These are my thoughts about ICAV’s online event for adoptees with filmmaker and guest speaker, Sun Hee Engelstoft (adopted from Korea to Denmark). I’ve been thinking about it ever since and putting it off because it’s heavy. I don’t really have the emotional capacity to write everything I want to say smoothly so I’m just going to put some of the highlights out there in no particular order.
Sun Hee’s groundbreaking film Forget Me Not, tells the story of 3 birthmothers in Korea who were coerced into giving up their babies. During Sun Hee’s talk I learned that Sun Hee lived in the shelter with the mothers for two years. She was sort of like a confidante for them, unable to be placed within the usual hierarchy in Korea because she’s an adoptee. In spite of their closeness, most of the mothers have chosen not to keep in touch with Sun Hee because she represents the most painful part of their lives. One of the mothers ended up in a mental institution and was forbidden to keep in touch with Sun Hee and also her child, despite the promises that she would be able to. The other mothers married and eventually had more kids.
Sun Hee had planned to complete the film in 2 years but it ended up taking 8-9 years. She might have given up but she felt an obligation to tell the mothers’ stories. Sun Hee said that if she had her own children, she doesn’t think she could have made the film; the implication was that it would have been too painful.
I hung onto every word of Sun Hee’s talk filled with so much valuable knowledge and poignant perspective. Here are a few sentences from Sun Hee that really struck me and will stay with me forever.
“Mothers want to keep their children. Period.” Only when mothers were threatened with the loss of family and any future were they unsure about this. Sun Hee said, “I believe I saw how the mothers would close down and how babies would close down, and that was really, really painful to watch.” I could see the pain on Sun Hee’s face as she recalled these memories. I think about myself as a child and how incredibly difficult it was to open up again.
“Relinquishment is an every-day decision.” This blew me away. Sun Hee talked about how she had always thought of relinquishment as something that happens once, on a specific day, and then it’s over. But she found that this was not the case. Every day the mothers were faced with the question of whether to relinquish: when they were pregnant they questioned; after giving birth they questioned more intensely; and even after actually giving the children up they wondered if they’d made the right decision. Most of the mothers could have visited or made contact with their children and they chose not to. When I heard this, I thought about what this means for us adoptees being on the other side. To me it means that abandonment is an every-day experience. We are given up and then every day our mothers do not come to find us, we are abandoned again. It’s not something that happens once.
I don’t know how to end this other than to say thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sun Hee. You have become a bridge between our mothers’ world and our adoptee world. Thank you for honouring their trauma, our trauma, your trauma. Thank you for helping to tell us the truth. We were wanted!
I always thought that my mom gave me up for adoption I was an abandoned child I learnt to believe that adoption is something beautiful Even though it hurt Even though I felt abandoned Even though I felt alone
I searched for my mom for so many years, it was almost impossible to find her until I got in contact with Ana Maria in Chile
When Ana Maria found my mom
I learnt the truth
I was stolen from my mom
at the hospital
right after she gave birth to me
My mom wasn’t allowed to see me or hold me
People at the hospital, a social assistant really tried to force her
to sign papers that she wanted to give me up for adoption
my mom refused to sign any papers
84 days went by, from the day they separated me from my mom in the small town on the country side in Chile until I arrived in an airplane to Stockholm in Sweden.
I came to Sweden with documentation it said I didn’t have any family that could care for me it said my mom had left me for adoption I never question that But I felt abandoned and alone
Today I know the truth I was stolen and forcefully separated from my mom
Few people want to see the truth as society has taught us that adoption is something beautiful
I have learnt that adoption is filthy business, and that people make money I have learnt that adoption is an industry
And I am not sure, who I am anymore if I am not that abandoned child
I have been forced to go back to face all my fears and to look at my choices and experiences
Today when I see the picture of that little girl
in my Chilean passport
I see a sad girl,
all alone in the world
with no legal rights because
no-one took the time to make sure
I came from the situation
that was stated in the documents
After 6 moths I was adopted, according to the law in Sweden despite the law in Chile
What does adoption mean to you?
And please, before you answer that question, Who are you?
I’m an intercountry adoptee born during the Vietnam War in the early 70s, adopted prior to the war ending, to a white Australian family who had their own biological children. My childhood adoption experience was one where I never really understood that I was impacted by being adopted – I absorbed the mantra of the era that I would just “assimilate and fit in” with my new country and family. I spent a lot of energy trying to do just that, but as I reached my teens, I started to become aware that things weren’t quite the same for me as for my Australian peers. I seemed to struggle more in relationships, I definitely felt alone all my life even amongst a so-called “loving adoptive family”. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I became acutely aware of how much I had absorbed the racism towards my own ethnicity, my Asianness. It took me a decade to explore how being adopted impacted me and I grew through this journey because of the many other adoptees who I met online and face to face in the community I built up. It was the isolation of my childhood that drove me to create this community, that is now one of the largest intercountry adoptee networks around the world that includes adoptees of any birth country and it is this community, that enabled me to grow, learn and find my voice. Today, this network is one of the largest online communities that encourages adult intercountry adoptees to speak out at government level (nationally and internationally) and seek involvement with policy discussions.
Why be involved in policy discussions? And what is so important about being involved? Let’s first clarify what is meant by policy. Referring to Wikipedia’s content on “policy”, we consider it to be: a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes; a statement of intent that assists in decision making; different to rules or law where policy guides actions towards the desired outcome whereas law compels or prohibits behaviours; should include looking at the alternatives and choosing among them on the basis of the impact they will have; and is about trying to maximise the intended effects while aiming to minimise the unintended effects.
When it comes to intercountry adoption and how it is conducted in each birth and adoptive country, we all know that regardless of being a signatory of The Hague Convention or the Childs Rights Convention, laws and policies vary from one country to another because of the ways in which intercountry adoption is understood and implemented, both in theory and in practice.
At the heart of all this, WE are the children who grow up to become adults and it is us whom intercountry adoption is all about. In theory, intercountry adoption exists because it supposedly provides for us due to our vulnerable situations in which we are not able, for whatever reason, to be looked after by our first parents. Many of us are the recipients of past and current intercountry adoption policies or a lack thereof, and in ICAV we talk openly about the known pitfalls and issues that being intercountry adopted creates. Many of our birth countries view adoption as a once off transaction that involves legally handing us over to our new forever families and countries. However, we know from our lived experience, that adoption is not a once-off transaction — it is a psychological journey that lasts our lifetime – for which we are forever impacted, for good, bad, and every other shade of experience in between.
At ICAV, we speak openly about the many complexities of intercountry adoption that impact us. For instance, our right to original identity is ignored because most adoptive countries issue us with a new “as if born to” birth certificate upon adoption. Most countries also completely sever our legal right to our family of origin through the use of plenary adoption (as compared to simple adoption which would maintain kin connections). Most of us have very limited to no access to our adoption paperwork which once provided (until DNA technology) our only ability to find our first families and our origins. Our paperwork can vary from being outright falsified to containing some elements of truth but in too many cases, it’s modified to make us seem more marketable for prospective families, hiding our truths including fundamentally important medical information and history. For those adoptees who ended up in intercountry adoption via illegal or illicit means, there is a lifetime of injustice that we are expected to live with, with little to no supports. For those who end up in an adoptive family that isn’t a good match, we end up suffering further layers of trauma. Too often people and governments forget, that our foundation is relinquishment / in utero trauma from being separated from our biological mother.
In ICAV, we encourage our members and leaders to seek out ways in which adoptees can be heard at government level where policy is created that constructs the future of our lives. We believe it’s important for government to understand the ways in which policy impacts our lives. Without this understanding, how can policy be in our “best interests”? How can adults who have never lived our experience possibly know what is best for us? Having adoptee voices involved in policy means inviting us to the table, really listening to our points of view, incorporating what we say into policy, and recognising we are the experts of our own experience.
The fundamental premise of intercountry adoption is to give a vulnerable child a “family” and “country” to belong with. Why attempt to do good for vulnerable people if you aren’t going to listen to how effective or not the policy and practice is? Governments can only truly understand the real impacts (positive and negative) of their policies by listening to those whom it involves. In intercountry adoption, this is the adoptee, first families, and adoptive families, not the adoption agencies, the lawyers, nor any other intermediary. Without listening to our voices, governments run the risk of continuing to make the same mistakes they’ve made from the beginning.
One of the worst mistakes that has been made in modern intercountry adoption since it’s beginnings in the 1950s and 60s (beginning with the Greek, German and South Korean adoptees), is to not do enough to curb the monetary incentives in intercountry adoption that allow intermediaries to take advantage of the lack of, or to bypass, policies and laws allowing them to facilitate and participate in illegal and illicit practices. We have generation upon generation of impacted adoptees who’s adoptions were illicit or outright illegal. They have nowhere to turn and certainly have very little justice. Today governments around the world today should be concerned at the growing momentum of groups of first families and adult intercountry adoptees who have already sought legal pathways to take actions for the failures of the past.
For example, Chilean mothers of loss are working together with Chilean Adoptees Worldwide (CAW) and have demanded an investigation into their adoptions from the 70s and 80s. The investigation in Chile has found that a large number of the children who left Chile during that era were not voluntarily relinquished for adoption and they are seeking justice.
Similarly, Guatemalan adoptees have banded together from around the world and are demanding an investigation by the Guatemalan and Belgium governments. A most recent well known legal case is of a biological father who won at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and sentenced the State of Guatemala for irregular adoption and use of illegal procedures. View video here .
Another example is Brazilian adoptee Patrick Noordoven who became the first in the Netherlands to win a legal case for his Right to Original Identity. With this win, the Dutch Ministry of Justice is now investigating the role of the Dutch Government in illegal adoptions from Brazil, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia! See article here.
When governments fail to respond responsibly for their roles or for the roles individual facilitators played, in historic adoptions, it leaves those impacted no other choice but to find legal pathways to seek justice. We now have over 70 years of modern intercountry adoption around the world with our adoptee numbers in the hundreds of thousands from many different birth countries. Asia is by far the the largest sending continent of children (Peter Selman, HCCH Statistics). Adoptees en-masse have reached maturity where they question their identity, how they came to be raised in another country often with parents of dissimilar race, and to think critically of why they have been sent away from their countries of birth. Our adoptee movement is growing and gaining momentum. ICAV often speaks about the lack of an international body to hold governments accountable for their roles played in facilitating or turning a blind eye to the historic illegal and illicit practices.
Could there could be another pathway? If governments would be willing to listen to those impacted – to learn from the lessons of the past and ensure we don’t continue to repeat the same mistakes?
Part of the ICAV Vision is: A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.
This can only be achieved if those in power in government value and engage us. When our voices are ignored, government acts contrary to their goal of acting in our “best interests”, instead they set up adoptive, first families and adoptees for failure at worst, or more preventable trauma at minimum.
Another of the largest areas of policy failure in intercountry adoption around the world for any government, is the lack of freely funded, equitable, lifelong comprehensive post adoption supports that are trauma and resilience informed, with inclusion in service delivery from those who know the journey best – adoptees, adoptive and first families.
Anyone who has lived intercountry adoption knows intimately that our journey is one of multiple losses that exhibits as trauma and must be supported throughout our life. By inviting adoptees, first families, and adoptive families to share the lessons learnt from lived experience, government will better ensure they decrease the risks of unintended consequences and become more responsive in their policy making.
Inviting us to participate, listening to us with genuine openness and respect, hearing our experiences and heeding our lessons learnt — this is how governments can strengthen their outcomes and become more innovative and balanced. It is not agencies or intermediaries that government should be engaging and listening to the most, it is adoptees, first and adoptive families! I hope to see the day when we will be equally represented and invited to be involved in government policy and legislative forums for intercountry adoption!
This article was initially written in response to a request for a Korean publication but was subsequently unpublished. The request asked me to write about the importance of including the voices of adoptees in policy forums.