by Aurélie Lever, transracial adoptee from French/Vietnamese origins raised in the Netherlands – expert in adoption by experience and education.
I often try to keep my mouth shut or sit on the constructive side of what seems to be a never ending dialogue. But this story. makes. me. furious. Please, watch this video of Dilani Butink speak about her legal outcome in the Netherlands this past week.
It concerns Dilani’s case that is barred, as it has been past 20 years since the adoption process took place. Is this a so-called bitter pill that needs to be swallowed once? No folks, it’s a narrative that keeps returning: a government that creates laws to allow adoption, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for the actual consequences of adoption. A supposedly moral knighthood, to give the child a better life, but when it comes to it, the adopted self is moved forward to catch the sword of Damocles.
There is no concern for the human side of this adoption case in the legal field. It’s about the hard facts. It’s been over 20 years, so case closed. But when will the human facts be taken into account? To help, here are some of these human facts:
It often takes an adopted (or fostered) at least 20 to 25 years to realise what the process of distance and adoption or foster care has done to him or her. Mainly because there is a lack of correct aftercare for adopted and foster adults.
After this realisation, an adopted often ends up in a rollercoaster of loss and grief traumas around different themes. Feelings that have often been there since baby time, but that cannot be expressed. A baby cannot categorise trauma feelings, cannot place the emotions associated with them. This doesn’t mean a baby doesn’t feel everything though. The feelings are stored in the body and continue to exist. Until that moment when this is triggered and often then a storm comes around the corner. With all the consequences; burn-out, depression, psychosis, suicide-it’s things in the daily vocabulary of adopted.
It doesn’t help that society puts pressure on an adopted, telling them to be grateful or happy, because it was so beautifully collected here in the West and this life would give them such a (often materialistic) prosperous life. Or having to be thankful that the child was taken away from the mother for his own good because the mother couldn’t take good care of the child. Like this, happiness is determined for us. But who can decide for us what happiness is? And how do you define that at all?
It also doesn’t help that there is often no room for these processes of grief and loss in this society. This causes misunderstanding for the fact that the child inside is often dead-unhappy. What would help? Empathy and support. Ask yourself as an unadopted how you would feel if your child was taken away from one day to another and put up with someone else, and then you are told to be thankful because your child will have a better life have. I literally heard an unadopted once say, then you die inside. Exactly, many adopted people die symbolically inside and must struggle their way through these feelings to feel vitally alive again.
There are still too few therapists who can really help adopted people. Ultimately, adoptees have to do specialised studies for years themselves (after years of self-research) for years to be able to provide the right aftercare for other adoptees. Thank God they are slowly emerging, although I think there are only a handful of specialists who really understand. So just like art, something beautiful eventually grows out of all that destructivity. Only this isn’t about art, it’s about human lives.
These are far from all facts, several books were written for that. And yes, there are certainly positive stories too. Just like there are people of colour that suffer from racism, and people who don’t suffer from it. It’s never black and white. You will never hear me say there are no happy adopted, or adopted who claim to be happy because they were adopted. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep quiet for the rest.
There is currently social support for LGBQT, for BlackLivesMatter, for victims in the gymnastics world, but what is the social support for adoptees? There is not enough. Let’s create a movement. Adoptees deserve justice. Who’s in?
by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.
This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño
Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections
In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.
Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city
In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families.
In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search.
When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption.
When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.
Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media
After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.
These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex…
In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South.
It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them.
Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption
In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.
During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.
Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.
From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.
The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.
by Ming Foxweldon 白宜民/明, adopted from China to America written for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, #AAPIHeritageMonth
Our stories matter Just like the generations before The future generations will look back to us We must pave the way History can be written by those in power However we’ve to strive to be agents of our time Activism is what you make of it Find your medium Use it Believe in it If not, change gears Accept that sometimes this journey Will be lonely People may stand by your side for a second To gain the lime light Only to try and extinguish yours Stand up for those who are unaware of the dangers that lay before them Not for recognition Just out of compassion Be an active protector of the community Bystander attitude only perpetuates bad behaviour For those who don’t believe you Haters gonna hate Your convictions Decisions will impact others Of the current moment History in the making Don’t let others’ experiences overshadow your own You’re valid Stay strong Know when it’s ok to take breaks Heroes and heroines alike Setting the cape aside Transform into someone who can smell the flowers from time to time …
Resource The documentary, Asian American’s has been aired this month at PBS and Amazon Prime.
Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.
This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.
The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.
Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.
Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.
The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.
After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.
The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.
Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.
Hearing calls and support for “unregulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.
From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.
For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.
People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!
I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.
Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.
My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!
No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!
I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?
I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …
it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.
What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.
I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.
I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.
What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the birth mother representative who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.
Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!
Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.
Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.
Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.
Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.
Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.
JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.
Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.
Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.
Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.
Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.
Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.