The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

When abuse happens to a child from the very people who are supposed to protect it, a devastating legacy of impacts is created. I lived with my adoptive family for 19 years until they left to go overseas to be missionaries. Up until that point in my life, I had learnt to suppress my truths and bury it deep within my body.

How can one ever describe the impacts and legacy we are left with as a victim of sexual abuse within an adoptive family? Words feel inadequate.

The Worst Crime is Being Expected Not to Tell – Darrell Hammond

I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Up life story on Netflix – it helped me find the words. I highly recommend watching it for those who seriously want to understand childhood trauma and the legacy it leaves. I related to his story on so many levels: the anger at self for having been so vulnerable, the conflicting emotions about these very people who are your parents who others only see as amazing and wonderful people, the memories of abuse where my body felt violated, disrespected and used for their own purposes, the coping mechanisms I developed to survive, the trail of devastation left behind in early relationships and choices because I knew no better until I got professional help, the attempts to take my life because the pain was so unbearable, the depression, the darkness that would consume me. So many parallels with the life I lived until I found help and healing. Thankfully it didn’t take me over 50 years, but it certainly consumed a large part of my prime adult life and I still continue to deal with the impacts to this day. I think this is the part most people don’t understand which Darryl’s documentary highlights – our trauma never leaves us – what can get better, is that we learn to forgive ourselves for our survival and coping mechanisms, and we can learn to reconnect with and care about ourselves. It is a lifetime journey of healing and coming to terms with what was taken from us – our innocence and potential to live life without those brutal scars.

Each day, each week, each year I struggle to comprehend my adoptive family. My childhood mind just can’t integrate that they could have been so cruel, nasty, neglectful, mean — but yet they were also my saviours, my lifeline to surviving a war, my rescuers. It is their unspoken expectation that I should just get on with life as if nothing has happened that continues to hurt the most. I did this for many years but it becomes harder the older I get and I can no longer accept this anymore. I can no longer deny the emotional impact I feel each time I interact with them. It’s been so hard to pretend that I don’t hurt, I can’t do it anymore. What they choose to see is a strong, resilient survivor who has overcome. Yes that is part of who I am, but what they don’t want to see, is the other half – the hurt, traumatised inner child me who wants to be protected, loved and nurtured. I have had to learn to give to myself because they have not been capable. Not one member of my adoptive family wants to know how I’m impacted or understand my struggle. This is because their shame is deeper than my pain. This is what no-one will talk about. It did not escape my notice that Darryl Hammond tells his story publicly after both his parents have deceased. I recognise we subconsciously protect our parents if they’ve abused us and it’s at our cost in mental health, to do so. This is the sad reality of childhood trauma inflicted upon us by our supposedly “loving” parents.

I’ve barely written about this topic in over 20 years – in places I refer to it briefly but rarely in-depth. It’s not a topic I love nor is it a topic I talk about to shame my family. I do so now, to encourage others who are tortured by the shame of what happened to them — to speak out, find their voice and empower themselves. The first article I wrote on this topic I kept anonymous out of my own shame and desire to protect my adoptive family. I look back at how ridiculous it is that I should have ever felt I had to protect them. As an adopted person, there is nothing worse than being relinquished by my first family then being unprotected by my second. My layers of loss and grief are multiplied!

We never forget what happens to us as survivors of sexual abuse, we can only simply move forward from the hate and anger that is so valid, to realising it only damages ourselves if we allow it to fester or hurt ourself. For my own survival, I have to live with it and move on – somehow I’ve learnt to remain true to my own needs and ensure my life is no longer controlled by the thoughtless actions of the perpetrators many years ago, or the shame and guilt that controls them now.

My sexual life is forever tarnished and damaged. I will never have a relationship with my partner that I might have had, had I not been sexually interfered with. Being abused in this manner has always compounded my ability to trust, to want to be close, to feel safe with people and figures in power, it destroys my belief in a greater power – my spirituality. It was not surprising that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, the documentary Revelation revealed that many children had suicided whom the investigators attributed directly to having been sexually abused. It is no secret that many of us who have been abused end up self intoxicating, destroying ourselves because our soul is so damaged and hurt. We just want the pain to end, we want someone to reach out and help us.

I cry for the child within me who was so vulnerable and trusting but was so misled and taken advantage of by the males in my adoptive family (extended and immediate). I cry for those all over the world who have to live with this horrendous crime to us as innocent children. Sexual abuse is a terrible reality for anyone but having it done to you from within an adoptive family adds so many more complex layers of trauma that become almost impossible to unravel and deal with. Relinquishment trauma in and of itself is terrible enough. Relinquishment and then abuse in adoptive family is just soul destroying. I hope one day people will stop talking about adoption as if it always saves us and awaken to the realisation that sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse is too prevalent in adoptive family environments. We need to change this!

I want to note that I have met many amazing adoptive parents and I am not that bitter and twisted to label them all with this brush stroke, but I do want to awaken our society to the biggest myth that adoption saves us. From a place of honesty – for those of us who live abuse in adoptive families, it is likely the biggest silent killer of adoptees!

I never spoke up while I was young because I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends and strangers. I never spoke up because I was made to feel like shit in my adoptive family, picked on, singled out, the family slave, called names like “tree trunks” or “monkey face”. I remember one young man Matthew, I never forgot him, he was a rare one who was kind to me and could sense what was going on. Matthew was employed as our new farm hand by my father to help out. He was blonde, blue eyed, respectful and strong. I remember he stood up to my adoptive father questioning why he was so tough on me, forcing me to do the labour a young man like himself could do, but yet I was pubescent girl. My father quickly got rid of him. I never heard or saw from Matthew again.

I wonder how Matthew is today and whether he found another job. I felt bad that it was because of me that he lost his job but to this day, I always remember him for being kind without sexual implications and very respectful of me. He had shown pure concern for me. I wish he’d reported my father and his ways. Little does he know how far my father went with the abuse and if he knew, he’d probably hate that he didn’t do something.

My friends at church and school sometimes saw how my father treated me but it seems no-one reported anything. Why would they? My mother was the school Principal, my parents both seen as strong Christians with a missionary background, active in the church and community, leading the youth groups, hosting the fire brigade. I wasn’t acting out. I was a school academic and high achiever. I wasn’t into drugs. But I retreated within myself. I always thought I was an introvert until my adoptive family left while I remained behind to start Year 12 while they went to live and work overseas as missionaries.

In reconnecting with some of my extended adoptive family in the past few years, it has confirmed that some had concerns about how I was being treated from as early as toddler years. Some have said to me they wish in hindsight, that they had done more, reported their suspicions. As an adopted person, I’ve just never experienced a protective or safe parent. I grieve that!

I have the resilience these days to watch things like Revelation and Cracked Up. I use to avoid because I’d be such a wreck watching anything that closely resembled my traumas. I have learnt to turn my emotional churning into something constructive. I write to share with the wider world about how we can better protect vulnerable children. I turn my childhood tragedy into an opportunity to speak out and empower others to do likewise. I advocate for those who are still struggling to find their voices. I talk about the hushed up topics that people don’t want to discuss. I speak out to give hope to other adoptees like me, with the message that your life doesn’t have to be destroyed. There is a way to heal and move forward. We don’t have to stay ashamed. We have nothing to be ashamed of! We can speak up even if we don’t get legal justice. We can help encourage our fellow sufferers to find their braveness and shed off their mantles of shame. It’s not ours to carry, it is the system and the adults who fail to protect the most vulnerable!

I speak out to bring light to this hidden tragedy of sexual abuse within adoptive families. We don’t even know what our rates of sexual abuse are because nobody captures it or researches whether we are more prone to sexual abuse in adoptive families than others. I can only refer to research in similar situations like foster care and if our statistics somewhat mirrored foster care, then we really are the silent victims because we don’t have any one monitoring us once we join our adoptive family. We have no avenues to call out for help. We are totally vulnerable within our adoptive family. We have to do better to protect vulnerable children and ensure we are placed in better environments than what we have already lost. Sexual abuse in adoption must be talked about for this change to happen!

Coming Next: Part 3 – What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families

Trauma Informed Resources

Alternatives to Adoption?

#3 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019

Let’s say I’ve opened up and shared that intercountry adoption has put me in a place of living beside society and that I’m feeling my losses. If I open up to one family member in Sweden and one family member in my native Iran, both of them will say the same thing in response: “You should be grateful that you didn’t end up an orphan in Iran”. Implicitly all other alternatives would be worse so I don’t have the right to complain. I should stay quiet.

When discussing the alternatives to being adopted, people generally talk about prostitution, poverty, rejection from a cruel society where family is everything – basically zero prospects at all for a good life.

Would I have preferred that to the comfort of growing up in a free country and receiving an education, being able to travel? If that’s so bad, what other solution do I have?

Implicitly my Iranian relative would say that their country cannot change – that orphans will always be frowned upon and that sex outside of marriage, drug abuse or poverty are irredeemable. Implicitly my Swedish relative would believe that intercountry adoption is the best solution. There is an embedded colonialist viewpoint which only becomes visible if you reverse the reasoning: what would you think if a white, Swedish orphan was randomly sent to a strange country like Iran? When we have orphans in Sweden, what would we do with him or her? We would try WITH ALL OUR MEANS to find their relatives and place them there. If that didn’t work, we would put them in a safe home where there’s accountability and support for his or her trauma. We would make sure the child knows as much as possible about their birth family so that they can search for them at any point and always feel connected to them. This would be the alternative to adoption.

But as long as richer countries mine poorer countries for babies, using adoption as bargaining chips in diplomacy, there are no incentives for the poorer country to deal with its problems. The orphanages in my native country are still flooded. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran didn’t want to use us children as bargaining chips anymore and stopped letting the orphans go abroad. Nowadays, you need to be an Iranian citizen, you need to write over one third of your assets and you will be monitored with the baby for six months before the adoption gets finalised.

If you don’t think the Iranian way sounds like a more reasonable solution for orphans it’s probably because of the colonialist viewpoint, that western countries have to be a better option for EVERYBODY to grow up in. You probably think the stigma of being spotted at every class photo as an adoptee (italics), not knowing your native language or culture, getting questions about your background every single day and being subjected to racism from early childhood is a price everyone is willing to pay.

The most reasonable solution is, of course, what we would do to our “own” here in the West. I am aware this requires a movement in the poorer countries to create a shift. That’s why we need adoptee voices!

by Sarah Märtensson

When I see this question – I feel it’s a classic sea-lioning trope i.e., a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretence of civility and sincerity. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.

This question and others like it puts the onus on adoptees to have the solutions and answers while declining to centre adoptee voices as integral to defining the issues.

I look to guardianship over adoption, care not erasure. Care of children in crisis doesn’t need to involve wide scale secrecy, severing of family bonds and complete removal from birth culture.

An emotional and financial burden of search lies on adoptees because of the secrecy. Birth families are often disempowered and actively discouraged from contact. And yet it seems that more adoptees are open to contact if it’s led by the birth families, when the fear of rejection is lessened. No government assisted systems are in place to offer genetic testing and support for reuniting and no pressure exists from adoptive or birth countries, or the Hague Convention to do so. Adoptees are forced to deal with complicated feelings about searching because of ongoing concealment of information in adoption which is especially the norm within intercountry adoption. Clandestine practices are entirely normalised within adoption where it would otherwise be unacceptable and illegal.

The public is fascinated with family secrets and reunion stories. Television, film and books on search and reunions are plentiful but never does anyone question the reason for such punishing anonymity and severing of all biological relationships. Never does anyone ask the adoptive parents why it’s a component of adoption or ask them to imagine what affect that would have on a person, or invite them to imagine how easy it would be to talk about those feelings with adoptive parents who convey fragility and fear around the topic.

by Juliette Lam

Keep the children and babies in their own families and culture where possible, if applicable!

by Kate Coghlan

The answer to this question could be an essay, thesis, or book in itself. I can’t do it justice here but I’m going to mention some initial thoughts because it is such a relevant question. Ultimately, this question asks:

Is adoption a solution and should we be doing it? 

The underlying concept in adoption is that most people recognise humanity is not perfect, there exist children and families who struggle and need help, and most of us want to help vulnerable children but how we go about giving that help is really what we think about when we ask for alternatives to adoption. It is assumed that the legalised way of intercountry adoption must be a good thing because governments have agreed on it, they look like they have safeguards in place in the form of Conventions (The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption) and it’s been happening for decades. However, having lived the life of an intercountry adoptee and knowing thousands around the globe, my response to people who ask what alternatives to adoption is three-fold.

Firstly, I believe we should be doing more to prevent the need for intercountry adoption and many organisations are doing amazing work in this. We need people to spend the amounts of money from the adoption industry into preventative programs that focus on family and community preservation.

Here are just a handful of some amazing NGOs who are doing wonderful work to help empower families and communities to prevent the need to ever consider intercountry adoption or orphanages:
Captivating International
Selamta Family Project
Collective Calling
Pamoja Leo
Helping Children Worldwide
Martin Punaks
Friends of Shishur Sevay
I highly respect organisations like LUMOS who focus on ending institutionalisation without promoting intercountry adoption. You can read their report as they speak about funding organisations that promote community & family-based care. This is the action we need to take that helps prevent the need for intercountry adoption.

Secondly, when people ask what alternatives to adoption, I reply with asking whether they know who the top 10 sending countries are in the past 20 years. I then point out that China, South Korea and Russia are in the top 10 sending countries despite being first world nations with substantial GDPs. One has to ask why are they continuing to send their children abroad? And this includes America who is in the top 25 sending countries. Intercountry adoption is NOT about a lack of money and resources yet most people will not consider alternatives to adoption because it’s about their need for a child, having that child as “theirs” to keep forever, instead of focusing on what is best for the child. If we were interested in what is best for the child, we’d listen to adult intercountry’s adoptees who by and large, share about the difficulties of growing up between two lands. Adult intercountry adoptees say we need to do more to help keep children in their countries and address the lack of alternatives to adoption there.

This brings me to my third point. If we look to some of our first world countries who have great alternatives in place already, we know that alternatives exist and many of them work effectively.

Some examples: 
France uses Simple Adoption compared to the widely used Plenary Adoption
In Australia, some states use Guardianship/Stewardship, Kinship Care/Out-of-Home-Care, and Permanent Care/Foster Care models which have been operating for many years now. 
Sweden is rewriting their social infrastructure to ensure that children’s rights are central.
A Swiss report that compared child protection systems internationally, provided 14 recommendations of what is necessary for “good practice”.
A recent Quartz report lists the best countries in Europe who are currently providing amazing family welfare programs. This sort of social infrastructure is often missing from poverty stricken birth countries. Helping them develop family support systems would go a long way to prevent the need for ever having to consider adoption.
There are also some experts in the field like Lori Carangelo whom we can turn to and understand what they consider as alternatives to adoption. More recently, a first-of-it’s-kind research has just been released by Karleen Gribble at Western Sydney University in which she surveyed impacted foster and adoptive people, asking what we preferred to plenary adoption. Her research has been given to the Australian government by AdoptChange, where you can access the whole report for free.

I believe asking about alternatives to adoption is one the most relevant questions we should be discussing in intercountry adoption. When this is properly discussed, it leads to the realisation that other solutions exist and that holding onto an outdated Plenary Adoption model is for no useful reason other than — because “we’ve been doing it like this for decades”. People don’t like change. Change costs money. Change requires a new mindset. We do know alternatives exist, we just don’t have the political will power to change the hugely profitable industry that has built up over decades to do what is right for the children and families involved.

Intercountry adoption is all too often portrayed as the ONLY saviour to a complex problem that gets simplified to marketing concepts such as “Orphanage vs Adoption” i.e., darkness vs light, death vs living. This portrayal is overly simplistic and to think of change, we need to move away from these all or nothing concepts.

Adoption in its current Plenary form should not be a solution today given we have alternative options and more importantly, ways to prevent the need for such an extreme solution. Plenary adoption should never be a first solution. If a community and family can no longer care for their children despite first being offered many preventative strategies, then Kinship Care, Simple adoption, Guardianship models do far better to protect the rights and interests of all involved. It’s time we discuss this question fully and to listen to those who live it from a broad range of experiences.

by Lynelle Long

The Cycle of Harm in Celebrity Adoptions

Adoption is not heroism.  It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.

Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity Adoptions.pngCelebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.

Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.

In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.

Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.

Adoption Falicy.jpg

Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.

As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).

But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.

I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.

In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.

This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.

The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?

The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate.  In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.
Listen to Adoptee Voices.jpg

If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.

Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.

Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!