Search and Reunion in Intercountry Adoption

Search & Reunion: Impacts & Outcomes

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.

Shape Shifting

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.

Why do Intercountry Adoptees want to know their Origins?

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.

Breath of Air by Tim Kakandar

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.

This was shared by Lynelle Long at the 1 July Webinar: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care.

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