The Lived Experience of Illicit Intercountry Adoption


This year, one of ICAVs goals is to bring to the forefront, the voices of those who have lived the experience of being illictly adopted via intercountry adoption practices. The experience of an illegal intercountry adoption is now recognised as “existing” by many of our governments and central authorities who facilitate the adoptions. ISS-SSI even provided a Handbook on Responding to Illegal Adoptions about this in 2016, including input from some with lived experience. However, it remains a fact today, that there are barely a handful of adult intercountry adoptees who have received appropriate support and assistance, whether that be emotional, financial, legal, or governmental liaison in response to their illicit adoptions.

What about illicit intercountry adoptions that are technically “legal” but are fundamentally unethical under international or other standards like the Palermo Protocol? The powers who control and regulate intercountry adoption do little to provide useful support to those who experience it.

In 2011, my adoptive country Australia, led the way in a working group at The Hague to developing cooperative measures for the prevention of illicit practices in adoption and they remain one of the few adoptive countries to develop a “protocol” for responding to allegations of child trafficking in adoption. However, this protocol response is severly limited in that it only acts to “review the adoption documentation” and yet it is often the documentation itself, that has been falsified and difficult to ascertain without other sources of information. Even IF documentation is proven to be false, what then? In cases like the Julie Chu Taiwanese trafficking ring where legal prosecution followed, there has been little to nothing done for the Taiwanese adoptees and their first families both in the adoptive and birth country’s. Shouldn’t those impacted be provided fully funded services to help them reunite, reintegrate and reconnect if they want this at any stage of their life? Or do they each have to pursue legal action in order to ever be compensated for their losses and legal implications? And what if they don’t want legal action but still want help?

In my time at ICAV, I have witnessed the lifelong growth that occurs developmentally for adult intercountry adoptees – first we start to explore our indivual journey but as we connect to fellow adoptees and peer support networks, we become exposed to the larger picture of intercountry adoption and the world-wide practice as it occurs today. The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption was designed to combat illegal adoptions but despite it’s ideals, it hasn’t been able to stop them altogether nor does it ensure adequate post adoption supports – especially for this specific segment of the intercountry adoptee population. Many critics say The Hague Convention has made the problem worse by masking the illicit practices under the guise of a “legal” adoption. As the adult adoptee population ages and matures, what I observe is a huge number, enmasse, of adoptees who are becoming actively involved in exposing the many illicit adoptions that have chequered its history.

South Korean adoptees like Jane Jeong Trenka have led the way in the fight for adoptee rights due to their historical place as the first babies enmasse in modern time to be exported in the largest numbers — but more recently there are those who pave the way for adoptees of other birth countries who have been illicitly adopted. Impacted adoptees such as:

  • Patrick Noordoven from Brazil Baby Affair who recently won his historical outcome of legal recognition that those adopted illegally had a right to their information; in general paving a way for other Brazilian adoptees from the Brazil Baby Affair period; and also a success with the Dutch court appointing an external commission to investigate intercountry adoptions in the past from Brazil but also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia;
  • Sanne van Rossen who released her ground breaking expose The Sadness from Sri Lanka (english translation avail this year) and the accompanying media coverage by Zembla which has effectively encouraged Sri Lankan adoptees all over the world to work together; Sanne’s work also led to official recognition of the Baby Farming era by the Sri Lankan government;
  • Alejandro Quezada who founded Chilean Adoptees Worldwide along with other Chilean adoptees are working with the Mothers of Chile who’s children were stolen or lost to adoption. Together they have pushed for a formal investigation into the illegal adoptions from Chile;
  • Marcia Engel at Plan Angel and other Colombian adoptees in the group are advocating to have illegal adoptions investigated officially;
  • Osmin Ramirez and his father’s historical Inter-American Commission on Human Rights outcome; plus other Guatemalan adoptees encouraged to work together in their group to provide support for all who are illegally adopted;
  • and Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking who has for decades exposed illegal adoptions out of India and many other countries.

What is to be the government and central authority responses to these enmasse occurrences of illicit adoption practices? For how long will they continue to ignore the voices of those impacted the most from a practical sense – helping them find their families and re-integrate back into their countries if this is their desire? How about funding the “lived experience organisation” who helps the most because they best understand the complexities? Or a “lived experience advisory group”?

I hope that by encouraging advocacy and helping to expose the voices of those who live it, we will see change – not only formally acknowledging the wrongs done, but to attempt to make ammends and provide much needed support for those forced to live it. It is one thing to acknowledge the terrible practices of the past and attempt to avoid repeating them into the future, but it is another to address the current issues and provide support for those who have lived a lifetime resulting from past practices.

Today, I present to you the story of Mariela who has lived the experience of being illegally adopted from Guatemala to Belgium. This is an example of one person’s lived experience of illicit intercountry adoption. We look forward to sharing soon our new project to bring together many more voices like Mariela’s!

We can only ever fully understand the full complexities of illicit intercountry adoptions by listening to those who live it!

Lynelle Long

What Intercountry Adoptees Need

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Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.

The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?

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Truth and Answers

Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.

This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,

“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”

Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:

  1. Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
  2. Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
  3. Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
  4. Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.

Chaitra had none of these things in her life.

The important part

The Desire to Find Biological Family

For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:

Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.

For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!

When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.

No Adoption

This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,

Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?

Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”

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Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:

When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?

As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.

Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong

For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”

Restorative Justice

Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.

An End to the Ongoing Pain

Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.

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For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.

Kim shared it very clearly:

“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”

Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.

Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.

It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.

Peace-Art

Stephanie’s Column, Filipino Intercountry Adoptee

My First Blog Post

I’m in the shuttle, sitting in the back seat with my headphones on listening to Krishna Das. It’s 6:49 a.m. and the sun is rising above the horizon. As the van turns to leave the bus barn near the mall, I can see the sky lightening. Pink, yellow, and purple, with low streams of clouds. The train passes by as we stop and turn left, soaring down the access road to the freeway. As I write, the sky transforms into dusty, baby blue and lavender. Green ponderosa pines pass my window as we make our way to the elementary school I work at.

My name is Stephanie and I’m a 32-year-old adoptee living in Northern Arizona. I was born in the Philippines in 1985 and relinquished to an orphanage at birth, where I was taken care of by Catholic nuns. My birth name was Desiree Maru but it changed to Stephanie Flood when I was adopted at the age of two. 

I’m starting this regular column, Stephanie’s Column, Filipino Intercountry Adoptee because I want to start voicing myself as a past orphan, adult adoptee, and a woman who carries past traumatic wounds no matter where I go. As I heal, I write in hopes to raise awareness on critical subjects and bring new dialogue to a space where many can’t tread unless they’ve been there.

I’m here to fill this space with needed perspective. With humanity. My humanity. So overall this blog will contain my whereabouts, thoughts, actions, insights, memories of my past and hopes of my unseen future.

I think it’ll be an adventure having this column.

I am writing this first entry on my way to a school out in Leupp, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. I work at a school library as a library media assistant/librarian and I run the library by myself. This school is about 45 minutes from Flagstaff where I’ve been living for the past ten years, attending college at Northern Arizona University and now I’m an online student with San Jose State University studying Library and Information Science.

The atmosphere in the van today feels thick with tension.

I always have music playing in my ears on these shuttles to work and back in an attempt to make these daily trips a pleasant, contemplative voyage.

There is so much gorgeous scenery that passes by.

Land you can’t fully fathom unless you’re here and you have a reason to traverse this well-preserved part of the world.

Rolling hills in the distance. Once we hit Leupp Road, the ponderosas change into thickets of juniper pines that are as large as trees. They’re these bristly, round, green pines that smell so sweet. You can burn the dead branches for incense or prayers, and they make good kindling for wood stove fires.

Now the light is awake. It’s golden and raw, raking the Earth, sweeping over this high desert landscape with honesty. Finally, it is warmer in the vehicle. I can take my sweatshirt off since I have a sweater underneath. It’s been cold in the mornings in Flagstaff, especially at 5:30 a.m. when I wake up.

The land looks so beautiful when it’s aflame with sunrise.

As we drive, I can hear the teachers in the front get louder but I focus on the music blaring in my ears. The light glares in my eyes. I keep writing. I breathe and focus on my breathing, because what I’ve come to recognize is that I get anxious easily, especially around hostile or fast changing environments. 

At this school, the students can suddenly be aggressive with each other without warning. I’ve been yelled at by two teachers while I’ve been just doing my job too since I’d been hired here in August. To keep my composure here and my job, I keep my distance. I enforce strict, professional boundaries because I work better in positive, enforcing environments.

I like uninterrupted, positive and focused work flow too.

Although here at this elementary school, it’s like I’m at times bulldozing unseen walls just to do the work needed at this school library.

I fight to keep focused on the library’s needs and the Navajo children, as I’m pulled with other requests and stresses. As this library is grossly under national standards, every day is a fight to keep what I care about afloat.

I pass three crows sitting on a wire fence.

Tiny, little houses sparsely speckle the open, wild but barren landscape that spreads out for miles out here.

Hogans. Grassland. Trailers. Open range.

In the distance there are mesas now and the horizon is shrouded in blue hues. The junipers are gone. Groups of cows pass by. Then more open land.

I can hear the teachers in the front of the van raise their voices again. They get louder. I look down at my necklace that I’m wearing.

It’s the Tree of Life hanging on my pendant from a red, leather band.

I wore it this morning to remind myself of my own values that I’ve cultivated since I was young, growing up in Wisconsin, mostly on my own since my other adopted older brother had severe post-traumatic issues and my parents were often working. Since childhood, I’ve cultivated my own value system that has been rooted in personal growth and spiritual philosophies.

Faith was my support system. Although this faith has changed over time.

It now appears like we’re looming closer to the school.

I secretly fear the secretary here but I know it’s mostly all in my head.

I realize, I am at times prone to a casual victim mentality—having grown up accustomed to being so extremely affected by my external environment and not having enough resources to support me as an adoptee.

Now an adult, I’m understanding the issues that had arisen from my extreme upbringing. And, I see that it is more important than ever to break away from certain bad patterns that have prevented me from moving on, and reinforce my obstacles into opportunities to learn and change for the better.

I go to the morning meeting circle and it looks like Peta is bothered by something. She is in 2nd grade and very quiet. She chooses to stand next to me for a bit.

I ask her a few questions while everyone is gathering:

What animal is that on your shirt?

An elephant.

What did you do this weekend?

Mumbled something.

I like your glitter nail polish.

And still, there is trouble in her eyes.

Peta has shiny almond brown eyes and dark silky hair. She is a soft talker like me and lately she’s shown other aspects that remind me of me. She likes being helpful in the library and often asks to assist me. I see that she does fit in, but at times, she doesn’t due to her offbeat behavior, like me.

Peta is standing next to me as the circle started to congregate.

A girl walks up to her, one of her peers, Taima, another 2nd grader in her class who is often really confident, happy and social.

Taima stands boldly in front of Peta. She stares directly in Peta’s eyes, and they gaze at each other silently, face to face, like quiet warriors.

Taima asks what is wrong.

Peta stares back at her unflinchingly and doesn’t respond.

Taima looks up at me, questioningly.

She’s thinking, I say to Taima.

Taima walks away, and later, Peta goes to her class. For a few minutes, I wonder about Peta and all of these children on the Navajo Reservation.

In the school library, I have melodic music playing on Pandora at my desk computer. It eases my deep, mysterious soul and the feelings of isolation out here since I’m not friends with anyone at work either.

At my desk, I have a sticky pad of call numbers and book titles about adoption.

I also just wrote:

NOVEMBER

National Adoption Awareness Month

on the dry erase board in green marker that is in front of room.

On this particular day, I had started collecting adoption books from this library and other district libraries, displaying them at the dry erase board.

This is a step for me to start including new and diverse perspectives to this school library. I had originally imagined adoption in the Navajo community too but mainly, this was a step for me to start bringing myself out a little more.

Adoption is not just people and family members, I had told the students when I introduced these books on check-out day the next day.

You can adopt creeks, nature, animals, dogs, even hamsters!

Meeting with US DOS & ICAV

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A group of intercountry adoptees met with the US Department of State (USDOS) to discuss Citizenship issues that are impacting intercountry adoptees raised in the USA.

See ICAV DoS Meeting Minutes 13Jul2017.

Special thanks to those who contributed to our Citizenship – ICAV Perspective Paper which laid the foundation to help educate and raise awareness at a political level. A massive thanks to the ladies Joy, Maline, Sara and Becky who were willing to participate in this meeting.

During the time I’ve been engaged with intercountry adoptees who are fighting for their Citizenship, I’ve come to better understand their realities and understand why they are afraid to be exposed and loose everything they value, by speaking up. This is because the risk of deportation is real and remains the most visible means of highlighting the issues in the media. It’s a really tough call to put yourself out and actively advocate not only for yourself, but other adoptees facing the same issue. I applaud these brave people for their courage and am honoured to know and work with them!

Please join the fight for recognising the rights of adult intercountry adoptees in the USA to have real permanency by being granted automatic Citizenship. Contact Adoptee Rights Campaign and ask how you can help.