Two words. If one lets them, they produce countless thoughts and a potential rabbit hole so deep it feels endless. In sports, an inch in the game of football (American) can be the difference between a win and a loss, a playoff win or a ride home. For others, what if can mean the difference between life and death. Yet for adoptees, the what if is tantalizing, even if it is only presented in a binary, without any nuance. What if adoptees weren’t adopted? Well, people say, they would definitely either be dead or aborted as if that ends the debate and thus confirms how lucky we were to be saved. Either dead or adopted. Maybe that’s too extreme and we can tone down death and expand it to include either be adopted, or grow up in an orphanage and/or foster care system and see how terrible our life is — afterall, we all have our preconceived perceptions of kids stuck in the system. What if for adoptees has been transformed to “your life would suck if you weren’t adopted.” With adoptees best intentions, of course, at heart.
Surely however, there is more nuance to what if, especially as it pertains to adoptees. Nevermind the miracle of a specific sperm and egg that germinates to create each one of us. Had it been any other sperm or egg, the person might not exist or be an entirely different person. What if in each of our lives has the potential to change it in numerous directions at each stage of our life. For me personally, maybe there was a way for my first family to keep me, maybe I could have been raised by a relative, maybe even though I was in an orphanage, I could have survived the system without being adopted, maybe another Chinese family could have raised me, maybe another family could have raised me internationally, and yes, maybe I would have died in the orphanage, and maybe I would have died in a car accident.
It is amazing the confluence of factors that make something happen, but when one of those factors is changed, who is to say what the outcome might be. Yes, maybe people might concede that anything is possible. But those things didn’t take place. We can’t speculate or wish for something different, when it didn’t. People always say, “No point in playing what if games! What is fact is that you were in an orphanage starving”.
Absolutely correct! I can speculate and wish something was different but it didn’t happen. I will never know what it might have been like had something changed.
In the same vein however, people can’t say adoptees would have died or been aborted if they weren’t adopted because anything could have happened. People will never know because they were adopted and therefore they can’t know for sure what might have occurred if they didn’t. One can speculate, but that’s it. People don’t get the right to choose to play what if in a person’s life if they are unwilling to look at the entirety of that person’s existence or even their own — without also seeing the many different possibilities that life could unfold.
Some Christians make the argument that adoptees would not have known God unless they had been adopted into Christian homes. This binary of the what if suggests adoptees had to be adopted in order to be saved and would otherwise not have known God. I hate to break the news, but God does and has used any number of means to bring people to Him. To suggest otherwise and limit God is to deny His sovereignty. Maybe God used a Christian home to bring some adoptees to know God, but many equally reject God because of this same Christian home. Not every Christian comes from two Christian parents. I might have not been adopted and still known God in China. In fact, there are more Christians in China than in America (numbers are a little shaky in either place), so who is to say otherwise?
We all like to simplify complex ideas and notions to make them more digestible. But when we fail to address the nuance, we leave something out, and often to the detriment of ourselves and others. What if should not be just a tool for saviorism but should at least be presented with nuance. Maybe if we saw the world less in binaries and more in shades of grey, perhaps what if wouldn’t be such loaded two words. Maybe, just maybe, it could lead to a world of possibilities, not only in our past but hopefully and even more so, into our future.
This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.
Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.
I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.
It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.
I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.
In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.
But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.
I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.
I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.
I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.
My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.
Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.
The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.
My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.
I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.
The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.
To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.
You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.
This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.
Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.
I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.
Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?
Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.
I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.
Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.
Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.
The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?
Truth and Answers
Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.
This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,
“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”
Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:
Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.
Chaitra had none of these things in her life.
The Desire to Find Biological Family
For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:
“Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.
For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!”
When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.
This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,
“Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?“
Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”
Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:
“When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?“
As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.
Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong
For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”
Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.
An End to the Ongoing Pain
Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.
For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.
Kim shared it very clearly:
“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”
Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.
Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.”
It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.
As an adult intercountry adoptee, having been outspoken now for 20 years in ICAV, I’ve often wondered whether my intercountry adoption was legitimate or not. That means asking questions like: did my Vietnamese parents really understand the legal concept of “adoption” and relinquishment? Were they offered any other types of support to keep me? Given I came out of war torn Vietnam, was my status really as a true orphan with no surviving parents or family? Was family and kin reunification even attempted before I was adopted out to Australia? And what about any attempts to place me in my own home country first? One day I hope to find the answers to these questions if I’m lucky enough to be reunited with my biological family.
I’m sure other fellow intercountry adoptees ask themselves similar questions at some stage in their life. These are the realities we face as we grow older, mature in our understandings of the complexities of intercountry adoption, and grapple to integrate our realities with the worldwide politics that created our lives, as we know it today.
To consider oneself as trafficked as an intercountry adoptee is challenging because of the legal definition which cuts us out and doesn’t allow any legal scope to take action against the perpetrators.
Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people, within national or across international borders, for the purposes ofexploitation in the form of commercial sex, domestic service or manual labour.
Trafficking in intercountry adoption certainly exists but we cannot take legal action because of the fact that no international law or framework exists to allow us to be legally considered as “trafficked” unless we can prove we fit the criteria of “exploitation for sex or labour”.
Yet within intercountry adoption, the degrees to which we can be trafficked can vary immensely. There are those who have:
outright falsification of documentation and were stolen from their birth families, sold into intercountry adoption for profit, where legal action was taken against those who profited and it was demonstrated in a court of law, that wrong doing had transpired.
documentation that could appear suspicious but at the time not questioned further; demonstrated years later to be inconsistent or incorrect.
paperwork that appears legitimate, but at reunion decades later, the story from birth parents does not match in any way the documentation provided by the adoption agency / facilitator.
no identity paperwork exists due to having been a “lost” child and with little attempt to reunify back with family, we became sold/transacted via intercountry adoption.
Where does the spectrum of having been “trafficked for intercountry adoption” start or end? Difficult to discuss when the concept is not allowed to exist in law. Even ISS International’s best practice learnings from these types of scenarios don’t label it “trafficking”, but refer to it as “illegal adoptions” in their Handbook. And out of the conclusions and recommendations in that handbook, the question has to be asked how many of the Hague signatories have a process to enable biological family, adoptive parents, or adult adoptees who suspect illicit practices (i.e., trafficking) be given any type of support or process – financially, legally, or emotionally?
On 7 December 2017, ICAV facilitated a small group of 7 intercountry adoptees representing India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka to request the Australian Federal Government, via Department of Social Services (DSS), consider providing some financial support to those who have been trafficked in various degrees. For these adoptees, no amount of money is ever going to compensate for their losses and trauma directly brought on by the degree of trafficking they have endured. Not to mention their biological family! But we can at least ask that some forms of restorative justice be provided by the powers to be who facilitate adoptions and allow it to continue.
There is no way of ultimately fixing the dilemma caused by trafficking in intercountry adoption because adoption IS legally binding, despite the existence of cases of successful prosecution against those who falsified documents.
Sadly, the only legal case that can be made in intercountry adoption for known trafficking is for falsification of documents. The perpetrators get a slap on the wrist, some jail time, and a small fine (compared to how much they profited). In comparison, what does the adoptee or biological family get? Nothing. Not even services to help them move through and past this unnecessary trauma.
I want to raise awareness of the impacts trafficking has on those adoptees who have to live it, forever. Their voices are unheard and diminished by those who advocate for adoption. Their experiences go by without us learning from the mistakes and putting in place much needed processes and international laws to prevent further injustices like theirs. For them, even when the perpetrator is punished by law, they as adoptees are left to live the consequences with NO recognition of what they’ve had to endure. There is NO justice for them.
Please read Roopali’s story. Hers is an example of living the lifelong consequences of an adoption in which it appears her first parents did not voluntarily consent, nor was she a true orphan, and she was old enough to be listened to and given a choice. Her story gives voice to the extra challenges endured directly as a result of having been “trafficked” to some degree. She was brave enough to share her story to the Australian Government with ICAV in 2015 when we met the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisors. There was not a single dry eye in the room, we were all so affected by the obvious trauma she endures day to day. Trafficking of vulnerable children via intercountry adoption needs to stop!
I hope Roopali’s story encourages others to speak out and demand from their governments that action towards legal recognition of “trafficking” via intercountry adoption AND restorative justice needs to occur.
I had no idea that I had a deep need to see my children feeling happy. I realise now how negatively I viewed anger and frustration. I hadn’t realised that when I set out to adopt a child, part of it was about fixing a broken child. I had so much love to give, and I thought I could love a baby until he was whole again. p94
LIONHEART: The Real Life Guide for Adoptive Families is a book written by what I would term awesomely switched on adoptive parents. If all adoptive parents were as embracing of our traumatic beginnings as these 3 couples, with the efforts they’ve clearly gone to to deal with the complexities involved, my guesstimate is – we would see far less tragic and negative outcomes from intercountry adoption worldwide.
This book needs to be read by prospective adoptive parents in every receiving country! In America alone, this book would make a HUGE impact to the necessary and truthful education that should be provided to prospective parents about the reality of the task they are taking on via intercountry adoption.
This book is the best hands-on manual I’ve read that comprehensively gives prospective and adoptive parents a relevant guide to handle the challenges we inevitably bring as adopted people. From the go-start, the authors make it clear this is not a book for the faint hearted, hence the title Lionheart. The authors outline the reality which I’ve also experienced as an intercountry adoptee, raised in the same type of family as represented in their book i.e., of being an intercountry adopted child amongst adoptive parent’s biological children.
I related to this book on a few levels. Firstly as an adult intercountry adoptee I saw myself through the journey’s of their adopted children – struggling to feel secure, behaving in many of the same ways in childhood, wanting to develop trust but afraid, confronting many of the same challenges, etc.
” … parenting a baby who was both desperately ill and emotionally scarred is different in a lot of ways. I am a biological and adoptive parent, and I can tell you from first hand experience, they are not the same.” p90
Secondly, as a parent to my own biological child with additional needs, this book was a reflection of my own parenting across the past 11 years! I could totally relate to the sensory issues, the challenging behaviours, the search for answers and therapies, the exhaustion of trying desperately to find something that works, and the differences in parenting a child with no additional needs versus one with many, etc. The authors correctly make the connection, that adopting a child is literally the same as having a child with additional needs.
Much of the standard advice for parenting children with a mental illness applies to adoptive families. p102
Thirdly, these 3 families came together to form their own support network because they realised they were in a unique situation and that support was crucial to their survival in adoption. This book came about as a result of their friendship, from supporting each other and realising the lessons learnt could be valuable to others. So too, I have built a support network with my fellow adult intercountry adoptees, and we have produced many great papers, books and resources that are of value to others.
The one area this book doesn’t cover at all, which I would recommend any prospective and adoptive parents investigate, are the big picture ethical, political, social, and human rights questions and dilemmas within intercountry adoption. My personal adoption journey is a lifelong one and what I’ve noticed particularly after having children of my own, is I’ve slowly opened my eyes to the bigger picture of intercountry adoption. This stage includes asking questions my adoptive parents never asked but which sit deep within and eventually rise to the surface.
Questions such as: was my relinquishment and hence adoption legitimate, was money exchanged and was it equivalent to what it would cost to process the adoption or was money made from the transaction, who gained from that money, how many children are sent from my birth country each year and why, what happens for the birth families and how do they cope after losing their child, what if they didn’t have to loose their child and how can we empower that option?
Human rights questions like: what did my birth country do to try and help keep me with my family, my extended family, my community, my country, before I was intercountry adopted out? How did my adoptive parents participate in this trade/business? Was it willingly or blindly? Does it make any difference? Is intercountry adoption as black and white as generally portrayed in media? Were there other outcomes I as an adoptee might have lived, if I had not been adopted in an adoption industry fuelled by money?
Maturing in my understanding of adoption, I’ve realised it is not what it first appears and we need to prepare adopted children at age appropriate stages for the big picture questions. The book had a couple of intersections where this could have been explored but was not. For example, the death of a child allocated to one adoptive family and later because of the grief and feelings of loss, the parents changed country and agency to adopt from. Then in a different chapter, one adopted child asks (what is termed a “strange” question), “can you buy a child?” I pondered how can it be that we adoptees clearly see the connection but not adoptive parents. In our simple view, if you choose and select a child from whatever country you wish, or change because it doesn’t suit any longer, pay some money to process the transaction, how is this not akin to shopping i.e., buying a child? Is the question really that strange? It’s a powerful reality we adoptees eventually come to question and reflects just one aspect of the social-political-economic-gender complexities which all adoptive parents would be wise to consider and discuss openly as adopted children grow up.
Within ICAV, I can vouch we DO think and discuss these higher level complex issues. We also write extensively about how intercountry adoption is facilitated, by whom, whether the cycle is perpetuated by demand (prospective parents), and why we have no legal rights – clearly apparent when our adoptions break down, we are trafficked or have falsified documents, or suffer abuse or deportation.
Perhaps the authors of the book have yet to reach this stage with their children and that could possibly explain why it is absent. If so, I would love to see them write in years to come, a longitudinal book covering the later stages of adoptive parenting as their children grow to my age and beyond.
Regardless of the omission of big picture questions, I’d highly recommend this book to all prospective parents because it’s certainly a massive head start from the help adoptive parents from my generation received.
This book provides a no-punches spared, honest account of what REALLY happens when you adopt a child from a foreign country. The premise of the parenting advice comes from a trauma informed and attached parenting perspective. In my opinion as an intercountry adoptee, this is a true account of the emotional baggage we come with regardless of whether we are adopted as infants or not. I have written before we are not blank slates. If prospective parents are NOT prepared to take on the realities as presented in this amazing resource written by experienced adoptive parents, then I suggest intercountry adopting a child may not be for you. But if they are willing to embrace what this book has to offer, plus be open to discuss the bigger picture of intercountry adoption, I believe this will enable your family, the best chance of better outcomes.
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.
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.
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?
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.