What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families?

Part 3 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

In memory of Oscar André Ocampo Overn, adopted from Colombia into a family in Norway. He was murdered last year at the age of 15 years old, by his adoptive father after speaking out about the sexual abuse he endured at his adoptive father’s hands. Look at the price he paid for speaking out! Abuse in adoptive families happens. It is one of the most hushed up topics in adoption. Perhaps we fear the reality will shatter the illusions of the happy forever adoptive family marketing myth?

Sexual abuse within adoptive families needs to be talked about. I didn’t say “.. talked about more” because it currently just isn’t talked about at all! The only sexual abuse the adoption community openly talks about, is that which happens in orphanages which acts as a way to further demonise our origins and make our adoption fantasy seem even more like saviorism. I know intercountry adoptees who suicide where sexual abuse within the adoptive family was a known added layer in their traumas, yet adoptive families fail to understand why their child decided to end it all, or their role in this death. We need to help adoptive families reach out for help when they become aware of sexual abuse happening in their environment. We need more education on what are the signs and symptoms to look out for in adoptees who suffer sexual abuse, we need deeper psychological assessments of prospective parents to understand more how their own traumas can manifest in the lives of their prospective children, we need further resources to guide adoptive families on how to respond to sexual abuse. Silence should never be an option!

Due to my own life experience, I have a strong sense when other adoptees have lived a similar experience without saying so in absolute words. I know how to gently ask and it saddens me each time I meet another and they tell me what they’ve rarely or never told before. I hear all the scenarios – mother is abusive, father is abusive, grandparent is abusive, uncle is abusive, adopted sibling is abusive, parent’s biological sibling is abusive, close family friend is abusive. It is rarely a stranger! Adoptive parent preparation sessions and post adoption education sessions need to include more discussions on sexual abuse. Sometimes sexual abuse might be talked about in the context of children being removed from a family because of abuse and hence available for adoption or abuse that happens in the institution before arriving to adoptive home, but it is rarely considered that a child can be placed into an abusive adoptive home.

We need adoptive couples to be mindful of what healthy boundaries are so they can identify early on when things do not seem right. We need to create an environment that doesn’t result in hushing things up, burying the knowledge. I cannot say more loudly and strongly enough how damaging it is for an adoptive family to ignore any sexual abuse that occurs within the family dynamic. When left with no professional support, we develop coping strategies that are unhealthy for us and leaves an aftermath of destruction. Suicide is one path of that destruction, there are others like alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, perfectionism, over achieving, workaholism, eating disorders. As Bessel van der Kolk says, the body never forgets. Adoptees who have been sexually abused have to find one way or another to deal with the dis-ease that sits within us.

If your adopted child tells you of some form of sexual abuse, please believe them and seek professional help immediately. Report the issue to the police. Do the right thing even if it is your spouse, your other child, your family friend whom you have to report! I am told too often of adoptive families who treat the victim as if there’s something wrong with them, saying they’ve lied, made up stories, saying they have a mental illness and cause trouble in the family. Most children do not make up these stories and the child should never be made to feel it was their fault in any way!

We need the adoption community and professionals to talk more openly about these questions: how does sexual abuse within the adoptive family occur? How does demonising the birth family with a history of abuse set us up to heroise the adoptive family as if they are immune from being as abusive? How are adoptees more vulnerable to abuse than the non-adopted child? How can we better prevent sexual abuse in adoptive families? How can we better listen to adoptees who struggle with this type of trauma? How can we better record and capture data to reflect how often this occurs? How can we better assess prospective parents? How does sexual abuse impact the whole adoptive family? How does sexual abuse compound the relinquishment trauma already held by an adoptee? How can we help family members come to terms with the terrible deeds of the perpetrator(s)? How can an adoptive family heal and move forward from what has happened?

I’ve lived years of seeing exactly what happens when these questions aren’t discussed or addressed. It’s devastating for all family members and leaves generational impacts. We need to help shift the fear, shame and guilt that prevents adoptive families from openly acknowledging when sexual abuse happens so that adoptees and the family can find healing.

By not responding appropriately, the trauma of sexual abuse within the adoptive family is compounded with our relinquishment trauma.

Do not allow adoptive family shame to be more powerful than love and honesty.

For adoptees who’s adoptive family closes their eyes to your abuse, I hope you will one day find your voice and speak your truth. Your vulnerable child did not deserve abuse and it’s okay to walk away if your adoptive family are not capable of bearing their truth and giving you the support, love and protection you deserve. It’s taken me 27 years to be this open about this topic, being abused and adopted certainly is not an easy journey! The hardest part has been feeling so alone and wanting to belong to a family so desperately that even an abusive one will be okay. I share in the hopes of encouraging others who walk this path. Don’t give up on you. You do not have to feel alone. Find professional support, connect into your peers, don’t isolate yourself. Create a new sense of family for yourself. Find other “mother” or “father” figures in your life who CAN be nurturing and supportive. Fight to give yourself the healing you deserve! Speak up!

Resources
Possible Solutions

Mental Health and Adoption

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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.

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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.

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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.

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List of some Mental Health Resources in Australia