Lifelong Impacts of Identity Loss

On 1 July, I was asked to speak as part of a webinar panel for the Transforming Children’s Care Webinar Series #4: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care. We had an amazing panel of experts, moderated by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, President of Child Identity Protection (CHIP), and hosted by the Better Care Network in partnership with CHIP.

I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.

My Story

 I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.

I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.

I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.

The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency. 

Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.

I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.

Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity. 

In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.

When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!

I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either. 

This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.

Our ICAV Community

Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice! 

I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:

Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!

Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.

You can watch the complete webinar here.

From Tokenism to Social Justice

by Marie Gardom, adopted from Malaysia to the UK.

It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only is diversity alone not working but in fact it’s a tactic being used to immunise organisations against the charge of racism or marginalisation.  Here in the UK, the Conservative politicians who lead the most anti-immigration policies are people of colour.  They don’t represent the groups from which they came from instead they snuggle up to power by reciting the tired old Tory tropes, perhaps pining to belong to the in-group they’ve always been outside of, and always will be because they chose an intolerant in-group. 

We see this time and time again, a single minority group is represented and held up to be an example of why there isn’t racism/ablism/sexism etc.  Conveniently they proselytise the voice of the status quo with  passion and heady conviction.  When the dominant group is accused of inequity they wheel out one or two of the said minority group as a way of denying the charge and go back to making decisions to the disadvantage of minorities.
Over the decades an increasing awareness and demand for representation has led organisations, Hollywood and governments to create an illusion of diversity without inclusion, without meaningfully addressing power dynamics of majority groups and social hierarchies so power remains firmly in the same hands.  We’re often represented as a homogenous group if there’s one person of colour, or a gay white man, a box may have been ticked but meaningful representation hasn’t been achieved.

I see this in how we as adoptees are working as advocates.  There’s an awareness in society but a lack of comfort with the idea that adoptees are the experts.  As such there’s a performance of inclusion, adoptees are often at the forefront of adoption promo campaigns if they espouse how beautiful it is.  Even if they talk to the complexity of our experiences they remain comforting voices to those who see adoption as doing good and the only way to resolve family crisis in which a child needs support.

I’ve noticed that I’m rarely invited to give my opinion in policy or best practice within organisations who could reform it.  And when I am, the comfort of the majority group has been significantly favoured. Representation doesn’t give us power if we’re outnumbered, on someone else’s territory and way down the hierarchy.  I believe this to be largely unconscious, but always leveraged.  Those in the majority rarely have to consider the factors that create equity of power or more regularly inequity.  

Adoptees have very little representation across the world. In the UK alone, there’s not a single adoptee led group, which covers the wide range of experiences of adoptees here.  Instead  we’re disparate unfunded mutual aid groups trying to help each other and ourselves however we can.   I’ve observed the frequent ways in which many adoptees burn out from advocating.  Having been invited to conferences and policy events many have disappeared from view because of the traumatic nature of those events.  They’re traumatic because as a minority our voices are discounted, denied, argued with and often aggressively silenced.  This group is largely there at those tables because we’re so vulnerable, and so in need of change, our community has high levels of suicide, depression, addiction and more. 

If I’m going to continue my work as an advocate I need to set myself and fellow adoptees up for success in these spaces where we can find ourselves enduring dangerous levels of stress. So I think it’s important to name the power dynamics in play so that we can ensure we can address those problems in how we set up our boundaries, and have the language to name issues when they occur.  So I’ve created a simple infographic  which names the power dynamics and offers solutions for those genuinely interested in social justice.

See Marie’s other recent post in ICAV: From Charity to Justice