Is Adoption Really the Best Option?

A transracial adoptee from Haiti weighs in

by Judith Alexis Augustine Craig adopted from Haiti to Canada.

Judith’s orphanage photo – Haiti, 1979

Since the announcement of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the new nominee for the Supreme Court there has been intense scrutiny of her politics, religious views and her family. As a Haitian adoptee myself I took great interest in the discussions around her adopted children from Haiti. There were many questions about legitimacy of her adoptions, particularly her son who was adopted following the Haitian earthquake. This particularly struck a cord with me, because following the Earthquake there was a lot of questionable removals of Haitian children.

I was interviewed by several media outlets following the Earthquake and this question was raised continuously. At the time my response was direct. I was aware that many children had been legally adopted but were waiting for the government to approve the process so they could join their adoptive families abroad. I felt in light of the situation it was appropriate for those children to be allowed to join their families immediately. The challenge became for those children who were ‘presumed’ to be orphans following the earthquake and were ‘rescued’ by many international agencies who scooped them up and removed them from Haiti without verify if they were truly orphans or if there were alternative family members for the children to live with. We watched in horror as children were flown out of Haiti within a week following the Earthquake and then learnt that they were not orphans, nor were they apart of an adoption process and worse still had families. In addition, we saw members of a religious group try and illegally cross the border to Dominican Republic with Haitian children none of whom were orphans. These are merely a few examples of illegal child abductions which occurred directly following the Earthquake.  

Many people felt these international religious organizations or NGO’s were doing right by removing these children from this horrific natural disaster, instead the opposite was true. These children had just experienced extreme trauma and now faced another trauma being removed without warning, consent or preparation. The International Social Services (ISS, 2010) stated that intercountry adoption should not take place in a situation of war or natural disaster when it was impossible to verify the personal and family situations of children.1

The sad reality is that black market international illegal adoptions continue to thrive worldwide, with children either being kidnapped from their parents or parents being coerced into relinquishing their children. They are persuaded to do this amid false promises that they will be educated abroad and then returned to their family or that their families will be able to join them in the future. This has resulted in many countries either closing their borders to international adoption all together or implementing stricter regulations.  

Haiti followed suit and introduced stricter measures banning private adoptions, limiting the number of international adoptions per year, closing substandard orphanages and rewriting the adoption code. Additional measures included more support for families in Haiti prior to them agreeing for their child to be adopted and a mandatory period of time for families to change their mind.2

While some fear these new restrictions will mean that the 50,000 children in orphanages will languish in care, reform is absolutely necessary to protect children and their families’. During my trip to Haiti while I was searching for my biological family, I met dozens of families who had relinquished their children years earlier many under false pretences and never heard or saw them again. It was heart-wrenching to see these families in such pain and anguish over their lost children. Many of the ‘orphans’ in Haiti are placed in orphanages due to economic hardships their families are experiencing. Leaving their children at an orphanage is intended for a short period of time while they stabilise their lives. Many parents have every intention to return to resume caring for their children. Imagine the horror when they found their child was adopted abroad. So, what is the solution?

As a social worker for the past 15 years I have worked in developed countries with intricate child welfare systems that support children and their families who experience a wide range of challenges. Foster care systems do not exist in Haiti in this same manner and this is an area that could provide much needed temporary support for families. While this approach will require further education for the Haitian community and a financial and practical commitment from the government it will keep families together and prevent unnecessary and illegal adoption.

While I can’t speak to the specific circumstances surrounding Judge Barnett’s adoptions, I am hopeful that they were legal and above aboard. My greater hope is that further transformation within the international adoption system will continue to occur so that families can remain together wherever safely possible and reforms will continue to protect the rights of children and their families. Adoption should be a last resort, when all other avenues to keep children within their family is fully exhausted and supported.

References

  1. Intercountry Adoption after the Haiti Earthquake: Rescue or Robbery?
  2. Haiti fixes adoption system, but some fear too few adopted

Dear Dad, You are Still Racist

by Author Mae Claire, born in Haiti raised in the USA.

A letter to my deceased father who illegally trafficked me out of an orphanage in Haiti. 
My works: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00IZG9Q56
Insta: @liftingtaboos
Blog: https://solifegoeson.com/

Mae, 15 years ago

Dear Dad,

The IRS is asking for information on my birth parents in order for the transfer of heirs to be successful. Your death left a lot of holes in an already very complex situation. See, remember when I called you 3 years ago and explained to you how horrible, dangerous and painful your actions were some 40 years ago?

Yes. That conversation. You are right. The one where I explained to you how getting my green card was almost impossible because you chose to traffic me. In the moment, you thought you were doing the “right” thing…because..Saviorism….white fragility, and the need to rescue a poor black girl from a fate that is unspeakable. I mean, I am almost certain there was love somewhere in the midst of it all. But love is a long-term thing. Love means you think about the future.

You didn’t do that dad. In fact, you continued to lie about my existence, keeping me from truly knowing my origins.

In your defense, you did tell me as I got older that my papers were fake. Fake…I was 13. What does a 13 year old understand about having fake papers? All I could do was live in the moment, go to school and do what a regular 13 year old does. Then I turned 17, traveling outside the country became harder because I was…well, trafficked.

“Remember your birthday,” you would whisper to me as we approached a person in uniform. I always thought it was strange that I had to memorize a date that was not actually my birthday at all. I also thought it was unordinary that my passport age was 3 years younger than my biological age.

In the name of saviorism and urgency, you were…making a deal with the devil. Find a woman who wants to sell her signature, find a dead child who has not received a death certificate yet, find a lawyer who would be shady to the utmost and BAM…you got yourself a cute little black girl in need of saving.

But here is the thing. I was not in need of saving. I was not an orphan despite being in an orphanage. So why didn’t you just wait for my real mother’s approval? Why go through illegal channels?

Urgency.

Saviorism.

I had a mother, I had a father, I had 5 other siblings. I had an aunt, an uncle, a grandfather. I had a Family.

But you took all that away from me. Nothing matches and nothing will ever match because of the decision you made when I was knee-high. My paper mother is not my bio mother. Everything is a lie. That is not my Birth Certificate, that is not my name, that is not my age. And at the same time, you were the family I was raised with-a very toxic one at that, but you were all I knew.

So I grew up to hate my skin color, my hair, my face, my race, my culture. I grew up to seek what you had and what you were even though you kept me from being an equal. You made me feel responsible for what had been done to me. You made me feel guilty if I didn’t show love to you the way the bios did. You drove me to contemplate and also attempt suicide. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway “Ongoing contact with birth family members may minimize or resolve the child’s feelings of grief and loss, reduce the trauma of separation, and help the child develop and maintain a stronger sense of identity.” You attempted none of this because you knew that what you had done was against the law.

According to UNICEF, it ​supports intercountry adoption, when pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of the 1993 Hague ​Convention​ on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of intercountry Adoptions. These include ensuring that adoptions are authorised only by competent authorities, guided by informed consent of all concerned, that intercountry adoption enjoys the same safeguards and standards which apply in national adoptions, and that intercountry adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it. These provisions are meant first and foremost to protect children, but also have the positive effect of safeguarding the rights of their birth parents and providing assurance to prospective adoptive parents that their child has not been the subject of illegal practices.

In your home, I was a fraud and I was never good enough. But lucky you dad, you are not the only one. There are so many white adoptive parents who will go to any length to have a black baby. Of course in the moment they may really be taking that path to heaven with good intentions. But the intentions die fast and the path becomes uneven, rocky, scary, hurtful, abusive. That path continues for us. The impact is forever.

When white adoptive parents adopt, they are not cognizant of the long term impact it leaves on the adoptee….especially if the adoptee is of color.

A typical adoptee is ripped from their environment and forced to survive with new expectations, new rules, new laws that govern their immediacy. They are forced to adapt….not the other way around.

A typical adoptee of color is coming from a country that is deemed “poorer” and in need of saving. Poverty should NEVER be a good enough reason to take someone else’s child….and it should never be a reason to go the extra mile to falsify documents.

When it comes to illegal and illicit adoptions, Haiti should get a gold star. Though Haiti has never been a country that “sells” their kids, poverty and the promise of a “better” life is very tempting. So it happens more frequently than expected. Kathrine Joyce describes it perfectly in her book called The Child Catchers. She says “​Adoption has long been enmeshed in the politics of reproductive rights, pitched as a “win-win” compromise in the never-ending abortion debate. Adoption has lately become even more entangled in the conservative Christian agenda.​” In her book she describes how ​Child Catchers find a way to convince poor families to put their kids in an orphanage. Once the children are in an orphanage, they become the ward of the state and are now products to be sold.

We become props.

In their 40 page Write Up called Orphanage Entrepreneurs: ​The Trafficking of Haiti’s Invisible Children​, Georgette Mulheir with Mara Cavanagh and colleagues say​: The Government of Haiti should strengthen the child protection system and judicial approaches to trafficking in children, including: develop an independent inspection system; develop a system for tracking children in care; increase the number of social workers and improve their training; prioritise children trafficked in orphanages within the Anti-Trafficking Strategy.

I was your prop dad. I was the person you showed to others to prove that you were not racist, or prejudiced. I was that little girl who suffered on the inside but wore the big smile on the outside; because that is how daddy liked it. That is how most adopted parents like it. They expect us to be silent, happy, grateful, appreciative, and thankful. They expect us to remember the date they were “got”.

But you see clearly now dad, don’t you? You realize now that mom will never be able to explain what you both did. Out of greed, you took a life, and in the meantime, destroyed a family forever.

I will never be able to properly be a part of my birth family. “Tell them it was a closed adoption” I tell my sister to tell my mother while she is on the phone to IRs. I continue to protect those who trafficked me. I proceed to make sure my mother is not bombarded by inquiries and possible jail time.

When they ask her “what are you in for?, I could only hope she tells the truth.

“Trafficking. We thought we were doing good but we drank the Koolaid”. But she is not capable of admitting her wrong doing. This response is a dream only to be dreamt at night, not during the day.

There will be those dad who will say “this is a sad story but it is not OUR story.” And truly stories are unique. Unfortunately, when it comes to giving money for children, or receiving a tax deduction for adoption, you have decided to participate in a system that too often creates long-term trauma. You drank the Koolaid.

Dad, did you know that over 80% of children who are considered “orphans” are not really orphans? According to Unicef, children are put into orphanages on a temporary basis because the orphanages provide food, shelter, schooling and activities. So to assume that we are free to be taken is a huge miscarriage of justice.

According to the US Department of State, The Government of Haiti does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. They remain in Tier 2 because ​the government did not convict traffickers during the reporting year. The government did not allocate sufficient funding for its anti-trafficking efforts or victim services and did not implement its standard operating procedures for victim identification.

What say you? Now that you are observing us from heaven? (I believe you are there because I can’t believe in a God who would create a place for people to suffer more than they have already suffered on earth). You can see the pain and suffering can’t you dad? You can see the confusion. Do you see it?

I’m hoping you can see it now. But I know there are so many adoptive parents who can’t see it. They think their steps were led by God….God would never ask someone to remove a child who has an entire family who loves and cares for them. We are asked to take care of the Widow and the Orphan….but you just took the so-called orphan.

Imagine what kind of world we would live in today if people with more gave to those who had less. What would this world look like if to whom much is given, much is truly required? What form would this and could this take? What form should this take?

What if, instead of taking someone else’s child, we asked “How can I keep you together?” This monumental question, with heaps of adaptable solutions, would change the course of children growing up in poverty.

As an adoptee, I know I am not alone in believing that a lot of our pain and suffering could have been prevented had someone reached out to support our family who was poor in physical things but rich in spirit.

As an adoptee, having my name changed, given false papers, treated like a 2nd and 3rd class citizen should never have been allowed and especially not in the name of “being called.” God does not call people to do eternal damage to others. Adoption is trauma and almost 100% of the time, causes long term damage that even therapy fails to heal.

Adoptees are not props to prove a statement like “I am not racist.” We are humans who were, for the most part, purchased to fulfill a longing, an inability, a desire, a calling, an emptiness, and the list goes on and on.

But I’m here to say dad, adopting me and the others didn’t make you less racist. You remained racist in your own way. When we cried and told you about racism happening to us and you did nothing about it….you showed your racism. When I watched you treat other people who were of my same race and nationality….you showed your prejudice and your classism.

Your heart was pure though in many ways but unfortunately, adoption didn’t make it more or less pure. The calling didn’t bring you closer or further away from God. In fact, separating me created a cavernous hole in our relationship and destroyed what could have been a bridge to my birth family, culture, race and life.

Adoption is dangerous. Oftentimes we do it and we don’t even really know or understand why we are doing it. We do it because in the moment, it ​feels​ like the right thing. We do it because we think it is going to fix something in us. Maybe it does fix something in us…but it leaves the adoptee with scars, bruises and longing for what could have been.

Dear dad, now you are dead and can probably see and understand the pain you caused. If there is any way you can infiltrate the lives of others who have adopted or are hoping to adopt and warn them of the dangers; we adoptees will forever be grateful.

May you not rest in peace until you have saved other adoptees from the same pain.

Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

The Anti – Pro Adoption Labels

It bothers me a lot less nowadays that people feel the need to judge where I or ICAV sits on adoption discussions as being only either “anti” or “pro” — as if adoption can be classified on some linear adoption spectrum!

Yes, I like to, and I encourage my peers, to call out and speak openly on the complexities and call an end to the unethical practices, the trafficking, the deportation, the rehoming, the abuse .. but the reality is, usually when adoptees talk about these issues from these angles, we can so easily get labeled and shut down!

Personally, I feel there are so many shades within the adoption arena. Like if I support simple adoption in theory over plenary adoption – does that make me “anti” or “pro”? If I prefer kinship care and guardianship to either of those, am I “anti “or “pro”? If I prefer children to be kept in their country of birth, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I prefer children to stay within their nuclear and extended family or community, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I want to prioritise a child’s safety, am I “anti” or “pro”? If I want a mother to retain a choice, am I “anti” or”pro?

Isn’t it a bit simplistic to overlay such a narrow linear spectrum on our views for such a complex topic? And what happens when we consider domestic adoption with intercountry adoption? Or transracial domestic adoption with transracial intercountry adoption? The discussions will always be so complex with so many differences but also, so many similarities!

At the end of the day, transracial adoption, local adoption, intercountry adoption, foster care, guardianship, kinship care are all options for complicated situations in child welfare. What should we do about children who are vulnerable and need care? How can we ensure they have long term stability within loving and supportive structures for their life long journey? The answers to these questions moves us way beyond a simple “anti” and “pro” discussion. Simplifying these discussions to that type of focus really doesn’t get us anywhere except to divide us.

When we oversimplify complex situations it dumbs down the mindscope and limits the possible solutions.

When considering intercountry adoption, I support safety of the child and respect for families, ethnicities and cultures . This should always be first and foremost in our priorities when considering solutions for the child. I’m not anti or pro – I’m all about encouraging open and healthy discussion on complex issues that have not ONE single solution for all, but should be discussed on a case by case basis! I would love if governments could put more money and focus into helping keep families together where possible! I also recognise, that not all families chose to stay together and women should have choices. So my point is, we cannot overlay ONE solution over a whole spectrum of complex situations. Each and every child with their parents and kin needs to have their situation considered by its own merits. And let’s not forget, we must acknowledge that the solution(s) might need to change over time.

The biggest impact plenary adoption creates, is that it is a permanent solution for what is often a temporary or shorter term crisis. For some, staying together will hopefully be the preference and governments need to offer enough social supports to make this possible. For others, if they insist on not parenting their children nor having kin take on guardianship, I would hope we could move to a better model like simple adoption which ensures original identity remains intact and connection to kin legally preserved. I strongly dislike the way plenary adoption has inadvertently layered on more trauma than it’s supposed to help. People are human, we change over time. Why do we continue to place permanent life altering legal changes onto children as solutions that are difficult to change when in fact, maybe a better way would be to take into account that situations and people change and allow more flexible solutions?

Using simplistic linear labels like “anti” and “pro” to discuss intercountry adoption can be counterproductive. How much do we miss when we limit ourselves to such linear discussions?

Lived Experience Suggestions for Responses to Illicit Adoptions

On 8-10 July, ICAV was invited as an Observer at the HCCH Working Group on Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.

Attached is our latest Perspective Paper that provides our lived experience input on suggestions for How Authorities and Bodies could Respond to Illicit Adoptions in English and French.

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!

Dear White Parents

by Laney Allison, adopted from China to the USA.

Hi. I’m Laney Allison, adopted from Ma’Anshan, Anhui Province, China in August of 1994 by a single mom. I was raised in Dallas, TX and I now live/work in Washington, DC, USA.
I am a co-founder/co-president of China’s Children International.

You can reach me @Lane_Xue on instagram and follow the CCI instagram @cci_adoptees

Review: One Child Nation

One Child Nation a documentary by Nanfu Wang was deeply emotional but very educational for me as an intercountry adoptee! I learnt of the painful and traumatic collective history that China has undergone in an attempt to keep their population under control. I understand that as a whole country, keeping them all living to a healthy standard is necessary but at the same time, implementing a policy so harshly, disregarding individual emotions to the extent shown in the documentary, seemed to go too far in my opinion. I do acknowledge I view this from a white lens as that is all I know, having been raised in a white wealthy country. 

I connect closely with many intercountry adoptees around the world who have experienced illicit and illegal adoptions. I found it illuminating to watch and hear the view points of so many different people in various roles (mothers, grandmothers, fathers, brother, traffickers, health professionals, government workers, creatives), all impacted by China’s children being murdered, given up for adoption, or their mother’s forcibly sterilised. Watching this documentary made me question whether the word “relinquishment” is even applicable legally for the thousands of adoptees sent abroad from China during the one child policy timeframe. I think the word “forced abandonment” would be more appropriate, just as the many abortions and sterilisations were very much “forced” upon the women. Relinquishment in intercountry adoption contexts, idealistically refers to a well thought out decision of consent by genetic parents – but after watching One Child Nation, I think the only ones really giving consent in this case, was the government party. The phrase repeated many times by people interviewed said, “What could I do?” None of them felt they had autonomy or power to make a real informed decision. The consequences of not doing so, were so harsh that it took away any sense of choice. 

Watching how Chinese babies became efficiently funnelled into the orphanage system to be given to foreign parents makes me question why it was only the traffickers who were sent to prison. In reality, the Chinese government party leaders and ministers should have also been sent to prison for their roles. It was their crime to force this policy upon families in such a harsh way. Why hold only the middle men responsible when actually it was the whole government party creating the environment, the incentives, and demanding forced abandonment and then an overwhelming number of children for which adoption seemed like a great solution? The government forced families to give up their children, the orphanages gave the babies away to foreign families for huge sums of money! If we assume a majority of the children went to the USA alone and calculate the total amount of money gained in the trade, it’s a US$10.4b business (US $40,000 per child on average for approx 260,000 children). On more conservative estimates, if all the children were adopted to Australia, the Chinese government gained AUS$780M (AUS $3000 per child). Somebody, somewhere gained a ton of money from adopting Chinese babies! How much of that money has been given back to the families and the community to help ease their suffering in forms of support services? To date, it appears there has been no recognition of the people’s loss and grief let alone any recognition of the lifelong losses of culture, people, race, place, families, heritage and language for the thousands of adoptees sent away. It’s as if Chinese intercountry adoptees are invisible to the Chinese government. In being sent away, these adopted children (many of them now adults) have disappeared and the Chinese consider their slate wiped clean. We who live it, know it doesn’t work this simple. We grow up to have questions and we have to somehow make sense of why our country has chosen to send us away and forget us, acting as if we never existed.

I also question how China can consider themselves to be following the guidelines outlined as a signatory to the Hague Convention for intercountry adoption. Understanding the Hague Convention guidelines, so many aspects of China’s intercountry adoption program from this era are questionable. For example, where was the informed consent and legal relinquishment of children, where are the truthful identity documents, and how can they justify the financial gains but with little to no provision of post adoption services?

I hope all Chinese adoptees will watch this documentary as they age and mature. It will help them come to terms with how their life has become so radically displaced. It is very normal for us intercountry adoptees to question how we came to live in a country not of our birth. This documentary is a powerful capture of what really went on in the larger social, political, economic arena, together with a glimpse into the many individual stories which many Chinese intercountry adoptees can mirror on the other end.

I do ponder whether China will one day be like Australia and Canada – the two countries who have acknowledged their history of forced adoptions – except theirs were domestic. Both of these countries have since recognised the historical wrongs in terms of individual rights and impact and they have now issued an apology but only Canada has provided financial reparation. Will the Chinese government one day apologise to the thousands of Chinese intercountry adoptees for purposively sending them abroad? And what would an apology mean in action? I believe it should be a supply of well funded services to help them deal with the lifelong consequences. I was left with a strong impression of the heartbreak the grieving, sad families in China experience. They deserve to know what has happened to the children they birthed and had to abandon. For the adoptees themselves, so many of them are growing up in countries like America, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the UK. They might be happy and have no desire to find their families. Or they might be like Johanne Zhangjia adopted to Norway and murdered by her racist step-brother. Some intercountry adoptions work out, others don’t. Between these two extremes are all the in-betweens. These are real individuals, thousands of them, each with their own questions and thoughts. All Chinese intercountry adoptees and their original families deserve to know the truth and be supported to reconnect should they ever wish.

I wonder how China is implementing their newer two child policy. Is it as harsh? Have any lessons been learnt? Are the leftover children still being forcibly abandoned and given up for intercountry adoption? How can receiving governments or prospective parents consider this supply of children as ethical, in terms of Hague standards for adoption?

There have not been too many reviews yet of One Child Nation documentary from adult Chinese adoptees because most are still busy growing up and finding their voice. One of the few to start to voice her opinions is André-Anne – she is asking exactly the same question as I, in her article.

When is the Chinese government going to recognise the thousands of Chinese intercountry adoptees around the world and provide them with much needed post adoption support services? How long can the government remain wilfully closed off from their responsibility to their forcibly abandoned children?

The images above of the children reportedly “lost/abandoned” are a symbol of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese intercountry adoptees growing up around the world – being raised with a democratic mentality. One day they will be a force to reckon with!

I hope the Chinese government will be prepared to answer their questions and be honest about what happened to cause them to lose their identity, their culture, their people, and homes. Maybe they hope these children will remain invisible and quiet forever like the people living in China are, but the Chinese government hasn’t seen the patterns of intercountry adoptees around the world. We adoptees don’t all sit quietly and disappear. Many of us grow up enmasse and find our voices. I look forward to the day when we hear very loudly what Chinese intercountry adoptees think of the One Child Policy and it’s impacts.

COVID-19 Makes Me Rethink My Birth Country

East vs West

Most of my life, until I returned and had a chance to reintegrate my Vietnamese identity with my adoptive identity, I thought of Vietnam as a backward Communist country. I absorbed the mentality I heard from my privileged white western adoptive country. Emotionally, I felt compelled by the assumptions I absorbed, to question how anything good could exist in a country where they couldn’t look after their own children. I was raised to think negatively about my homeland and I was always told how “lucky” I was to be adopted to Australia. Being lucky usually implied “Australia is better”.

Most times, when people make comments about my adopted status, being “lucky” refers to material gains – plenty of food, shelter and clothing; a good education; and plenty of opportunities. Yes, I have had all that for which I am thankful! But having spent over a decade trying to integrate my lost identity after being in the fog about the lifelong consequences of being separated from my birth land, culture, and people — I speak out now to help others realise there is more to being adopted than the material gains in my adoptive country.

COVID-19 has further challenged my beliefs about my birth country compared to my adoptive country. It has been the first time I’ve read something in mainstream media to highlight a positive about my homeland over my adoptive country. Here’s the recent article on Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve seen more about other birth countries being held in high regard (see Taiwan and South Korea). It’s an unprecedented time to see some of our birth lands viewed with pride in mainstream media. In contrast, is the wealthiest, first world democratic country America and how it is responding to COVID-19. Right now, with the media coverage, I imagine the whole world is questioning whether America is better than anywhere else. From an adoption perspective, American intercountry adoptees have been trying to voice for some time that not granting automatic citizenship and actively deporting intercountry adoptees back, after 40 years, is completely unethical, unfair, and wrong. No other adoptive country does this yet America has still been upheld by most birth countries as the land to send children. Perhaps now, after seeing how America handles COVID-19, birth countries might think twice about sending children to America? Maybe the rose coloured glasses might fall away?

COVID-19 has made it quite apparent that our birth countries aren’t all backwards! They are different, but not less. Seeing our countries portrayed positively in mainstream media is novel for me. I wonder how many South Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese intercountry adoptees in America might be, for the first time, wondering why they believed the mantra about how “better off” they are compared to being raised in their birth countries? This COVID-19 is impacting far more American adoptees than those impacted by non-citizenship or deportation! And with racism towards Asians at an all time high in so many of our adoptive countries, there’s a lot that COVID-19 raises in our minds.

Right now, the whole world is re-evaluating many things but what it does for me as an intercountry adoptee, is it encourages me to look critically at how our countries are portrayed and challenges me to re-evaluate how I regard my birth land and people. I rarely see any birth country portrayed in a way where other democratic first world governments might look to them as an ideal. I’m sure I’m not the only intercountry adoptee to notice these changes and ponder what it means. This period in time adds yet another layer to consider what it means to be intercountry adopted.

Not a Tourist Attraction

Can you imagine if a stranger came into your home and started taking selfies with your child, gave them gifts, hugged and kissed them, then left? The following day a new stranger came into your home and did this exact same thing.

This is a reality for the majority of children living in orphanages throughout the world. We don’t think twice when we see people post these types of pictures, matter of fact we often praise each other when we partake in such activities. For as long as I can remember, visiting orphanages, posing with “orphans”, loving and giving them gifts has been seen as a good and acceptable thing but I believe it’s time to reevaluate! Matter of fact, it’s long past when we should have realised how careless we can sometimes be with the safety and well-being of these children.

How is that when it’s our own children we see things so differently? When it’s our own child, no one needs to tell us the negative effects such situations could bring about, yet when it’s not our child, but a child in an orphanage, we strip them so easily of their individuality and value. The parental instincts that keep our children out of harm’s way should be extended to all children, not just those within our own home. We must work to protect ALL children equally. 

While there is certainly much to be understood as to why this discrepancy in value exists that is not what this post is about.

What I would like to discuss is why volunteering in orphanages can be problematic and at times cause harm. 

  1. Most children in orphanages are not orphans. In the past, donating to and volunteering within orphanages has been seen as a good and noble thing, but with the understanding that 4 out of 5 children living within those institutions are not orphans it’s our responsibility to ensure we are not contributing to the problem. The act of visiting and volunteering in orphanages has become more and more popular over the years, and as a result there has been a direct increase in the number of orphanages across the world. The desire for donations can incite orphanages to go looking for children to fill their walls, preying on vulnerable families that are desperate for help. As a result, children are removed from families that could’ve been invested in to keep together (which is truly in the child’s best interest). Because of this, children are often being held within these institutions in order to incur ongoing donations from volunteers and religious organisations that have developed a personal relationship with that particular orphanage. 
  2. There is no such thing as a good orphanage. While i’m not saying that there aren’t orphanages being managed by good people doing their absolute best at providing a safe and nurturing environment, the institutionalisation of children has never been considered “good” for them. Children do not thrive in institutional care, even within the best of conditions. The rate of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within orphanages is high. If we know our contributions to orphanages can potentially promote the creation of orphans and we also know how harmful institutional care is to a child, then why in the world would we consider contributing to a system that is unnecessarily institutionalising children 4 out of 5 times? Just as it is for our own children, it is best for all children to stay with their biological families where possible. It would be better to support programs that focus on keeping families together or reintegrate children back to their families instead of putting that money into systems that are separating families.
  3. Only properly vetted and trained volunteers and professionals should be working with children in institutional care. Allowing groups of improperly screened and trained volunteers to have access to vulnerable children in orphanages promotes an unsafe environment for the children. 
  4. When volunteers visit orphanages, even for a short period of time, they create a bond that will be broken once the volunteer goes home. Children that find themselves in the unfortunate position of being placed in an orphanage have been exposed to trauma. First, there is the trauma that brought about the need for assistance. This could be anything from abuse, neglect, a death in the family, poverty, mental health of a parent, loss of a job, corruption or a multitude of other reasons. Secondly, there is the deep trauma of being separated from everything and everyone they are familiar with. Losing that bond and daily connection to their family members is extremely traumatising. More often than not, orphanages become a revolving door of people coming in, bonding with children, then leaving, thus exposing children to the trauma of abandonment over and over again. 
  5. Visiting, volunteering in and donating to orphanages creates a supply and demand market which can lead to the trafficking of children. In many developing countries where the government infrastructure is weak there is often a lack of proper oversight within orphanages. Hence, it is nearly impossible to ensure the majority of these orphanages are being managed legally and ethically. In many countries where the orphanage growth has boomed over the past few years it has become an overwhelming problem to address. With over 500 unlicensed orphanages in Uganda alone, it is near impossible for one to properly donate to or volunteer within these institutions while ensuring things are being run ethically and that children aren’t being exploited in order to receive income from donations.

While I’m not saying that there is absolutely no way to volunteer safely and ethically in an orphanage, I think it’s important to humble ourselves and ensure that in our attempt to “do good” we haven’t somehow participated in a system that may be exploiting children. It can be easy to convince ourselves that if our intentions are good the results of our actions are inconsequential. Good intentions are useless if they are causing harm. For many years I unwittingly undervalued the lives of children in institutional care all in the name of goodwill. I am embarrassed for my lack of better judgement and ignorance. But recognising and admitting where I have gotten it wrong is part of becoming the change I want to see in this world.

May we all do better and be better for these children and their families.

About Jessica Davis