Adoption Laws – IF

There was an interesting post going around an adoptive family facebook group during National Adoption Awareness Month that I haven’t seen before. It got me inspired to share from the intercountry adoptee perspective what I would change IF we could.

The question was: “If you had the power to change any adoption laws, what would you change?” As you can imagine in an adoptive parent forum, many of the answers were adoptive and prospective parent centric. I did share a few of my initial thoughts, which unsurprisingly, in that group, not very popular. So let’s share my thoughts here as essentially this is the crux of what ICAV tries to do – we speak out to help policy makers and implementors think about what their processes and practices do to the child, the adoptees for whom it’s meant to be about. Some of the responses from ICAV members are incorporated as we did have quite an active discussion in our facebook group for adult intercountry adoptees.

If I could change adoption laws as an intercountry adoptee, in no particular order, I would:

  • make it illegal to traffic children via intercountry adoption and ensure a legal pathway for reparative & restorative justice — such as allowing us to return to our homeland and/or original family, if and when we desire;
  • make it illegal to rehome or return us;
  • make it illegal to change or falsify our original identity that includes DNA testing the relinquishing parents to confirm their parentage of us;
  • make it illegal to abuse us;
  • create a legal pathway to prosecute the agency for failing to adequately psychologically assess our parents to ensure no further harm is done via the adoptive family environment;
  • make it a legal requirement for all the actors who participate in the facilitation of adoption to provide lifelong post adoption supports that are free, equitable, and comprehensive, arising from a trauma informed model. It needs to be itemised what Post Adoption encompasses e.g., full search and reunion services, translation of documents, language courses, cultural activities, psychological counselling, return to homeland services, open access to our identity documents, etc.,
  • make it illegal to trick birth parents, to ensure they fully understand what relinquishment and adoption means;
  • make it illegal to adopt a child until it is proven beyond doubt that no immediate family, kin or local community can support and raise the child; this must include proof that the provision of a range of financial and social welfare supports have been offered;
  • create a legal pathway for orphanages, agencies, lawyers and judges to be prosecuted by birth families who are prevented access to their child, especially in situations where they change their minds;
  • create a legal pathway to prosecute countries who fail to give citizenship or deport intercountry adoptees; this includes removing these countries who accept or send deportees from any international convention;
  • make it illegal to separate twins;
  • centralise adoption, bring back full accountability of adoption to the State and remove the privatised model of intercountry adoption agencies to remove the conflict of interest and the blame shifting;
  • remove money and fees;
  • make it illegal for private lawyers to facilitate intercountry adoptions;
  • make expatriate adoptions go through the same process as intercountry adoptions in the adopting country rather than being able to by-pass the tougher requirements.
  • make all plenary adoptions illegal;
  • legalise a new form of care internationally that incorporates the concepts of simple adoption, kinship care, stewardship, permanent care, and guardianship models that provides for our care but not at our cost in identity and removal of connection to ALL kin;
  • create a law that allows adoptees the right to decline their adoptive parents as an adult if they wish;
  • create a pathway to ensure Dual citizenship for all intercountry adoptees that includes citizenship for our generational offspring, should they wish.

This is just a starting list for thinking about what laws would need creating or changing in order to protect the rights of adoptees! I haven’t even started to discuss what laws would be needed from our original family perspectives. It would be interesting to hear their perspective. One has to question the current bias of existing laws that are skewed and mainly protect the interests of the adopters instead of a balance between all three and prevent intermediaries taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of each of the triad members.

There will always be vulnerable children who need care but today’s existing Plenary adoption laws are archaic and outdated. We adoptees know from living the experience that there are many gaps and pitfalls in the current plenary adoption laws used in intercountry adoption today.

The Blame Game

A statement was made while at the recent intercountry adoption symposium in Washington DC about “children at the border and how we need to get them adopted into American families“.

That statement combined with articles I’ve seen on Facebook about migrant children who have been separated from their families and are now being adopted into US families certainly stirs up a lot of negative emotions in me. It should — for all of us! These vulnerable children are now going to be further victimized by a broken system that is all too often, fuelled by greed, savior attitudes and politics. 

While I agree that the Trump administration is accountable at some level, I believe there is a LONG list of accountable parties contributing to this very complicated issue. The atrocities indicated in these types of articles have been ongoing for decades under multiple administrations. It’s time we all stop and take note of the many levels in this broken system, including our own participation and how we contribute.

First off, many adoption agencies are more concerned with money, timelines and streamlining rather than the true welfare and interests of the child. I’m sure having prospective adoptive parents who are agitated from a lengthy and costly process doesn’t help, but the desire to appease disgruntled adoptive parents should never supersede the importance of a system that is both thorough and ethical. One of the hardest things for many to come to terms with, is that the adoption process has become a massive money making industry. According to statistics adoption agency revenues in 2015 were over 14 billion dollars and are now projected to reach 16 billion dollars in 2019. 

The State Department is now implementing vital reforms and regulations to hold all agencies to a higher degree of accountability and do you know what I see and hear as a result? People complaining that the State Department is making it harder to adopt children in need.

As a society we tend to do this. Adoption, especially intercountry adoption, is an extremely complex matter — yet we want it to be easy, cheap, quick, and open to our demands. There is no easy or quick fix to this process and there shouldn’t be. Adoption agencies and the process to adopt must be held to a high level of accountability and it takes time and money to achieve this. If we ever hope to see intercountry adoption free from corruption, then holding the agencies and the processes they are implementing to a higher level of accountability is a good place to start! 

Next, there are the government agencies such as Child Protection Services which are often over-worked, underpaid and understaffed, therefore, far too many kids are getting lost in the system or victimized by a broken system. 

Another large part of the problem is adoptive parents who all too often, want to turn a blind eye to the truth. We don’t want to have to answer the tough questions because the act of adoption has somehow become a glorified act – and no matter what losses, corruption or illicit acts exist behind the scenes, the “better life” is a free pass to ignore the child’s “best interests”, which should always be to remain in their culture and with their biological families (minus situations of abuse and neglect). 

Then there is what I consider to be, the largest part of the problem. The Westernized and often religious narrative of adoption. We have learned to see adoption in a romanticized light using scripture and the Christian faith to support this broken system. We use verses like “take care of the orphan and the widow” to adopt children regardless of the need for them to be adopted. We have families raising tens of thousands of dollars to adopt, while at the same time saying this child needs us to adopt them because their biological families are poor and can’t meet their basic needs.

The number one reason children are placed in the system for international adoption is poverty. Poverty should NEVER be the reason to separate a family. There is nothing godly or glorious about using money one fundraised or actually has at their disposal to adopt a child, when that money could be used to empower a family and keep them together.

We continue to support a narrative that says America is better meanwhile what I hear from adult intercountry adoptees, is that it’s not! They are losing their identities, their voices, their culture, their families and their role within those families and communities, as a result of adoption.

There are times in which adoption is the best and last solution to a complicated situation, but what we are routinely failing to do, is ensure that every possible avenue to keep the child in their culture and with extended family or community has been explored. Many times, when adoptive parents come into the picture, their emotions, both in love for the child and exhaustion from the process, tend to overshadow what is truly in the best interest of the child. We continue to ignore the voices that should matter the most because listening to adult intercountry adoptees also means admitting that we ourselves may have done things wrong. 

I really hate confrontation and I truly never want to hurt someone’s feelings. Whenever I speak out on this topic, I tend to hear a lot of negativity, especially from adoptive parents, but I feel like I have to speak up. In fact, we all need to speak up.

There is nothing to get defensive about if we have adopted and have investigated to ensure that this is the best possible scenario for that child. I know many families who have adopted and have done so while truly putting the best interest of their child(ren) first. They get it. Adoption doesn’t need to be this sugar coated, rainbows and butterflies fairytale. It’s a situation brought about from a place of loss. There is nothing beautiful about the word adoption to a child who has been adopted because that word represents everything they have lost.

The real beauty in adoption comes from those who choose to do the hard work on behalf of that child(ren) because they need someone to advocate for them, love them unconditionally and constantly work at putting the child’s best interests ahead of their own.

I feel I can speak to these things because unfortunately in the past, I perpetuated these same ideals. Obviously, I did not realize the damage I was doing with my “good intentions“. Excuse my bluntness here, but my intentions didn’t matter then and they don’t matter now! What matters is my ability to listen, learn, admit when I’m wrong and then change!

My family and I almost destroyed another family, stripped a child from her culture, contributed to the trauma in a child’s life that might never have healed, no matter how great as adoptive parents we were trying to be, all while we were being praised and cheered on for “saving” a life. Not once was I ever challenged on the complicated nature of a transracial and intercountry adoption nor as to my intentions behind adopting a child who had extended family in her birth country.

From the moment I announced the truth of the corruption behind our adoption and our plans to reunite, I received so much criticism and speculation regarding Mata’s family about where they lived, what religion they practiced and the country to which I was reuniting her to. It was unacceptable! Unacceptable yes, but not surprising! Correct me if I’m wrong, but we have become a society that is outspoken, combative and divided. We tend to speak more through clicks on a keyboard and less with action. We know international adoption statistics say as high as 90% children in orphanages have been separated from their families, yet what are most of us actually doing to resolve this tragedy? 

Is adopting the children in these orphanages an act of love? Or is using our time and resources to bring change to the communities they belong to and empowering their families and communities to stay together, the truer act of love?

There’s nothing wrong with sharing articles and opinions on facebook, in fact it is a great way for us all to become more aware and bring about the changes necessary both in ourselves and as a society. But let’s not just post, debate the post and leave out the most important part … action.

While I agree there’s a certain level of finger pointing that’s necessary to stop heinous acts like separating children from their families from happening, this problem is way bigger than one administration. Our desire to pick sides and the anger we feel when someone hasn’t chosen our side has become more important than becoming the difference we long to see in this world.

It’s time for the narrative around Intercountry adoption to change. Let’s not forget, it is children’s lives hanging in the balance and I truly believe we all have to take a long hard look at this complex and broken system, accept our part in it and work to correct it.

Adoptee Activism in America

Listen to Adoptee Voices

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?

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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.