As a visual artist and printmaker, creating things with my hands helps me a lot to understand who I am and to accept my story. This piece was inspired by Batak houses.
On 8-10 July, ICAV was invited as an Observer at the HCCH Working Group on Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.
Huge thanks to all our 60+ participating adoptees and adoptee organisations, 10 adoptive parents & adoptive parent organisations, and first family representation!
Extra special thanks and mention to two amazing people:
Nicholas Beaufour who gave a huge amount of time to translate the entire English document into French!
Coline Fanon who assisted our one and only first family member to contribute! We so need to hear more often from the voices of our first families!
by Ming Foxweldon 白宜民/明, adopted from China to America
written for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, #AAPIHeritageMonth
Our stories matter
Just like the generations before
The future generations will look back to us
We must pave the way
History can be written by those in power
However we’ve to strive to be agents of our time
Activism is what you make of it
Find your medium
Believe in it
If not, change gears
Accept that sometimes this journey
Will be lonely
People may stand by your side for a second
To gain the lime light
Only to try and extinguish yours
Stand up for those who are unaware of the dangers that lay before them
Not for recognition
Just out of compassion
Be an active protector of the community
Bystander attitude only perpetuates bad behaviour
For those who don’t believe you
Haters gonna hate
Decisions will impact others
Of the current moment
History in the making
Don’t let others’ experiences overshadow your own
Know when it’s ok to take breaks
Heroes and heroines alike
Setting the cape aside
Transform into someone who can smell the flowers from time to time …
The documentary, Asian American’s has been aired this month at PBS and Amazon Prime.
I find it interesting to ponder why the concept Best Interests of the Child in intercountry adoption is discussed and decisions made without substantial research on the long term outcomes in intercountry adoption. When I say long term, I mean decades to show how intercountry adoption impacts us through the various stages of life. Most of the existing research focuses on a short window of time at adolescence to early adulthood, but not much beyond that. Having lived my life now to later-middle adulthood, and reflecting on the changes I went through as a younger adoptee coming to terms with my life, my identity, where I fit, having children of my own, there is no doubt in my mind that the way adoptees view adoption and its impacts, changes over time as we age and experience life.
There is also little input at professional forums on Best Interest of the Child from those who are experts of the lived journey — intercountry adoptees! Intercountry adoption has been happening as a modern phenomenon for more than 70 years if you consider the waves of German, Greek, then Korean intercountry adoptees and beyond. It remains an assumption couched within international adoption conventions and laws, that it is in our best interest to place us with strangers — racially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally and biologically but yet no longitudinal evidence exists to confirm that intercountry adoption IS a positive solution for the children themselves, nor input from those who live it across a wide spectrum of experiences.
At the recent US Department of State Intercountry Adoption Symposium, one of the 5 issues I raised for consideration as an improvement for policy discussion, was the Best Interest of the Child concept to be discussed from the perspective of those who live it. JaeRan Kim also recently wrote a fantastic article asking the pertinent question of why American adult intercountry adoptees until last month, had not been proactively approached to attend policy discussion forums. My guess is, maybe it’s inconvenient to hear our truths? It might mean the industry needs to listen and change!
So given we are rarely invited to the tables to discuss this important concept, I decided to bring to you what some mature age, critical thinking intercountry adoptees believe is in our best interests. Hear for yourself what those who live it, consider is in our best interest. I hope this helps you think more deeply about intercountry adoption as an industry — how it’s being conducted and the changes required to include our lived perspectives.
The Question: What do you think “In the Child’s Best Interest” SHOULD mean in intercountry adoption contexts .. in the context of your own adoption? If you could speak up for your “child” self when the decision to intercountry adopt you was being made, what would you have wanted to say? What was in your best interest — with the benefit of hindsight?
Answers shared, in order of permissions given:
“If my sister/cousin had a baby and there was no consideration for family’s involvement in raising the child, I’d be so irritated. Being connected to family, I would be so much more suitable to raise the child. There’s no way in hell, the baby would get past all of us who’d honour its mother’s presence and guide it with the baby and mother’s actual best intentions. Kinship connection is VITAL.” (Anonymous, Indian adoptee)
“Best interest is not be forced out of our families and countries simply to be taken care of.” (Georgiana-A. Macavei, Romanian adoptee)
“Don’t take away my original citizenship or right to live and learn about my culture while in my country of birth.” (Linzi Ibrahim, Sri Lankan adoptee)
“For me, “in the child’s best interest” is welfare in action, where adults determine what is best — in terms of health, housing, family stability, nurturing care, economic stability, etc. So I, as an orphan via adoption gained this. Or put in another way gain a degree of white privilege. Under the UNCRC (United Nations Convention On The Rights Of The Child) the ideal is continuity of culture, family connection, stability, health, etc. But the “right of the child” is different from the “best interest of the child”.
The best interest is also Adoptive Parent (AP) best interest. That is, the AP by caring for a relinquished adoptee/orphan is providing for the best interest of the child and themselves as a couple becoming a family unit. A child taken from third world impoverishment / institutionalisation to first world-loving home i.e., family separation within the embedded narrative of adoption is in “the best interest of the child” as it fits the modern Western family goal. Thus, in turn, adoptees need to be grateful.
The “best interest of the child” is also a turn of the last century concept of childhood. As industrialised West moved from colonial labour and care of the child via nannies/ or families having lots of children to post WW2 concepts of child play, development and education/childcare. With white women as drivers within the colonial establishment determining what is in the “best interest of the child” (stolen generation, residential schools, adoption, wardship homes, to what we now call foster care and permanent care arrangements) ideas. So adoption needs to be seen as a natural social progression which benefits the child i.e., adoption in the best interests of the child.
My main concern is the best interest of the child is limited by the word “child”. Adoption of children and the act of adoption via childhood agencies/church and family government departments is not about children’s rights, especially as he/she develops into a teenage/adult. When concepts of belonging, community and difference start playing on the psychology of the individual. For a child to be free and loved in a nuclear household and able to be a child under adoption is all well-intended, but the child has no agency as an individual hence the discussions on identity and “who is my family before I came here?”
But the best interest of the child neglects and dismisses the right of a person to know their biological parents and to have continued connection to culture and language.
Adoption in the push of “best interest of the child” actually acts to sever “the rights of the child”.” (Dominic Golding, Vietnamese adoptee)
“I think in context of my own adoption it was absolutely not in my best interest to legally cut ties to my roots and identity and to lose my country, culture, mother and family. The child’s best interest for me would mean either find ways that enable a mother to keep her child and if not possible, then with extended family, friends or a safe children’s home in their country of origin.” (Sagarika Abeysinghe, Sri Lankan adoptee)
“After my recent experience (post traumatic stress symptoms and shock) I believe that the best interest of the child in adoption should be avoided by all means. It would be better in my opinion to support the birth family and to see what the real root causes are behind adoption (from birth family and adoptive family). I believe as long as adoption is allowed, child trafficking will exist as well and it has huge consequences for the child.” (Lidya Booster, Indonesian/Chinese adoptee)
“My best interest is to know that my family and friends are okay. I need not come to a country where I am the one who has to adjust to everyone around me. I have experienced loss of both family and country. Why strip me of my language and memories? For my best interest, I would need to be able to feel I’m not punished for being without parents. I need to be able to love and miss my mom. I need to be able to have a connection to my country that is not whitewashed.” (Angelica Bråten, Colombian adoptee)
“Is this really the last option? That I’m going to grow up so far from my own culture? I don’t know the answer on what was best but I don’t believe in the part ‘in the child’s best interest’ when there was money making involved”. (Dilani Butink, Sri Lankan adoptee)
“Bring me and my siblings back to my mother. I am not an orphan. I am stolen!! And lock these people up who earn money from us by selling me to a pedophile! This would have been in my best interest! Being taken away from my family was the first crime. All children who have been put up for adoption without consent from the families should not have taken place. This is the case for a very big group”. (Maria Quevedo, Colombian adoptee)
“Best interest should mean preserving the child’s birth culture. Denying language, name, ancestral heritage, and so forth denies a huge spiritual and connective component to one’s life. In the Native Indigenous people’s plight to claim justice and an understanding of the impacts on so many levels, this has also happened to many of us intercountry adoptees.” (Kelly Foston, South Korean adoptee)
“The child needs to be immersed and exposed to their birth culture from the start so that by the time they reach a young adult age (20), they are able to decide for themselves whether they want to be involved or not.” (Marc Conrad, Bolivian adoptee)
“The child’s best interest cannot start with adults who are looking for a child because they believe it’s their innate right to raise a child. Once you have adults looking for a child to raise, the child’s best interests are already compromised. A child’s best interest is inextricably linked to that child’s genetic place in their family. Though it’s true that some parents or even families are unable to raise their child for various reasons, I find it nearly impossible to believe that absolutely no-one within that child’s cultural / racial / ethnic / local community can help to raise that child. If this is the case, maybe we need to look at the society that doesn’t value preserving and nurturing its children.
I also find it impossible to believe that a child’s best interest can be protected by erasing a child’s identity and purposefully and permanently cutting that child off from her ancestry. No child’s best interest can be ethically preserved when money exchanges hands for that child, when fundamental papers such as original birth certificates or are falsified or in any way withheld from that child. Though it may hurt and be hard to take, the age-appropriate truth is always in a child’s best interest. Lies and falsifications never are.” (Abby Forero Hilty, Colombian adoptee)
“There never could or would be “in the child’s best interest” when you’re taking them away from the culture they are born to, or family they stand to lose.” (Kim Yang Ai, Sth Korean adoptee)
“Why do you think it is in the best interest to adopt a little girl out of her country to another one with a completely different language, culture, etc? It is not in the best interest to falsify documents to make the child more desirable to the new adoptive family … marketing tactic.” (Ashley Thomas, Colombian adoptee)
“My first thought would be if immediate / extended family is available, then perhaps that would be in child’s best interest. If in an orphanage, is any family in the best interest, or an institution? I consider age a factor (e.g. the older the child, the better ability to make their own decisions, etc)?” (Farnad Darnell, Iranian adoptee)
“It is never in the best interest of a child to remove them from their country of origin, drop them into a different one, and then task them as adults with the job of trying to prove why they “deserve” to stay i.e., I have no citizenship because of how my adoption was done. Beyond the dysfunction and abuse I sustained as a child, and deal with as an adult, for no reason other than being adopted into abuse, to also toss in the knowledge that my adoptive government considers me an inconvenience they would like to be rid of, adds literal insult to actual injury.” (C, Canadian adoptee)
“If the assumption is that an international adoption will take place, then “in the child’s best interest” means to me that placement would involve thoroughly educating prospective adoptive families on evidence-based best practices with lots of support long-term. Prospective families would be questioned about their current relationship with people of the race and culture they are adopting from, and helping them see areas where they hold bias. Prospective families would also be questioned about their expectations in raising a child, and how they would cope if that child does not meet their expectations. Being an adoptee and in the process to adopt, I think there should be less emphasis on income and fees, and more emphasis on parenting skills and cultural understanding. Of course, guaranteeing citizenship and maybe even dual citizenship, if desired by the adoptee, should be a given.” (Anonymous, Sth Korean adoptee)
Of course, this post does not dare to presume to speak for all intercountry adoptees at all stages of life nor views, but is a collection of responses from those who participated in discussions at ICAV as a means to begin the conversation and stimulate thought.
What are your thoughts after reading through this collection of answers from intercountry adoptees? We welcome your comments below.
Growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of America in the 1960s and 1970s, as a member of the first large wave of transracial intercountry adoptees, I experienced consistent marginalization and ostracism because of my race, and, to put it more bluntly, because of the race I was not—white. Constantly asked where I was from—no, REALLY, where was I REEEEAAAAALLLY from?????—I can say that the society around me made it very clear that I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. I was often asked where I was from, and sometimes asked when I was going back to where I was from. And very occasionally, yes, I was told to go back to where I was from. All of this was deeply hurtful and wounding, of course, but I largely internalized a huge amount of racism and xenophobia to myself, and ended up with one gigantic complex about my physical appearance, which it’s taken me more than four decades to self-heal from—and I’m still working on that.
Indeed, one huge element in my participation in groups on Facebook around transracial adoption, as well as in-person participation in conferences around transracial adoption, has been a profound sense of mission around not only supporting my fellow adult transracial and intercountry adoptees to navigate society, including racism and xenophobia, but also around trying to help white transracial adoptive parents prepare their adopted children of color to navigate the world around us. I feel an intense identification with the littlest adoptees, who in some cases, even now in 2019, are experiencing what I experienced as a small child back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s; and honestly, with all the resources available to white transracial adoptive parents now, in the second decade of the 21stcentury, is there any reason at all that the littlest transracial adoptee should have to experience what I and other transracial adoptees in the first waves experienced several decades ago???
Meanwhile, a great deal has happened in America, and elsewhere, in the past couple of decades. For one thing, enough white Americans were willing to give a Black/biracial man a chance, that we elected our first president of color, in November 2008. I still remember the thrill of election night on November 4, 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama appeared on the stage in Grant Park in Chicago (the city that I am proud to say is my home) with his beautiful, accomplished wife Michelle Obama, and their adorable then-children, Malia and Sasha Obama, and were greeted by the most thunderous applause I think I had ever heard, on the part of hundreds of thousands of people gathered there, cheering, screaming for joy, weeping, many in stunned disbelief that our country could have the mind and the heart to break that barrier. And I, like millions of Americans, hoped in that moment that at least some people who had not voted for Barack Obama actually wished him well, and would be willing to give him a chance to lead all of us, all Americans, and to use his position as president of our country to also help lead in the world.
At the same time, I and so many Americans of color knew that there were many who hated President-elect Obama simply for his race (even though he had two, another complexity of his identity), and that some of those people would do everything they could to undermine him simply for his race, even apart from any ideological issues involved. We people of color knew that there would be a backlash; but the size and endurance of that backlash has shocked even many of us. And, shockingly, 62.9 million American voters, or 46 percent of the electorate, voted for Donald Trump, a man with absolutely zero political or public policy experience, and whose entire campaign had been based on racism and xenophobia; and because of our bizarre (and, to non-Americans, essentially inexplicable) Electoral College system, Trump won the presidency, even though 65.8 million voters, of 48 percent, had voted for former Secretary of State, former Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. In any case, based on how our strange Electoral College system works, Trump assumed the presidency on January 2017, and from literally the first moments of his presidency, he framed everything in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “American carnage” that only he could stop, and intensifying his racist rhetoric month after month.
And then, this month, Trump stepped up his hate-filled rhetoric against four first-term U.S. representatives—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hurling insults and accusations against them, branding them as “anti-American,” and piling lie on top of lie, in an effort to solidify his popularity among his core supporters, as the American presidential campaign (which, surreally, lasts two full years here) got underway. And then, on July 14, Trump tweeted that those four congresswomen should “go back to… the places to which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America.
Then, after massive condemnation of his remarks, Trump said on July 17 at a campaign rally in North Carolina, of the four congresswomen, “They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, let ’em leave, let ’em leave.’ … I think in some cases they hate our country.” He then called out Rep. Omar specifically, once again falsely claiming that she had praised the terrorist group al-Qaeda (a charge thoroughly debunked numerous times in the past), and stating that Congresswoman Omar “looks down with contempt” on Americans; and the crowd reacted by chanting, “Send her back, Send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chants, and, after feebly distancing himself from them in the days that followed, now appears to be endorsing them.
For those of us who are immigrants of color—and even for many people of color who are not immigrants—we grew up hearing the “go back to where you’re from” taunts. They are hurtful and devastating. Padma Lakshmi, an ACLU Artist Ambassador for Immigrants’ and Women’s Rights, writing in The Washington Poston July 19, spoke for many of us when she wrote that, “Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.”
And for those of us who are transracial, intercountry adoptees, growing up in whiteness, and often surrounded by racists and racism, the pain can run very deep indeed. Kurt Bardella, who like me is an adult Korean adoptee, on July 17, wrote, in nbcnews.com, the online news website of the U.S. broadcast network NBC News, about his reaction to the “go back” taunts by Trump, in an op-ed entitled “’Go back’ is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I’m never leaving.” Among other things, Bardella wrote eloquently that, “Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debate the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrage of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively ‘go back home.’ These reminders in which others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness, is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.”
What’s more, Bardella wrote, “Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.” Essentially, Trump has filled his entire time in the Oval Office so far—two-and-a-half years—with racist, xenophobic attacks and disparagement, literally nearly every single week.
What Bardella and Lakshmi have written says more articulately than I could, how I also see things. Frighteningly, it appears certain that Trump is going to base his entire 2020 reelection campaign pitch on open racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, hoping to capture more of the white vote than in 2016, even amid demographic shifts that will make the United States a “majority-minority” country by 2045, according to the United States Census. And actually, that’s what all of this is about. The fear and apprehension of some white people in the United States is now palpable: in big cities and small towns across the country, the presence of people of color, including of very identifiable immigrants of color, is unmistakable. And Trump’s core base supporters are terrified and enraged.
Sadly, a large number of white transracial adoptive parents in America refuse to accept that the explosion in the open racial aggression of people of color has anything to do with their adopted children of color. Ensconced in bubbles of (often-right-wing) whiteness, and with no or few adult friends of color, many white transracial adoptive parents in the U.S. are convinced that their children will be treated as “special,” and further, that Trump and his core followers wish only the best for their children.
I had a very recent involvement in that issue this very week, when a thread in a transracial adoption-focused group that I do not moderate but was a member of, blew up because a friend of mine, a transracial adoptive mom whom I like very much, posted Kurt Bardella’s op-ed in the group. Facebook notified me of it, and I thanked my friend for posting it, stating that I so appreciated her lifting up the voices of transracial, intercountry adoptees in this difficult moment. But a racist white mother who fully supports Trump assured us that Trump could never possibly be racist, and that nothing he says or does could possibly be racist, and things exploded from there. Along with a large number of like-minded members, I (one of only two adult transracial adoptees participating in that discussion thread) and the others protesting racism and white supremacy, were promptly removed by the moderator from the group, while the racist adoptive mother was retained. I was also told that I was removed not only for discussing politics, but also for, one time only, using the f-word in one phrase in one of my comments in the discussion thread.
In other words, using foul language, even once, and in the context of protest, is far more offensive than racism and white supremacy. Not only that, by retaining the racist/white supremacist member of the group and ejecting all of us who were protesting racism and white supremacy, the moderator of that group—which is what many of us in the transracial adoption world refer to as a “rainbows-and-unicorns” group—a group focused only on the sweet, pleasant aspects of transracial adoption, and disallowing any discussion of race or anything else complex or challenging—proved our point. If enforced politeness around middle-class-white-American-woman sociocultural norms, is far more important than challenging racism, then clearly, no authentic, meaningful discussion of racism is possible in such a group.
What Donald Trump is doing right now—absolutely weaponizing the tenets of white supremacy, and banking on the deep racial and sociocultural resentments of white racists—is not only profoundly morally abhorrent, it is frightening to Americans of color, both immigrants and non-immigrants of color. We are now being pointed out as obvious targets for racial aggression, and possibly even violence.
The bottom line is this: America has come to a moment of profound crisis and of moral emergency. It is impossible any longer to stand by in silence. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany in 1934-1937, when the “good Germans” either expressed open support of Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers, or docilely remained silent. We all know what happened afterwards.
So this is where I stand: this is no longer about politics; it is about the safety and well-being of all of us Americans of color. And I will not be silent. But I will engage with those who want to understand, and who are willing to be authentic allies. And I will work. And I will hope.
And no, I will not “go back.”
At this current moment I’m flying thousands of kilometres through the air to reach my destination – The Hague, Netherlands. It’s going to take me 24 hours and you all know what that’s like – cramped in a stuffy space with people coughing, kids crying, airplane food, almost-can’t-turn-around-in spaces they call “toilets” and trying to sleep in those goddam chairs that don’t go back enough! Thank goodness I don’t do trips like this all the time! But it will be my first visit to the land of windmills, tulips and wooden clogs! Skippy Kangaroo Vietnamese girl meets canals, black stockings, and cheeses! Whatever will I get up to on my travel this week? I did promise my hubby I’d be on my best behaviour! (lol)
I am travelling because ICAV is invited by the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) to attend this week’s meeting. For ICAV it is a meeting of huge importance as it covers one of the massively complex and dark sides of intercountry adoption, for whom many of our members worldwide struggle with, because we have nowhere to turn for guidance and support. This meeting is The Working Group for Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Adoption.
Historically, Brazil Baby Affair (BBA) and International Korean Adoptee Associations (IKAA) have been the only adoptee led groups invited to attend either a Special Commission Meeting (held 5 yearly) or a Working Group at the HCCH and it’s awesome to see the way has been paved now for ICAV, who brings together adoptees of many birth and adoptive countries. ICAV is one of the few forums that brings together many leaders of adoptee led groups from around the world.
On Monday, prior to the working group meeting, adoptee leaders and I are meeting with the HCCH to discuss what we would like to be put forward for the week. This is such a great opportunity for impacted adoptees of many backgrounds to now be visible at the highest level of government gatherings. This will open up the opportunity for governments to know that we who live it, want to be included and consulted on policy and practice that has created our lives.
My goal within ICAV is to ensure we learn the lessons from our past and to empower and create more opportunity for many voices to be heard from a wide spectrum of lived experience.
It will only by truly listening to and including all triad members, that those making decisions at government level, will have a deeper understanding of how their jobs impact our lives at both micro and macro levels and anywhere in-between.
So I celebrate new connections! New connections amongst government people who live and breathe intercountry adoption daily in their job; new connections amongst my fellow peers for whom many of us work together via social media, but we seldom get to meet face to face because of our geographical distances. I celebrate the endless possibilities that can be created when we connect people together with a passion to turn our life experiences and the lessons learnt into a way forward that helps those historically impacted and those who might be impacted in the future.
This is also not to say this meeting or forum is the solution to the many known problems and pitfalls in intercountry adoption – we need all impacted peoples to get involved in various ways, big and small, to step up and take action in a way that’s meaningful to them. The forces that create intercountry adoption need to be tackled from many angles and ICAV does not judge to say which way is better, right or wrong. I personally believe in giving things a go – reaching out, creating connections and trying to influence where I can in a way that’s respectful and professional.
So stay tuned and let’s see where this path will take adoptee advocacy at intergovernmental level. I’m hopeful … but also realistic to know that international law and governments have their limits; I recognise resources are often the issue even though the passion and desire to change may be there. We can only work with what we have and try to make things somewhat better. As my adoptive mum often says of me, I’m one who reaches high for the clouds and by doing so, maybe I might get to Everest! And if not, well at least I gave it my best!
For a high level summary of what HCCH does, see here.
Special thank you to Laura at HCCH for her time in providing this information and for making it possible for ICAV and other adoptee leaders to attend this upcoming meeting because she listened to our requests and found a way forward!
At ICAV we often post and publish about the not so talked about aspects of intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective. Some could label us as “anti” adoption because it’s all too easy to put us into a box and ignore our voices because the things we talk about can be hard to hear. During the summer vacation, I was asked by a fellow adoptee why I do what I do at ICAV and how have I remained involved for so long without burning out. Today I want to share what it is that keeps me inspired and why I love being connected to my fellow adoptees. It is afterall, almost Valentines Day!
Whilst growing up in regional Australia, I was always the only non-white person, except for some Aboriginals, in my communities at school, church and interest groups. I experienced a very isolating childhood. I had no peers, mentors or roles models who could help me understand my journey. I had no concept of what my issues were but remember feeling out of place and alone.
Fast forward to today and I no longer feel this way. I have met thousands of fellow adoptees like myself around the world and it is these friendships and connection with other intercountry adoptees that I love in ICAV. We have become and created our own place / space, our own sense of “family” where we understand and talk freely about the complexities that impact us. We not only share our journeys but now enmasse, we are turning our lived experiences into positive action on a global scale.
On the weekend, I caught up with some of my close adoptee friends in Sydney and this small group reflects what I love in ICAV. We all come from completely different birth countries and have massively different experiences of adoption – but the bond we share is just awesome!
Rafael is departing in two weeks to return and live in his birth country Colombia for the next 6 months after reuniting with his Colombian mother last year. It will be his first experience of living in his own country with his Colombian family for an extended period of time. It was because of Rafael leaving that we got together to wish him well. I am looking forward to hearing how this part of his journey goes and via the adoptee network, he will have plenty of support from fellow adoptees! Whilst in Colombia, he will also work with Plan Angel to help provide DNA kits to families of loss.
JD also found his Filippino mother last year despite great odds because he had been a “lost child” with no documentation and information about his identity. This year he is working on a documentary, utilising his multimedia skills and passion to create a greater awareness of intercountry adoptees and their desire to search for biological family.
Gabby is a Chinese adoptee and she is travelling to Hong Kong shortly to showcase her watercolour artwork in which she unveils the complexities of transracial adoption in a subtle and more mainstream way. I love how she has the courage to share how her journey as an intercountry adoptee influences her work. Adoption artwork can sometimes be confronting but Gabby has found a powerful way to reach the mass audiences in a subtle, non-threatening manner. This year she will also continue to provide art classes as a peer mentor to younger Chinese adoptees in Sydney.
As a Vietnamese adoptee who has very little paperwork, I returned to Vietnam last year for the second time and am still trying to find my family of origin. Maybe one day I’ll find them but until then, alot of questions about my original identity and family remain unanswered. I live with this and it is the only way I know. I listen to my adoptee friends who have found their families and the issues they face and I always ponder what it might be like, when and if it happens to me. So many complexities, so many challenges, so many times we as adoptees have to juggle difficult circumstances and issues.
Each of us is driven by our own journey in adoption to help make this world a better place for our fellow adoptees. When we get together, there is a bond between us. Our journeys are so uniquely individual but yet we share so much in common. Only amongst fellow intercountry adoptees do I find true understanding and empathy, true connection and a shared resilience. And what I love even more is that we all have a passion to give back to our intercountry adoptee community to try and make the path easier, better, and somewhat smoother. THIS is what I’ve always meant ICAV to be .. a place where we can turn our journeys (whether they were harsh or amazingly positive and anything in between), into something more than our individual experience and it creates momentum to build something amazing, as a collective.
Like my small group catchup in Sydney on the weekend, the connection and support between fellow intercountry adoptees is replicated around the world in each of our adoptive countries and across our many birth countries. I love that since founding ICAV, when almost nothing existed worldwide except for a few KAD groups, there are now literally so many adoptee led groups around the world. They all do something in their unique way to support fellow adoptees. This is truly inspirational when we see that out of each journey, so much can flourish and thrive. Being witness to this growth and seeing what we can achieve as a community worldwide, is what motivates me to continue ICAV. What we achieve together as a collective remains open and time will show the fruits of our labours.
Mental illness, mental health – words which most people don’t like to read in connection with the word adoption. We usually like to think of happy forever after families but the reality is, adoption is based on the trauma of relinquishment and loss so it’s no surprise that adoptees suffer rates of mental illness far higher than the non-adopted population.
So instead of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the reality, lets talk openly about what we might do better to assist individuals and families with a lived experience of mental illness.
In Australia, October is Mental Health Month and I’d like to explore how we might reduce the feelings of isolation and the daily struggle for adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness. How do we be more sensitive and not inadvertently trigger underlying pain? Not only do adoptees with a lived experience suffer the same loss from relinquishment as all adoptees, but they suffer a double whammy from the stigma of mental illness that further compounds their early life traumas.
Over the years of connecting and peer supporting my fellow adoptees, the toughest experience is feeling like I let down my fellow peers with a lived experience of mental illness. I do not come equipped knowing intuitively how to support them and what makes it hard in my role as a peer, is the boundaries of peer support via social media and face to face are loose and undefined. What I’ve learnt is, adoptees with lived experiences of mental illness need stronger boundaries because it’s helps them feel safe when reaching out.
I know there’s nothing more powerful than hearing it from those who live it. So, I’ve asked one of my peers who has some ideas from a lived experience perspective. She has kindly shared her thoughts on how we can provide better support to adoptees and she is currently working as a volunteer peer educator in mental health. I personally thank her for providing this wealth of information which she has gathered over the course of her life journey! She does so in the hopes it helps her fellow adoptees with a lived experience of mental illness.
Here is what she provides, including the list of resources at the bottom.
Throughout this article, the term lived experience refers to someone who identifies as having a mental illness, or comes from a complex trauma background, or could be a carer for someone with lived experience. Most importantly we need to recognise that someone suffering from those symptoms has lived experience which is not a label nor does this define them as a person. Just as people aren’t their “broken arm” or their “headache”, physical and emotional / medical illness needs to be treated with the same respect.
Here are some of my ideas of what could be done to better support adoptees with lived experience in mental illness:
Encourage others to hold adoptee-with-lived-experience events like a meal or a forum / workshop where they can talk about their recovery journey. This breaks stigma and is not a rant but a shared story with a purpose to help others in sharing what helped.
You could frame the purposeful storytelling like a set of questions for the adoptee to share on such as: What has helped vs what didn’t help? How have you changed from then to now? What would you like to see done or said differently? What do you need more or less of, to continue your recovery going forward?
Social or Workshop Events
Hold weekly or fortnightly coffee catchups or have a walk or art group, but the emphasis is not counselling. Ask the adoptees with lived experience in mental health to write a list of resources that helped them and make it accessible to others online.
Invent an Adoptee wtih Lived Experience Day to honour those adoptees and have a fun, self care activity day. Do this also for their Carers. You could include info booths, pamper booths, plant a tree activity, food and art activities, talks by people with Lived Experience and people of social standing to attend and open the event.
Training / Supervision
Adoptee peers should go through Trauma Informed Care (TIC) training and Developmental Trauma Disorder training (same as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder training). TIC training is all about asking what has happened to a person and considers the context. This is in contrast to asking an invalidating question such as, “What is wrong with you?” or ” Why are you not fitting in?”.
Training and supervision is about the peer support person learning to respond not just react. General awareness about how we speak and act around people with lived experience is necessary and learning about Boundaries, Duty of Care, Accidental Counsellor, Suicide, Mental Health First Aid are all good tool kits to add to your belt.
Training is also about being, doing and using appropriate language at all times and noticing our own triggers and judgments arising and tending to those.
The Recovery Model or Strengths Approach
Both these models are currently the best for providing a framework for engaging people with lived experience of mental illness. You can access these through Recovery College or a similar type organisation. The focus of these models is to bring awareness to what the person can already do for themselves and what has helped so far. There is also training available for carers of people with mental illness.
People with trauma experiences may not always show or say anything if they are triggered. So it is important to check in and ask if they are okay. Do things like setup safe places / chill zones during events, just in case.
Self education, training and being on boards / committees of organisations like SANE Australia or Beyond Blue was a way I helped myself. They provided opportunities to share my story or join their speakers bureau. Access to education and event opportunities is important for those with lived experience.
If a peer adoptee with lived experience wants to go on to become a peer educator, I found Recovery College and One Door Mental Health teach all the modules needed, including Purposeful Story Telling. After one completes the modules you become a certified “peer educator” and can then teach at the colleges. One Door Mental Health reimburses those who tell their Lived Experience Story at workshops. You can also be reimbursed when One Door Mental Health are asked by a service organisation to speak on a specific subject like BPD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.
Anybody’s recovery is as good as the social connection, support networks, finances for support, understanding and opportunities to contribute. Being treated as normal as possible but with the context of trauma, considered as far as our behaviour / limits / expectations can go. This includes what others are capable and willing to be open minded about and setting a context to the bigger picture.
Everyone needs to know that they are seen and heard and that people care. We who live with mental illness matter and have a purpose. We are often shut out and marginalised and our behaviour makes us vulnerable and an easy target for being overlooked as a valued contribution and educational resource to the community.
I was recently reminded when providing the history of how ICAV came into being that we originally started as a support network for intercountry adoptees by intercountry adoptees. We began because I experienced nowhere to turn when wanting to connect in with others like me. Since then, I’ve learnt many times over about the power of peer support and that it cannot be underestimated!
I constantly hear from adoptees about the lack of post adoption supports that could improve the complex journey of being an intercountry adoptee. Wherever we are adopted to and from, the lack of accessible and known post adoption support is the common theme across our sending and receiving countries.
Today, I share Stephanie’s experience, a Filippino adoptee from the mid 1980s. Her story highlights the extent in which some intercountry adoptees can feel alone. I use the word “some” because I don’t want to over generalise but instead point out that no-one in our governments actually faciliate surveys to assess how we as adult adoptees fare once our adoption is transacted.
It is peer support groups like ICAV that become the melting pots for en masse experiences of intercountry adoptees around the world.
Our governments should not underestimate the power of our peer support and the positive impacts this can have in helping reduce the sense of isolation many can feel. I hope one day we will see our governments who facilitated our adoptions, provide the much needed funding to financially support peer group support organisations (formal or informal) like ICAV and those associated with ICAV.
We provide an immense amount of support around the world that is currently either not provided at all by our governments, and/or some supports that cannot be provided by professionals who do not understand the lived experience.
The power of peer support comes from providing true empathy, removing the sense of isolation derived from a/some situation(s) and giving someone (figuratively speaking) a hand to hold onto; from those who have travelled before and intuitively understand the challenges.
Some examples of current peer group support within ICAV’s wider informal network:
- Search & Reunification, including DNA Testing
(Australia currently provides a free service via ISS Australia funded by our Federal Government but in most other sending & receiving countries, no such government funded service exists).
Some adoptee led groups providing this: Brazil Baby Affair (BBA), Born in Lebanon, Plan Angel Colombia, 325Kamra.
- Return to Homeland
Some adoptees setup home stay places for other adoptees
Knowledge is shared in FaceBook groups from adoptees who have returned before
For those returning to live for an extended period, knowing how to navigate visas, finding work, or where to go for translation services
Some adoptee led groups providing this: International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) and their large network for Korean adoptees, Adopted Vietnamese International (AVI), The Voice of Adoptees (La Voix Des Adoptes – French), some individuals for Sri Lanka & Vietnam.
- Informal Mentoring for the every day experience of being an intercountry adoptee
Being available via social media 24×7 (which can be exhausting and difficult with little stated boundaries and all support provided by volunteers).
All Adoptee Led groups listed by ICAV.
- Books, Artwork, Films, Multi Media of the lived experience
Some adoptee led groups providing this: Decoding Origins (Colombia), Adoptionland, ICAV, Lost Sarees, Out of the Fog, The Rambler, L’Hybride.
- Face to Face Contact
Informal social events that facilitate friendships and networking
Formal events like conferences, gatherings, meetings,
Some adoptee led groups providing this: AdoptionPolitiksForum, ICAV, Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), The Voice of Adoptees, Asian Adult Adoptees of British Columbia (AAABC), I’m Adopted, Chinese Children International (CCI), Also Known As (AKA).
- Advocacy to improve our situations and educate the wider public of the complexities we face.
Some adoptee led groups providing this: AdoptionsPolitiksForum, Adoptionland, ICAV, ARC, The Voice of Adoptees, Adoption Museum Project, CCI.
- Research completed by fellow intercountry adoptee academics specific to intercountry adoption from around the world.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into the immense amount of work being provided by adoptee led organisations and individuals who provide for free, peer support to our fellow intercountry adoptees. We want to reduce the number of experiences like Stephanie’s and ensure that for those already adopted, they are provided the support they deserve.
Note: all groups listed above are provided on ICAVs page Adoptee Led Groups
Today I want to share with you Joey’s Journey. He is one of the few male Chinese intercountry adoptees adopted out of China who I hear from, due to the 1-child policy that has seen an unequal proportion of females being adopted out, rather than males.
Joey’s experience highlights the issue I wrote about in my LION review early this year; of trauma that occurs prior to adoption and how adoptive families cope (or not) with this. How it impacts everyone in the adoptive family and how our society turns a blind eye to this aspect of adoption.
Adoption agencies and governments (both sending and receiving) need to step-up and be accountable because after 60-plus generations of intercountry adoption worldwide, with all the blogs and forums now available where adult intercountry adoptees are actively speaking out, governments and agencies need to embrace what we who live it are saying and start to make changes in intercountry adoption policy and practice. Without this, we continue to repeat the same mistakes.
Change could include things such as:
- family preservation and support first to be reunited if lost, support if a known disability exists, micro financing if poverty is the reason why families are placing their child in an orphanage to begin with.
- extensive trauma training within our sending countries. It begins at the start. Carers of vulnerable children need to recognise the trauma a child goes through in being separated from their genetic family. Having multiple carers go through a child’s life while in an orphanage or foster care is not optimal. Look at ways to reduce this and ways to identify those children more at risk and develop early intervention pathways that flow into the transition a child undergoes when being adopted to a foreign country.
- mandatory trauma training of social workers and professionals who are assessing prospective adoptive parents. How can we expect adoptive families to “get it” if those assessing them don’t even understand the depths of trauma that vulnerable children are living daily and will live with, forever?
- mandatory trauma training of prospective parents who are deemed eligible not just in the early phases of considering adopting a child, but once they’ve been approved and when matches are made, this trauma training needs to continue long past picking up the child and bringing them home.
- develop centralised portals of trauma specialists who adoptive parents can turn to from the beginning of their journey and through out, to ensure they are surrounded by the right professional supports.
- adopting multiple children to one family at the same time should not happen if the adoptive parents have no experience in adopting/fostering or caring for vulnerable children. I’ve written before about the practice of separating biologically related children (twins) and keeping bio siblings together should be the only exception for allowing multiple children into one family at the same time – but with the requirement that a full support plan needs to be in place.
I’m not saying we adoptees have the answers or that any solutions will be easy, but at least we can start the conversations and bring these issues to the forefront!