Reconstructing Identity and Heritage

I made “Roses” from old magazines at a time in my life when I felt lost. I tore up and cut out tissue paper from earlier art projects, from pages out of books and discarded scrapbook paper. I assembled the mixed media on square backing. The word “heritage” was glued in the background.

The roses became the focal point. These turned out most clear and prominent in the piece, which hadn’t been planned at all.

As I begin to blog on behalf of orphaned issues and intercountry adoption, I realize this art I’m making revolves around having an orphaned identity, that I’ll try to address with my own perspective in this post.

Overall, there are many hard things to confront with this disposition even before healing can begin. In my experience, I had to confront how I was born, which meant accepting the most difficult part of the past that had undergone the trauma of severe displacement. Next, I had to mend the trauma with ongoing personal efforts of reconstruction and the power of belief.

A resolution that I found in having an orphaned identity is the promise of a new day. A promise that the sun will rise. That within the complex landscape of our lives there is a rose growing in the midst. And if we focus on what is blossoming, we might be able to tend to this new growth.

To those who have an orphaned past, who have experienced ultimate displacement where there is no going back, I can relate.

My feeling on this, is that this is where one can begin to move forward.

Step by step, day by day, we can reconstruct our lives and what heritage means to us, today, and with every new day ahead of us.

 

When will Intercountry Adoptee Services be provided by Federal Government?

The latest LifeWorks press release from newly established intercountry adoption vendor LifeWorks  (with no prior experience in intercountry adoption support) is frustrating and disappointing to say the least! Another AU$3.5m on top of the $20+ million spent on establishing the 1800 Hotline for prospective parents! Not to mention this appears to be a duplication of State provided services already for prospective parents who have been approved and waiting! Overall by 2019, the Australian government will have spent $33.6m yet to date, not one cent has been spent on providing services for existing adult intercountry adoptees who’s numbers are far greater than the number of children who will possibly enter the country in the next 3 years – taking into consideration the declines in intercountry adoption in Australia and reflected around the world!  Last year only 77 children arrived to Australia via intercountry adoption.

I’ve been involved now in advocating for the rights of adult intercountry adoptees in Australia and worldwide since 1998. I was granted the only officially allocated “adoptee representative” role out of 15 in the Rudd government’s establishment of the National InterCountry Advisory Group (NICAAG) which began in May 2008 as a result of recommendations from the 2005 Senate Enquiry into Overseas Adoption in Australia under the Howard government. NICAAG’s role was to consult and advise the Attorney General’s Department on InterCountry Adoption matters. The other 13 roles were adoptive parents, a couple of them in dual roles of professionals or researchers, and one other adoptee whom WA had wisely included in their two state roles. At that time, I felt like the token adoptee. A couple of years later, the group included a another official adoptee role and a 1st/natural/biological mother and other professionals who were not also adoptive parents.

NICAAG Group
Original NICAAG Group Established in 2008

At the time of closure of NICAAG by Tony Abbott in Dec 2013, we had already identified many gaps in service provision and the Australian Government was already working on harmonising services for prospective parents across States/Territories, restricted within the reality of our various State & Territory family laws that underpin adoption. This $33.6m could have been better spent in providing for the “gaps” that NICAAG had identified. One of the largest areas was and still is, post adoption support services for existing adult adoptees and adoptive families – especially during teenage and early adult years. For example, psychological counselling services to train professionals (doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers) in understanding the trauma that adoption is based upon and the added complexities intercountry adoption brings; education material for teachers to be provided in schools, and churches, community centres, to help young adopted children grow up in environment’s where their adoption experience is more deeply understood outside their immediate adoptive family; funding for adoptee led groups to better provide what is already given but on a voluntary basis; hugely needed reunification and tracing services; healing retreats for adult intercountry adoptees; DNA testing and a central DNA database that includes the DNA of relinquishing adults; research into the long term outcomes of intercountry adoption, the stages of development where post adoption support is most necessary, and intercountry adoption disruption rates.

Receiving governments continue to promote and push intercountry adoption as “the solution” for many child welfare issues and yet they do so with little research to support their claim that it is a solution focused “on the best interests of the child”.  Perhaps in the short term as a solution to poverty or lack of options of stability for many birth families, intercountry adoption might be seen as the best outcome, but what hasn’t been measured is whether there is a positive emotional, cultural, social, and financial outcome for the adoptee or the biological family in the long term!

Research conducted in other receiving countries like Sweden have shown that intercountry adoptees suffer at a much greater rate from mental health issues and are far more likely to become recipients of social welfare. Yet Australia has done little to no research on how we Australian intercountry adoptees fare in the long term and what is not looked at is the long term cost to the country. By providing children to families via intercountry adoption, the Australian government is not only spending millions to help them achieve their dream, but also it could be costing millions in the long run due to the unresearched outcomes happening in reality. My point is, if Australia wants to provide children for families then you also have an ethical responsibilty to ensure these children’s outcomes in the long run are as positive as possible.

Last year I spent time gathering together the interested adult intercountry adoptees and lobbying the Australian government under Tony Abbott leadership, who dismantled NICAAG and left the intercountry adoption community with little avenue for community consultation. Now in the Malcolm Turnbull leadership nothing has changed except to continue on with the push to spend money on the appearance of increasing the number of children bought here .. but despite the amount of money spent so far and the promises of Tony Abbott’s era, not one extra child has yet arrived nor one day taken off any “red tape” process. So what is all this money being spent for?  Just how logical is this push given the worldwide trend for sending countries to look at better providing for their own and therefore the reduction in available children for intercountry adoption? Not to mention our own domestic child protection issues need a lot more focus and consultation within the local adoption/permanent care community. And just who is measuring the outcomes of all these millions spent?

As an adult intercountry adoptee, I have to question the sense in spending all this money when it might otherwise have helped us deal with the issues already here, faced by adoptive families and adult intercountry adoptees on a daily basis. Or to be more pragmatic and focused on the “interests of the child”, we could have assisted sending countries, like Vietnam, establish the much needed infrastructure to support their own families especially in the special needs/disability area, eliminating the need for intercountry adoption.

The Australian government has been too affected by lobbying efforts of those whose interests are not first and foremost about the children who grow up but about their desire to form a family because of their wealth, power, and privilege in a world full of inequalities.

I ask, when are our Australian politicians and government going to treat us as more than just token adoptees in their consultations and spending?

Complexities of Intercountry Adoption

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Recently a research journalist from Sth American contacted me to ask a few questions on intercountry adoption and my views.  I loved her concluding comment: “We want to understand more about it (intercountry adoption) and we believe the vision of those who lived it is essential for this.”

1. Tell us a little about your life.  How old were you when adopted by your Australian family?  What was this process?  Where you old enough to understand what was going on?

2. Did you feel the need to have contact with the culture of your country of origin? When did this happen?

3. Is it common among children adopted from other countries to have this need?

4. Do you think there are cases in which intercountry adoptions are not the best option?

5. What is the origin of Intercountry Adoptee Voices group?

6. Why do people participate in ICAV?

7. How is your work in ICAV?

Here are my answers.

I’m a Vietnamese adoptee living in Australia, adopted at age 6months.  My adoptive parents organised my adoption privately via a Vietnamese lawyer, Le, who also worked for the Sth Vietnamese Govt during the Vietnamese War.  Le informed my adoptive parents he and his wife found a baby girl for them in July 1973 and advised my parents to fly in to bring me back to Australia as this would be the quickest way.  So my adoptive father flew into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and picked me up and flew me back to Australia, December 1973.  To date, we have never seen adoption papers from the Vietnam end and it wasn’t until I was 16 yrs old that the Australian Govt made up my false Australian Birth Certificate and finalised my adoption into the family who were raising me.

For this process to occur, at the age of 16 another social worker came to visit us to get the adoption process repeated given my adoptive parent’s original adoption assessments seemed to be missing.  The Australian agency that had facilitated this in Sept 1973 no longer existed and in 1977 had shown the paperwork had gone missing although the social worker had clearly been in contact with and assessed my adoptive family.  I remember someone coming to speak with me about adoption things but at that age of my life, I was focused on surviving and given my adoptive siblings had been teasing me about “not existing because I had no birth records”, of course when the social worker asked did I want to be adopted and get papers, I said yes.  What I don’t remember is whether they ever talked to me clearly about what adoption meant nor was any offer made to help me find my biological family or my original Vietnamese papers.

So was I old enough to understand the meaning of “adoption”?  Now that I’m in my early 40s, I say absolutely not.  At that age, I remember my focus was on “trying to fit in” with my peers .. trying to feel part of a community, a family.  So of course when someone is telling me this is what adoption will do, then of course I consent.  But now in my early 40s, I suspect no-one really gave me a great choice.  It would have been if I didn’t consent to being adopted, I would be in no man’s land – not being able to be an Australian citizen, not being able to probably go back to Vietnam because I had no proof of being born there either.  If someone had offered on behalf of the Australian Government to search for my biological family – I’m sure I would have said I preferred that because as a child and into my teens I felt a huge sense of loss – but never spoke about it because I had indirectly absorbed expectations from society and adoptive family that I was “lucky” to be adopted – that I should be grateful to live in Australia – that I would alternatively have been dead or on the streets in Vietnam.  To a teenager, those options sound very dramatic and of course, not something I’d chose if I wanted to survive.

I didn’t feel the need to contact my biological culture and country of origins until well into my late 20s.  Short story is I had some negative issues to overcome first from what I’d experienced in my life, so it took some years to get to the bottom of things and realise as an adult that I also had deeper abandonment issues.  Once I explored those issues, I then became more ready and willing to return to my birth country and see what that would stir up.  I was 27 yrs old when I made my first trip back to Vietnam.  It was an emotionally overwhelming trip but the one highlight I remember the most was a broken english conversation with a local Vietnamese lady who said something to me which captured what I’d felt all my life, but no-one had ever said.  This Vietnamese lady asked me questions about where was I from and why was I here in Vietnam and when I very simply explained “born here but taken away as a baby to have white parents in Australia” she said, “oh, you missed out on so much!”  And yes, in essence, my return trip to Vietnam made me realise just how much I had missed out on in being adopted to another country: I had missed out on knowing my own heritage and culture, language, sense of belonging, knowing my family, the sense of community that ties these communities together despite being poorer on the wealth index, of fitting in and looking like everyone else around me, of knowing the history of the war and hearing it / experiencing the ramifications of it and understanding it at the “lived it” level, of seeing the war’s impact on people all around and understanding what drives the country forward, so much I had missed out on.  In hindsight maybe she was commenting not from the angle I interpreted but maybe as a “lucky you missed out on all the terrible ramifications of the war” but it’s not how she came across – she seemed sad for me and it was her empathy of what I was not but could easily have been which I’d never experienced before.  It was healing in itself.

For many years now I have worked voluntarily in setting up a support group for adult intercountry adoptees like myself.  My own struggles growing up in an adopted country made me realise the need for support.  In my own healing I had learned the power of group validation and empathy from others who had journeyed a similar path.  So over the 17 years since I’ve been running a group called InterCountry Adoptee Voices, I’ve met hundreds of other intercountry adoptees raised not just in Australia, but in other wealthy countries like the USA, Netherlands, England, Canada, etc .. and in my experience of listening to many others like myself, I would say yes, it is common for intercountry adoptees to have the need to want to explore their birth country and culture and learn about the other half of their identity.  For some, there is no desire at all but in general, many do end up wanting to explore this at one point in their lives.  I think for the adoptees who have been raised with very positive adoptive families who embrace all the losses and challenges and raise the child to be able to explore and talk about these freely, it definitely assists in travelling this journey of being abandoned and adopted with more ease.  What I’ve seen for the majority is the journey is usually more complicated than for the non-adopted person because we are primed from our early abandonment to struggle with connection, rejection, self worth, and a feeling of not quite belonging.

The question of whether I think there are cases of intercountry adoption that are not the best option is an awesome question!  I applaud anyone who can ask this.  I wish more Governments would ask this question.  If we look at the history of the Korean adoptions enmasse and find out their realities by talking to them today, one could conclude that many of their adoptions were done simply because of a lack of options available to single mothers.  In other Korean cases, the biological families are still together but at the time, they lacked resources to raise their children – so they sought an alternative – which in Korea, adoption is really the only option rather than changing antiquated attitudes and values.  This is reflected around the world from other sending countries, like India, China, Ethiopia, Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Usually inter-country adoption has occurred because of a lack of alternatives for the biological family.

In 2015, we live in a world where there is a massive divide between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty.  If the world divided its wealth and distributed it more equitably, I do not think there would be as huge a need for adoption.  The other issue we adoptees live is the reality that adoption legally severs our right to our own birthright – being our own identity and heritage.  This is fundamentally wrong when it is done without our consent (at a time when we are too young to understand the implications).  As per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), if we are orphaned we have a fundamental human right to know our identity and be kept with our family, community, and country.  The issue I see today is intercountry adoption has become a huge money driven machine, powered by the wealthy couples looking for a baby, with baby brokers in the middle taking advantage of the inequitable division between wealthy and poor, and uncontrolled and unpenalised by Governments around the world.  There is not enough done to ensure that all other options are investigated and empowered before allowing a child to be given up for intercountry adoption.  There is no double or triple checking done by sending or receiving countries to ensure a child is truly a legitimate orphan as defined by UNICEF, as having lost both parents.  Where there is family or community, there is not enough provided in terms of “wealth” to ensure the local/country of origin people are given options to raise the child.  There is more that could be done to facilitate micro lending for impoverished families.  There is more that could be done to help families who are struggling from lack of education and opportunities.

Intercountry adoption has become an easy solution for wealthy countries to “allow” children to be exported like a commodity because they lack the backbone to do the right thing by the child and help facilitate these poorer countries (with the exception of South Korea and now the USA since becoming a sending country) to setup enough community based options that would prevent the need for intercountry adoption.  The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has become a legitimate way for child exporting to continue without there being any legal discouragement from open trafficking which is the darkest side of this business.  I believe adoption by kin was probably the original intention that was good but the issue is adoption has become more than it was intended and there is simply a lack of will power from nations in power and those who don’t have it, to ensure the child is given all options BEFORE intercountry adoption.  This is when adoption is not the best option.

Of course there are also the numerous cases of intercountry adoptions where the adopted child gets mistreated, abused, and murdered by the adoptive family – which is an absolute easy case to highlight as to when intercountry adoption is not the best option.  Also, the cases where the adopted child ends up being deported back to it’s country of origin because the adoptive parents failed to finalise the adoption, even though they never had a say in being exported to begin with.  Then there are the cases where our birth certificates are forged and faked and again, intercountry adoption is not the best option because of this reality – that our original identities, our fundamental human right, are “as if they never existed”.  Intercountry adoptions are not the best option when there is no tracking of children and ensuring in later years of followup that it indeed has been in their “best interests” and they have grown up to become fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.

So what’s left? When are there cases of intercountry adoptions that ARE the best option?  When both sending and receiving countries have done all they could, given their joint resources, to facilitate all other options for the child’s care, including kinship care and community care, and if these still fail to work then I believe it might be a legitimate option to intercountry adopt – BUT with the original birth certificate remaining intact and with the child having full access into the future.  The child should also be allowed to have dual citizenship in both countries to facilitate ease of returning and access to services to help reunite with biological family if they wish.  There should also be a full suite of services available (e.g. psychological, social, translation, medical, financial) to help the adoptee navigate both cultures and languages and to ensure they grow up well adjusted, emotionally healthy functioning adults.

Note: What needs to be discussed is to apply question 4 from the biological family point of view.  Too often the biological families from intercountry adoption are ever sought after by media to comment and provide their longitudinal views.

The origins of InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) is it was started as a result of me seeing the power of group validation and support and how it can help one to heal our abandonment wounds by having a sense of belonging from those who have journeyed a similar path.  I started ICAV in 1998 in Australia and it has grown today to include intercountry adoptees from many countries around the world.  I think adoptees participate in ICAV because of the need to feel like someone somewhere can understand what the journey is like – the challenges, the questions, the ups and downs of search and reunions, the racism, the need for a sense of belonging, and many more.  I love my work in ICAV.  I love hearing over the years how life is travelling for adoptees and I’m always passionate about educating the wider public on the complexities and issues involved.

Adoptee Academic on UNCRC and Intercountry Adoption

It’s awesome to have academics give their input into the field of intercountry adoption – especially academics who are also intercountry adoptees.

Check out the latest research article submitted by Patrick Noordoven who has an in-depth look at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and Intercountry Adoption (ICA).

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What do you think?

You can read more from other intercountry adoptee academics.

Adoptee Anger

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quote Joan Chittister

I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger.  I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.

I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.

I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.

As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.

The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.

I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.

Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.

Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.

As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.

The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.

The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.

My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.