Governments Finally Recognising Illicit and Illegal Intercountry Adoption Practices

This is one common scenario, it doesn’t cover children overtly stolen from hospitals and many other ways

I’m an adoptee remaining hopeful

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:

The more recent is the first sentence for the American local politician involved with the Marshall Island women who received only 6 years imprisonment. Cambodian adoption ring leader Lauryn Galindo got 18 months in prison, her crime was only visa fraud and laundering money. The Samoan adoption scam perpetrators were sentenced a mere 5 years on probation, for aiding and abetting improper entry of an alien. We are still awaiting sentencing of the perpetrators involved with the Ugandan and Polish schemes for arranging adoptions through bribery and fraud.

In Vietnam, the ring leader received a 4.5 yr sentence for falsifying documents. Taiwan sentenced Julie Chu and her cohorts to a life time imprisonment for masterminding a baby exporting syndicate but she got off lightly after appealing and only served a mere 6 years. In China, child traffickers who abduct and sell children are executed. This response remains the harshest I’ve seen but life imprisonment seems reasonable given their actions impact us for our lifetime.

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.

A recent report (see Section 4) by Child Identity Protection (CHIP), highlights the level of responsibility States should play in helping us find our original identities and seek redress.

“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

I’d like to ask every government who is a signatory of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, just what are they doing to “speedily restore our original identity”? All these investigations in European countries are a necessary part of the process to review and look in-depth at what has gone on. But .. the steps taken to halt adoptions does not provide any sweetness for us victims. There are hundreds and thousands of us around the world. What do we want? All you have to do is have a read of our collation of responses which I distributed at The Hague Working Group on Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Adoption, a little over 1 year ago.

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.

Other Resources

Impact Awareness Campaign (video) led by Critical Adoptees From Europe (CAFE), Belgium

Finding Humanity podcast Separated: The Ethics of Adoption

Patrick Noordoven: Intercountry Adoption and the Right to Identity

David Smolin: The Case for Moratoria on Intercountry Adoption

To auto translate any of the following resources, open in Google Chrome browser.

Netherlands

No New Adoptions from Abroad for the Time Being
Netherlands Halts all Adoptions Abroad with Immediate Affect
Minister Dekker Suspends Intercountry Adoption with Immediate Effect
Dutch Freeze International Adoptions after Abuses Uncovered
Dutch Report (English)

Switzerland

International Adoptions Report (French, German, Italian)
Adoptions from Sri Lanka: the Federal Council Regrets the Negligence of the Authorities
Press Conference by the Minister (German)
Press release by Sri Lankan adoptee org Back to the Roots (English) in French
Abducted Sri Lankan Children Adopted in Switzerland

Belgium

Wouter Beke Argues for a General Adoption Break, but immediately receives Criticism
Minister Beke wants Adoption Break to Thoroughly Review the Sector
Minister Beke wants a General Adoption Break due to “Mistakes” and “Malpractice”: What is Going on?
Flanders Plans “at least 2 Years Break” from International Adoptions
Expert Panel Report is Ready
Expert Panel Final Report

Why do Intercountry Adoptees want to know their Origins?

The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).

My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.

Breath of Air by Tim Kakandar

We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!

As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.

It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation. 

My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.

We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!

One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.

Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.

My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.

As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.

My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.

I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.

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

Lifelong Impacts of Identity Loss

On 1 July, I was asked to speak as part of a webinar panel for the Transforming Children’s Care Webinar Series #4: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care. We had an amazing panel of experts, moderated by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, President of Child Identity Protection (CHIP), and hosted by the Better Care Network in partnership with CHIP.

I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.

My Story

 I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.

I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.

I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.

The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency. 

Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.

I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.

Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity. 

In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.

When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!

I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either. 

This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.

Our ICAV Community

Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice! 

I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:

Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!

Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.

You can watch the complete webinar here.