. If children in the system don’t get adopted, they are taken out of the foster family home and put into an institution. What good is it for children to grow up in an institution? What guarantee do they have that they will be safe in an institution, where they are much more vulnerable to attacks by peers and perhaps by adults?

At least through adoption, the intention is to provide children a loving home. But, in Hyunsu’s case, he clearly was placed in the wrong family, and the system failed him. More inquisitive questions should have been asked during the home study interviews. Though the agency went through all the protocols, even USCIS Livescan to check on his parents’ backgrounds, obviously, O’Callaghan fooled everyone—the U.S. adoption agency, the Korean agency Holt International, the South Korean Ministry, and the judges at the family court. They all failed Hyunsu. Even the NSA failed him.


Just to qualify for an NSA position in O’Callaghan’s capacity meant that he would have had to obtain top secret clearance, and this requires the most stringent background investigations. It requires interview after interview, physical and psychological evaluations, polygraph interviews, drug tests, visiting the neighborhoods where he lived for the last 18 years to interview the credibility of his past history, and more psychological interviews and evaluations, and so on. But despite all the investigations and tests, Mr. O’Callaghan was clean enough to be employed by the NSA. Even the NSA could not determine his character flaws. All of this leads me to conclude that Hyunsu’s tragedy was an exceptional case, and that one bad adoptive parent’s behavior does not represent the behaviors of thousands and thousands of good adoptive parents.

Adoption cannot be blamed for this young boy’s death because there are many adoptees whose adoption experiences have had very positive outcomes. I was moved by one adult adoptee who eloquently stated, “If Hyunsu’s adoption is a reason to close the intercountry adoption program, then my adoption story should be reason enough to let it continue.”

The adoption process has a long history of improvements and changes, but it is not perfect, and improvements must be made constantly, especially through the lessons learned through the recent tragedy. The process will never be perfect, and it will not guarantee a successful outcome, even in the future.


However, do we stop giving children the chance to grow up and make something of themselves because of these fears? How realistic is it to make such an important decision or a policy based on highly charged emotions? The Korean government officials will meet with the agency directors to discuss this, and there will be plenty more meetings and discussions before something is decided.

If one thinks adoption should be stopped because such risks are present, then one must ponder this point as well: Life has many challenges and risks for a child growing up. Does that mean that we should pass a law forbidding parents to give birth to their children? I think not.

It is important to distinguish the difference between a system having a flaw and pursue all we can to correct the system than to demand an outright halt to all intercountry adoptions because of the risk present. The risks and the consequences are much greater if children are left to grow up in institutions without families of their own.

Steve Morrison is an adoptee who lived at an orphanage in Korea for eight years before being adopted by the Morrison family. He is a senior project engineer at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, CA, where he is involved with the development of the next generation GPS III Satellite System. He is the founder of the Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea (www.mpakusa.blogspot.com), and he and his wife Jody have three children by birth and two more children adopted from Korea.


This article was published in the April 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below(U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


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