by Cameron Lee, adopted from South Korea to the USA, therapist and founder of Therapy Redeemed
What entitles an adoption agency to continue operating? The number of children placed per month? The lowest amount of adoption discontinuities annually? The director’s credentials? Their appearance in an exclusive media production?
If they struggle to incorporate a diverse range of adoptee testimonies into the way they effectively deliver child welfare services, including initiatives to keep families intact, what is it they’re doing in and to our communities?
One question adoptive parents can ask is, “How have adult adoptee testimonies changed your standard operating procedures in the past five years? Can you show at least three examples of how your program has shifted or evolved based on adoptee-led research and literature?”
Unless they’re willing to show you their contribution to the healing pools of service they claim to provide, it’s okay to wonder how many people and families have been held back from accessing their facilities of living water.
In other words, show us the heart of your agency. If it’s an abundance of non-adoptees speaking and teaching, there needs to be something else that shows us you’re working in the best interest of the adoptee, not just at the age they’re “adoptable” but across our lifespan.
We want to partner with you! But please, minimize the idea that our activism is bad for business. The adoptee voice shouldn’t be a threat to those eager to learn how to serve adoptees better. So many of us want to help you bring your promises to life. Thanks for hearing us in that way – and making it a “best practice” in solidarity.
On Friday 9 September, I co-hosted with Ra Chapman (Korean intercountry adoptee and playwright) an adoptee artist event in Melbourne, Victoria at the Malthouse Theatre. This event followed the performance of Ra’s incredible comedy play, K-Box which is the story of Lucy (a Korean intercountry adoptee) who is a 30+ year old Korean adoptee who brings some humour and hard truths to the dinner table.
Following the play, we had some of our talented intercountry adoptee artists present a small 10 minute segment on their artwork.
The next few blogs will bring to you a couple of these adoptee artists in their presentations, followed by some of the artwork we captured for the ZINE, a small magazine showcasing their artwork as a take home memento from our evening.
For me, the highlight of the evening was a reading by a Korean adoptee who is an academic, a writer, and co-host of podcast Adopted Feels, Ryan Gustafsson. Ryan is a writer, researcher, and podcaster. Their most recent publication is ‘Whole Bodies,’ which appears in Liminal’s anthology Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory (Pantera Press, 2022). Ryan is also co-facilitator of the Korean Adoptee Adoption Research Network (KAARN).
Ryan’s presentation was powerful, eloquent, and poignant and presented with such raw honesty, it resonated within my soul as I could relate to so much of what they shared about how we can feel about our first mother.
Have a listen to Ryan’s reading from an excerpt of their writing titled – We met each other with different names.
Most people assume that our adoptions are all legal and legitimate. Most people assume that adoptees want to meet their first mothers. Aimee’s story highlights the harsh reality that not all adoptions are legal and that media involvement is not always helpful or kind to the adoptee who may not even want, nor be ready, to reunite.
The worst part of Aimee’s story which isn’t shared in this video, is that even though the Taiwanese government prosecuted the traffickers responsible for her illegal adoption, to date, nothing has been offered by either the Taiwanese nor Australian governments to help Aimee in any specific way in dealing with the ongoing impacts of being illegally adopted. There is a whole cohort of Taiwanese adoptees in Australia with Aimee who were a result of the Julie Chu trafficking ring in Taiwan that was prosecuted. No-one has followed up on these adoptees to check on them, to let them know of how their adoption came about, nor to make any specific supports be made known to them.
Michelle is one of our most eloquent adoptees in the video series. She is so open and honest about the challenges and I love her courage to speak up about the topics most hidden in adoption – eating disorders and suicide attempts and what underlies these; and the struggle to find a place to belong and need to know the truth of our origins.
People who aren’t adopted too easily forget that biology does matter – seeing our biology mirrored around us, grounds us in the formation of our identity and our sense of self.
In this short talk from our video series, I love Ben’s comments about looking into his baby’s eyes and seeing himself reflected for the first time and the impact that had on him. I can certainly relate to this too as it wasn’t until I had my own children that I felt a deeper sense of security within myself – a sense of belonging that I’d never had before.
Click on the image of Ben to see his video.
Resources that speak about the importance of Genetic Mirrors:
I really love the message Meseret shares as another older aged intercountry adoptee in our video series. It provides a message for prospective parents to be respectful of the experiences and life prior to a child coming home to their new adoptive family and country. It reminds us of how difficult it is to expect an adoptee to “trust” their new family, especially when language is a barrier. It helps us be realistic about what supports a family needs when undertaking older age adoptions.
Click on the image of Meseret to listen to her share.
I was really excited when I heard there was a book created by a global network of Bolivian adoptees! I LOVE that we are hearing from them because although they are not as numerous as the Colombian or Chilean cohorts of intercountry adoptees, they are part of the large numbers who have been sent out of South America as children. Their voice, like all groups of intercountry adoptees, is really important!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Communal Histories of Displacement and Adoption. It covers a wide range of 20 Bolivian adoptee experiences sent to countries in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Norway), the USA and Canada. What I immediately responded to was the beautiful artwork that draws you in visually, providing a sense of the colourful, vibrant Bolivian heart and soul within these lives, despite the effects of displacement and adoption.
I feel the choice of the word “displacement” in the title is very progressive, a reflection of the wider adoptee journey of awakening. It has taken the global community of adoptees many decades to come to terms with and find our own voice about being the products of forced adoption, i.e., being removed from our countries without a choice. Adoption is something that happens to us, we had no say in the matter and not always in our best interests as some of us attest to decades on, and some of these voices include this sentiment in this book.
What I also love is that this book is funded by the Belgium Adoption Support Centre – Steunpunt Adoptie, a non-profit organisation subsidised by the Belgium government. They are mainly responsible for post adoption services and in the past few years, they support adoptees via their annual call for adoptee led projects. The Network of Bolivian adoptees twice received funding: for the first Bolivian adoptee meeting in Brussels in 2019; and then for the book in 2020. Let’s hope this encourages other countries around the world to provide funding for adoptee led projects like this anthology!
The book is a nice short read (98 pages) with a wide range of writing styles. If you have a spare hour or two and want to better understand the lived experience of Bolivian adoptee voices, I highly recommend you grab a copy!
Pote de leche are Spanish words for “milk bottle”. Where I was born, this is how someone is described when they are too white. Yes, too white. That is what I was called at school when bullied. In my teens, I spent many Sundays sunbathing in the backyard of our home. This was one of the many ways I tried to fit in.
My tendency has been to consider myself a transcultural adoptee and not a transracial adoptee, because my adoptive parents were Caucasian like me. Recently, I realized their looks do not make my experience too different from the experience of any transracial adoptee. I was born in Puerto Rico from an American mother and English father and adopted by a Puerto Rican couple. Puerto Ricans have a mix of Native Taino, European and African genes, our skin colors are as varied as the colors of a rainbow. The most common skin tones go from golden honey to cinnamon. For some, I looked like a little milk-colored ghost.
My adoptive mother told me that an effort was made by the Social Services Department, which oversaw my adoption process, to make the closest match possible. She said the only things that did not “match” with her and my adoptive father were my red hair and my parents’ (actually, my natural father’s) religion. I was supposed to be an Anglican but was going to be raised as a Catholic. This was part of the brief information she gave me about my parents, when she confessed that they were not dead as I had been told at 7 years old. She also admitted that I was not born in Quebec, which they also made me believe. I was born in Ponce, the biggest city on the southern shore of the island. She gave me this information when I was 21 years old.
So, at 21 years of age, I discovered that I was a legitimate Puerto Rican born in the island, and also that my natural father was an English engineer and my natural mother was Canadian. I was happy about the first fact and astonished about the rest. Suddenly, I was half English and half Canadian. At 48 years old I found my original family on my mother’s side. Then I discovered this was a misleading fact about my mother. She was an American who happened to be born in Ontario because my grandfather was working there by that time. I grew up believing I was a Québéquois, after that I spent more than two decades believing that I was half Canadian. All my life I had believed things about myself that were not true.
I learned another extremely important fact about my mother. She was an abstract-expressionist painter, a detail that was hidden by my adoptive family in spite of my obvious artistic talent. I started drawing on walls at 2 years old. My adoptive parents believed that art was to be nothing more than a hobby, it was not a worthy field for an intelligent girl who respected herself and that happened to be their daughter. This did not stop me, anyway. After a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and a short career as a copywriter, I became a full-time painter at the age of 30. To discover that my mother was a painter, years later, was mind-blowing.
Identity construction or identity formation is the process in which humans develop a clear and unique view of themselves, of who they are. According to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, this process takes place during our teen years, where we explore many aspects of our identities. It concludes at 18 years old, or, as more recent research suggests, in the early twenties. By that age we should have developed a clear vision of the person we are. How was I supposed to reach a conclusion about who I was, when I lacked important information about myself?
My search for my original family started when there was no internet, and it took me more than 20 years to find them. I did not arrive in time to meet my mother. A lifelong smoker, she had died of lung cancer. I connected with my half-siblings, all of them older than me. They were born during her marriage previous to her relationship with my father. Two of them were old enough to remember her pregnancy. They had been enthusiastically waiting for the new baby, just to be told that I was stillborn, news that hurt them so much. Before she passed away, my mother confessed to my siblings that I was relinquished for adoption. Through them, I learned what a difficult choice it was for my mother to let me go.
During my search, well-known discrimination against Latinos in sectors of the American culture gave me an additional motive to fear rejection. I didn’t know I had nothing to worry about. My siblings welcomed me with open arms. Reconnecting with them has been such a heartwarming, comforting, life-changing experience. We are united not only by blood, but also by art, music, literature, and by ideas in common about so many things, including our rejection of racism. It was baffling to learn that my opinions about society and politics are so similar to my natural parents’ points of view, which were different, and sometimes even opposite to my adoptive parents’ beliefs.
My siblings remember my father, their stepfather, fondly. With their help I was able to confirm on the Internet that he had passed away too. His life was a mystery not only to me, but to them too. A few years later, I finally discovered his whereabouts. He lived many years in Australia and was a community broadcasting pioneer. A classical music lover, he helped to establish Sydney-based radio station 2MBS-FM and worked to promote the growth of the public broadcasting sector. His contributions granted him the distinction of being appointed OBE by the British government. My mind was blown away for a second time when I learned that he had dedicated his life to a field related to mass communication, which was my career of choice before painting. My eldest half-brother on his side was the first relative I was able to contact. “Quite a surprise!”, he wrote the day he found out that he had a new sister. Huge surprise, indeed. My father never told anyone about my existence. Now I got to know my half-siblings and other family members on his side too. They are a big family, and I am delighted to keep in touch with them.
With each new piece of information about my parents and my heritage, adjustments had to be made to the concept of who I am. To be an international, transcultural, transracial adoptee can be terribly disorienting. We grow up wondering not only about our original families, but also about our cultural roots. We grow up feeling we are different from everyone around us, in so many subtle and not so subtle ways… In my case, feeling I am Puerto Rican, but not completely Puerto Rican. Because I may consider myself a true Boricua (the Taino demonym after the original name of the island, Borikén), but in tourist areas people address me in English, and some are astonished to hear me answer in Spanish. More recently, I have pondered if my reserved nature, my formal demeanor, my cool reactions may be inherited English traits. And getting to know about my parents, even some of my tastes, like what I like to eat and the music I love, has made more sense. But in cultural terms I am not American or British enough to be able to wholly consider myself any of these. Where do I belong, then? And how can I achieve completion of my identity under these conditions? It is a natural human need to belong. Many times I have felt rootless. In limbo.
A great number of international adoptees have been adopted into Anglo-Saxon countries, mostly United States and Australia, and many of them come from places considered developing countries. The international adoptee community, which has found in social media a great tool to communicate, receive and give support, and get organized, encourages transracial and transcultural adoptees to connect with their roots. My case is a rare one, because it is the opposite of the majority. I was adopted from the Anglo-Saxon culture to a Latin American culture. I never imagined that this would put me in a delicate position.
Puerto Rico has a 500-year-old Hispanic culture. I am in love with the Spanish language, with its richness and infinite subtleties. I feel so honored and grateful to have this as my first language. We study the English language starting at first grade of elementary school, because we are a United States’ territory since 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American war. We are United States citizens since 1914. We have an independentist sector and an autonomist sector which are very protective of our culture. Historically, there has been a generalized resistance to learning English. In my case, I seem to have some ability with languages and made a conscious effort to achieve fluency, for practical reasons but also because it is the language of my parents and my ancestors.
In 2019 I traveled to Connecticut to meet my eldest half-brother on my mother’s side. That year, a close friend who knew about my reunion with natural family told me that someone in our circle had criticized the frequency of my social media posts in the English language. Now that I am in touch with my family, I have been posting more content in English, and it seems this makes some people uncomfortable. But the most surprising part is that even a member of my natural family has told me that I am a real Boricua and should be proud of it. I was astonished. Who says I am not proud? I have no doubt that this person had good intentions, but no one can do this for me. Who or what I am is for me to decide. But the point is some people seem to believe that connecting with my Anglo-Saxon roots implies a rejection of Puerto Rican culture or that I consider being Puerto Rican an inferior condition, something not far from racism. Nothing could be farther from the truth! I was born in Puerto Rico and love my culture.
Puerto Rico’s situation is complicated, in consequence my identity issues became complicated. I am aware of our island’s subordinated position to a Caucasian English-speaking country; that this circumstance has caused injustices against our people; that our uniqueness needs to be protected and celebrated. Being aware sometimes makes our lives more difficult, because we understand the deep implications of situations. There was a time when I felt torn by the awareness of my reality: being Puerto Rican and also being linked by my ancestry to two cultures which for centuries dedicated their efforts to Imperialism. I am even related through my father to Admiral Horatio Nelson, a historical character that embodies British imperialism. How to reconcile that to my island’s colonial history and situation? Where I was going to put my loyalty? To feel that I was being judged for reconnecting to my original cultures – something every international adoptee is encouraged to do – did not help me in the task of answering these difficult questions.
Even when they were not perfect and made mistakes, my natural parents were good people with qualities I admire. The more I get to know them, the more I love them. The more I know them, the more I see them in me. If I love them, I cannot reject where they came from, which is also a basic part of who I am. Therefore, I have concluded that I cannot exclude their cultures from my identity construction process.
To connect to these cultures until I feel they are also mine is a process. I am not sure if I will ever achieve this, but I am determined to go through this process without any feelings of guilt. To do so is a duty to myself, to be able to become whole and have a real, or at least a better sense of who I am. And it is not only a duty, it is also my right.
In 2016, ICAV compiled a world’s first resource of our lived experience voices sharing the ups and downs of searching and reunions, specific to intercountry adoption. No such resource existed like this before and yet, as adoptees, one of our hugest challenges across our lifespan, is contemplating if we want to search, what’s involved, and figuring out how to go about it. I wanted to provide a way to address these questions so I asked ICAV adoptees to share their experiences, focusing on lessons learnt after looking back in hindsight. I also asked them to share what could be done by authorities and organisations to better support us in our search and reunion process. I published our perspective paper in english and french and it ended up being a 101 page paper (book) covering the experiences of adoptees from 14 birth countries, adopted to 10 adoptive countries.
Given one of the core topics for discussion at the recent Hague Special Commission is Post Adoption Support, I felt that it was timely to re-share our paper and provide a summary of what it captures for those who don’t have time to read the 101 pages and for the benefit of Central Authorities and Post Adoption organisations to learn from our experiences.
Summary of key themes from ‘Search and Reunion: Impacts and Outcomes’ by InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) 2016
Issues and challenges faced using tracing services:
The need for specialised counselling is a recurring theme throughout most stories, particularly to prepare adoptees for the first meeting, delivered from someone who understood and specialises in intercountry adoption
Searches are often conducted through social network sites that can leave adoptees can vulnerable and not properly supported to engage with birth families
Privacy issues and barriers
The need for access to birth records to help with birth reconnection
Several cases mentioned issues with passport and visas
Adoption agency would not disclose identifying information about their birth family due to privacy
Transparency of services and where to access them
Assumption that birth records are accurate, despite corruption
The sense of ‘rebuilding your history’
Challenging to maintain a relationship with birth family due to language and cultural barriers
Need more standardised laws and processes for adoption agencies to follow when adoptees are seeking their information
Laws passed to allow adoptees access to their files
More support is needed for adoptees in counselling, and translation when searching
Facilitated counselling service that assisted with the search and reunion process from beginning to end
Listing of adoptees as mentors who have been through the process
Stories of adoptee searches and their reconciliation of those searches would provide emotional support to other adoptees thinking of beginning their own search
Suggestions for improved support for adult adoptees when searching for birth families:
Documentation is the key and open adoption is the best way to lend support
The need for interactive support groups and to know where to find them
A comprehensive education for adoptive parents to help them manage the lifelong issues for adoptees, and affordable counselling for all parties in the adoption process, and particularly to have access to this support regardless of the stage of the adoption process
Having a social worker ‘check in’ on people who are adopted throughout their lives
Maintenance of a database to allow the search to be conducted with access into other databases such as births, adoptions, deaths and marriages in each country
Some adoptees want adoptive families to have mandatory training that helps them manage adoptee issues up to the age of 18 – education in language, culture history, the importance of having all the documents, the value in making regular visits together to the country of origin
Include adoptee DNA testing done, Y or N on the adoption file
Key quotations from adoptees about their experience of reunification:
“Adoption is a life long journey and even to this day I have fresh revelations of my adoption. The “general” impact has been one of profound empowerment which arose from great anguish.”
“Although I had a session with a very good psychologist before my reunion, I still feel there was so much more I should have been made aware of. I wish I had been directed to other adoptees willing to share their experience of their reunion with tips, advice and support.”
“It was devastating for me to realise my birth family are basically strangers and if I wanted a relationship with them, I would have to sacrifice the life I built after they rejected me and re-alter the identity I have struggled to develop, just to fit into their expectations.”
“The biggest obstacles for search and reunion in my experience have included:
Being a ‘tourist’ in my country of birth. I found it surprisingly confronting and difficult to have people of the same nationality assume I was one of them and then having to explain my adopted situation.
Post reunion i.e., working through the consequences of opening the door to the past – it is irreversible! I should have been better prepared and better supported for the post reunion aspects and consequences.”
“It took many years to properly come to terms and to get my head around my adoption after reunion. It has undoubtedly affected my identity and the course of my life for the best. My adoption has become something I have grown to appreciate and evolve with. Learning my life should have ended before I was even born, has made me incredibly grateful and motivated to do something with my life.”
“Primal wounding when separated from mothers is exacerbated by the mystery of unanswered questions.”
To read the full ICAV Perspective Paper: Search & Reunion – Impacts & Outcomes in English or French, see our collection of Perspective Papers.
1. (2.4.2. Raising awareness of post-adoption services)
Points to Consider:
The best way to ensure that adopted people are receiving relevant, targeted, and high-quality post-adoption services is by having trauma- and adoption-informed adult intercountry adoptees working with the adoptee community to compile a list of such services. These adult adoptees would be PAID for their services. Intercountry adoptees, especially those who are trauma- and adoption-informed, are the only true experts in the needs of intercountry adoptees. Their expertise must be recognised, financially compensated, and required in the provision of any and all post-adoption services. We recognise the paucity in the number of trained, licensed, and qualified intercountry adoptee providers and therefore acknowledge that qualified non-intercountry adoptee providers can also be beneficial (with significant trauma- and adoption-informed training).
All post-adoption services should be provided free of charge to the adopted person (and family of birth) throughout their lifetime, recognising that each adopted person is different and that some individuals may request/require support starting early in life, while others might only start on this journey decades after their adoption.
Adoptive families should be assigned a trained, trauma and adoption-informed intercountry adoptee who can serve as a single point of contact for the adopted person, to ensure they have confidential access to these services when they need them. – The State should ensure that the adopted person knows how to – and is able to – access this person
Access to full birth records and identifying information on the adopted person’s mother and father – Birth records must be easy and confidential for the adopted person to access at any point in their lifetime
Assistance in translating and understanding the birth records and other associated adoption paperwork (as each country is different, this must be country-specific assistance)
Preparation and education on race and racism (in cases of transracial adoption, the White adoptive parents cannot equitably provide the necessary social and cultural preparedness to adopted children of colour as they are not members of the adopted child’s racial and cultural community. White adoptive parents in White dominated spaces do not have lived experiences of being targets of micro-aggressions and racism.
Reculturation, or the process by which intercountry adoptees reclaim their original cultural heritage, should be supported through education and immersive experiences such as birth country trips to their country of origin.
DNA testing and databases are models of adoptee support in several countries with problematic adoption practices. DNA testing and country sponsored databases should be promoted, supported, and maintained at no cost to adoptees or first family members.
Citizenship (country of birth) re-acquisition support and processes should be offered to adoptees who desire to become dual or full citizens of their countries of birth.
Psychological, emotional, and mental health support via psychotherapy and counselling modality/modalities as chosen by the adopted person and offered by trauma and adoption-informed providers.
2. The right of the adoptee to obtain information about their origins is well established ininternational law, in particular in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, Arts 7 and 8) as well as in the 1993 Adoption Convention (Art. 30).
How is the collection of true and accurate information on the identities of the natural mother and father ensured?
When and by whom is that information checked and confirmed in both the sending and receiving countries?
What procedure is in place to absolutely ensure that that information is preserved and can be given directly to the adopted person – without having to go through the adoptive parents?
There should be no barriers in place (such as minimum age requirement, consent of birth and/or adoptive parents, etc.) in order for the adopted person to easily and confidentially access their own familial information. – Some central authorities require adoptees to provide a psychological referral and proof of ongoing counselling (presumably paid for by the adoptee) when the adoptee contacts the central authority for birth family information and search. This practice is unfair and must end.
The desire for confidentiality on the identity of the birth parents, either by the birth family or adoptive family, should never be a reason to deny the adopted person their identity. They have the right to their identity. That right should supersede any other party’s desire for secrecy. The secrecy in adoption must end.
Central Authority websites must have a clearly marked section for adoptees of all ages to access information on birth family search and reunion: – There must be a transparent and simple procedure for accessing this information that is clearly presented on the website; – This information must be presented not only in the language of the country of origin, which most transnational adoptees will not be able to read and understand, but also in a language the adoptees themselves can read and understand, e.g., English or German; – This information must be made accessible to adoptees with vision and/or hearing impairments
What is truly in the “best interest” of the adopted person must be prioritized. – Denying someone the truth of their identity is never in anyone’s best interest.
3. Regarding the professionals involved in the post-adoption services, some States arrange for the same professionals to prepare prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) and provide post-adoption services, 30 while in other States the professionals are different ones. 31 For other States, the professionals involved depend on the region and / or the case at hand
What qualifications do “professionals” have?
Who determines who a “professional” is?
There is a major conflict of interest when the “professional” is “preparing” the Prospective Adoptive Parents AND providing post-adoption services to those displaced by adoption. – How can the “professional” who is responsible for facilitation adoptions also be providing adoptees with post-adoption services? There is substantial mistrust in the adoptee community of “adoption professionals” who facilitate adoptions – and rightfully so.
In some instances, professionals who both facilitate adoptions and also provide post adoption services may be engaged in dual roles with adoptees and their adoptive families, creating an ethical dilemma. Hence post-adoption services should be provided by separate parties and entities than the adoption service providers.
Intercountry adoptees, who are often transracial as well, who have undergone training in the social service field and or are licensed mental health providers, are poised to be in the best position to lead and guide post-adoption services given their lived experiences and extensive training. Ideally, post adoption service providers will represent a broad array of birth/first countries to better serve adoptees from various sending countries.
Although we strongly recommend that qualified intercountry adoptees are at the frontlines of facilitating and providing direct post-adoption services, we recognise the need for quality post-adoption services exceeds the potential numbers of professionally trained intercountry adoptees available. Therefore, we would be supportive of non-intercountry adoptee post-adoption service providers if they are licensed mental health providers, have evidence of adoption-informed training to include significant education and understanding of culturally responsive strategies as they apply to intercountry adoptees.