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Date: Mon, 30 Nov 1998 12:00:28 -0500
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From: Robert Weissman <rob@essential.org>
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Child welfare conference

By John Larkin, The National Post, 27 November 1998

S. Korea’s recession brings ‘IMF orphans’: Unemployment and divorce have reached record levels.

SEOUL The number of South Korean children dumped at orphanages has leapt 30% this year, prompting warnings a worsening economic slump is creating a young underclass.

An international conference on child welfare was told yesterday that children are the forgotten victims of a recession that has propelled unemployment and divorce to record levels.

Fragmented families are dumping their children at orphanages, with some left there indefinitely.

Elsewhere, children as young as 12 have been forced to become heads of households after the departure of their parents.

The collapse of middle-class incomes has left some students starving during the school day, the conference was told.

The number of pupils in Seoul who can’t afford lunch has jumped 53% this year, prompting reports of schoolyard brawls over food.

Children are fighting for food, said one religious group.

Schools in the southeastern city of Taegu report a five-fold rise in the number of students going hungry at lunch-time.

Speakers also pointed to rising child abuse and family suicides.

Korean families are collapsing and increasing the numbers of homeless children, said Dr. Kim Hyung-shik, a child welfare expert at Joongang University, adding that abandoned children rose by nearly one-third to 848 in the first six months of this year.

They are known as IMF orphans after the International Monetary Fund whose reform demands have brought it a measure of blame for the recession. Conference organizers put the number of orphans nationwide at nearly 20,000.

Conference organizer Park Young-sook dismisses official figures on IMF orphans as too low because she has taken more than 100 calls from distraught parents.

Parents have rung me at all hours of the night in tears saying their children are starving, she said. They’ve left their kids outside my office and outside my home.

Government officials would not comment yesterday.

At the Inchon Orphanage north of Seoul, only L3% of the children are genuine orphans. The rest are either abandoned or placed there temporarily by unemployed parents.

In nearly 10% of the 15,118 parent-less families, the parenting responsibility is shouldered by a child younger than 12. The numbers are drastically rising, Dr. Kim said.

Experts attribute the rise of IMF orphans to inadequate child welfare and a culture that expects social problems be dealt with inside the family. Those left indefinitely are unlikely to be adopted because Koreans are reluctant to taint their family’s bloodline.

This phenomenon is nationwide and orphans who have parents are increasing, said child welfare expert Dr. Yoo Hee-jung.