On 30 July, I ran our Reunion and Beyond webinar, part 2 of this series in searching and reunion in intercountry adoption. I couldn’t be more proud of our 8 panelists who did an incredible job of sharing some of the nuances and complexities involved! Thank you to each of them!
Ae Ra (born in Sth Korea, raised in Belgium), Alex (born in Romania, raised in Germany and New Zealand), Jonas (born in Haiti, raised in Australia), Sam (born in the Philippines, raised in the Philippines and the USA), Maria (born in Greece, raised in the USA), Ben (born in Guatemala, raised in the USA), James (born in Colombia, raised in Australia), and Raya (born in Russia, raised in Canada).
For those who are time poor, I’ve provided a time code so you can flick to the relevant parts. For those who want a summary of our key messages, they are also included as a pdf.
00:00:00 Intro – Lynelle 00:01:32 Why this webinar 00:07:16 Introduction of panelists 00:07:22 Ae Ra 00:09:17 Jonas 00:10:33 Maria 00:11:25 Raya 00:13:10 Ben 00:15:42 Alex 00:16:52 Sam 00:20:40 James 00:23:05 Questions 00:23:15 What do you recommend in preparation for reunion? 00:23:30 Maria 00:28:33 Ben 00:32:20 Raya 00:35:25 What challenges have you faced in reunion? 00:35:42 James 00:40:22 Jonas 00:43:19 Raya 00:45:48 Ae Ra 00:49:35 Tips for a media facilitated reunion 00:50:05 Alex 00:51:34 How to deal with differences in language and culture? 00:51:51 Ben 00:55:38 James 01:01:04 What role do I want for adoptive family in / after reunion? 01:01:26 Alex 01:03:10 Jonas 01:06:34 Ae Ra 01:09:47 How do I support myself in reunion? 01:09:53 Jonas 1:11:14 Maria 1:16:12 Sam 1:21:19 How do we manage the financial requests? 1:21:42 Sam 1:23:58 Alex 1:26:12 Ben 1:29:30 What’s it been like to find answers to your questions? 1:29:41 James 1:31:58 Raya 1:34:39 Sam 1:36:52 What role should government and adoption agencies have in reunion? 1:37:12 Ben 1:39:18 Maria 1:42:49 Ae Ra 1:45:56 Closing remarks and thanks
I was born in Cali, Colombia in 1993 during the midst period of civil war, disruption, political instability known as ‘la Violencia’. This period saw the degradation and exploitation of state civil services through corruption, war and systematic racism, which in turn resulted in tremendous damage to the lives, human rights and cultural heritage of millions of Colombians, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Colombians whom who were displaced from their tradition lands an often subject to violence and systematic oppression. As a result of these circumstances and internal corruption within the adoption industry, I was separated from my biological mother and adopted to Australia at the age of one. I have a close but complex relationship my adoptive family.
Growing up, I loved to be outside and activate like most Aussie kids at the time and spent most of my time, fishing, kicking the footy around, and riding bikes around the neighbourhood with friends.
While I was always social and enjoyed making friends, I also struggled with bullying, racism, and the spectre of isolation/identity crisis/lack of racial mirrors that many of us adoptees experience. I fondly remember finding refuge and solace in books, stories, myths, and legends, everything ranging from magical fantasies like Harry Potter and the Homer’s Iliad to biographies and the encyclopedia on the Fall of Rome.
I distinctly recall being in grade 1 and recall reading Harry Potter and afterward, daydreaming about an imaginary time when my biological family would appear in a fireplace one day, tell me I was a wizard and take me off to enrol at Hogwarts with the other Wizards.
As a child, although I recall some intense moments of isolation and loneliness, I also had a close relationship with my younger brother, immediate and extended family who always made me feel welcome and as part of the family. It is only as I entered by teenage and adult years that these relationships began to shift and change, not as a result of any ill intent but largely due to the development of my own awareness about my place in the world (or lack thereof) as a black Afro-Colombian/Afro-Australian and subsequent experiences with racism and micro-aggressions.
This tumultuous but unique start to life, in conjunction, with the lived experience of navigating the word though the lens of an Afro-Colombian/Afro-Australia male, has aided in the development of a nuanced but balanced understanding of cultural, adoption and racial politics of today’s multicultural Australia.
This lived experience, is further supplemented by an academic background in law, investigations, government, politics and international relations, the pursuit of which in retrospect and with the aid of therapy, was both my innate curiosity to learn more about the world, a desire to effect change, and my inner child seeking validation and identity through achievements.
It was during this period, that I spent a year studying and playing college basketball at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom. Not whole lot of studying was done and the academic transcript upon return was not great but I can honestly say this was one of the best years of my life. I say this, as it was the first time in my life where I was not the only person of colour but also the first time in 21 years that I was around racial mirrors and a large Afro British/West African community. I think, in only my second week, I joined both the African and Latin American societies and immediately felt welcomed and at home.
Fast forward to 2022 and that sample feeling of what it was like to belong, in conjunction with the covid pandemic and the BLM movement, I was motivated to start to take some concrete steps to look into my own background and search for my biological family in Colombia. I really started to ‘come out of the adoptee fog’ as we tend to call it.
I joined a number of extremely welcoming and supportive online adoptee support and re-unification groups and through one of these groups, I was fortunate to connect with an extremely kind and amazing Colombian adoptee who explained further the history of illicit adoptions in Colombia and how and what documents I would need to start my search.
I diligently followed the advice provided and unearthed the limited documents I had (a birth certificate, a few medical records, abandonment certificate and adoption paperwork) and wrote a short blurb about myself with some baby and current photos. I then posted to range of reunification groups both here and in Colombia.
I was sceptical that anything would come of it especially knowing the current social and political climate of Colombia both now and at the time of my birth. I had grieved and accepted that I would most likely never find my biological family or that that they would be deceased.
Despite those initial reservations, approximately 24 hours after I had posted the search, I woke up to hundreds of messages on Facebook from people all around Colombia (nurses, doctors, private investigators and ordinary people ) offering to help or sending pictures of profiles of people who fit the description based on the information I had provided.
One of the groups who reached out was Plan Angel (an adoptee led organisation that specialise in biological reunification in Colombia). They sent through Facebook the profile of a lady with the same name as the woman listed on my birth certificate. Funnily enough, this happened to be a profile I had come across in my own searches but had discounted it as the date of birth did not match my birth certificate.
Plan Angel explained they had been contacted ‘by a lady, who knew a lady, who use to baby sit children that looked like you’ and asked whether I ‘would like them to make further enquires to confirm’. With my heart in chest, I replied, ‘Of course!’ 8 or so hours later, Plan Angel called at 7am in the morning saying, ‘We have confirmed that it is your biological mother, would you like to arrange a time to speak to her’. I calmly replied yes, expecting that this meeting would occur in few days, weeks or months but to my great surprise, the lady pressed a button and in a little box at the top of my cracked iphone and for the first time in 30 years, I saw the face of my mother, this illusive woman whose face and personality I had imagined since as long I could remembered; a woman and a queen who had generously carried me around for 9 months and made me 50% of who I am. I think in that moment, even if it was for a split second, I felt at peace and knew what it was to truly have a point of reference for identity and place in this world.
As soon as we saw each other, we burst out in tears because we knew. Looking back, I can honestly say this was a call that changed my life, as I went from not knowing my place in the world, feeling culturally isolated and from a close loving but small two sibling family, to 25 minutes later being the 3rd oldest in a crazy Afro-Colombian family of 13 and finally understanding and having a sense of culturally finding home and place! Here, I was not only accepted for who I was, but I was celebrated.
Since that day, life and process of navigating the reunion process has been one wild, humbling, joyous, sad, grief filled, soothing yet erratic adventure that has really felt like the screenplay to a classic Latin telenovela. It has an unpredictable mix of horror, happiness, scandal, secrecy, crime, horror, drama, pain, love and family all mixed together.
A big part of what made this journey possible and survivable, has been the ongoing support, guidance, mentoring, exchange of shared experiences, friendship, healing education and community offered/provided by Lynelle and other adoptees through ICAV, Plan Angel as well as the wider adoptee community. It is my hope, that by sharing my tale, I am able to pay it forward, raise awareness around the realities of adoption (the need for improved support services), hopefully provide guidance and a relatable perspective to other intercountry adoptees both in general and for those who are thinking about reunification.
Click here to RSVP to ICAVs upcoming webinar on Reunion and Beyond:
The following blog series will be dedicated to our Searching in Intercountry Adoption series. These individual stories are being shared from our Perspective Paper that was also shared with our Webinar, Searching in Intercountry Adoption by Adoptee Experts..
by Desiree Maru, born in the Philippines, raised in the USA
I was born in destitute poverty in the Philippines in 1985 and hence relinquished to an adoption agency on the day that I was born. I was taken care of at Asilo de la Milagrosa, in the care of Catholic nuns who were social workers at the time, and adopted via Holt International to the USA when I was about two years old. I did not know my adoptive parents, nor did they come out to the Philippines to get to know me. My name legally changed, and I was flown from an airplane and delivered to Caucasian strangers that were my legally binding family.
I grew up in Wisconsin, in the Midwest, and had an adopted brother, who was two years older than me, who was also adopted from the Philippines, from a different orphanage. We grew up not being taught about the Philippines. We grew up with a lack of pride or understanding of our home culture, heritage, customs and language. Instead we were heavily assimilated into the Western culture; we were asked a few times about our culture from our adoptive parents but it wasn’t enough support to keep us connected to our home traditions.
Barriers included a lack of being informed from our adoptive parents about our homeland, ancestry and we also lacked emotional-psychological support for intercountry adoptees in the Midwest at the time. I vaguely remember a time when my adoptive mother sat me down in the living room, back in Wisconsin, she told me I was adopted, and I said, “I know,” and walked out of the living room. I went back to my bedroom to be by myself. That’s the tone of my childhood, where I was showing like I didn’t care when in fact, the whole experience was difficult for me. But I didn’t know how to reach out or talk about it to anybody.
My brother had a lot of issues and we moved to Arizona in high school to try to start over as a family. This is a time when my adoptive mother came into my bedroom and showed me my biological papers. She said she had to wait until I was 18 to give these to me, but I was close enough to the age, or something along those lines. She left, and I looked at them and I cried. I saw the name of my birth mother, and I longed to know more about her.
I imagined my birth mother a lot in those days. I wrote poetry, and it was never enough to fill the gap and missing pieces of my heart.
Obstacles in searching at the time was that my biological papers, which had been established by social workers in the Philippines, didn’t preserve much of any functional information for independently searching for family members or family history. These biological papers lacked any kind of suitable, identifiable information that preserved in any way my heritage and family tree information, which would be necessary to piece together my past without needing the very individuals to re-establish the knowledge of my heritage.
My biological papers revealed next to nothing about my father, which later on, I would find that the information that was volunteered by my birth mother was also false. But as a teenager, when all I have are these old, governmentally-certified papers from my home country, that’s all that I had. So these old-fashioned, brittle documents were my only hope, which were papers that scarcely were able to certify my birth on thin, fragile paper. I had a feeding schedule from my orphanage and a mighty, descriptive report of what I looked like and acted like as a vulnerable baby in the orphanage. And that was all I had of my entire past. These artefacts showed I was just a product of the adoption process.
I finally decided to pursue a reunion when I was in my mid-twenties. I discovered that Holt International actually had a search and reunion department, so I emailed them, and started the process. They reached out to my old orphanage, Asilo de la Milagrosa, and the kind social workers there had found my files. They also went themselves to the address of my birth mother, and thankfully, she still lived there. From that point, they coordinated with her.
I planned a trip to the Philippines with barely enough funds to cover this at the time. It was difficult because my adoptive mother wasn’t supportive at all, and nobody from my adoptive family supported me either. But in a few months, I was able to create an itinerary. I was to leave Seattle, to the Philippines, and I was given a place to stay with the Intercountry Adoption Board of the Philippines, and later, Asilo de la Milegrosa had guest quarters too.
The cost of a reunion is plenty. The cost of travel is hefty. But the main cost to consider is the toll of what you’re undergoing psychologically and emotionally. You’ve spent all your life fabricating an identity away from this place, and now you’re returning, and you’re having to break out of that safety net to acknowledge and face parts of your past that had been concealed all this time. So it is disruptive to the security in our lives. It is a risk one takes as well, because you don’t know the results, and how you’ll process the experience post-reunion either.
The outcome of this search was that I was unknowingly able to have a reunion granted for me, with my birth mother and half-birth brother, due to all of these circumstances leading up to this being uniquely favourable and available to me at the time.
My reunion was in 2012, and it is now 2023 and I’m living on my own in Indiana. My adopted brother recently passed away last year, homeless on the streets of the Philippines, in 2022. He lacked much needed support throughout his whole life, which will always weigh on me, and I miss him everyday. I don’t talk with my adoptive family anymore, although I had kept in touch with my adoptive parents and grandparents mainly. I just have one surviving adoptive grandfather now as well, so life has changed even in their circumstances.
After experiencing the whole search and reunion process, I do have my own perspectives to share. I think what is needed is that every adoption company and governmental organisation should have a search and reunion department for all adoptees to utilise.
Every adoption agency and birth country of an orphaned or vulnerable child should be collecting all of their biographical informationincluding family trees and family members, so that they can have the knowledge of their past to utilise for their own personal purposes. Adoptees should have a right to have their family history preserved and safeguarded, administratively. Their biographical information, including birth information and birth records, needs to be preserved as best as possible, and social workers should make sure that all information is accurate and not in fact made up.
This biographical information is what holds the last of an adoptee’s own cultural identity and historical background, and even medically, this is paramount. This information could give a sense of security and psychological support if anything, which could save society a lot of issues in the long run. It would hold well in the search and reunion process because the more information adoptees are given, the more options adoptees have for meeting or getting to know their home countries in ways that are comfortable for them.
Supportive resources include the adoption agencies free search and reunion administrative support, biological paper filing and holding for the adoptee; it is giving an adoptee full access to their records at any time as well. Intercountry adoption boards or agencies of the home country, and the orphanage that the adoptee was cared for at, all need to be officially accountable. They all need to have proper records of the vulnerable child, and proper process and procedures for the search and reunion. Support should be accessible on a regular basis.
There should be rapid communication readily available for adoptees today such as having proper email addresses, current phone numbers and customer service at hand. Support should be granted such as places to stay when the adoptee visits the home country and on a reunion; they should be informed of the reunion process, given counselling support, translator support, and if someone can document the reunion for the adoptee, that could help too.
Now in 2023, after all these years of living life, pursuing therapies, working and becoming the owner of my own life, I’ve decided to start a new chapter of my search and reunion by requesting a MyHeritage DNA Kit for starting an initial search for biological relatives, and to also learn about my DNA heritage, and where I come from. This DNA kit was free due to the program in place recently, which was why I’d participated in requesting this kit.
The difference in this is that before, I would say, I experienced more of a direct line to my poverty-stricken past at Asilo de la Milagrosa, where in my mid-twenties, I met my birth mother and half birth-brother in 2012. Now, it is simply nice to search in a more discovery-toned, self-paced way, versus having to respond to a critical need to grasp the truth of what happened to me as a vulnerable baby and understand why my mother gave me up when I was born.
In this DNA search, I don’t have to ask too many hard questions, although even to this day, some questions can still linger in my mind from time to time: Why didn’t my biological family contact me all this time? Why wasn’t I able to mend the fabric of my biological family history at a certain point in my life? And, why did my past have to be such a void?
The following blog series will be dedicated to our Searching in Intercountry Adoption series. These individual stories are being shared from our Perspective Paper that was also shared with our Webinar, Searching in Intercountry Adoption by Adoptee Experts.
by Huyen Friedlander, born in Vietnam, raised in the USA
On Sunday, I learned that my birthfather had died. I’m still sifting through how that feels, a unique kind of loss of a parent. Even though we reunited over 20 years ago, there was still a lot left unspoken, and maybe a lot that we didn’t know or understand about each other. We met in-person twice. The first time was shortly after 9/11. I had his contact information for almost a year, but I wasn’t ready to reach out. Knowing that he lived in New Jersey, so close to NYC where the towers fell, I felt a sense of urgency that I shouldn’t waste any more time. I called on a Friday night. I left a voicemail that my name was Huyen and that I thought he had been a friend of my family in Viet Nam. The next morning, he returned my call.
In the first few seconds of our conversation, I said my name again, said who my birthmother was and said, “I think you may be my birthfather.” Immediately, without any hesitation, he said, “I think I am, too.” That was an enormous gift to me. No denial. No defensiveness. “I thought you and your mother had died.”
He had been told by an army connection that my mother had died trying to make it to Thailand, and that I had died in the Babylift crash. He said he had wanted to marry my birthmother, but wasn’t allowed to because her family had originally been from the North.
It felt so surreal to finally have this information, a little window into what had happened. Within a few weeks, I was headed to the East Coast with my adoptive father, my husband and my 17-month-old son in tow. I was about two months pregnant with my daughter at the time. My birthfather and his wife greeted us at a restaurant, with a hug and flowers in hand. After dinner, they were gracious and invited us home for cannoli and a chance to visit more.
At the house, I was excited to meet my half-sister, who was also the mother of a young son. My birthfather brought out a photograph of me, probably at about 2 years old, a pristine copy of a tattered photo that my birthmother’s sister had held on to for 20 years in Viet Nam. We never did DNA testing; this picture that they had both saved was proof enough. My birthfather also gave me a gold cross that my birthmother had given to him before he left Viet Nam, to protect him on his way home. Similarly, when my birthmother took me to the Friends of the Children of Viet Nam in Saigon to relinquish me, she had put a St. Christopher’s medallion on a string and tied it tight around my neck, to protect me in my new life. Giving me the photograph and the cross felt generous and thoughtful.
Over the next decade, we checked in periodically by letters or telephone. By the time we would meet in person again, I was widowed, a single mother of two young adolescent children. Having lost my husband, I again felt some urgency in making sure that my kids would meet their biological grandfather. And again, my birthfather was gracious in saying yes to my request. Our visit was sweet and the kids thought he and his wife were fun and kind. Before we left, my birthfather gifted us with an ornate serving set that he had brought back with him from Viet Nam.
Following that visit, much of our communication happened through Facebook, with occasional comments on each other’s posts. Facebook allowed us to see aspects of each other’s lives in a very natural way. I got a tiny idea of his sense of humour, his love of fishing and model trains. Facebook also happens to be the primary way that I maintain contact with my birthmother; we FaceTime and she sees my posts and photographs.
I didn’t want to post anything about my birthfather’s death on Facebook until I had the opportunity to FaceTime my birthmother in Viet Nam to let her know. During that initial visit with my birthfather in 2001, he told my dad that my birthmother had been his first love. This was a gift to hear, even knowing the sad outcome for them, because in some way it validated my birthmother’s faith that he would come back for us. She waited for eight years.
In my reunion video with my birthmother (five years before I found my birthfather), we are sitting at my grandparents’ dining room table. She is beaming at me, with an arm around me, and laughing, she says, “Beaucoup love made you! Yeah, beaucoup love made you.” When she looked at me, she saw him. She’d point to my features and say, “Same! Same!” It seemed to bring her joy, to see him in my face.
I was nervous to call her tonight to tell her the news. I asked my dear friend Suzie to join the call to help translate. I spoke in English, “My birthfather has died. X died. I am so sorry.” And immediately, she let out a mournful cry. Even though my birthmother eventually married and had five more children—the foundation and joy of her life—my birthfather held a special place in her heart as her first love. For a year in their young lives, they had loved each other a lot.
Suzie helped to translate the details that I’ve heard before. It was wartime. There was nothing they could do to be together. 50 years later, my birthfather’s passing is a loss to my birthmother. As a devout Catholic, she is praying for him now. There was a lot I didn’t know about my birthfather, and I would still like to know more, but I can also be at peace with what I know.
For now, I’m staying grounded in the gratitude that I feel for having found him, gratitude that he recognised me, and gratitude for the opportunities that I had to connect with him and his family. I’m saying a prayer for his wife and family as they navigate this loss.
Coming Next: Searching for my family in South Korea
The following blog series will be dedicated to our Searching in Intercountry Adoption series. These individual stories are being shared from our Perspective Paper that was also shared with our Webinar, Searching in Intercountry Adoption by Adoptee Experts.
by Jose Taborda, born in Colombia, raised in the USA
In the spring of 1978, I was born in Medellin, Colombia. Separated from my first family by adoption, I was brought by my adoptive parents to New Jersey and grew up with my younger adoptive sister in a Northern New Jersey suburb just outside of New York City.
I was lucky as an adoptee because my adoptive parents made a conscious decision to talk to me about my adoption from an early age. They attended a couple of workshops about adopting a child offered by an adoption agency prior to my adoption where they had been counselled to inform me as soon as possible about my adoption so as to normalise it for me. This advice informed their approach in terms of collecting information and artefacts of my adoption. This included stories of my adoption in Colombia in the form of journal entries written by my adoptive mother, a photograph of my first mother, and my adoption records containing identifying information about my first mother.
Upon refection, it wasn’t just luck and good advice, my parents were compassionate people who made the decision to share what they knew about my origins with me throughout my life. They had the right instincts that led them not only to send me a dossier containing every artefact about my adoption while I was in college and I first expressed an interest in searching, but also to support my search when I began.
When I moved to New York City in my mid-twenties, I started searching. At the time, I had a Yahoo! Email account and noticed that it offered searchable interest groups. There was a group called Colombian Adoptee Search and Support (CASAS), which gathered many people like me: twenty-something Colombian adoptees who grew up around New York City and living in the area! I was shocked to find hundreds of people who were sharing resources about searching, so I started making connections and attending meetups and dinners in Brooklyn and Manhattan where we enjoyed sharing stories and Latino fare.
Through these meetups, I had gotten the contact information of a private investigator in Medellin with whom I started to interact about my search. Because I had identifying information about my first mother, it took him two weeks to find her. A couple weeks after that, I had my first phone call with her. As one can imagine, finding my first mother within a month of beginning my search was all a whirlwind and very overwhelming. My excitement got the best of me, and I dove right into making plans for a reunion. Well, all of this came as a shock to my adoptive mother and sister, who weren’t as excited as me. They felt threatened by my news. I remember spending a lot of time convincing them that I wasn’t trying to replace them, but rather, it would be an opportunity to learn about my origins. They were not convinced that it was so simple. Searching for first family by adoptees may bring up many past trauma wounds for all members of the adoption constellation. I have heard stories of adoptees shying away from doing any searching while their adoptive parents are still alive due to the raw emotions around adoption that are very rarely acknowledged and dealt with during an adoptive family’s time living together. And when the possibility of a reunion arises, adoptees may find themselves having to reckon with these complicated emotions. This reckoning is not our responsibility as adoptees, but it may be an unanticipated and unwelcome reality that adoptees must face when searching and reuniting with first family.
Coincidentally, the film “Las Hijas” was going to be screened. It was timely that Maria Quiroga, a local filmmaker, was releasing the film profiling three female Colombian adoptees and their reunions with first family. So I invited my mother and sister to join me. It was an interesting experience because the filmmaker handled the subject matter responsibly in presenting the reality of how complicated reunions between adoptees and first family can be. It helped to see this objective perspective on the emotionally charged situation that was playing out for us. It provided a context for our sensitive conversations, and it helped us to understand that we were not the only ones experiencing the feelings we were. Despite all of that, we continued to have conversations that required my soothing their frayed feelings around my upcoming reunion.
One thing that stands out for me now sixteen years later as I reflect on my reunion as a young man, is that I did not pursue any mental health support to guide me on that complicated endeavour. In my local adoptee community, the discussion was more centred on the topic of search and reunion in my memory and not as much on adoption mental health issues. However, I acknowledge there is a high likelihood my antenna wasn’t tuned to that particular signal, so to speak. More recently, I have read a lot of highly-respected literature about adoption and mental health including The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier and Journey of the Adopted Self by Betty Jean Lifton to name a couple of outstanding examples. I am a regular listener to adoptee podcasts including Adoptees On with host Haley Radke and Adapted with host Kaomi Lee among others. I have met many adoptees and I am lucky to live close to an adoptee organization called Also Known As, Inc. that hosts meet ups for transracial, intercountry adoptees. Wise adoptees and adoption professionals these days counsel adoptees who are engaged in reunion to set some boundaries that include having a third-party present during reunion meetings, not staying with first family right away, and pursuing therapy before, during, and after reunion. I did none of those things.
All of this gathering of resources and self-education on the intersection of adoption and mental health has demonstrated to me that I took a very impetuous, uninformed, and quite risky path on my reunion journey. I stayed with my first mother and her family for three weeks at their home in an outlying municipality of Medellin. I do have very positive memories from my first visit in 2006 that led me to return in the two subsequent years. However, somewhere down the line some members of my first family started to develop expectations that involved money. It was not much at first, but, with time, their boldness grew. This expectation made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want to have to explain to any of them that I am a professional in a field that is not very highly-compensated. To them, I was just the more fortunate one who was able to escape their humble circumstances. No matter how difficult my personal situation was, they are right that I had many more opportunities in the U.S. than they did in Colombia, but I did not feel that it was my responsibility to have to provide for them. I wanted to just get to know them knowing that it would take time to develop a family bond. Truly, I faced hard feelings when they asked for money and that made things very confusing for me. While I know that my experience is not unique, I wished that it wasn’t part of my reunion story. At some point, I stopped contacting them because it all became too much for me. This is where an intervention such as adoption-focused therapy would have been helpful.
Some years passed and I turned the page on my adoption by quite literally ceasing to think about my adoption and pausing all the actions I had taken to learn about my origins during my twenties. I turned thirty, I got married and became a new father, and I wanted to focus on my new family in Brooklyn. I was also in graduate school, so juggling responsibilities was the theme starting in 2010. Since that time, a lot has changed.
Nowadays, I am divorced, I am co-parenting a budding teenager, and I have settled into a career as a college educator. As I moved into middle-age, I became more introspective, and I found myself interrogating some difficult feelings that felt like depression and anxiety. When I realised that I did not have easy answers to that line of inquiry, I began searching for ways to remove barriers to happiness that had started showing up. It started to dawn on me that my adoption may be the cause of some of my bad decisions in life and the source of a feeling of malaise that crept in every now and again. I remember once sitting on a beach in the Rockaways with my best friend and confidant of many years and reflecting out loud that I should look into therapy for adoption to try to answer some nagging questions.
About six months after that conversation in 2021, I got around to doing some basic internet searching and was amazed by what I found. There was so much work that had been done in the intervening years since I started my search. As I previously mentioned, I went down a path of self-education, I engaged in some adoption-focused group therapy, and I have been attending online and in-person support groups made up of adoptees since that discovery. I have learned so much about myself and adoption since I started to reconnect to my adopted-self. Some of it has been difficult, but I am very happy to have opened myself up to feel, meditate, inquire, grieve, and build community. It is cliche, but I wish I knew during my reunion and prior what I know now.
In short, I hope that adoptees who are on the bold path of searching and reuniting with first family will take careful, well-informed steps. I know from my experience that there are no easy answers, and reunion may be when many hard questions rise to the surface. However, that search for the discovery and recovery of self and identity is worth it all because even if one does not find first family, there is so much to learn about oneself along the way.
I hope that adoptees take the time to explore all of the particular intersections of adoption and mental health including, but not limited to, the Primal Wound theory, the post-traumatic stress implications of adoption, ambiguous loss, and the Adoptee Consciousness Model. Most definitely read the two books by Verrier and Lifton previously mentioned. Check out Damon Davis’ podcast Who Am I Really?, and the two others previously mentioned. Read JaeRan Kim’s brilliant blog Harlow’s Monkey. If looking for a therapist in the U.S., check out Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker’s adoptee therapist directory curated on her website Grow Beyond Words. If one does not have the money to pursue therapy, there are plenty of books, podcasts, and support groups that could provide information and resources helpful in informing decisions around searching, finding, and reunion with first family. Just start checking out all of the amazing resources on Lynelle Long’s comprehensive treasure of a website InterCountry Adoptee Voices. Search on Facebook for a group you can join that holds online support groups, or, even better, search for a local group in your area to meet up in person with adoptees. A great place to search for a local group in the USA is on Pamela A. Karanova’s website Adoptees Connect.
The above is just a cursory glance at some of the most salient resources I have found that have nourished my soul as I step into more consciousness about my adoption on my journey of self-discovery. My greatest hope is that someone reading these words may find something in them to hold onto.
On 23 April 2023, ICAV ran a panel webinar to bring you the expertise of our Search professionals around the world, sharing their best words of wisdom for what to consider when undergoing searching in intercountry adoption. They directly represented adoptee organisations from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Sth Korea, Haiti, Colombia and Greece.
Watch the webinar here: Note: if viewing in Chrome, click on the Learn More button to watch the video
For those who are time poor and want to skip to the sections that are relevant, here is a timecode to assist:
00:20 Intro, Welcome, Purpose 04:30 Intro of panelists 04:39 Marcia Engel 06:48 Rebecca Payot 09:29 Jonas Desír 10:25 Linda Carol Trotter 12:55 Kayla Curtis 15:22 Hilbrand Westra 17:44 Benoît Vermeerbergen 21:00 Celin Fässler
Questions / Answers
23:28 What does the general search process involve? – Kayla 27:30 What should adoptees to do prepare? – Linda, Marcia 35:51 What are some of the outcomes? – Jonas, Kayla, Linda 46:50 Some possible barriers to expect? – Rebecca, Linda 56:51 What ethics to consider? – Marcia, Kayla 1:06:40 What should a search cost? – Rebecca, Linda, Celin 1:11:46 Who to trust? Hilbrand, Jonas 1:16:16 What issues to consider in DNA testing? – Benoît 1:19:18 What outcomes can result with DNA testing? – Benoît 1:20:40 What DNA tests do you recommend? Benoït, Marcia 1:23:51 What are the advantages of using an adoptee led search org? – Celin, Marcia 1:28:28 What was involved in becoming a trusted Government funded search org? – Celin 1:30:36 What is needed most from Governments to help adoptees in our searching? – Hilbrand, Marcia
Summary of Key Messages
Click here for a pdf of our Key Messages from each panelist
Huge thanks to the 26 adoptees who wanted to share their experiences of searching so that others can gain a deeper understanding. They represent experiences of 13 birth countries (China, Colombia, India, Malaysia, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam), sent to 9 adoptive countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Scotland, Sweden, UK, USA).
In 2016, ICAV compiled a world’s first resource of our lived experience voices sharing the ups and downs of searching and reunions, specific to intercountry adoption. No such resource existed like this before and yet, as adoptees, one of our hugest challenges across our lifespan, is contemplating if we want to search, what’s involved, and figuring out how to go about it. I wanted to provide a way to address these questions so I asked ICAV adoptees to share their experiences, focusing on lessons learnt after looking back in hindsight. I also asked them to share what could be done by authorities and organisations to better support us in our search and reunion process. I published our perspective paper in english and french and it ended up being a 101 page paper (book) covering the experiences of adoptees from 14 birth countries, adopted to 10 adoptive countries.
Given one of the core topics for discussion at the recent Hague Special Commission is Post Adoption Support, I felt that it was timely to re-share our paper and provide a summary of what it captures for those who don’t have time to read the 101 pages and for the benefit of Central Authorities and Post Adoption organisations to learn from our experiences.
Summary of key themes from ‘Search and Reunion: Impacts and Outcomes’ by InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) 2016
Issues and challenges faced using tracing services:
The need for specialised counselling is a recurring theme throughout most stories, particularly to prepare adoptees for the first meeting, delivered from someone who understood and specialises in intercountry adoption
Searches are often conducted through social network sites that can leave adoptees can vulnerable and not properly supported to engage with birth families
Privacy issues and barriers
The need for access to birth records to help with birth reconnection
Several cases mentioned issues with passport and visas
Adoption agency would not disclose identifying information about their birth family due to privacy
Transparency of services and where to access them
Assumption that birth records are accurate, despite corruption
The sense of ‘rebuilding your history’
Challenging to maintain a relationship with birth family due to language and cultural barriers
Need more standardised laws and processes for adoption agencies to follow when adoptees are seeking their information
Laws passed to allow adoptees access to their files
More support is needed for adoptees in counselling, and translation when searching
Facilitated counselling service that assisted with the search and reunion process from beginning to end
Listing of adoptees as mentors who have been through the process
Stories of adoptee searches and their reconciliation of those searches would provide emotional support to other adoptees thinking of beginning their own search
Suggestions for improved support for adult adoptees when searching for birth families:
Documentation is the key and open adoption is the best way to lend support
The need for interactive support groups and to know where to find them
A comprehensive education for adoptive parents to help them manage the lifelong issues for adoptees, and affordable counselling for all parties in the adoption process, and particularly to have access to this support regardless of the stage of the adoption process
Having a social worker ‘check in’ on people who are adopted throughout their lives
Maintenance of a database to allow the search to be conducted with access into other databases such as births, adoptions, deaths and marriages in each country
Some adoptees want adoptive families to have mandatory training that helps them manage adoptee issues up to the age of 18 – education in language, culture history, the importance of having all the documents, the value in making regular visits together to the country of origin
Include adoptee DNA testing done, Y or N on the adoption file
Key quotations from adoptees about their experience of reunification:
“Adoption is a life long journey and even to this day I have fresh revelations of my adoption. The “general” impact has been one of profound empowerment which arose from great anguish.”
“Although I had a session with a very good psychologist before my reunion, I still feel there was so much more I should have been made aware of. I wish I had been directed to other adoptees willing to share their experience of their reunion with tips, advice and support.”
“It was devastating for me to realise my birth family are basically strangers and if I wanted a relationship with them, I would have to sacrifice the life I built after they rejected me and re-alter the identity I have struggled to develop, just to fit into their expectations.”
“The biggest obstacles for search and reunion in my experience have included:
Being a ‘tourist’ in my country of birth. I found it surprisingly confronting and difficult to have people of the same nationality assume I was one of them and then having to explain my adopted situation.
Post reunion i.e., working through the consequences of opening the door to the past – it is irreversible! I should have been better prepared and better supported for the post reunion aspects and consequences.”
“It took many years to properly come to terms and to get my head around my adoption after reunion. It has undoubtedly affected my identity and the course of my life for the best. My adoption has become something I have grown to appreciate and evolve with. Learning my life should have ended before I was even born, has made me incredibly grateful and motivated to do something with my life.”
“Primal wounding when separated from mothers is exacerbated by the mystery of unanswered questions.”
To read the full ICAV Perspective Paper: Search & Reunion – Impacts & Outcomes in English or French, see our collection of Perspective Papers.
by Marie, a daughter lost via adoption from her Chinese father who shared his story last week: The Sin of Love
I put the truth on a pedestal, but I also see how she’s a shape shifter, whose form changes depending on who holds her and their state of mind. In the few months since I found my father, I believe he’s understood my need for the truth and tried to offer it to me. But that truth keeps changing as my arrival in his life has been equal parts joyful and traumatic.
Confronted with me, the lost daughter he’s longed for, he’s also reliving the past. A past he’s suppressed because it was too painful, alone with memories in a society which erases birth parents and their grief, as if it is something they had agency to prevent. He had no wise mentor and no safety through which to process his pain and loss, not only of me but of his first love. I believe the woman he loved died to him when she signed the adoption papers. While acknowledging she probably had no choice, he couldn’t reconcile that woman with the one he loved eternally. So although he had clues as to where she was, he never looked for her because his love must surely be gone — the Agnes he loved couldn’t have given away their child; in doing so she compelled him into signing the adoption papers too. He tucked away that grief and entered a life in which loss unconsciously drove his decisions.
Years later he sleepwalked into a marriage. Another pregnancy would garner his commitment to his wife and to another child he couldn’t lose this time. But Agnes was a silent guest in his marriage and family – she would never leave, and neither would I.
Since I’ve returned, the truth evolves and shifts. Agnes has been unconsciously a perpetrator, a woman who gave up her flesh and blood and simultaneously a victim of a bigoted and controlling mother who altered the destiny of all three of us. As the months since our reunion have gone by, my father has been tormented by the past: guilt, anger, confusion and loss have plagued him with what he calls “sudden floating rubbish”. Neither of us can ask Agnes what happened from her perspective because she died in October 2016. 4 years before I found her obituary and 5 before I found my father and confirmed it was her. In her absence we both thrash about with what we know, attempting to piece together the puzzle which for me has even more missing pieces which are gradually leaking out of the memories my father accesses in flashbacks and increasing empathy for my mother. He stares, as I do at the one photo we have of her, posted on her obituary. She is young and smiling and though her features individually aren’t mine, somehow her face echoes mine. I saw myself in her, knowing who she was as soon as I saw the picture.
As he moves through the memories now with an altered lens of compassion, and perhaps conscious of how I would view my mother and how he wants me to feel about her, my father has revealed memories which again shift reality and truth. As my birthday approaches the revelations seem to be increasing. In his recollections, now she’s happy and smiling on the day I was born. They named me together and all seems fine when he leaves her that day. But a week later he’s called to sign adoption papers and compelled by a judge to do so when he refuses. He would never make sense of the decision and never talk to Agnes again to unpack what happened. His anger and confusion would hold her at a distance more successfully than her absence, until I arrived sending photos of myself in which she is ever present. In the last week he has seemed to need to share new puzzle pieces, as he puts it back together himself. He now believes he has wronged her.
In his own grief he couldn’t comprehend what a traumatic loss she endured. Yesterday he revealed another piece of the puzzle. When he finally searched for Agnes, he too found her obituary so he sought out her brother, his friend, to find out how she died. What he was told led him to believe she took her own life. This news has shifted reality again for me. While not knowing anything of her life, I can only assume losing me was a devastating event which forever impacted her state of mind and her family life.
I can’t help correlating the month of her death with its anniversary of my adoption. I suspect each year my August birthday would summon a silent grief and perhaps linger through to autumn when two months later, I went home with another family and within a few months unknown to my parents, to another country. I don’t know if she knew when I left the mother and baby home. It’s not clear to me if I was with her for those first two months of life or living in its adjacent orphanage under the care of nuns. Unrelenting in their views of what was best, the nuns lied to my father when he travelled the seven hours from Taiping to take me home, where his mother awaited, wanting to welcome me to their family.
What the Church told anyone is under question and with Agnes gone, perhaps only her siblings might know. It’s possible she shared something with her second daughter or husband. As I think of my maternal sister, I now wonder if my existence would unlock a mystery for her too. If she never knew about me, perhaps her loss also involved a traumatic secret lost in death and added to her grief. I remain stuck with what next in my search – for now just happy to be part of my paternal family and all the absorbing realities of getting to know the family and culture I lived without for almost 49 years.
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.