By Aaron Dechter, adopted from Colombia to America.
45 years ago today, I was adopted and arrived in Boston, USA. This day is hard: three sides to the coin. Deep sadness for Mamá and my Colombian family for the son who was stolen and taken from them. Happiness for my mom and dad and my American family for what was the most important day for them. So that leaves me.
Like many other adoptees who are torn internally into a million pieces, at my age now, I’ve come to accept the ups and downs, the happy and sadness as the pendulum swings each day.
My younger sister tells me, “The pain and suffering of Mamá and the entire family will never heal”. My older sister tells me, “Take it as a gift of life for having two families that love me, for caring for me and allowing my to return home”. Brenna and Gabriella say, “This was a happy day, now knowing that truth it’s different. It’s tough, it’s still a special day but it feels tainted”. All opinions are justified.
So here I am, representing the triad of adoption. I represent Mamá and Colombia family. I represent my parents and American family. I represent Brenna and Gabriella and myself. I can’t wash the adoption off but it made me who I am today.
The path to healing continues but I’m still here fighting the cause for Mamá, my parents and me.
by Anonymous, an intercountry adoptee living in Sweden, adopted from Colombia.
For a very long time I was one of those people who had this view that adoption is the result of a social tragedy; a situation where the victim (i.e., the adopted person) has no say in the matter — but we are expected (of course) to feel very grateful even though we lost our roots and identity, we agree we got something “finer / better” in exchange.
The fact that I knew very little about adoption (international / intercountry) and my own story, was manifested in my assumption: that all adoptions are executed “correctly and ethically” and that adoption is automatically the best solution for all of us “lucky selected” orphans.
In my ignorance, I use to say things like:
“If I had lived in Colombia, I would probably have been a street child, had a very bad time, been poor and without opportunities”. I would say this despite the fact that I knew very little about my adoption and background situation. It never occurred to me that maybe I had relatives who wanted nothing more than to take care of me? I now know what the truth is, but I didn’t know when I was younger.
My misunderstanding that a happy life in Colombia was impossible for an orphaned person and that adoption is the only correct solution to a difficult situation, made me spread and reinforce false perceptions of Colombia as a bad country, where everyone is poor, suffering and unhappy. I reinforced the opinion that the obvious thing was to feel happiness and gratitude for not growing up with my Colombian family and that the loss of my roots was of no value.
Now I’ve grown old enough to find out more about adoption, how it works and what it actually means to me. I now understand that adoption is a million dollar business worldwide and the basis for an adoption can be as bizarre as the delusion that it is by default, automatically the best way forward for all orphans.
In Colombia, I helped a fellow adoptee find her roots and it was revealed that parts of her documents were invented (fabricated) and that her adoption was a result of a family feud with the children stuck in the middle. Maybe the children got a happier life here in Scandinavia than they would in Colombia, but maybe not. In any case, it was clear that the relatives I found were not poor. On the contrary, they were rich, wealthy and had a large house with an expensive car, and half the family never approved of the adoption, but it happened anyway.
What I’m trying to say is that if we know very little about our adoption and can’t say with 100 percent certainty what the situation was, maybe we should consider the possibility that adoption could be based on wrong doings — such as kidnapping, or jealousy by an individual with a quest for revenge / destruction on others in the family. I realise in hindsight that maybe my gratitude was conceived out of ignorance and mainstream expectations and that speaking negatively about my birth country and people, resulted from not knowing much about my country and why/how I became available for adoption.
From my own journey of growth, I encourage fellow adoptees to ask questions, search for the truths when you are ready, and don’t just blindly believe what you absorb about your adoption.
…Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being…we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking, New York
“Though you may not have direct reports working under you, you are ALL leaders in your project teams,” we were told recently at a work-related strengths finding and building seminar. This got me thinking about what leadership looks like in our community of intercountry and transracial adoptees (ICA/TRAs). Every day I see fellow ICA/TRAs working to bring about change in areas such as the intersectionality of adoption, trauma, race, and loss; family preservation; family reunification; and garnering awareness and even funds for lifelong post-adoption services for adopted people (as well as others in the adoption constellation). If the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, then our community will best be served if we can collaborate with each other, as united leaders. Therefore, I invite all ICA/TRAs to ask themselves a few fundamental questions about leadership: What are leaders? Who are they leading? Are they leading or are they serving? If they are serving, whom are they serving? How can leaders influence in the absence of direct authority?
As an adopted person, the leaders in my life who have resonated most with me are the ones who have listened, validated, felt all “the feels,” and who worked diligently and gently at helping others grow and learn, setting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves one day. I believe that we all are – or have the potential to be – caring, impactful, servant leaders in our family, professional, and community settings.
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York
The concept of servant leadership, in which the main goal of the leader is to serve, was first outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Though an in-depth look at servant leadership is outside the scope of this blog, I hope that the short quote above will speak to many in the ICA/TRA community. It certainly speaks to me as someone who empathizes with those who are harmed by the power differential inherent to modern day adoption: vulnerable women and children.
Following in the footsteps of earlier generations of vocal adoptees, such as Betty Jean Lifton and Sherrie Eldridge, who advocated for adoption reform, some members of the ICA/TRA community who were born and adopted between the late 1960s and the early 1990s have published books, become adoptee-centric grief and trauma therapists, set up local support groups, and initiated DNA programs for adoptees and first families, amongst other noteworthy projects. However, unlike our pioneering predecessors, who were almost exclusively white, same-race domestic adoptees, we are the ones paving the way for critical thinking about intercountry and transracial adoption practices.
Furthermore, our community is in the very unique position of being the first generation of adult intercountry, transracially adopted people who have had time to think and heal AND who are connected globally, thanks to the internet, AND who have access to affordable DNA testing AND whose voices are starting to be heard by local and international governing bodies. Over the past few years we have begun to leverage all of these resources and opportunities, and in doing so, many members of the ICA/TRA community are now devoting their time and energy to serving adoptees and first family members. Whether we realize it or not, we are already practitioners of servant leadership.
The traditional business model of leadership has been about increasing power and profit margins by getting people to do what you want by wielding your authority. This model is not only waning in the business world, but it is wholly inappropriate in the ICA/TRA community: we have neither profit margins to increase nor authority to wield. Therefore, effective leadership in our community, namely leadership that educates, empowers, supports, and influences even without direct power or authority, I believe, will find its strengths in empathy, values of truth and justice, and the desire and ability to knowledge-share that many ICA/TRAs have developed as a result of their unique lived experiences.
We were powerless as babies and children when we were removed from our families and sent around the world to grow up in adoptive families, often with no connection to our original selves or families. As a result, many of us have struggled with our identity and sense of self worth. We paid a very high price for something we never gave our consent to in the first place. Yet, the flip side to all the pain many ICA/TRAs endured while growing up, and often continue to endure well into adulthood, is that we often have specialized knowledge acquired only through lived experience. Many of us also feel an intense desire to give back to our community by sharing that knowledge (with each other, with adoptive parents, and with policy makers) to help ensure that things are done better for current and future generations of vulnerable families and adopted people. To me, that is certainly a big part of leadership.
Finally, it is no stretch to see reflected in the ICA/TRA community most, if not all, of Larry C. Spears’s ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders (Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Journal of Virtues & Leadership, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 2010, p. 25-30):
Listening Empathy Healing Awareness Persuasion Conceptualization Foresight Stewardship Commitment to the Growth of People Building Community
Being a member of a group of individuals who exhibit such characteristics is very powerful, and very empowering indeed. If our ICA/TRA global community can harness the benefits of servant leadership by fully owning and exercising all of our inborn strengths as well as those characteristics we have acquired through our lived experiences, I believe we not only help each other heal but can also shape governmental policies in favor of family preservation and post-adoption support. As we move forward as a community and as leaders in the field of intercountry and transracial adoption, I hope we will continue to grow, to learn, and to hold each other accountable as leaders who serve with kindness, and no expectations of glory in return.
I connected with Abby Forero-Hilty from a Colombian intercountry adoptee group on FaceBook. She has worked hard to put together a new anthology that shares 18 Colombian intercountry adoptee experiences. Most participants were raised in the USA except 4 who were raised in Europe (Germany, UK, Belgium & Switzerland). The anthology is titled Decoding Our Origins: The Lived Experiences Of Colombian Adopteesand it’s proceeds will be given to Colombian intercountry adoptees and their original families who struggle to afford DNA testing kits.
I read the book in two sittings. I loved the mix of literary styles .. prose, lyrics, narrative, photographs – it made for an interesting read! It is deeply emotional and contains very moving personal accounts of the struggles and achievements of those who contributed. It covers some profoundly sad experiences and includes many stories of reunion and beyond.
I felt very connected reading Decoding our Origins because it reflected much of what I’ve experienced and learnt from intercountry adoptee’s worldwide covering a variety of countries of origin. The issues and experiences reflect what I’ve always termed the “kaleidoscope of intercountry adoption journeys”.
One aspect that stood out was these experiences voiced by the USA based Colombian intercountry adoptees, appear to be largely the result of the USA’s privatised system of adoption. It has only been since 2008 that the USA became a signatory of The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption. Prior to becoming a signatory, independent adoption agencies facilitated intercountry adoptions for prospective parents. We read the results from these intercountry adoptees themselves, now grown up, with a voice of their own. They share the consequences of growing up with ill prepared parents due to a lack of mandatory and standardised education, lack of standardised screening, and a lack of education to adoption agencies from the kaleidoscope of intercountry adoptee experiences.
Decoding our Origins, being largely the voices of USA based Colombian intercountry adoptees, is a reflection on the USA who is the largest receiving country in the world … and a sender of it’s own children via intercountry adoption! Will the USA and countries in Europe work harder to listen to and include a wide range of voices from the adult intercountry adoptee community to improve standards and processes in intercountry adoptions to achieve better long term outcomes for the child (who inevitably grows up to become an adult)? Only time will tell.
We now see enmasse, generations of intercountry adoptees like these Colombians in the USA and around Europe, who have suffered in their adoptions. Suffered rehoming, trafficking, deportation, false documentation; who are searching for their true identities and place of belonging, who struggle to have their emotional journey validated, and essentially for whom they have been given inadequate pre & post adoption supports. Our receiving countries have an ethical obligation to ensure if they are going to continue to bring in children via intercountry adoption each year, they lift their standards to ensure these children have positive outcomes in the future and not continue to suffer as many in this Colombian anthology share.
Some suggestions to lift standards would be to provide fully funded resources specific to intercountry adoption, like:
Let’s not forget the role of the sending country, Colombia. One has to question why our sending countries including Colombia, continues to send so many of its children out. Why, after so many generations, does Colombia fail to create and implement family preservation systems especially given such a high proportion of these Colombian adoptees successfully reunite and find their families intact? Why also has there been such a long history of irregularities in identity documentation from orphanages and hospitals in sending countries? Decoding our Origins exemplifies the long term consequences for intercountry adoptees who are sent away to another country under such practices. Our governments becoming a signatory of The Hague for Intercountry Adoption does little to improve these aspects of intercountry adoption for us intercountry adoptees!
Decoding Our Origins: The Lived Experiences Of Colombian Adopteesis now available from their website.