The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

When abuse happens to a child from the very people who are supposed to protect it, a devastating legacy of impacts is created. I lived with my adoptive family for 19 years until they left to go overseas to be missionaries. Up until that point in my life, I had learnt to suppress my truths and bury it deep within my body.

How can one ever describe the impacts and legacy we are left with as a victim of sexual abuse within an adoptive family? Words feel inadequate.

The Worst Crime is Being Expected Not to Tell – Darrell Hammond

I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Up life story on Netflix – it helped me find the words. I highly recommend watching it for those who seriously want to understand childhood trauma and the legacy it leaves. I related to his story on so many levels: the anger at self for having been so vulnerable, the conflicting emotions about these very people who are your parents who others only see as amazing and wonderful people, the memories of abuse where my body felt violated, disrespected and used for their own purposes, the coping mechanisms I developed to survive, the trail of devastation left behind in early relationships and choices because I knew no better until I got professional help, the attempts to take my life because the pain was so unbearable, the depression, the darkness that would consume me. So many parallels with the life I lived until I found help and healing. Thankfully it didn’t take me over 50 years, but it certainly consumed a large part of my prime adult life and I still continue to deal with the impacts to this day. I think this is the part most people don’t understand which Darryl’s documentary highlights – our trauma never leaves us – what can get better, is that we learn to forgive ourselves for our survival and coping mechanisms, and we can learn to reconnect with and care about ourselves. It is a lifetime journey of healing and coming to terms with what was taken from us – our innocence and potential to live life without those brutal scars.

Each day, each week, each year I struggle to comprehend my adoptive family. My childhood mind just can’t integrate that they could have been so cruel, nasty, neglectful, mean — but yet they were also my saviours, my lifeline to surviving a war, my rescuers. It is their unspoken expectation that I should just get on with life as if nothing has happened that continues to hurt the most. I did this for many years but it becomes harder the older I get and I can no longer accept this anymore. I can no longer deny the emotional impact I feel each time I interact with them. It’s been so hard to pretend that I don’t hurt, I can’t do it anymore. What they choose to see is a strong, resilient survivor who has overcome. Yes that is part of who I am, but what they don’t want to see, is the other half – the hurt, traumatised inner child me who wants to be protected, loved and nurtured. I have had to learn to give to myself because they have not been capable. Not one member of my adoptive family wants to know how I’m impacted or understand my struggle. This is because their shame is deeper than my pain. This is what no-one will talk about. It did not escape my notice that Darryl Hammond tells his story publicly after both his parents have deceased. I recognise we subconsciously protect our parents if they’ve abused us and it’s at our cost in mental health, to do so. This is the sad reality of childhood trauma inflicted upon us by our supposedly “loving” parents.

I’ve barely written about this topic in over 20 years – in places I refer to it briefly but rarely in-depth. It’s not a topic I love nor is it a topic I talk about to shame my family. I do so now, to encourage others who are tortured by the shame of what happened to them — to speak out, find their voice and empower themselves. The first article I wrote on this topic I kept anonymous out of my own shame and desire to protect my adoptive family. I look back at how ridiculous it is that I should have ever felt I had to protect them. As an adopted person, there is nothing worse than being relinquished by my first family then being unprotected by my second. My layers of loss and grief are multiplied!

We never forget what happens to us as survivors of sexual abuse, we can only simply move forward from the hate and anger that is so valid, to realising it only damages ourselves if we allow it to fester or hurt ourself. For my own survival, I have to live with it and move on – somehow I’ve learnt to remain true to my own needs and ensure my life is no longer controlled by the thoughtless actions of the perpetrators many years ago, or the shame and guilt that controls them now.

My sexual life is forever tarnished and damaged. I will never have a relationship with my partner that I might have had, had I not been sexually interfered with. Being abused in this manner has always compounded my ability to trust, to want to be close, to feel safe with people and figures in power, it destroys my belief in a greater power – my spirituality. It was not surprising that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, the documentary Revelation revealed that many children had suicided whom the investigators attributed directly to having been sexually abused. It is no secret that many of us who have been abused end up self intoxicating, destroying ourselves because our soul is so damaged and hurt. We just want the pain to end, we want someone to reach out and help us.

I cry for the child within me who was so vulnerable and trusting but was so misled and taken advantage of by the males in my adoptive family (extended and immediate). I cry for those all over the world who have to live with this horrendous crime to us as innocent children. Sexual abuse is a terrible reality for anyone but having it done to you from within an adoptive family adds so many more complex layers of trauma that become almost impossible to unravel and deal with. Relinquishment trauma in and of itself is terrible enough. Relinquishment and then abuse in adoptive family is just soul destroying. I hope one day people will stop talking about adoption as if it always saves us and awaken to the realisation that sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse is too prevalent in adoptive family environments. We need to change this!

I want to note that I have met many amazing adoptive parents and I am not that bitter and twisted to label them all with this brush stroke, but I do want to awaken our society to the biggest myth that adoption saves us. From a place of honesty – for those of us who live abuse in adoptive families, it is likely the biggest silent killer of adoptees!

I never spoke up while I was young because I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends and strangers. I never spoke up because I was made to feel like shit in my adoptive family, picked on, singled out, the family slave, called names like “tree trunks” or “monkey face”. I remember one young man Matthew, I never forgot him, he was a rare one who was kind to me and could sense what was going on. Matthew was employed as our new farm hand by my father to help out. He was blonde, blue eyed, respectful and strong. I remember he stood up to my adoptive father questioning why he was so tough on me, forcing me to do the labour a young man like himself could do, but yet I was pubescent girl. My father quickly got rid of him. I never heard or saw from Matthew again.

I wonder how Matthew is today and whether he found another job. I felt bad that it was because of me that he lost his job but to this day, I always remember him for being kind without sexual implications and very respectful of me. He had shown pure concern for me. I wish he’d reported my father and his ways. Little does he know how far my father went with the abuse and if he knew, he’d probably hate that he didn’t do something.

My friends at church and school sometimes saw how my father treated me but it seems no-one reported anything. Why would they? My mother was the school Principal, my parents both seen as strong Christians with a missionary background, active in the church and community, leading the youth groups, hosting the fire brigade. I wasn’t acting out. I was a school academic and high achiever. I wasn’t into drugs. But I retreated within myself. I always thought I was an introvert until my adoptive family left while I remained behind to start Year 12 while they went to live and work overseas as missionaries.

In reconnecting with some of my extended adoptive family in the past few years, it has confirmed that some had concerns about how I was being treated from as early as toddler years. Some have said to me they wish in hindsight, that they had done more, reported their suspicions. As an adopted person, I’ve just never experienced a protective or safe parent. I grieve that!

I have the resilience these days to watch things like Revelation and Cracked Up. I use to avoid because I’d be such a wreck watching anything that closely resembled my traumas. I have learnt to turn my emotional churning into something constructive. I write to share with the wider world about how we can better protect vulnerable children. I turn my childhood tragedy into an opportunity to speak out and empower others to do likewise. I advocate for those who are still struggling to find their voices. I talk about the hushed up topics that people don’t want to discuss. I speak out to give hope to other adoptees like me, with the message that your life doesn’t have to be destroyed. There is a way to heal and move forward. We don’t have to stay ashamed. We have nothing to be ashamed of! We can speak up even if we don’t get legal justice. We can help encourage our fellow sufferers to find their braveness and shed off their mantles of shame. It’s not ours to carry, it is the system and the adults who fail to protect the most vulnerable!

I speak out to bring light to this hidden tragedy of sexual abuse within adoptive families. We don’t even know what our rates of sexual abuse are because nobody captures it or researches whether we are more prone to sexual abuse in adoptive families than others. I can only refer to research in similar situations like foster care and if our statistics somewhat mirrored foster care, then we really are the silent victims because we don’t have any one monitoring us once we join our adoptive family. We have no avenues to call out for help. We are totally vulnerable within our adoptive family. We have to do better to protect vulnerable children and ensure we are placed in better environments than what we have already lost. Sexual abuse in adoption must be talked about for this change to happen!

Coming Next: Part 3 – What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families

Trauma Informed Resources

Adoption Like This Has To STOP!

To my fellow adoptees who were triggered recently by the news about the Stauffer family who publicly told the world about rehoming their 4 year old little boy Huxley (of Chinese origins also living with autism).

I speak out with you in solidarity against the way some adoptive families and the adoption industry continues to treat us as a commodity! The recent coverage crassly reminds us of how traumatic our life has been .. the adoption wounds together with our bedrock of relinquishment trauma, gets further layered upon when multiple abandonments occur. I know when the “system” allows or facilitates re-abandonment like this (deportation is another form), we personally feel violated, as if it has literally happened to us, again.

I personally know adoptees who have lived this experience of being relinquished by multiple adoptive families – “rehoming” is such an impersonal term for an experience that is so immensely personal! What most people don’t understand is the trauma never leaves our being and it takes us decades to war through it – if we get through at all!

I want adoptees who suffered this experience to know, it wasn’t something wrong with you — it’s that there is SO much wrong with the current system of intercountry adoption that allows this to happen.

The recent experience highlights everything we adoptees speak up about that is wrong. We are treated like a commodity! Given away and discarded when it becomes too hard, not the ideal that the family signed up for (and purchased).

There is something inherently wrong with the mantra of adoption that everyone naively believes Huxley will be better off with his second family. This assumes that second time round, the agency and adoptive family will get it right — but our lived reality of adoption highlights that the process of matching is such a random lottery! The agency may do no better the second time round, especially when they have no incentive or punishment for either outcome, nor are they forced to be held accountable for failures like this or to report it.

I’m sure that you, like me, might feel mad about this situation because we continue to receive the message that something is wrong with us – that we are not good enough. As relinquished children, this is an internalised message we spend our lives fighting to correct! We often feel like damaged goods. Sadly, not even the best adoptive family in the world can ensure Huxley or others like him, come out of messes like this without lifelong consequences.

The system is wrong when prospective parents are not adequately assessed, educated from a trauma informed base, nor rejected. Not everyone should be given the privilege to parent us! It takes a very gifted and emotionally aware type of person to truly help an already traumatised child to heal, flourish, and feel accepted enough to be able to overcome their beginnings!

There is also not enough post adoption supports to ensure better long term outcomes. Governments and agencies treat adoption like a once-off transaction where their responsibility ends the day our adoptive parents take us home. They are rarely given adequate support and their “education” ends the day the transaction is complete, whereas we know, every phase of life opens up a new layer of complexities to unravel. We have no independent advocate who watches out for us long term to make sure we flourish and no reports exist on our long term outcomes over decades. There are certainly very few mechanisms for adoptees to report or take action at the time or later on, when we are mistreated or further damaged. Will Huxley be given a fund from the adoption agency or first adoptive family to provide him with a never ending supply of professional helps should he want – to wade through the maze of compounded traumas? I can’t imagine so! And when we speak out about experiences like this, our voices are usually silenced in preference for the adoptive parents and it is expected the child should “move on” as if a “magical other adoptive family” will “fix us”, so we can live happily ever after! Problem is, we are not living a fairy tale and the next adoptive family is probably not given extra post adoption supports for life either!

The myths in adoption such as “forever family” create unrealistic ideals of adoption that add to the mountains we adoptees and our adoptive families have to overcome. Even with the best family and resources, sometimes there is just too much trauma and sometimes, nothing ever makes it better! Do they teach prospective parents this to set more realistic expectations?

What makes this recent experience for Huxley so triggering for me, is the lack of respect for his personal journey and struggles – his journey made public from day zero with almost a million viewers seeing every detail! His additional challenges publicly displayed to the whole world. That the family monetised their YouTube channel off the back of his trauma is unforgiveable and he will one day consider all this when he’s in his 30s or 40s and ask all the questions we adult intercountry adoptees ask now — how could a family do that, when they are supposed to be supporting and loving? Was it ever really about him or them? We are not a cockle or a peacock to be displayed and show cased when it suits for adoptive parents to be seen as a saviour! Our journey is a lifetime of trauma and loss! Ignorance on a scale like this only acts to compound existing traumas. I wonder if he’ll consider it abuse when he’s older? I would.

It is not okay to participate in an adoption system that churns and spits out adoptees as if we are a gidget with no feelings or soul! We are of immense value, we are vulnerable and deserve better. If this is how intercountry adoption is conducted, we should be all shouting out for it to stop until it’s done in a more appropriate manner that respects us as human beings and teaches families that you either take us with all our gifts and challenges – or you let us go, help us stay with our family and culture, or with another family who has the capability to be there for us long term! With the sheer volume of adoptee led platforms in cyberspace that provide education and insight into our journeys, I wonder how any adoptive parent or agency can continue to claim ignorance and naivety.

I hope the collective anger we adoptees feel right now will encourage us all to shout out from the roof tops about our experiences and free ourselves from the inherent shame we feel in being abandoned and rejected. This is not our shame to bear – it is a system that perpetuates further trauma onto our already traumatised bedrock.

For adoptees who experience rehoming, it’s abandonment multiple times. There is nothing wrong with us but everything wrong with a system that perpetuates a type of people who adopt from a naive and grossly inadequate understanding, fooling themselves into believing they can rescue us – only to fall flat on their faces. I’m a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. I totally know how hard parenting can be – but I’m also an intercountry adoptee with foundational traumas and I understand how important it is, that we get this right so that the trauma vulnerable children live, is no longer compounded by the damaging system we see glaring right in front of us!

Note: I have been astounded by how many amazing and astute adoptive parents exist out there in cyberspace who have been as angry about this as I. I hope that you too will turn that anger into encouraging adoptees to speak out and be heard. Help to elevate our voices!

Resources

Reuter’s Rehoming Expose

Since sharing my thoughts, I have seen many other intercountry adoptees writing and sharing theirs! Wonderful to see our voices coming out of the dark and giving exposure! Here’s a list of what’s been written since:

https://redthreadbroken.wordpress.com/…/myka-stauffer…/

https://gal-dem.com/huxley-adoption-story-youtube…/

https://www.mother.ly/news/myka-stauffer-adoption (this article includes Prof JaeRan Kim, also an intercountry adoptee and the only academic who has so far researched intercountry adoption breakdowns)

https://taylorshennett.wordpress.com/…/a-chinese…/

https://stephaniedrenka.com/open-letter-myka-stauffer/

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/…/huxley-stauffer-youtube… (this article includes Susan Cox, also an intercountry adoptee who works for Holt International)

https://www.insider.com/im-an-adoptee-im-tired-white…

https://danielibnzayd.wordpress.com/2020/05/29/adoptive-parents-not-your-story-to-tell/?fbclid=IwAR35OG2l4M28K4M2-AfcorS7yIW9DjHI_I9sXJim7MJ6QUL7vATtI2Dzb