While it is impossible to calculate exactly how many illegal and illicit adoptions have occurred into Australia, we do know we have specific cohorts of adoptees here from various countries. Ethiopia and India were the most recent countries where our programs closed due to irregularities. Our early history in the 1980s includes trafficked adoptees from Taiwan where Julie Chu was convicted of falsifying paperwork and sentenced to prison for her role as leader of the Taiwan trafficking ring.
Globally, in February this year the Netherlands suspended its intercountry adoption program due to its historic illegal and illicit adoptions. Other European countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, and Belgium have all taken steps to carefully examine their historic adoptions.
What will Australia’s response be to our own history of illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions? Australian policy makers are currently grappling with this question and the implications. For this purpose, ISS Australia and InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) are pleased to present our free webinar on this sensitive and complex topic with a focus on the voices of those with lived experience. We hope to help educate about the experience from lived perspective, how it impacts, and what impacted people want to see policy makers and professionals take into consideration.
This webinar took place on 10 November 2021 titled Lived Experience of Illegal and Illicit Adoption. We bring you Australian specific lived experience, however, this can be extrapolated to the global arena.
A huge thank you to our panelists: Professor David Smolin, Kimbra Butterworth-Smith, Annita Pring, Clement Lam (as read by his daughter, Marie Gardom).
Kimbra Butterworth-Smith has experience working in humanitarian NGOs in Australia and abroad. She is also an intercountry adult adoptee from Taiwan whose adoption was facilitated illegally by Julie Chu.
Annita Pring is an Australian adoptive mother to a Thai son.
Clement Lam Swee Seng is a retired counsellor in marriage, youth and drug addiction ministry in Malaysia. He also is a Chinese father of loss to a daughter who was sent abroad and adopted into a British adoptive family. Clement has only recently been reunited with his daughter.
Many thanks to my co-presenters at ISS Australia, CEO Peter van Vliet and Deputy CEO Damon Martin.
I’m very excited and feeling hopeful after hearing Belgium’s recent news, that their Minister has announced his intention to ask Parliament to suspend all adoptions for the next 2 years as a result of their investigation into intercountry adoptions.
Surrounded by incredible adoptee leaders around the world, I know how much effort has gone into getting intercountry adoptee rights to where we are today. News like this does not in any way solve or fix the issues we face but it is at least the beginning of having recognition of the wrongs done — with governments and authorities stepping up to confront the truth that we’ve been talking about for decades. Acknowledgement is the first step of many!
Belgium isn’t the first adoptive country to do so. The Netherlands announced their moratorium on all intercountry adoptions earlier this year in February and published their report. Switzerland announced their report from investigating past practices relating to Sri Lankan adoptions and they are being urged to provide reparation to the victims. Sweden also announced their intention to investigate their illegal intercountry adoptions. And yesterday, the Belgium Minister announced his recommendations to be considered by Parliament. You can read here the full Expert Panel report.
But for some countries we still have work to do
It seems that finally some governments are listening to our lived experience and have decided to no longer turn a blind eye. But even though these 4 have listened, I want to also remind you that there has been much work and years of effort gone into other countries who still haven’t come to the “acknowledgement table”. In France, the adoptees there have had huge support in their petition to have the French Parliament conduct an investigation into their historic intercountry adoptions. In Denmark, the adoptees from Chile have been working with the government to have their adoptions investigated.
In my adoptive country Australia, I have been speaking out and advocating for supports for impacted adoptees and families and for recognition of the abuses in Australia for many years. In fact, it’s been over a decade already and I remember in my early years representing adoptees at NICAAG where Julia Rollings (adoptive mum) and I tabled this issue at the beginning in 2008 and asked that the issue be addressed. More recently, I have also presented a small group of 8 impacted adoptees to meet with our Central Authority, DSS in 2017 asking for very specific supports. However, to this day, those adoptees have still been ignored and dismissed. Despite having very clear cases of illegal activity where perpetrators have been criminally convicted and jailed (e.g., the Julie Chu cohort in image below from Taiwan), nothing has been offered for the adoptees or their families to help them deal with the extra complexities of their illegal adoptions. It’s as if these impacted adoptees don’t exist and Australia hopes the problem will fade away while they face far more important issues, like COVID-19 or an upcoming election.
It is time authorities around the world step up and take responsibility for the processes and structures that ruptured our lives via adoption – for good and for bad.
Intercountry adoption has followed the path of domestic adoption
In intercountry adoption, we are seeing the same pattern where country after country the governments are acknowledging the wrongs in their domestic adoptions. Canada leads the way by providing financial compensation to their victims of the Sixties Scoop. Australia has already provided a formal apology for the women and babies who were impacted under the Forced Adoption era — but are still as yet to be offered any form of compensation. Australia also just announced their compensation for the Indigenous Aboriginals who were forcibly removed and placed into white families under the Stolen Generation. It is interesting that the Australian government can acknowledge these past practices but doesn’t recognise the very close similarities with our historic intercountry adoptions. Ireland as a government has only this year recognised the wrongs and provided a formal apology to the mothers and children who suffered in Babies Homes from forced adoptions. Ireland is also baulking at offering compensation.
What about our birth countries?
Very few of our birth countries involved in our illicit and illegal adoptions have taken any action either. Guatemala, Ethiopia and Russia are the main ones that come to my memory where they stopped all intercountry adoptions because of irregularities — but they too have failed to provide impacted adoptees with services or compensation to recognise the wrongs done to them. Some of them have sentenced perpetrators but their sentence rarely ever matches the depths of their crime.
Let’s have a quick overview at how perpetrators have been sentenced to date:
That the majority of perpetrators in intercountry adoption get away with mild convictions demonstrates the lack of legal framework to protect us. And despite the fact that very few perpetrators in intercountry adoption are ever caught, let alone sentenced, one still has to ask, where is the support for the victims?
The American Samoan Adoptees Restitution Trust is the ONLY restorative justice program I’ve come across, establishing a fund provided by the perpetrators to facilitate connection to birth family and country. But the funds provided have been extremely limiting considering how many people are impacted and out of those impacted adoptees, only 1 was enabled to return to their natural family. Have governments even considered whether intercountry adoptees wish to be repatriated back to their birth country?
What level of responsibility should governments bear?
Many articles have been written about the problems in intercountry adoption via the irregularities in processing us for intercountry adoption, but the most critical issue that governments need to respond to, is our right to identity.
“Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) notes that a child has a right to identity including a name, a nationality and family relations. Whenever a child is deprived of one of these elements, States have an obligation to restore the child’s identity speedily. At the heart of any intercountry adoption (ICA) is the modification of a child’s identity given at birth.” — CHIP
In summary our report explains what the majority of us want. We each independently submitted our thoughts without knowing what the other was submitting. Here are the top 3 suggestions we raised :
A change to intercountry adoption laws to ensure a legal framework exists for which illicit practices can be prosecuted against. Currently there is none.
An independent investigative body so we aren’t expecting the governments and adoption authorities to “investigate” themselves. Currently that’s what happens.
Fully funded support services for victims. Currently there are huge gaps in general post adoption supports let alone supports specific to being trafficked. Not one country in the world currently provides any sort of trafficking support for adoptees or their families — both adoptive and natural, but especially for natural families who rarely have a voice on the global arena.
I observe the Netherlands who are still working on their National Centre of Expertise might be including support services specific to trafficking victims, so too it appears from the Belgium report they are trying. But supports for trafficking victims needs to be comprehensive not just a DNA or a general counselling service. In our report, we list in full what this support needs to include: legal aid; counselling; financial aid; funded lived experience support groups; family tracing; DNA testing and professional genealogy services; travel support; language classes; translation services; mediation services; culture and heritage supports.
Why can’t adoption be a “happily ever after” story?
People mistakenly think that intercountry adoptees have to be unhappy in their adoption to want to fight for justice. It is not true.
We can be happy in our adoptive life and country but also be unhappy with how our adoptions were conducted and rightfully expect that everything be done to restore our original identities and help us to reconnect with our natural families who have lost us via intercountry adoption.
Our voices have been fighting for decades for our right to origins, to make amends for our lost identity, to have the illicit and illegal intercountry adoptions recognised for what they are – the commodification of children. We need this crazy system to stop, it’s been going on for too long. We are not a small number, estimates vary but we definitely are in the hundreds of thousands globally and possibly a few million.
It’s time for the truth and hopefully long term, we might see some reparative and restorative justice for us and our families. In the meantime, myself and fellow adoptee leaders continue to work hard for our communities globally! Onward and upward! I hope one day to be able to write about our “happily ever after” story, once we get justice and recognition for the wrongs done.