Abandoned Adopted Here: Review

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 10.13.33 pmAbandoned Adopted Here is an adoptee coming-of-age representation en masse whereby we see for the first time the older aged intercountry adoptees of the 1950s and 60s giving insight as to how they navigated the space between two identities, cultures and countries.

I loved seeing so many creatives/artists in one medium reflecting on their journeys and sharing with such openness on what it means to be transracially adopted.

As an inter-country adoptee from the 1970s era, I loved being able to see a reflection of my own experience! The words many shared, describes mine, yet they are the older generation who I hadn’t publicly heard a lot from. Lucy has enabled them to find their voice which is so important in modelling to the next generations of adoptees growing up! I also learnt about the mass movement of Hong Kong children to Britain interwoven with the history of Britain and how it was so similar to my experience of coming to Australia prior to the multicultural era!

The film is an honest portrayal of the difficulties we navigate to fit in and ultimately how we reconcile and embrace the differences between our identities we were born into but lost versus the identity we inherit from being adopted.

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Abandoned Adopted Here also sharply portrays the lack of preparedness adoptive parents had in those early 50-60s days and how it impacted on the adoptee – of being forced to conform to their white surroundings, stifling their natural curiosity questions which could have allowed openness but instead emphasised Britishness.

The documentary depicts the common struggle most transracial adoptees share of being judged at a physical level by people who don’t know us and then their shock when we open our mouths and speak with such clear adopted-tongue accents!

I love how the film interweaves excerpts from Lucy’s play which gives us an in-depth look at her own personal struggles, layered with the other artists and showing the commonalities inter-country adoptees share.

Abandoned Adopted Here is not just for adoptees, it challenges East Asians in general to “own” their input to the British empire’s history and expect to be included!

Terrific documentary by Lucy Sheen, intercountry adoptee from Hong Kong to Britain.
Her website about her documentary:  Lucy Sheen’s Abandoned Adopted Here.

Review by Lynelle Long
Founder of InterCountry Adoptee Voices
Adopted from Vietnam to Australia

Complexities of Intercountry Adoption

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Recently a research journalist from Sth American contacted me to ask a few questions on intercountry adoption and my views.  I loved her concluding comment: “We want to understand more about it (intercountry adoption) and we believe the vision of those who lived it is essential for this.”

1. Tell us a little about your life.  How old were you when adopted by your Australian family?  What was this process?  Where you old enough to understand what was going on?

2. Did you feel the need to have contact with the culture of your country of origin? When did this happen?

3. Is it common among children adopted from other countries to have this need?

4. Do you think there are cases in which intercountry adoptions are not the best option?

5. What is the origin of Intercountry Adoptee Voices group?

6. Why do people participate in ICAV?

7. How is your work in ICAV?

Here are my answers.

I’m a Vietnamese adoptee living in Australia, adopted at age 6months.  My adoptive parents organised my adoption privately via a Vietnamese lawyer, Le, who also worked for the Sth Vietnamese Govt during the Vietnamese War.  Le informed my adoptive parents he and his wife found a baby girl for them in July 1973 and advised my parents to fly in to bring me back to Australia as this would be the quickest way.  So my adoptive father flew into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and picked me up and flew me back to Australia, December 1973.  To date, we have never seen adoption papers from the Vietnam end and it wasn’t until I was 16 yrs old that the Australian Govt made up my false Australian Birth Certificate and finalised my adoption into the family who were raising me.

For this process to occur, at the age of 16 another social worker came to visit us to get the adoption process repeated given my adoptive parent’s original adoption assessments seemed to be missing.  The Australian agency that had facilitated this in Sept 1973 no longer existed and in 1977 had shown the paperwork had gone missing although the social worker had clearly been in contact with and assessed my adoptive family.  I remember someone coming to speak with me about adoption things but at that age of my life, I was focused on surviving and given my adoptive siblings had been teasing me about “not existing because I had no birth records”, of course when the social worker asked did I want to be adopted and get papers, I said yes.  What I don’t remember is whether they ever talked to me clearly about what adoption meant nor was any offer made to help me find my biological family or my original Vietnamese papers.

So was I old enough to understand the meaning of “adoption”?  Now that I’m in my early 40s, I say absolutely not.  At that age, I remember my focus was on “trying to fit in” with my peers .. trying to feel part of a community, a family.  So of course when someone is telling me this is what adoption will do, then of course I consent.  But now in my early 40s, I suspect no-one really gave me a great choice.  It would have been if I didn’t consent to being adopted, I would be in no man’s land – not being able to be an Australian citizen, not being able to probably go back to Vietnam because I had no proof of being born there either.  If someone had offered on behalf of the Australian Government to search for my biological family – I’m sure I would have said I preferred that because as a child and into my teens I felt a huge sense of loss – but never spoke about it because I had indirectly absorbed expectations from society and adoptive family that I was “lucky” to be adopted – that I should be grateful to live in Australia – that I would alternatively have been dead or on the streets in Vietnam.  To a teenager, those options sound very dramatic and of course, not something I’d chose if I wanted to survive.

I didn’t feel the need to contact my biological culture and country of origins until well into my late 20s.  Short story is I had some negative issues to overcome first from what I’d experienced in my life, so it took some years to get to the bottom of things and realise as an adult that I also had deeper abandonment issues.  Once I explored those issues, I then became more ready and willing to return to my birth country and see what that would stir up.  I was 27 yrs old when I made my first trip back to Vietnam.  It was an emotionally overwhelming trip but the one highlight I remember the most was a broken english conversation with a local Vietnamese lady who said something to me which captured what I’d felt all my life, but no-one had ever said.  This Vietnamese lady asked me questions about where was I from and why was I here in Vietnam and when I very simply explained “born here but taken away as a baby to have white parents in Australia” she said, “oh, you missed out on so much!”  And yes, in essence, my return trip to Vietnam made me realise just how much I had missed out on in being adopted to another country: I had missed out on knowing my own heritage and culture, language, sense of belonging, knowing my family, the sense of community that ties these communities together despite being poorer on the wealth index, of fitting in and looking like everyone else around me, of knowing the history of the war and hearing it / experiencing the ramifications of it and understanding it at the “lived it” level, of seeing the war’s impact on people all around and understanding what drives the country forward, so much I had missed out on.  In hindsight maybe she was commenting not from the angle I interpreted but maybe as a “lucky you missed out on all the terrible ramifications of the war” but it’s not how she came across – she seemed sad for me and it was her empathy of what I was not but could easily have been which I’d never experienced before.  It was healing in itself.

For many years now I have worked voluntarily in setting up a support group for adult intercountry adoptees like myself.  My own struggles growing up in an adopted country made me realise the need for support.  In my own healing I had learned the power of group validation and empathy from others who had journeyed a similar path.  So over the 17 years since I’ve been running a group called InterCountry Adoptee Voices, I’ve met hundreds of other intercountry adoptees raised not just in Australia, but in other wealthy countries like the USA, Netherlands, England, Canada, etc .. and in my experience of listening to many others like myself, I would say yes, it is common for intercountry adoptees to have the need to want to explore their birth country and culture and learn about the other half of their identity.  For some, there is no desire at all but in general, many do end up wanting to explore this at one point in their lives.  I think for the adoptees who have been raised with very positive adoptive families who embrace all the losses and challenges and raise the child to be able to explore and talk about these freely, it definitely assists in travelling this journey of being abandoned and adopted with more ease.  What I’ve seen for the majority is the journey is usually more complicated than for the non-adopted person because we are primed from our early abandonment to struggle with connection, rejection, self worth, and a feeling of not quite belonging.

The question of whether I think there are cases of intercountry adoption that are not the best option is an awesome question!  I applaud anyone who can ask this.  I wish more Governments would ask this question.  If we look at the history of the Korean adoptions enmasse and find out their realities by talking to them today, one could conclude that many of their adoptions were done simply because of a lack of options available to single mothers.  In other Korean cases, the biological families are still together but at the time, they lacked resources to raise their children – so they sought an alternative – which in Korea, adoption is really the only option rather than changing antiquated attitudes and values.  This is reflected around the world from other sending countries, like India, China, Ethiopia, Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Usually inter-country adoption has occurred because of a lack of alternatives for the biological family.

In 2015, we live in a world where there is a massive divide between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty.  If the world divided its wealth and distributed it more equitably, I do not think there would be as huge a need for adoption.  The other issue we adoptees live is the reality that adoption legally severs our right to our own birthright – being our own identity and heritage.  This is fundamentally wrong when it is done without our consent (at a time when we are too young to understand the implications).  As per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), if we are orphaned we have a fundamental human right to know our identity and be kept with our family, community, and country.  The issue I see today is intercountry adoption has become a huge money driven machine, powered by the wealthy couples looking for a baby, with baby brokers in the middle taking advantage of the inequitable division between wealthy and poor, and uncontrolled and unpenalised by Governments around the world.  There is not enough done to ensure that all other options are investigated and empowered before allowing a child to be given up for intercountry adoption.  There is no double or triple checking done by sending or receiving countries to ensure a child is truly a legitimate orphan as defined by UNICEF, as having lost both parents.  Where there is family or community, there is not enough provided in terms of “wealth” to ensure the local/country of origin people are given options to raise the child.  There is more that could be done to facilitate micro lending for impoverished families.  There is more that could be done to help families who are struggling from lack of education and opportunities.

Intercountry adoption has become an easy solution for wealthy countries to “allow” children to be exported like a commodity because they lack the backbone to do the right thing by the child and help facilitate these poorer countries (with the exception of South Korea and now the USA since becoming a sending country) to setup enough community based options that would prevent the need for intercountry adoption.  The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has become a legitimate way for child exporting to continue without there being any legal discouragement from open trafficking which is the darkest side of this business.  I believe adoption by kin was probably the original intention that was good but the issue is adoption has become more than it was intended and there is simply a lack of will power from nations in power and those who don’t have it, to ensure the child is given all options BEFORE intercountry adoption.  This is when adoption is not the best option.

Of course there are also the numerous cases of intercountry adoptions where the adopted child gets mistreated, abused, and murdered by the adoptive family – which is an absolute easy case to highlight as to when intercountry adoption is not the best option.  Also, the cases where the adopted child ends up being deported back to it’s country of origin because the adoptive parents failed to finalise the adoption, even though they never had a say in being exported to begin with.  Then there are the cases where our birth certificates are forged and faked and again, intercountry adoption is not the best option because of this reality – that our original identities, our fundamental human right, are “as if they never existed”.  Intercountry adoptions are not the best option when there is no tracking of children and ensuring in later years of followup that it indeed has been in their “best interests” and they have grown up to become fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.

So what’s left? When are there cases of intercountry adoptions that ARE the best option?  When both sending and receiving countries have done all they could, given their joint resources, to facilitate all other options for the child’s care, including kinship care and community care, and if these still fail to work then I believe it might be a legitimate option to intercountry adopt – BUT with the original birth certificate remaining intact and with the child having full access into the future.  The child should also be allowed to have dual citizenship in both countries to facilitate ease of returning and access to services to help reunite with biological family if they wish.  There should also be a full suite of services available (e.g. psychological, social, translation, medical, financial) to help the adoptee navigate both cultures and languages and to ensure they grow up well adjusted, emotionally healthy functioning adults.

Note: What needs to be discussed is to apply question 4 from the biological family point of view.  Too often the biological families from intercountry adoption are ever sought after by media to comment and provide their longitudinal views.

The origins of InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) is it was started as a result of me seeing the power of group validation and support and how it can help one to heal our abandonment wounds by having a sense of belonging from those who have journeyed a similar path.  I started ICAV in 1998 in Australia and it has grown today to include intercountry adoptees from many countries around the world.  I think adoptees participate in ICAV because of the need to feel like someone somewhere can understand what the journey is like – the challenges, the questions, the ups and downs of search and reunions, the racism, the need for a sense of belonging, and many more.  I love my work in ICAV.  I love hearing over the years how life is travelling for adoptees and I’m always passionate about educating the wider public on the complexities and issues involved.

In Who’s Interest are Australia’s Adoption Reforms for?

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The Australian government has a biased and narrow view of intercountry adoption.  Intercountry adoption has become a market fuelled by lobbyists insisting upon their right to parent, especially when biology fails them. Adoption lobbyists insist there are millions of orphans needing homes and so they ultimately lead the unknowing down the path of blindly believing it’s a win-win situation : let’s match the millions of children who deserve a family to couples who cannot have any through natural means.  In the middle there are many unscrupulous baby traffickers who make money by taking advantage of this market driven system.

In the meantime, there are adult intercountry adoptees like me who think critically about what’s going on today and what went on over 40 years ago where it all began.

Stories in the media are rife with feel good images of adoptees who have lost their homeland and families. Adoptees have managed to survive and flourish and see themselves as benefiting but at the same time, confront the reality of their homelands where poverty, lack of education, and opportunity means their what-if-reality might have been a harder life. Why does media continue to promote a black or white image of adoption rather than a critical look at what’s really happening? Is it because lobbyists looking to adopt have wealth, influence, and social standing and hence take priority and have greater access to Government?

Since the Abbott Government came into power, we have seen many media stories portraying the adoption lobby agenda which happens to match the current government’s stance. Tony Abbott is seen personally engaging with AdoptChange founder and at one stage, even had the whole group meet and dine with photos published. By early this year I had enough of sitting by and watching the current government continue on in such a one sided fashion so I wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a meeting with a group of us, adult intercountry adoptees, who are not typically seen in the political arena of adoption.

It took a couple of months until I got a response but in the end, we were finally granted a meeting late in April with the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser and Minister Morrison’s Adviser (note, we are not high priority enough to be granted a personal meeting with the PM).  The meeting was attended by 6 adult adoptees from 4 states of Australia ranging in age from early 20s through to mid 40s, representing 3 of the main sending countries, Vietnam, Korea, and India.

As a group of adult intercountry adoptees, we presented the truths of our experiences to the PM and Morrison’s advisers. Our first point being – we do grow up! We don’t remain children forever! The Australian Government’s concept of intercountry adoption focuses on the needs of the child but fails to address that adoption does not end at the arrival of a child into the arms of a waiting couple. We grow up and we struggle at some stage to find a balance between what we’ve left behind involuntarily (our heritage, our genetic backgrounds, our culture, our language, our communities, our sense of belonging, etc) and what we gain from being raised in a wealthy western country. We continue to experience challenges along the way and hence, it is the responsibility of the current government to conduct ethical programs with sending countries and ensure post adoption support starts before we arrive and continues forever after.

It is normal to expect a good portion of adoptees to want to know at some stage what their birth information is – whether it be from natural curiosity or a medical necessity.  We want accurate information – not made up information that leaves us following a paper trail that causes frustration and dead ends because it’s incorrect! The government needs to be ensuring we have appropriate avenues to explore this without having to fend for ourselves and be taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals who will again, gain from our vulnerable position. Many intercountry adoptees find we have to scrounge around for basic information that is our human right – to know our correct birth name, date, place of birth, and parentage. The government also needs to be ensuring we don’t blindly believe sending country governments claims that we are legitimate orphans. Something needs to be done to further vett this due to corruption in sending countries. The Korean adoptees who presented to the advisers shared about how they found they were never “orphans” – that upon reunion with their families, their stories were not about being abandoned because their parents died but because at the time, their families were struggling with poverty and lack of opportunities. Often as we grow to adulthood and reunion, many adult intercountry adoptees find adoption was the only available means of solving the problem of keeping us alive. Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) our government should be doing more to ensure, without doubt, we are true orphans before agreeing to bring us into this country via intercountry adoption.

We also shared the struggles of a trafficked adoptee – and we know there are at least 9 intercountry adoptees with this experience to date growing up in Australia. What has the Government put in place to support these children as they age? Who looks after their rights and interests to ensure they have an appropriate and impartial avenue to turn to? What happens to them should their adoption break down or their adoptive parents not be willing to help investigate any potential truths to their memories or claims from birth countries until they reach adulthood? Why should a child have to wait that long if they have real memories that could be investigated earlier rather than later? The harsh reality is a child is forced to wait but finds out their biological parent has passed away during this waiting time.  Currently the Australian government does little to assist and has created a Trafficking Protocol . The reality of this protocol is its high level and does nothing to ensure state or federal government ownership to take the lead and ensure the well being of the adoptive family, adoptee, and biological family. The end result for the adoptee is the protocol simply highlights the gaps in roles and responsibilities between state and federal government because neither will take appropriate action. Perhaps they should speak to trafficked adult intercountry adoptees if they aren’t sure what “appropriate action” should look like? This is a prime example of how the federal government views its role in adoption as ending at the point where a child enters the country.

Trafficking situations should be thoroughly investigated by an impartial body who understands the key stakeholders involved (i.e. sending and receiving country central authorities, the federal police, lawyers, translators, etc). The current lack of any avenue or impartial investigation ultimately results in further compounding the trauma which the adult adoptee experiences. Our current protocol also offers no legal assistance to the adoptee – yet this is the one area in which expertise is absolutely necessary to ensure the rights of the child are protected and enforced. Australia runs the risk that we learn nothing from our worst case experiences and fails under their obligations as set out by both the UNCRC and The Hague on Intercountry Adoption.

Most notable about the current government’s Adoption Reform is their commitment, and pending launch, to spending approximately A$21m on a 1800-hotline that will provide a National One Stop Shop for couples looking to adopt internationally. This one stop shop is nothing new, just a shop front that will act to refer the couples back to their State/Territory Depts who will educate and ready them as best they can for the journey of intercountry adoption to begin. This one stop shop will not make the process of gaining a child move faster as we only have control of the vetting and readying prospective parents process – Australia has very little ability to increase the numbers of children or the pace at which children are sent to our country – this is totally within the sending country’s control. Worldwide, sending countries are declining in their desire to export their children and are focusing more and more on family preservation and maintaining community ties. We should be encouraging countries to continue in this manner and following guidelines as per the UNCRC to enable the child to remain within their birth country,if we are truly child focused. 

Adult intercountry adoptees like myself view the Adoption Reform by Tony Abbott as very one sided. How can the Australian government act for only one group (the demand side) but fail to do anything for the actual children who are here growing up and the children who will arrive as a result of this push to make adoption easier and faster? How biased is this action by federal government yet within their own mandate, as can be seen at the Attorney General’s Department website of Roles & Responsibilities, it is federal government who ultimately hold general responsibility to ensure Australia’s obligations under The Hague Convention of Inter Country Adoption are upheld. Federal government is also responsible to ensure the state central authorities are upholding their roles within the convention and to which they’ve also jointly signed the Commonwealth-State Agreement for the Continued Operation of Australia’s Intercountry Adoption Program. 

Under Australian law, the signed Hague Convention  in Part 2 Section 6 says,  “The functions of the Commonwealth Central Authority are to do, or to coordinate the doing of, anything that is necessary:
(a) to enable the performance of Australia’s obligations under the Convention“.

Here are just a few questions based on known experiences of adult intercountry adoptees and I ask – what is the Australian government doing about upholding their obligations to those whom adoption impacts the most, us adoptees, given they are pushing for Adoption Reform?

As per Part 2 Section 6
“Recognising that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,”
Q: what do we do to help those who aren’t lucky enough to have this? and how would Australia even know if an adoption is working well or not 2, 5, 10, or 20 years into the adoption?

As per Schedule 1
Convinced of the necessity to take measures to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children,
Q: what is Australia doing to request proof of “necessity” and “last resort measure” as outlined in the UNCRC to have children removed for intercountry adoption?  And what are we doing to prevent trafficking – especially after the event?!

Article 4
An adoption within the scope of the Convention shall take place only if the competent authorities of the State of origin—
Q: how does Australia ascertain if the authority is “competent”?  How is this measured when we are seeing generations of adult adoptees with forged/fake birth papers?

Article 4
a have established that the child is adoptable;
b have determined, after possibilities for placement of the child within the State of origin have been given due consideration, that an intercountry adoption is in the child’s best interests;
c have ensured that
(1) the persons, institutions and authorities whose consent is necessary for adoption, have been counselled as may be necessary and duly informed of the effects of their consent, in particular whether or not an adoption will result in the termination of the legal relationship between the child and his or her family of origin,
(2) such persons, institutions and authorities have given their consent freely, in the required legal form, and expressed or evidenced in writing,
(3) the consents have not been induced by payment or compensation of any kind and have not been withdrawn, and
(4) the consent of the mother, where required, has been given only after the birth of the child; and
d have ensured, having regard to the age and degree of maturity of the child, that
(1) he or she has been counselled and duly informed of the effects of the adoption and of his or her consent to the adoption, where such consent is required,
(2) consideration has been given to the child’s wishes and opinions,
(3) the child’s consent to the adoption, where such consent is required, has been given freely, in the required legal form, and expressed or evidenced in writing, and
(4) such consent has not been induced by payment or compensation of any kind.
Q: 
what is done to PROVE or at least double/triple check outside the sending country that proper consent is obtained without coercion and the biological family correctly understand our western concept of adoption? And what is done when the child is old enough to understand and have a say for themselves?  Why isn’t this being taken into account?

Article 9
Central Authorities shall take, directly or through public authorities or other bodies duly accredited in their State, all appropriate measures, in particular to—
a collect, preserve and exchange information about the situation of the child and the prospective adoptive parents, so far as is necessary to complete the adoption
Q: what does the Govt do to follow this and make sure the data is accurate and not forged?

c “promote the development of adoption counselling and post-adoption services in their States
Q: what does the federal government do to ensure an appropriate standard/level of service is available and how does this get measured without asking adult adoptees?

d “provide each other with general evaluation reports about experience with intercountry adoption”;
Q: surely these evaluation reports should include feedback from adult intercountry adoptees to central authorities on how it really has been and what’s going wrong or right and this feedback should be taken seriously and acted upon up through to federal level?

In who’s interests is current media and federal government promoting intercountry adoption reform? I say not in the interests of the “child” who grows up to become adults.

The federal government and media has an inaccurate perception of “the child” portraying a Maslow Hierarchy of Needs type view : that a sense of belonging, self esteem and self actualisation is at the top and only necessary after we’ve met the physiological survival needs through our first world offerings. Mistakenly our need for food and shelter become priority because our countries of origin struggle to provide this due to poverty. The reality is, if you listen to enough adult intercountry adoptees, you will begin to get a sense of the reality that our needs are not a bottom up ladder we climb in order of priority – these needs cannot be segmented, divided and prioritised.  These needs must be seen as a whole whereby our need to remain with our community and heritage, being loved by them, is as important as our need for food and shelter or our ability to be loved by strangers.

Most importantly, our need to reach self actualisation comes from having adequate post adoption support in place from the beginning to cope with the separation from our beginnings. If Tony Abbott was serious about intercountry adoption and serving the interests of the child, we should be measuring outcomes and ensuring we have everything in place to best support what should be the last place option to give a child a good home/family in Australia.

The Australian government does very little to seek input into adoption reform policy from the realities of adult intercountry adoptees living here. This year, I have actively contacted on numerous occasions the Liberal, Labour and Green Parties. To date, we have only met with one of the PMs Senior Adviser and Minister Morrison’s adviser and time will tell whether they in fact took any of what we said seriously. Wouldn’t it be a change to see some commitment to the actual “best interests of the child” if a portion of, or a majority of, the $21m for the 1800 hotline was to be spent towards seriously upgrading the national post adoption support services that are hugely lacking for adult intercountry adoptees in scope, reach, and affordability.

To be serious, the Australian government needs to be creating diplomatic ties into each sending country to help facilitate adoptees returning to find biological family and community. The government should also be establishing long term central database of the children imported to Australia with as much of their accurate origins information as possible, so that in future years, we shall be able to have access to our basic information without it being in its altered form. This database should also be tracking and maintaining long term outcome information so we can actually evaluate as per the Hague Convention, whether the interests of the child are obtained. The Govt should also be advocating for those sending countries to ensure the biological parents have actually given educated and informed consent. How then can we consciously advocate for intercountry adoption and adoption reform if we have done nothing to ensure all measures were taken to help keep a child within its country, community, and culture?

In who’s interests is the current adoption reform? From an adult intercountry adoptee perspective, I say it is in the interests of couples wanting to adopt a baby. If we are serious about advocating for the best interests of the child, we would be following our ratified UNCRC more fully. There is a difference between being a true child advocate versus being an adoption advocate.  True child advocates do all we can to empower communities and families to support their children and help them remain together eg. micro credit loans to help impoverished families find an income, community homes where orphans can be raised within a family environment with other children who are like themselves with parents from their own culture and race, etc. True child advocates focus on finding solutions for the child ahead of promoting adoption.

If we truly think critically about adoption and it’s long lasting impact forced upon our abandoned/given up beginnings, we would be fully aware of the additional impact that legally severing a child’s biological information in the form of creating new and false birth certificates has long term. Giving us falsified birth documents leaves no trail to trace our biological heritage if we desire. If adoption didn’t eradicate our original birth certificate and replace it with a new one listing our adoptive parents as our as-if-born-to-parents, it would be more suitable as a long term solution for children that truly aspired to being in the best interests of the child. We are not an object to be owned or purchased and creating falsified birth documents creates this reality for waiting couples.

Adoptees, us children who grow up, are what adoption is all about and we should be consulted at every level of policy development by governments in a real, not token, fashion.

Adoptee Anger

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quote Joan Chittister

I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger.  I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.

I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.

I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.

As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.

The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.

I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.

Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.

Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.

As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.

The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.

The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.

My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.

What is it like to be Adopted?

Someone recently asked if I could provide a short statement on these questions:

  • What does it mean to be adopted?
  • How does it feel?
  • And what is it like not knowing who your mother (parents) is?

I struggled to contain my answer in one paragraph but did … and then I decided I’d share the long version because at its essence, this is what we adoptees struggle with and wish others could understand better.

For me, being adopted has meant that I was once abandoned for whatever reason. Mine was in the context of the Vietnam War so I can almost cognitively accept there was a valid reason – perhaps my mother died in the war during childbirth or perhaps my whole family got blown up in a bomb. I still vividly remember watching Heaven and Earth – a film about a Vietnamese woman in the Vietnam War and I had a strong empathy for the atrocities many Vietnamese women went through, especially the ones who’s babies were cut out of their mothers stomachs and the women raped by soldiers. My heart ached for whether that might have been my mother’s situation and I overcame my sadness of why I might have been given up with the reality that – perhaps my mother went through more trauma and loss than I did.

The possibilities of why I was given up are endless and almost comforting to know she probably didn’t give me up because of being pregnant out of wedlock as in Korea or because of a 1-child-policy as in China. Perhaps it was poverty as is the case in many other sending countries like Ethiopia. But at the end of the day, I can rationally see children do get abandoned and some are legitimate orphans … and in a war torn situation like mine, domestic adoption, foster care or other alternatives were just not possible at the time due to everything being in chaos with no stable government to ensure the citizens of that country get looked after.

I do believe when we are old enough to understand the political and economic situations surrounding our adoptions – it impacts how we adoptees view intercountry adoption. For me, I’ve never seen myself as against all forms of adoption because of my situation where in a war torn country there’s almost a legitimate reason for why intercountry adoption was needed. I do question aspects of the Operation Babylift concept which occurred after I was adopted – in particular the speed at which it happened, the lack of clarification of the children who were sent abroad as to their real status, how they were selected, and the politics involved – I dare say if Operation Babylift were done today it would be seen as mass Child Trafficking and receive huge criticism by Child’s Rights activists around the world! Indeed Operation Babylift was controversial in an era were intercountry adoption was in its infancy.

For the Korean adoptees today from a Western mindset, seeing generations of babies being sent abroad because of stigma against single unwed women, one can understand why as a Korean adoptee you would become fiercely critical of adoption! The same will apply for the generations of Chinese adoptees being sent abroad to solve their country’s population problem via intercountry adoption. Adult adoptees from these sending countries will inevitably grow up to ask the question – what did the Government do to assist these babies to be kept in their birth country rather than being conveniently shipped off via intercountry adoption where millions of dollars are saved from having to find a solution in-house? What about the Rights of The Child? In countries like Guatemala, Cambodia, and Ethiopia families have been ripped apart from the corruption and greed of baby sellers under the guise of intercountry adoption – of course these adopted children will grow up to have an opinion of what happened on a massive scale and question why the governments of their own birth country and receiving country did little, early enough, to stop more adoptions when there were plenty of indicators that children were being adopted out without any proper oversight or ensuring they were legitimate orphans.

So the question of what does it mean to be adopted starts with the abandonment concept but then depending on which sending country we come from, gets layered with other social, political and economic issues about why our birth countries allow us to be adopted, layered yet again with how our adoption into another family and culture really turns out, and in the minority of cases, layered again if we can be reunited. Complications arise naturally from the actual adoption in whether we are lucky enough to be placed in an appropriate family with support, empathy and help to navigate the complexities of our life at different stages of development – e.g. were we raised in a multicultural setting to allow us to assimilate and not feel like racially isolated; was adoption openly talked about; was it acceptable to express our feelings of grief and not knowing about our first families; were we allowed to be ourselves or were we subconsciously having to live the life our adoptive parents wanted and meeting their subconscious needs; were we supported in returning to our country of origin and wanting to search for information?

Some of us are not so lucky in obtaining the “awesome adoptive parent” lottery ticket and so our being adopted takes centre stage in trying to understand why we deserved mistreatment and hurt (intentional or not) from our adoptive families and only serves to add to our vulnerabilities and feelings of helplessness from being abandoned. For those of us who have fantastic adoptive families, I dare say we can move quicker through the minefield of trying to understand what being adopted means because we received the love and nurturing that is necessary to flourish and develop healthy self esteem and racial identity – but it’s still not an easy journey even with the best of parents.

So essentially how does it feel to be adopted? The best analogy I could come up with as an adult adoptee now in my 40s, is it’s like peeling away layers of an onion.

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Keep peeling away through the layers of yourself.  It may cause you to cry but these tears will cleanse your soul and uncover who you really are!

You move thru’ life wonderfully for a while and then hit a new layer that stings the eyes and heart.

It takes time to absorb the meaning of one’s abandonment and loss at each new layer and level, and our identity evolves slowly over time.

As time progresses, we realise what these layers are and accept them instead of wanting to run away and escape them. Once we get to understand this, we are able to move through these layers with less disruption to the whole of our lives. For me, adoption has become less of an issue the older I get because I’ve slowly been able to integrate all these facets and complications into my sense of who I am and why I am.

It’s such a complicated thing to try and explain what it is like to not ever know one’s first mother and father. There’s the not knowing in terms of facts – their names, histories, race, and language. Then there’s the gut feelings of sadness and grief and the why’s of “why we aren’t with them?” Then there’s the “well – who am I then” without being able to answer any factual questions.

When I was younger and before I learnt to stop running from the feelings of grief and loss, I would long for my mother. I recall looking into the starry sky at night and wonder if my mother ever thought of me or missed me as much as I did her. I would dream of her leaving me on a dusty road and me crying out, “wait!” I realise now I was full of grief in my years under 10.

I missed a mother I couldn’t put a face to, but one to whom I felt innately severed from.

There is no doubt in my mind and after reading The Primal Wound and watching documentaries like In Utero, that it is true – we do bond in utero with our mothers and we feel disconnected if we never hear her voice or feel her around us again. I couldn’t really come to allow myself to trust my new mother (my adoptive mum) and I see now as an adult how hard this must have been for her. In my child mind, if mother can disappear than I’d better learn to be self reliant and not trust any other mother. I know my adoptive mum tried to show me she loved me but it’s just I couldn’t psychologically let her in. When did it change? I think it wasn’t until in my mid 20s when I did some therapy with an amazing woman (yes, I knew I had to find a female therapist to assist me in my unhealed “mother” work)! I finally learnt to trust a woman and allow my buried grief to surface – to share that very real and deep pain of being separated from one’s mother – with another “mother figure”. It was really only then I could totally embrace my adoptive mother, allow myself to connect and share who I was without being afraid I’d lose myself or somehow be disloyal to my first mother, and understand the three of us were connected.

The not knowing is just my reality. I haven’t known any different. Its like everyone else gets given a cup that’s full of water but my cup is empty and I need to have a drink.  Its a basic biological fundamental that our bodies need water!  But how do I fill the empty cup and even if I figure it out, will it be enough to satiate the thirst?  Normally water quenches the thirst just like having knowledge of our parents and our family heritage gives us the basis/starting point for our identity.

For adoptees like myself who have no facts to go by, the not knowing is like starting to write a book or film without doing any research to ascertain the history in order to create the setting/scene. It just begins with us and it can feel like we are adrift in a huge ocean.  There is nothing to shelter against and no other life lines we can connect to to stop us drifting and getting washed around.  I had many moments during my life where I felt like I might get toppled over and disappear forever beneath the huge waves. I honestly don’t know what I hung onto to survive – maybe sheer will power, maybe some resoluteness within me to find the answers and make sense of it all. Maybe it’s what still drives me today – to find meaning to my solitary existence. But the reality today is, I realise I’m not alone at all. There are many of us, thousands, sitting alone on our ocean amongst the waves … by connecting each individual together with the bigger picture, it helps make collective sense to our meaning and purpose and what we can achieve.