Degrees of Being Trafficked in Intercountry Adoption

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As an adult intercountry adoptee, having been outspoken now for 20 years in ICAV, I’ve often wondered whether my intercountry adoption was legitimate or not. That means asking questions like: did my Vietnamese parents really understand the legal concept of “adoption” and relinquishment? Were they offered any other types of support to keep me? Given I came out of war torn Vietnam, was my status really as a true orphan with no surviving parents or family? Was family and kin reunification even attempted before I was adopted out to Australia? And what about any attempts to place me in my own home country first? One day I hope to find the answers to these questions if I’m lucky enough to be reunited with my biological family.

I’m sure other fellow intercountry adoptees ask themselves similar questions at some stage in their life. These are the realities we face as we grow older, mature in our understandings of the complexities of intercountry adoption, and grapple to integrate our realities with the worldwide politics that created our lives, as we know it today.

To consider oneself as trafficked as an intercountry adoptee is challenging because of the legal definition which cuts us out and doesn’t allow any legal scope to take action against the perpetrators.

Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people, within national or across international borders, for the purposes of exploitation in the form of commercial sex, domestic service or manual labour.

Trafficking in intercountry adoption certainly exists but we cannot take legal action because of the fact that no international law or framework exists to allow us to be legally considered as “trafficked” unless we can prove we fit the criteria of “exploitation for sex or labour”.

Yet within intercountry adoption, the degrees to which we can be trafficked can vary immensely. There are those who have:

  • outright falsification of documentation and were stolen from their birth families, sold into intercountry adoption for profit, where legal action was taken against those who profited and it was demonstrated in a court of law, that wrong doing had transpired.
  • documentation that could appear suspicious but at the time not questioned further; demonstrated years later to be inconsistent or incorrect.
  • paperwork that appears legitimate, but at reunion decades later, the story from birth parents does not match in any way the documentation provided by the adoption agency / facilitator.
  • no identity paperwork exists due to having been a “lost” child and with little attempt to reunify back with family, we became sold/transacted via intercountry adoption.

Where does the spectrum of having been “trafficked for intercountry adoption” start or end? Difficult to discuss when the concept is not allowed to exist in law. Even ISS International’s best practice learnings from these types of scenarios don’t label it “trafficking”, but refer to it as “illegal adoptions” in their Handbook. And out of the conclusions and recommendations in that handbook, the question has to be asked how many of the Hague signatories have a process to enable biological family, adoptive parents, or adult adoptees who suspect illicit practices (i.e., trafficking) be given any type of support or process  – financially, legally, or emotionally?

On 7 December 2017, ICAV facilitated a small group of 7 intercountry adoptees representing India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka to request the Australian Federal Government, via Department of Social Services (DSS), consider providing some financial support to those who have been trafficked in various degrees. For these adoptees, no amount of money is ever going to compensate for their losses and trauma directly brought on by the degree of trafficking they have endured. Not to mention their biological family! But we can at least ask that some forms of restorative justice be provided by the powers to be who facilitate adoptions and allow it to continue.

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There is no way of ultimately fixing the dilemma caused by trafficking in intercountry adoption because adoption IS legally binding, despite the existence of cases of successful prosecution against those who falsified documents.

Sadly, the only legal case that can be made in intercountry adoption for known trafficking is for falsification of documents. The perpetrators get a slap on the wrist, some jail time, and a small fine (compared to how much they profited). In comparison, what does the adoptee or biological family get? Nothing. Not even services to help them move through and past this unnecessary trauma.

I want to raise awareness of the impacts trafficking has on those adoptees who have to live it, forever. Their voices are unheard and diminished by those who advocate for adoption. Their experiences go by without us learning from the mistakes and putting in place much needed processes and international laws to prevent further injustices like theirs. For them, even when the perpetrator is punished by law, they as adoptees are left to live the consequences with NO recognition of what they’ve had to endure. There is NO justice for them.

Please read Roopali’s story. Hers is an example of living the lifelong consequences of an adoption in which it appears her first parents did not voluntarily consent, nor was she a true orphan, and she was old enough to be listened to and given a choice. Her story gives voice to the extra challenges endured directly as a result of having been “trafficked” to some degree. She was brave enough to share her story to the Australian Government with ICAV in 2015 when we met the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisors. There was not a single dry eye in the room, we were all so affected by the obvious trauma she endures day to day. Trafficking of vulnerable children via intercountry adoption needs to stop!

I hope Roopali’s story encourages others to speak out and demand from their governments that action towards legal recognition of “trafficking” via intercountry adoption AND restorative justice needs to occur.

Personal Message from Lynelle

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To clarify, for those who are reading the misinformation spread about me personally and ICAV’s position since June this year, with regards to a stance on UNCRC and Hague Convention on ICA:-

As stated to the entity spreading the misinformation, as the Founder of ICAV, I have always supported the UNCRC and it’s position with regards to intercountry adoption. I have tried to openly educate adoptees and the adopted community about it. I have continually encouraged people to understand the Hague Convention and it’s pitfalls in intercountry adoption. I have pointed out for US based intercountry adoptees, it’s harder to fight for what the UNCRC represents because their adopted country hasn’t even been a signatory and therefore not legally bound – so their first and foremost guidance on intercountry adoption is the Hague Convention on ICA. Of course, it would be awesome if the US were ever to become a signatory to UNCRC and why this isn’t the case? I’m sure is another essay in itself and I am no expert on that!

Personally, I believe the Hague & UNCRC fails to protect us intercountry adoptees for fundamental key reasons:

1. We are never checked up on (protected) for more than the minimum timeframe (sometimes specified by our birth country) once the adoption transaction occurs. The post placement report is provided by the adoptive parents but no followup is ever done by the adoptee themselves at an age where they can give a true account at a mature age. Intercountry adoption cannot be argued to be a child protection measure as compared to foster care, permanent care or any other alternative form of care where the child is still within the State’s control and care. No receiving country even gathers statistics on how our adoptions turn out.

2. We have NO rights – legally or economically – for any representation or help if our adoption turns out to be a failure (either from abusive families, deportation, lack of citizenship, falsification of papers, and being rehomed), or if we are lost or stolen for intercountry adoption. We are left to the whims of whichever country has taken us in, whether they be merciful or not. What message is given by the world’s largest receiving country who actively allows the deportation of adoptees back and treats them as “less than” citizens. Not to mention birth countries who receive the deported adoptee back AND continues to send more of it’s children after this occurs.The Hague and UNCRC both remain toothless tigers for there exists no entity or process to investigate any questionable actions by signatories.

3. Money is still unregulated and involved in our adoptions. Personally, I believe most intercountry adoptions as they are conducted today, cannot be said to be ethical while money is still involved and uncapped. While money is the driving force behind most baby scammers, agencies or lawyers involved in both countries, one cannot guarantee a market will not follow. Too much evidence exists showing that families in our birth countries are tricked or coerced to relinquish, or that the birth country fails to provide social welfare to support single mothers/families who are struggling or have conceived a child with a disability.

I also don’t believe “special needs” intercountry adoption is any more ethical than non-special needs children – because we should be encouraging our sending countries to develop the supports necessary to help the less abled child grow up in their own country. Just because one is born with “additional needs” doesn’t mean it is a ticket to being “shipped out” and stripped of one’s rights to origin and family. Material well being is only one factor in life and definitely 1st worlds can offer more to a special needs child than less developed countries. Not sure why the 1st world economies are still adopting their children out via intercountry adoption then?! But why couldn’t this help be in the form of flying the child out and providing the medical services necessary but without having to “adopt” the child. Keep the child with their family of origin, assist them with medical and special needs; help their societies understand that additional needs people can have just as much to offer society as any abled bodied person. I personally have a special needs son myself and I would hate to consider him being intercountry adopted out just because he was born with this extra need because I didn’t have the means or services to support him or us as a family!

I don’t believe immediately obliterating all types and forms of adoption (domestic and intercountry) is the answer either. Simple adoption as practiced in France remains a form of adoption that allows a child to retain their identity. Clearly every country in the world struggles with what to do with their most vulnerable children and families! If there was one simple answer other than adoption, foster care, and alternative care models, countries would all be doing it by now. One cannot deny that some children now adults, wished for and are glad to be given a safer more permanent family to support them. We cannot deny that some biological families of intercountry adoptees might still choose intercountry adoption even if presented with other choices. We cannot fix the underlying belief systems in other cultures overnight that creates the shame for why some biological parents choose to give up their children. Perhaps we’ve gotten to this state of being because of the breakdown in families, villages and communities. Our society remains so fragmented and isolated as individuals. There is little place to turn for people who are struggling to exist.

I aim for respectful discussion from stakeholders in all arenas on the topic. I especially aim to help us hear of the real impacts of adoption from  adoptive families, adoptees and biological families, hoping that current adoption as practised today may one day be removed and replaced with something better. Perhaps we also need to change the word so the old associations with the pitfalls of adoption as it has been practiced domestically and internationally are removed? Whatever the answer may be, it needs to be one where children first and foremost have a right to be with their original family; secondly, where if for complex reasons a child has to be removed from their family, then we are empowering birth countries to develop as many welfare and social support systems as possible to keep children in their home countries with kin; and as worse case scenario, if we have to be adopted to another country or within our country, that any form of giving us to another family that’s not kin, allows us to retain our birth identity if we wish, and doesn’t annul our identities without our consent.

With future generations of adoptees growing up and speaking out and as we start to hear the experiences of our biological families, these inputs might change again how we think of intercountry adoption. As it is, one cannot ignore the huge pitfalls of intercountry adoption. Turning a blind eye is not going to fix the problems. Loudly proclaiming all adoption should be eliminated won’t fix the fundamental underlying complex issues either. Somewhere in the middle is where I search for the answers because I don’t proclaim to have THE answer to such complex problems.

I believe we need to critically look at what we’ve done in the past 60+ years of modern intercountry adoption and at least learn the lessons offered. This is why I choose to build relationships and work with various organisations (government and non government) around the world.

So, in case you have questions as to what my personal position is, or what ICAV is about, please feel free to message me. I like to be open and transparent and I know that some want to do damage to the work and reputation of ICAV, which has been around now for almost 20 years. I stand true to who I am and what I do. I  try and make it better somehow for other intercountry adoptees who are already adopted and I speak out against how adoption is currently practiced, to prevent the same historical problems being perpetuated for future vulnerable children who need care.

Note: I also believe adoptees and adoptee groups are entitled to their own opinions. If they differ to mine, I have no issue with this. Adoption is such a personal experience and everyone has their own unique journey.

ICAV Meeting with Federal Minister

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On Monday 7 December, I met in Sydney with Federal Minister Christian Porter who looks after Australian Social Services portfolio, which includes adoption. I presented him with a copy of the book The Color of Difference: Journeys in Transracial Adoption and DVD The Girl in the Mirror (huge thank you NSW Post Adoption Resource Centre, Benevolent Society who donated the copies!) The book was instrumental in ICAV’s early beginnings and my own experience of the power of “group” i.e. sense of belonging with people who shared a common experience – and it is uniquely Australia’s first collation of intercountry adoptee’s sharing about the experiences of being adopted.

Our meeting went for only 30mins (cos he’s a very busy fellow!) He started by making note that this was highly unusual to meet face to face with an organisation not receiving Federal Funding.

Next, Minister Porter referred to the success of migrants who are allowed to enter Australia and assimilate well and become quite prosperous if they work hard – I think his inference was that this happens also with intercountry adoptees. He also mentioned he has Korean adoptees in his extended family who have done quite well for themselves!  He asked how many intercountry adoptees are in Australia and when it was at its peak in terms of children arriving. I provided estimates based on my recall of Peter Selman’s statistics.

At his asking, I shared with him the following:

  • our beginnings of loss and how adoption is a lifelong journey and that at different stages various issues can come up (he asked for further details on these issues so we talked about race, identity, feelings of difference to our adoptive families and I dropped in Nancy Verrier’s book The Primal Wound as a reference). I asked him to imagine how he’d feel being the only white person in a black family.
  • the biggest issue for adoptees (domestic and international) is that our identities and inheritance rights get obliterated in the process of adoption because we get given a new or false identity.
  • we need lifelong support systems in place and as per research (eg Swedish) international adoptees can suffer more from mental health, depression, suicide, imprisonment rates than the non adoptee population.
  • Sth Korean adoptees worldwide are leading the way in pushing for changes to their sending country to ensure better supports and options are in place for our biological families.

He asked specifically about our views on the push for adoptions to be faster and with less red tape – I told him this might all be happening but the reality is worldwide international adoptions are on the decline and it is in the hands of sending countries who are now finding more local solutions first, which is in the interests of the child. I also said as per United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child adoption should never be the first resort.

I also spoke about some of the pitfalls of intercountry adoption, namely that the 1993 Hague Convention on InterCountry Adoption allows the exchange of unlimited amounts of money for a child and that this, together with the lack of legal framework to prosecute any wrongdoing, except for falsifying documents which has minimal consequences, allows the very dark sides of international adoption to occur ie trafficking.

He asked specifically had I met with AdoptChange and Deborra Lee Furness, when I said yes he asked what my views were. I mentioned we clashed because I raised the issue that their name at the time “Orphan Angels” was a one sided view of adoption ie not taking into account the experiences of adoptees and our sensitiveness to spreading the impression of us (the orphans) needing to be “rescued” by white wealthy westerners (the angels). I said the organisation needed to embrace political sensitiveness around including all people’s experiences of adoption, not only adoptees but also biological families and the truths about adoption i.e. that it is about serving the interests of the adoptive parents just as much as serving the interests of the child in need.

Minister Porter made mention that it was good ICAV was not too extreme on either end of the spectrum because it makes it easier for Govt to work with us and find commonalities on how to tackle issues.

He ended by making it known that there was an open door for us to himself and his Chief of Staff, Danielle Donegan, who was present and Paula Gelo (who ICAV met in previous Federal meeting) and that he was impressed by our work to date with Federal Govt.

He spoke about the need for reform giving example of how so many children in WA were in out of home care but only 3 adopted but acknowledged the pendulum can swing too far on each extreme and that it was about finding a balance. I mentioned the huge number of domestic adoptees in Australia who would also like to be consulted with to share their views on Australian adoption policy.

I asked what his intentions were for intercountry adoption and he noted he wasn’t going to get involved or change the current direction or mechanisms in place. I spoke about how we have had a 45 year history of intercountry adoptions in Australia and that we hope to work with Government to focus on improving things for adoptees and families involved. I stressed that if Government wants to keep costs to a minimum long term, we need the right supports in place to ensure positive outcomes. I also mentioned how Post Adoption Support for current adult adoptees continues to fall between the gaps of responsibility in the Australian Commonwealth-State Agreement.

All in all, I felt it was largely positive given the Minister requested the meeting. I feel the efforts over the past 17 years of building our adoptee networks and pushing for adult intercountry adoptees to be recognised in their own right to be consulted with by Government in policy is bearing fruit. It’s also a breath of fresh air from the previous Abbott Govt to see current Federal Government actively consulting those who are involved and impacted the most!

Many thanks go to Flora Carapellucci who recommended ICAV to the Minister for his second round of meetings on Intercountry Adoption!!