What I Love about Adoptees

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!

(Left to Right) JD, Gabby, Rafael, Lynelle from ICAV

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 Health and Adoption

Mental Health Awareness Month.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 08.03.25.png

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:

Purposeful Storytelling

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.

mental health stat.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 07.44.04.png

List of some Mental Health Resources in Australia

The Power of Peer Support

peer support 1.jpg

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.

peer support 2.jpg

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

Peer support.png

Vulnerable children are not blank slates

Honduras Feature.jpg

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!