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June 01, 2015

South Korea's Foster Care System

Ann Park

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Foster Care as a Permanency Option

Foster care is not a popular permanency plan for abused children in South Korea. Among 6,796 reported abuse cases in 2013, 1,685 (24.8%) cases were finalized in the same year.1 Of the finalized cases: 

  • return home was ordered in 849 (50.4%) cases,2 

  • long-term protection in institutions was ordered in 401 (23.8%) cases, 

  • protection by relatives was ordered in 204 (12.1%) cases, and

  • foster care was ordered for only 13 (0.8%) cases.

The foster care system in South Korea has a short history. Despite the effort to improve the child protection system through new legislation, South Korea’s foster care system has yet to receive enough social recognition as a permanency option for “children requiring protection.”3 Since the end of the Korean War, most war orphans were placed in orphanages or sent for international adoption, and the policy to rely on institutions and adoption lasted at least until the early 2000s.4

In 2003, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern for Korea’s institution-heavy care system for children in need, recommending expanding family-based care options, such as foster homes.5 In 2003, the Korean government established 17 regional foster care support centers throughout the nation.6 

More than 10 years later, the number of children placed in foster care increased from 7,565 in 2003 to 14,584 in 2013. Kinship care by a grandparent(s) is the most popular form of foster care (60% of placements), followed by kinship care by a relative(s) living (20% of placements). However, fewer than 10% of foster children have been placed in nonrelative foster care homes each year since 2003.

System Challenges

Public awareness of foster care is still weak, and thus not enough nonrelative families apply to become foster homes. The Child Welfare Act, the primary legislation governing foster care, is not comprehensive enough to effectively guide complexities of foster care.8 Further, practitioners agree that birth parents’ strong parental rights create challenges for foster families.9 Under the current system, when a child is placed in a foster home, the birth parent’s rights often remain intact, preventing foster parents from making decisions on important issues such as medical treatment for the child.10 Obtaining a passport and establishing a bank account for the child are the common challenges the foster parents who lack rights to do so for the children.

The government and child welfare experts accepted the idea that foster care can help support reunification of the family and that preference should be given to foster care over institutional care.11 Advocates have recently drafted bills to support the foster care system, although they have yet to become law.12

Improving Foster Care

Improving the foster care system in South Korea will require a strong, supportive  infrastructure, including:13 

  • legislation that details foster care procedures and addresses the system’s current deficiencies;

  • economic and social benefits for the child and the foster home provided by the government; 

  • effective services for the child’s birth parent(s) to support reunification of the family;
  • educational and professional opportunities for children who age out of foster care as a part of independence training. 

South Korea has begun to write a new chapter of the child welfare system. Since ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, South Korea has recognized most of the major international standards on children’s rights.14 The Korean child welfare system is currently working, albeit slowly, to improve the rights of children in compliance with the international standards. 

Achieving a suitable child welfare system for Korea requires a continuum of plans at the family, community, and societal levels, taking into account Korea’s cultural and social uniqueness. It is key to:

  • provide prevention services to families, 

  • raise public awareness of children’s issues,

  • create law and policy defining concepts and detailing procedures, 

  • expand the government’s economic and policy support for child protection efforts, 

  • develop and train child welfare experts, and 

  • study other countries’ examples. 

The author is grateful for the opportunity to write this series on South Korea’s child welfare system. The author also thanks Professor Ho-joong Lee, Sogang University School of Law, Professor Sang-yong Kim, Chung-Ang University Law School, Jang Hwa Jeong, Director of National Child Protection Agency, Sin Sukyung, Child Protection Attorney of Korean Women Lawyers Association, Judge Kim Do-gyun, and Jung Pilhyun, Director of National Foster Care Center for their information and advice. 


1The National Child Protection Agency, The 2013 Report on the National Child Abuse Data), 101-03, <>; Foster care is not a popular option for the general population of children requiring protection. According to the 2013 statistics, there were 6,834 children requiring protection. 2,265 (37.6%) children were placed in foster homes, while 2,532 (42.1%) children were placed in institutions. The National Foster Care Center. The 2013 Report on Foster Care Data, 17-18; The Child Welfare Act, enforced on Dec. 14, 2008, defines “children requiring protection”: “The term ‘children requiring protection’ means those who have no protector or are separated from a protector, or those whose protector is unsuitable for rearing children or incapable of rearing them, such as the protector abuses them.” 

2 NCPA claims that reunification is a preferred measure. However, this reunification-centered final orders are supported systematic monitoring and services. There was 14.4% recurrence rate of abuse in 2013. The National Child Protection Agency, 131-32. 

3 “The National Foster Care Center, 17-18. The National Foster Care Center categorizes the children requiring protection into: abandoned, children of single-unwed others, lost, juvenile delinquents, poverty/abused etc. 

4 See The National Foster Care Center, 17. 

5 Kim, Sang-yong, “Analysis of Foster Care Support Legislation,” Chung-Ang Journal of Legal Studies, 36:2, 2012, 205; See also “Children Need to be Protected in Homes” June 12, 2014 M-Economy News.  

6 The National Foster Care Center, 11. 

7 Ibid. 27. 

8 Kim, 183. 

9 Ibid.; Interview with Jung Pilhyun, Director of National Child Protection Agency, March 25, 2015

10 Interview with Jung Pilhyun; Kim, 183

11 The National Foster Care Center, 11; See Kim, 182; 

12 See Kim, 183-209. 

13 See Kim, 182-210; Interview with Jung Pilhyun 

14 E.g., in 2012 South Korea has acceded to the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention, which entered into force in 2013. Also, South Korea has signed the Hague Convention on the Intercountry Adoption in 2013, and is currently revising its adoption law in compliance with the Convention.