by Cam Lee Small, adopted from South Korea to the USA, therapist at TherapyRedeemed.
Not all children get to ask this question before they become adoptees. And not all expectant mothers get a chance to answer.
I know there are so many kinds of circumstances represented in our community, even as you’re reading this and as you contribute to this very special adoption community to which we belong.
This question came up for me as I wondered about my own mother recently, and was brought further to the surface as I watched some clips from The Karate Kid.
Adoptees experience a loss of choice and voice when it comes to such a decision, to parent the child or relinquish for adoption… and WAY TOO MANY adopters dismiss their child’s feelings about it. Too many.
Let. Children. Grieve.
Don’t tell adoptees they’re making a big deal out of such a small thing. Ask why adoption agencies and power brokers within those institutions have made such a fortune by disrupting these sacred relationships.
Please let us grieve that. And allow us to wonder, “What if?” Even if the answer is unresolvable, that someone is here to hear it with us, to acknowledge its weight.
Because we certainly weren’t meant to carry that alone. May our message to one another be, “You don’t have to.”
The past 2 weeks it is as if we were on a roller coaster within the adoption community in which all the themes that have passed by in recent years were under a magnifying glass.
The loss of our fellow adoptees hit like a bomb, mainly because it touched parts of ourselves – because in the end, we have all lost a part of ourselves through relinquishment and adoption.
By accepting and acknowledging that we know death is something we usually stay away from, we need a hero and we have to become our own. Normally loss has no place, we only have an eye for surviving but when we recognise our loss, we also recognise the lost parts within us.
In the past week, we have experienced that we can no longer ignore death and we motivate each other to share and acknowledge our pain, fear and sorrow. By jointly expressing the wish that we want to remove the taboo about death and loss, a space has been created in which both sides of the adoption are starting to have a place.
We no longer just survive but also openly mourn and honour the lost parts within us. Let the tears we had as a child flow, and our child part is finally liberated.
And with this, the realisation is also born that we can embrace death and life because then fear disappears and we can live from love …
De afgelopen 2 week is het of we binnen het adoptieveld in een achtbaan zaten waarin alle thema’s die in de afgelopen jaren voorbij zijn gekomen onder een vergrootglas lagen.
Het verlies van onze mede geadopteerden sloeg in als een bom. Voornamelijk omdat deze delen van onszelf raakte. Want uiteindelijk hebben wij allen een stukje van onszelf verloren door afstand en adoptie.
Maar het accepteren en erkennen dat ook wij de dood kennen, is iets waarvan we wegblijven. We hadden een held nodig en we zijn onze eigen held geworden. Verlies had geen plaats we hadden alleen oog voor het winnen, overleven. Want als we ons verlies erkenden, erkende we ook de gestorven delen in ons.
De afgelopen week hebben we ervaren dat we er nu niet meer om heen kunnen en motiveren elkaar om onze pijn, angst en verdriet te delen, te erkennen. Door gezamenlijk de wens uit te spreken dat we het taboe er af willen halen, is er een ruimte ontstaan waarin beide zijdes van de adoptie medaille een plaats beginnen te krijgen.
Waar we niet meer alleen overleven maar ook openlijk rouwen en de gestorven delen in ons eren. De tranen die we als kind hadden, laten we stromen en ons kindsdeel wordt eindelijk bevrijd.
En hiermee is ook het besef geboren dat we de dood en het leven mogen omarmen. Want dan verdwijnt angst en kunnen we vanuit liefde verder leven…
by Maria Diemar, born in Chile raised in Sweden. You can access her blog at I Own My Story Maria Diemar where she published this on Aug 23.
The right to one’s identity, is it a human right? Is it a human right for everyone?
Where you belong, the circumstances you come from, is this important to know?
Is it possible to delete a person’s background? Would you consider deleting another person’s background?
What is illegal? What is unethical? What are irregularities?
In last few years, I have discovered more and more of my history. From discovering that I am Ingegerd Maria Olsson in the registers in Chile, to realise that I can vote, and renew my passport from 1975, to understanding that it seems like I never left Chile the country where I was born.
According to my Chilean passport, I live on a street in a business district in Rancagua. According to other documents, I live with a social assistant in Santiago. We are probably more than 400 children living at that address: Monseñor Müller 38.
I “live” in Chile, and I live in the United States. I am in the electoral register in Chile, and in Sweden I have a Swedish passport and can pick up a Chilean passport when I like.
My birth was never registered at the hospital where I was born. I’m a child of no-one. Instead of a birth certificate, a protocol was written in which strangers testified that I was born on my birthday.
In Chile, I am registered as an orphan because a Swedish woman, Anna Maria Elmgren, arranged and enrolled me in the register in Chile. I have a Swedish name in the Chilean register. I’m Ingegerd Maria Olsson in Chile.
I am a orphan but I have a mother in the documents from the court in Temuco. In the documents from the court, I have a mother. A mother who gives me away.
I was 44 years old when I did a DNA test, then I realised that I’m Mapuche. I’m from an indigenous people.
To be a child of Indigenous people, this detail is something that someone forgot to mention. A detail that isn’t too important. Or is it?
Is the right to one’s identity a right for everyone? Who decides this?
Part 1 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption
I write this in honour of the survivors who spoke out with much courage in both the Royal Commission and Revelation. They inspired me to no longer be afraid to speak up. Change is only going to happen if we shake off the mantle of shame and name the perpetrators and no longer allow them to hide!
Most people in the adoption community understand and accept that there is trauma and loss involved for us, the adopted person. The trauma we refer to in adoption is usually what I more correctly term “relinquishment trauma” – the trauma that comes from having connected in utero with our mothers and then ripped away for whatever reason, never to connect to her again, unless we are lucky enough to be reunited or have an open adoption (which is rare in intercountry adoption contexts). Many well known professionals like Dr Bessel van der Kolk and Gabor Maté have spoken at length about the childhood traumas involved in being relinquished or abandoned.
In this 3 part series, I want to talk about one of the traumas that occurs to some of us after our adoption – the trauma of sexual abuse within our adoptive families. This topic is too often hushed up in shame and guilt and we, the adoptees, are left to deal with the ramifications – alone, and unsupported.
During COVID-19 I’ve had extra time to be able to watch some documentaries. One of the most impactful was Revelation on ABC which is an investigative documentary by Sarah Ferguson following on from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. I felt compelled to watch it because at the time, the media was covering the release of Cardinal George Pell, who reached one of the highest levels of office in the Catholic hierarchy, and was set free on legal technicalities after taking his case to the Supreme Court in Australia. He had previously been found guilty of child sexual assault by two separate courts but those decisions were overturned. Being a survivor of sexual abuse within my adoptive family, I was horrified and angry at this news like many other survivors! I was triggered and reminded of the lack of justice for people like me, whose perpetrators get away with their crimes! Triggered also because I understood intuitively how much courage it must have taken for the one brave soul and allies to stand up against the Catholic church and dare to take it on, speak his truth, and hope/pray that justice would prevail. Sadly it didn’t! Like me, that brave soul has to live knowing that no matter how hard we fight for our inner child who has been so badly wounded, there is sometimes no legal justice to ensure the perpetrator is punished for their crime. The other trigger was to watch the Pope shortly after, speak out in support of Cardinal Pell, likening his “suffering” to that which Jesus Christ suffered. Ughh for those of us who do believe the victims, this is like the ultimate twist and it sounded just like my adoptive father crying out when I confronted him a couple of times over the phone for his deeds from the past. He demanded that I stop “crucifying him”. Could there be any further twist to us victims being portrayed as the perpetrator, causing their suffering?!
I am compelled to speak out for adoptees like me, who suffer within our adoptive families from sexual abuse. I believe it’s one of the worst forms of trauma that is layered upon our already fragile bedrock of trauma from relinquishment. It has taken me decades to feel open and liberated enough to speak freely about how this has impacted me. I speak out because I tried to participate in the Royal Commission but in the end, I didn’t get to because by the time my lawyer confirmed I was indeed considered technically “under State care” whilst my abuse had occurred, I was too late – the Royal Commission had 1 week left to go and were no longer taking testimonies.
I was initially denied the opportunity to share my story in the Royal Commission because as soon as I said “I’m adopted” they automatically told me that abuse occurring within the “private domain” was not included. I should have said my abuse occurred technically while I had not been adopted. This point in itself highlights one of the areas in which we adoptees speak out about for what is wrong with adoption – and that is the lack of responsibility for us long term, by the Stateor Institution. The State/Institution takes us, places us, assesses our adoptive family, theoretically screens them, educates them, matches us to them, and deems them “eligible” to adopt. So if the institution that is so intricately involved with placing us “gets it wrong” (in hindsight), and it turns out we are abused by the people chosen by them to be our “parents” – how is it that they can escape having “no responsibility” for any part in our abuse? Remember – we are young children and never got a say. We are in the most powerless position. I argue that being adopted should not deem us as being outside “institutional carefrom a long term perspective” i.e., adoption is a long term form of State/Institutional care. The astute will understand that the prevailing “once-off transactional view of adoption” is one of the largest reasons why States/Institutes are happy to adopt children out and push adoption as a first solution. It enables them to wash their hands of us and not be held accountable for what happens after. In comparison to our peers who end up in other forms of alternative care that don’t sever the State/Institutional responsibility – e.g., foster care, guardianship, stewardship, or kinship care; they were allowed to participate in the Royal Commission and are followed up on long term.
I know in speaking with other adoptees around Australia how frustrating it was for us to have been excluded from the Royal Commission. While the Royal Commission is holding most institutions accountable for the lack of responses to sexual abuse, the very institutions who placed us into adoptive families where abuse happens, ends up never being accountable for their role.
The Royal Commission was just one way in which I would have liked to have helped create visibility to those of us who suffer sexual abuse whilst in adoptive families we are placed in, as a form of institutional care.
Another option I have, is to seek the services of a lawyer and take up my own personal case against the perpetrators and/or those who deemed my adoptive parents fit to adopt a child. This path in itself is a lengthy and emotionally taxing process. Not many of us end up doing this because being adopted, the mantra to be grateful weighs heavy. Our relinquishment trauma also usually means we have so much to deal with already. I have met only one intercountry adoptee who took legal action against their adoptive family for sexual abuse. To do so, has been a heavy price of further abandonment and unresolved family dynamics. It is a toxic mix of issues adoptees have to struggle through if they are to ever seek legal justice for this type of crime.
Over the past few years, I sought to find a lawyer who could pave a way to claim justice for me but the experience has been just awful! It is terribly re-triggering each time I speak to a lawyer who has no idea about intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective and the impacts of abuse in the adoptive family. Too many adoptees in ICAVs network have experienced sexual abuse. For most, contemplating seeking justice is just too hard. To have the fortitude and emotional strength to get through the process is almost an unattainable goal, the financial cost prohibitive, finding a lawyer with the right expertise is difficult; most of us just want to move on and try to put it behind us. Each time I spoke to a new lawyer, I’d have to tell my experience all over again. It’s been one of the most invalidating experiences of my life! The last lawyer was the worst, telling me the initial consult would be free but then proceeding to bill me anyway. Lawyers can re-trigger us with their preying mentality that reminds us of our perpetrators! Out of six lawyers, I experienced only one who had any compassion, acted humanely and with empathy. The rest were all legalistic with no heart or soul. There’s something to be said for a profession who needs to be trained from a trauma and racially informed perspective to represent us. Every adoption lawyer I spoke to has never heard of representing us, the adoptee. Their services are all for the adoptive families! It’s taken me over 2 years to be strong enough to write about this experience or to consider trying again.
Coming Next: Part 2 – The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption.
Listen to Kaomi Goetz’s Adapted Podcast in which she shares her story of Sexual abuse and the Institutional Response when she approached them.
I’m an intercountry adoptee born during the Vietnam War in the early 70s, adopted prior to the war ending, to a white Australian family who had their own biological children. My childhood adoption experience was one where I never really understood that I was impacted by being adopted – I absorbed the mantra of the era that I would just “assimilate and fit in” with my new country and family. I spent a lot of energy trying to do just that, but as I reached my teens, I started to become aware that things weren’t quite the same for me as for my Australian peers. I seemed to struggle more in relationships, I definitely felt alone all my life even amongst a so-called “loving adoptive family”. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I became acutely aware of how much I had absorbed the racism towards my own ethnicity, my Asianness. It took me a decade to explore how being adopted impacted me and I grew through this journey because of the many other adoptees who I met online and face to face in the community I built up. It was the isolation of my childhood that drove me to create this community, that is now one of the largest intercountry adoptee networks around the world that includes adoptees of any birth country and it is this community, that enabled me to grow, learn and find my voice. Today, this network is one of the largest online communities that encourages adult intercountry adoptees to speak out at government level (nationally and internationally) and seek involvement with policy discussions.
Why be involved in policy discussions? And what is so important about being involved? Let’s first clarify what is meant by policy. Referring to Wikipedia’s content on “policy”, we consider it to be: a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes; a statement of intent that assists in decision making; different to rules or law where policy guides actions towards the desired outcome whereas law compels or prohibits behaviours; should include looking at the alternatives and choosing among them on the basis of the impact they will have; and is about trying to maximise the intended effects while aiming to minimise the unintended effects.
When it comes to intercountry adoption and how it is conducted in each birth and adoptive country, we all know that regardless of being a signatory of The Hague Convention or the Childs Rights Convention, laws and policies vary from one country to another because of the ways in which intercountry adoption is understood and implemented, both in theory and in practice.
At the heart of all this, WE are the children who grow up to become adults and it is us whom intercountry adoption is all about. In theory, intercountry adoption exists because it supposedly provides for us due to our vulnerable situations in which we are not able, for whatever reason, to be looked after by our first parents. Many of us are the recipients of past and current intercountry adoption policies or a lack thereof, and in ICAV we talk openly about the known pitfalls and issues that being intercountry adopted creates. Many of our birth countries view adoption as a once off transaction that involves legally handing us over to our new forever families and countries. However, we know from our lived experience, that adoption is not a once-off transaction — it is a psychological journey that lasts our lifetime – for which we are forever impacted, for good, bad, and every other shade of experience in between.
At ICAV, we speak openly about the many complexities of intercountry adoption that impact us. For instance, our right to original identity is ignored because most adoptive countries issue us with a new “as if born to” birth certificate upon adoption. Most countries also completely sever our legal right to our family of origin through the use of plenary adoption (as compared to simple adoption which would maintain kin connections). Most of us have very limited to no access to our adoption paperwork which once provided (until DNA technology) our only ability to find our first families and our origins. Our paperwork can vary from being outright falsified to containing some elements of truth but in too many cases, it’s modified to make us seem more marketable for prospective families, hiding our truths including fundamentally important medical information and history. For those adoptees who ended up in intercountry adoption via illegal or illicit means, there is a lifetime of injustice that we are expected to live with, with little to no supports. For those who end up in an adoptive family that isn’t a good match, we end up suffering further layers of trauma. Too often people and governments forget, that our foundation is relinquishment / in utero trauma from being separated from our biological mother.
In ICAV, we encourage our members and leaders to seek out ways in which adoptees can be heard at government level where policy is created that constructs the future of our lives. We believe it’s important for government to understand the ways in which policy impacts our lives. Without this understanding, how can policy be in our “best interests”? How can adults who have never lived our experience possibly know what is best for us? Having adoptee voices involved in policy means inviting us to the table, really listening to our points of view, incorporating what we say into policy, and recognising we are the experts of our own experience.
The fundamental premise of intercountry adoption is to give a vulnerable child a “family” and “country” to belong with. Why attempt to do good for vulnerable people if you aren’t going to listen to how effective or not the policy and practice is? Governments can only truly understand the real impacts (positive and negative) of their policies by listening to those whom it involves. In intercountry adoption, this is the adoptee, first families, and adoptive families, not the adoption agencies, the lawyers, nor any other intermediary. Without listening to our voices, governments run the risk of continuing to make the same mistakes they’ve made from the beginning.
One of the worst mistakes that has been made in modern intercountry adoption since it’s beginnings in the 1950s and 60s (beginning with the Greek, German and South Korean adoptees), is to not do enough to curb the monetary incentives in intercountry adoption that allow intermediaries to take advantage of the lack of, or to bypass, policies and laws allowing them to facilitate and participate in illegal and illicit practices. We have generation upon generation of impacted adoptees who’s adoptions were illicit or outright illegal. They have nowhere to turn and certainly have very little justice. Today governments around the world today should be concerned at the growing momentum of groups of first families and adult intercountry adoptees who have already sought legal pathways to take actions for the failures of the past.
For example, Chilean mothers of loss are working together with Chilean Adoptees Worldwide (CAW) and have demanded an investigation into their adoptions from the 70s and 80s. The investigation in Chile has found that a large number of the children who left Chile during that era were not voluntarily relinquished for adoption and they are seeking justice.
Similarly, Guatemalan adoptees have banded together from around the world and are demanding an investigation by the Guatemalan and Belgium governments. A most recent well known legal case is of a biological father who won at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and sentenced the State of Guatemala for irregular adoption and use of illegal procedures. View video here .
Another example is Brazilian adoptee Patrick Noordoven who became the first in the Netherlands to win a legal case for his Right to Original Identity. With this win, the Dutch Ministry of Justice is now investigating the role of the Dutch Government in illegal adoptions from Brazil, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia! See article here.
When governments fail to respond responsibly for their roles or for the roles individual facilitators played, in historic adoptions, it leaves those impacted no other choice but to find legal pathways to seek justice. We now have over 70 years of modern intercountry adoption around the world with our adoptee numbers in the hundreds of thousands from many different birth countries. Asia is by far the the largest sending continent of children (Peter Selman, HCCH Statistics). Adoptees en-masse have reached maturity where they question their identity, how they came to be raised in another country often with parents of dissimilar race, and to think critically of why they have been sent away from their countries of birth. Our adoptee movement is growing and gaining momentum. ICAV often speaks about the lack of an international body to hold governments accountable for their roles played in facilitating or turning a blind eye to the historic illegal and illicit practices.
Could there could be another pathway? If governments would be willing to listen to those impacted – to learn from the lessons of the past and ensure we don’t continue to repeat the same mistakes?
Part of the ICAV Vision is: A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.
This can only be achieved if those in power in government value and engage us. When our voices are ignored, government acts contrary to their goal of acting in our “best interests”, instead they set up adoptive, first families and adoptees for failure at worst, or more preventable trauma at minimum.
Another of the largest areas of policy failure in intercountry adoption around the world for any government, is the lack of freely funded, equitable, lifelong comprehensive post adoption supports that are trauma and resilience informed, with inclusion in service delivery from those who know the journey best – adoptees, adoptive and first families.
Anyone who has lived intercountry adoption knows intimately that our journey is one of multiple losses that exhibits as trauma and must be supported throughout our life. By inviting adoptees, first families, and adoptive families to share the lessons learnt from lived experience, government will better ensure they decrease the risks of unintended consequences and become more responsive in their policy making.
Inviting us to participate, listening to us with genuine openness and respect, hearing our experiences and heeding our lessons learnt — this is how governments can strengthen their outcomes and become more innovative and balanced. It is not agencies or intermediaries that government should be engaging and listening to the most, it is adoptees, first and adoptive families! I hope to see the day when we will be equally represented and invited to be involved in government policy and legislative forums for intercountry adoption!
This article was initially written in response to a request for a Korean publication but was subsequently unpublished. The request asked me to write about the importance of including the voices of adoptees in policy forums.
Am I a dog, cat or a fish that you can return back to a pet store? Your actions reflect that I am less than an animal You give strokes of affection and positive comments to your pets As I receive constant chastisement for the infractions that I committed You are genuinely worried when your pet is sick or lost You know nothing about me and remain clueless about the issues I face alone I am insignificant I am a nobody Why did you adopt me?
Other families make a habit of routinely calling each other But we are not like other families, I don’t receive calls from you Most families visit each other over the holidays Unless I come to you, I don’t get visitations Most families know chapters about each other as they interact You know barely a paragraph of my life I am invisible to you I do not matter Why did you adopt me?
You remain vile, proud and unwilling to grasp onto the olive branches I’ve extended With that attitude, how could I subject my children to you? You claim that my truths are mere exaggerations, lies or made up stories How can we discourse when all my words are offensive to you? I have pondered this question so many times You said I have deserved the horrific things you did to me I am a disappointment I am not worthy Why did you adopt me?
There is no answer to this question You’re not honest enough to tell me why When you examine the answer, you dislike yourself even more When you’re confronted with the facts, you tighten your grip on denial You would rather take the reasons with you to the grave Than to be honest with your child I am not deserving I am beneath you Why did you adopt me?
Moth….errr. Can I say this word without a pause? Moth..eerrr. Can I say this word without my mind racing to a hundred different thoughts? Moth….errrr. Potentially, maybe, and yet possibly, no. For me it is a word that brings up many connotations, some good, most bad. A word that is hard to utter as my stuttery voice reflects my heart. The purity of the word is lost to me. I am not used to the word on its own, but rather always with another word in front, whether it be birth mother, first mother, adoptive mother, real mother or not real mother. Always another word in front, as if delineating my experience into parts, not a whole. Confusion ensues and my head is spinning as everyone tries to tell me what moth…err is and what a real moth…er is. The expectations and idealisations of moth…er fracture under increasing weight of scrutiny and life experiences. Instead of asking, people are shouting. This is what a real mother does or does not do, or this is what it means to be a mother. Can’t you see that the very fact people are arguing means there’s something not whole about this? No wonder I can’t fully utter this word on my own, bewitched by longing and sorrow, and fully feeling the emotional tension in the word. I can’t escape it. Even when I stare into the eyes of a romantic partner, the alarm bells ring and the sirens wail. What makes this woman different than a moth…errr who left a son? What ensures that the same won’t happen again? The primal fear and the visceral reaction. Moth…eer, what have you done to me? My head is spinning and about to implode.
It feels strange to say it on my own, waiting impatiently for another accompanying word to show up beside it like a dog searching for its master. Can’t a child have two moth…errs? There I go again. Damn. Another qualifying moth…err. As much as I need to grieve for the moth…errr that is lost, I must also grieve the idea of moth…errr and the fact that, upon relinquishment, my idea of moth…errr was forever shattered, leaving me, a baby, to pick up the pieces. Adults tried to reason for the scraps of moth…err floating around in my heart, and yet, now it is the adult me picking up the pieces to reason with the baby me about the idea of moth..err. Can a man nurture himself? Can he become his own idea of moth…err? What choice is left? I am tired of people defining mother for me. I have an idea of it, because I have lost it, and know the effects of it. And yet where can one begin to heal, except for first grieving mother?
One of the highlights in travelling to the Netherlands last month was to finally meet in person Hilbrand Westra, a fellow intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and adopted to the Netherlands, whom I have liaised and worked with since the beginning of ICAV. Not only did I get to meet him in person, share a few meals, laugh and pose for photos like above .. but I also got to hear him speak. He was previously one of the key adoptee leaders in the Netherlands, advocating for intercountry adoptees at government level and was awarded the Order of Orange-Nassau for his amazing contributions to the adoptee community.
In the past few years, he has taken a back seat in advocacy but has turned his efforts to his other passion with adoptees – of providing professional emotional support. Like myself, he has also observed that advocacy is best done when an adoptee has healed their inner self and often the biggest barrier to this healing, is the lack of professionals who have methods and experience to truly help us move past the traumas of the past. I love that Hilbrand is now focusing on providing for this gap in what we need most!
Here is the video recording I made of his presentation which gives you a little insight as to how he operates. It is 23.4mins long so make sure you have time to listen in full. Apologies for the slight fuzziness in the recording, I must have knocked the lens when I zoomed in.
He works utilising the well known European models of adoption constellation and systemic work to help adoptees (and fostered people) shift through the layers of trauma we inevitably acquire, due to being relinquished or removed from our families of origin.
For those who want to know more about Hilbrand and the coaching team he is building in Europe to provide vital, professional emotional support to fellow adoptees, please see his website (dutch) or here (english).
Huge thanks to Chilean Adoptees Worldwide who hosted the event and invited Hilbrand, myself, and other key adoptee leaders as guest speakers. It was an AMAZING and memorable day!