by Sabina Söderlund-Myllyharju, adopted from Taiwan to Finland. Translation by Fiona Chow. Original post here in Swedish.
Recently my Facebook newsfeed has been flooded with important news items from places such as The Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden. The Netherlands has suspended all adoptions from abroad after an investigation revealed systematic abuses as well as illegal adoptions. A similar investigation has begun in Switzerland. In Sweden, adult adoptees from Chile along with those from other nations, are fighting for a nation-wide investigation to be implemented as soon as possible.
This build-up of steam in the adoption world started to stir up feelings inside of me. For a long time now, I have been observing strong opposition against adoption from adopted adults in the international circles I am involved in on social media. But to completely halt all adoptions? That sounded foreign to me. Many years ago, I thought likewise, but since then I have come to the realisation that such thinking is a little too radical. At least, not while there are children out there without parents.
The other night, I listened to a discussion in which a Swedish adoptive parent openly stood in the gap for the illegally adopted children who are now demanding Sweden to take responsibility. She supported them whole-heartedly, even though her engagement is likely to bring negative consequences into her own life. It warmed my heart that she as an adoptive parent is willing to do everything in her power so that her own children in the future would not need to question the adoption system in the same way as the stolen children of today.
My own adoption didn’t go as it should have, and this has been the source of a myriad of different emotions inside of me. These have ranged from the sadness of not having grown up with my biological family, to real anger over a system full of inadequacies. How is it even possible that I was transported from one continent to another with the help of falsified papers? That the offenders have now been tried and punished is of course just and right, but why was there never any attempt to re-unite me and dozens of other children with their original families?
At the same time, I have experienced huge feelings of guilt for even thinking this way, as I have had a good life here in Finland. Who am I really to complain? In fact, this isn’t a question of not being grateful. I am truly thankful for many things, not the least of which include my three children who are growing up in a fantastic country such as Finland. However, am I thankful that I was separated from my biological mother? Is it even possible for me to ever stop wondering why my identification documents were falsified at the time of adoption? Was I sold? Is this what my biological mother really wanted?
It has been many years since my own adoption and at that time, the arrangements were made privately, without the help of an adoption agency, nor the protection such an agency would have provided. I am happy that today’s Finland adoptions are regulated in a totally different way, so that we can be certain that things are done legally and correctly when we place children through international adoption. This is the way it is, isn’t it? Surely our focus is on what is best for the child, just as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) demands? Surely we choose to act without delay when suspicious activity arises on the adoption field?
My hope is that adoptees, adoptive parents and adopters can be assured that all those who work with adoption in Finland are, with good conscious, able to say that everything is working as it should. I sincerely hope that adoption agencies such as Interpedia, Save the Children and the City of Helsinki have been quiet for so long because they absolutely have nothing to hide.
At the same time, I can hardly be the only person who thinks that an independent state investigation is long overdue, even in a country such as Finland.
It bothers me a lot less nowadays that people feel the need to judge where I or ICAV sits on adoption discussions as being only either “anti” or “pro” — as if adoption can be classified on some linear adoption spectrum!
Yes, I like to, and I encourage my peers, to call out and speak openly on the complexities and call an end to the unethical practices, the trafficking, the deportation, the rehoming, the abuse .. but the reality is, usually when adoptees talk about these issues from these angles, we can so easily get labeled and shut down!
Personally, I feel there are so many shades within the adoption arena. Like if I support simple adoption in theory over plenary adoption – does that make me “anti” or “pro”? If I prefer kinship care and guardianship to either of those, am I “anti “or “pro”? If I prefer children to be kept in their country of birth, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I prefer children to stay within their nuclear and extended family or community, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I want to prioritise a child’s safety, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I want a mother to retain a choice, am I “anti” or”pro?
Isn’t it a bit simplistic to overlay such a narrow linear spectrum on our views for such a complex topic? And what happens when we consider domestic adoption with intercountry adoption? Or transracial domestic adoption with transracial intercountry adoption? The discussions will always be so complex with so many differences but also, so many similarities!
At the end of the day, transracial adoption, local adoption, intercountry adoption, foster care, guardianship, kinship care are all options for complicated situations in child welfare. What should we do about children who are vulnerable and need care? How can we ensure they have long term stability within loving and supportive structures for their life long journey? The answers to these questions moves us way beyond a simple “anti” and “pro” discussion. Simplifying these discussions to that type of focus really doesn’t get us anywhere except to divide us.
When we oversimplify complex situations it dumbs down the mindscope and limits the possible solutions.
When considering intercountry adoption, I support safety of the child and respect for families, ethnicities and cultures . This should always be first and foremost in our priorities when considering solutions for the child. I’m not anti or pro – I’m all about encouraging open and healthy discussion on complex issues that have not ONE single solution for all, but should be discussed on a case by case basis! I would love if governments could put more money and focus into helping keep families together where possible! I also recognise, that not all families chose to stay together and women should have choices. So my point is, we cannot overlay ONE solution over a whole spectrum of complex situations. Each and every child with their parents and kin needs to have their situation considered by its own merits. And let’s not forget, we must acknowledge that the solution(s) might need to change over time.
The biggest impact plenary adoption creates, is that it is a permanent solution for what is often a temporary or shorter term crisis. For some, staying together will hopefully be the preference and governments need to offer enough social supports to make this possible. For others, if they insist on not parenting their children nor having kin take on guardianship, I would hope we could move to a better model like simple adoption which ensures original identity remains intact and connection to kin legally preserved. I strongly dislike the way plenary adoption has inadvertently layered on more trauma than it’s supposed to help. People are human, we change over time. Why do we continue to place permanent life altering legal changes onto children as solutions that are difficult to change when in fact, maybe a better way would be to take into account that situations and people change and allow more flexible solutions?
Using simplistic linear labels like “anti” and “pro” to discuss intercountry adoption can be counterproductive. How much do we miss when we limit ourselves to such linear discussions?
Can you imagine if a stranger came into your home and started taking selfies with your child, gave them gifts, hugged and kissed them, then left? The following day a new stranger came into your home and did this exact same thing.
This is a reality for the majority of children living in orphanages throughout the world. We don’t think twice when we see people post these types of pictures, matter of fact we often praise each other when we partake in such activities. For as long as I can remember, visiting orphanages, posing with “orphans”, loving and giving them gifts has been seen as a good and acceptable thing but I believe it’s time to reevaluate! Matter of fact, it’s long past when we should have realised how careless we can sometimes be with the safety and well-being of these children.
How is that when it’s our own children we see things so differently? When it’s our own child, no one needs to tell us the negative effects such situations could bring about, yet when it’s not our child, but a child in an orphanage, we strip them so easily of their individuality and value. The parental instincts that keep our children out of harm’s way should be extended to all children, not just those within our own home. We must work to protect ALL children equally.
While there is certainly much to be understood as to why this discrepancy in value exists that is not what this post is about.
What I would like to discuss is why volunteering in orphanages can be problematic and at times cause harm.
Most children in orphanages are not orphans. In the past, donating to and volunteering within orphanages has been seen as a good and noble thing, but with the understanding that 4 out of 5 children living within those institutions are not orphans it’s our responsibility to ensure we are not contributing to the problem. The act of visiting and volunteering in orphanages has become more and more popular over the years, and as a result there has been a direct increase in the number of orphanages across the world. The desire for donations can incite orphanages to go looking for children to fill their walls, preying on vulnerable families that are desperate for help. As a result, children are removed from families that could’ve been invested in to keep together (which is truly in the child’s best interest). Because of this, children are often being held within these institutions in order to incur ongoing donations from volunteers and religious organisations that have developed a personal relationship with that particular orphanage.
There is no such thing as a good orphanage. While i’m not saying that there aren’t orphanages being managed by good people doing their absolute best at providing a safe and nurturing environment, the institutionalisation of children has never been considered “good” for them. Children do not thrive in institutional care, even within the best of conditions. The rate of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within orphanages is high. If we know our contributions to orphanages can potentially promote the creation of orphans and we also know how harmful institutional care is to a child, then why in the world would we consider contributing to a system that is unnecessarily institutionalising children 4 out of 5 times? Just as it is for our own children, it is best for all children to stay with their biological families where possible. It would be better to support programs that focus on keeping families together or reintegrate children back to their families instead of putting that money into systems that are separating families.
Only properly vetted and trained volunteers and professionals should be working with children in institutional care. Allowing groups of improperly screened and trained volunteers to have access to vulnerable children in orphanages promotes an unsafe environment for the children.
When volunteers visit orphanages, even for a short period of time, they create a bond that will be broken once the volunteer goes home. Children that find themselves in the unfortunate position of being placed in an orphanage have been exposed to trauma. First, there is the trauma that brought about the need for assistance. This could be anything from abuse, neglect, a death in the family, poverty, mental health of a parent, loss of a job, corruption or a multitude of other reasons. Secondly, there is the deep trauma of being separated from everything and everyone they are familiar with. Losing that bond and daily connection to their family members is extremely traumatising. More often than not, orphanages become a revolving door of people coming in, bonding with children, then leaving, thus exposing children to the trauma of abandonment over and over again.
Visiting, volunteering in and donating to orphanages creates a supply and demand market which can lead to the trafficking of children. In many developing countries where the government infrastructure is weak there is often a lack of proper oversight within orphanages. Hence, it is nearly impossible to ensure the majority of these orphanages are being managed legally and ethically. In many countries where the orphanage growth has boomed over the past few years it has become an overwhelming problem to address. With over 500 unlicensed orphanages in Uganda alone, it is near impossible for one to properly donate to or volunteer within these institutions while ensuring things are being run ethically and that children aren’t being exploited in order to receive income from donations.
While I’m not saying that there is absolutely no way to volunteer safely and ethically in an orphanage, I think it’s important to humble ourselves and ensure that in our attempt to “do good” we haven’t somehow participated in a system that may be exploiting children. It can be easy to convince ourselves that if our intentions are good the results of our actions are inconsequential. Good intentions are useless if they are causing harm. For many years I unwittingly undervalued the lives of children in institutional care all in the name of goodwill. I am embarrassed for my lack of better judgement and ignorance. But recognising and admitting where I have gotten it wrong is part of becoming the change I want to see in this world.
May we all do better and be better for these children and their families.
These past weeks have been frustrating to say the least! I received an official letter from the Australian Government – Minister Tehan’s office, Minister for Social Services, one of the Federal departments responsible for intercountry adoption. Our stakeholder community has been actively writing and contacting the Minister to request a review of the decision to end the funding of our much needed Search service in intercountry adoption. But we have been denied.
After only 2 years, the ISS Australia Intercountry Adoption Tracing & Reunification Service (ICATRS) which was granted less than AUS$500k each year, with an uptake of over 200 adult adoptees and adoptive families, will be closing and the cases handed back to the States/Territory Central Authorities. Historically, the States/Territory governments have provided minimal resources to post adoption support in intercountry adoption, and even less to searching and reunification. Since becoming a signatory of The Hague Convention, Australia devised the Commonwealth-State Agreement which separates the responsibilities between States and Commonwealth. The Commonwealth owns the relationship with our sending countries. This means, for the States/Territories who largely assess prospective parents, they have little day to day communication with our birth countries, hence are not always well placed to conduct searches for us – years/decades after an adoption has occurred.
Australia moved from making history in providing a much needed national and free search service for all adult intercountry adoptees, to now re-joining the rest of the world governments who participate in intercountry adoption but do little, to ensure positive outcomes by providing comprehensive post adoption supports. It is a requirement as a signatory of The Hague Convention but not one country around the world has stepped up to provide a comprehensive service – and especially not targeted to support adult intercountry adoptee needs.
I would understand if the Federal Government decided to close intercountry adoption altogether AND remove the search service, but to continue conducting intercountry adoption without comprehensive post adoption supports, in my eyes is unethical and just plain wrong!
Since 2014, the Australian federal government allocated a budget of AU$33.6m across 5 years to spend on facilitating intercountry adoption. Out of that budget, little to nothing has been given to those who are already here – the adult adoptees and their adoptive families. For those who are impacted by the lack of intercountry adoption policy from the late 1960s era, post adoption services are so much more important. Adoptees of my generation were, for the good majority of us, adopted with poor documentation and questionable procedures. Funding the loudest and most powerful stakeholder has seen a blatant skewing of tax payer money. I ask where is the conscience and ethics of the Australian Government? How can they justify spending AU$33.6m on services for prospective parents but do little to nothing for those of us who are already here, asking for help and support?!
We live in an era where apologies are given and past policies recognised for the harm done. The Stolen Generation. The Forced Adoption Apology. The Forgotten Australians. Now the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse. Well, one day, our small minority of intercountry adoptees, who have been left out of all these similar scenarios, will have to be acknowledged and recognised. Our day of reckoning will eventually come. But we may have to force it instead of speaking nicely and being politely grateful for our adopted lives. We are adopted to a country that treats us as a symbolic gesture to “help those less fortunate”. Intercountry adoption policy prances about in disguise as being “in the interests of the child”. Yet overtly – the rhetoric is clearly not true. Actions speak louder than words. The actions are for those wanting a child, not for the child itself.
In the past weeks, I also submitted a letter to the Australian Human Rights Commission for their annual report on how Australia is tracking in Children’s Rights. In my submission, I point out the many breaches that occur under Children’s Rights in intercountry adoption from the lived experience perspective. Past and current intercountry adoption practices and the variety of outcomes dating back to the late 1960s, goes against 13 of the 41 Part I Articles under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Around the globe, I see adult intercountry adoptees speaking out enmasse – BUT, we are continually being ignored. The Dutch adoptees are now suing their Dutch government for their illegal adoptions in which their own birth countries are acknowledging illicit practices. Ultimately, this is what it will come down to. Clearly when we ask politely, nicely, respectfully to listen to our experiences and do the right thing, governments all over the world will only take reponsibility when it comes to the legal crunch. It won’t be until many of us start finding ways to seek justice through litigation around the world that we will no longer be ignored. This is the reality of intercountry adoption.
I observe closely the harsh debate going on in the USA between pro adoption parents and adoption agencies who are criticising the US Department of State for implementing tighter controls in accreditation of adoption agencies and standards. These lobby groups are sending around petitions to ask the US President to support the increase for international adoptions and are attacking the US Department of State for bringing in much needed reforms to prevent illicit practices. It’s interesting how these same lobby groups will push to bring in more children who need saving around the world, but do nothing to ensure those already here, are granted automatic citizenship.
These lobby groups and agencies clearly do not speak to deported adoptees who sink into depression and are hard hit by being uprooted yet again, with no choice of their own. Do these lobby groups take any responsibility for children being placed into families that were not suitable under previous regimes with loose procedures? No. They don’t speak out about the rights of these children, now adults. They don’t care that America ships these people back the same way they were bought into the country. Yes my choice of word is correct. Bought – meaning purchased. It shows the truth of their motivations! Lobby groups and adoption agencies promote and advocate for their own self centred needs but at the same time conveniently turn a blind eye to these same children (now adults) who are being ignored, unsupported, and treated unethically. Where is their lobbying for these children who grew up? For those still fighting for automatic citizenship, adopted to the USA prior to 1983? I dare to judge and say, they are not interested in the “needs of the children” … only to satisfy their own needs and interests.
Adoption break downs, illicit practices, deportations, human rights abuses – these are not words adoption lobbyers and agencies use or want to acknowledge. I suggest before they promote further adoptions with laxer processes, they need to sit and listen to the hundreds of adult intercountry adoptees whom I meet every year around the world, in every adoptive country, from every birth country.
It breaks my heart time and again to hear our experiences. They are not just stories. They are our realities. We are a minority amongst minorities. Our experiences mean little to governments who make decisions as to what they will fund because we are not on their radar to appease or acknowledge.
For those who naiively think ICAV is a melting pot for a minority of angry/embittered adoptees who suffered in their adoptive families, think again. We have just as many members who have been loved and given a great adoptive family as those who have suffered within not so positive environments. We are not against adoptive families. We are against the processes of intercountry adoption, the governments, the stakeholders who make decisions that impact our lives without our say and who are consciously choosing not to learn from the past.
At a certain age and maturity in understanding the phenomenon of intercountry adoption and opening themselves up to learn the politics involved, many adult intercountry and transracial adoptees can’t help but wonder. We question why the system is so skewed towards adopting without taking any truthful responsiblity for ensuring all people impacted by the adoption are better supported.
Our rights and needs remain ignored. The money trail does not extend to us, the children who grow up. It’s only there for those who want to gain a child with little foresight as to whether that child experiences a positive or negative outcome in the long term.
I’ve been around for 20 years now, actively speaking out, supporting intercountry adoptees and creating much needed resources to prevent the reinvention of the wheel for many of us who struggle in the journey. In my early years, we were alone. Now … we have created something different altogether. We are harnessing our energies and working together.
I will use this reality to continue to encourage fellow adoptees to keep pushing, keep demanding change, keep trying, keep speaking out. One day, something will have to give and the changes we ask for will happen.
The truth of intercountry adoption cannot be silenced forever.