Lifelong Impacts of Identity Loss

On 1 July, I was asked to speak as part of a webinar panel for the Transforming Children’s Care Webinar Series #4: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care. We had an amazing panel of experts, moderated by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, President of Child Identity Protection (CHIP), and hosted by the Better Care Network in partnership with CHIP.

I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.

My Story

 I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.

I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.

I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.

The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency. 

Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.

I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.

Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity. 

In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.

When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!

I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either. 

This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.

Our ICAV Community

Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice! 

I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:

Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!

Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.

You can watch the complete webinar here.

Alternatives to Adoption?

#3 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019

Let’s say I’ve opened up and shared that intercountry adoption has put me in a place of living beside society and that I’m feeling my losses. If I open up to one family member in Sweden and one family member in my native Iran, both of them will say the same thing in response: “You should be grateful that you didn’t end up an orphan in Iran”. Implicitly all other alternatives would be worse so I don’t have the right to complain. I should stay quiet.

When discussing the alternatives to being adopted, people generally talk about prostitution, poverty, rejection from a cruel society where family is everything – basically zero prospects at all for a good life.

Would I have preferred that to the comfort of growing up in a free country and receiving an education, being able to travel? If that’s so bad, what other solution do I have?

Implicitly my Iranian relative would say that their country cannot change – that orphans will always be frowned upon and that sex outside of marriage, drug abuse or poverty are irredeemable. Implicitly my Swedish relative would believe that intercountry adoption is the best solution. There is an embedded colonialist viewpoint which only becomes visible if you reverse the reasoning: what would you think if a white, Swedish orphan was randomly sent to a strange country like Iran? When we have orphans in Sweden, what would we do with him or her? We would try WITH ALL OUR MEANS to find their relatives and place them there. If that didn’t work, we would put them in a safe home where there’s accountability and support for his or her trauma. We would make sure the child knows as much as possible about their birth family so that they can search for them at any point and always feel connected to them. This would be the alternative to adoption.

But as long as richer countries mine poorer countries for babies, using adoption as bargaining chips in diplomacy, there are no incentives for the poorer country to deal with its problems. The orphanages in my native country are still flooded. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran didn’t want to use us children as bargaining chips anymore and stopped letting the orphans go abroad. Nowadays, you need to be an Iranian citizen, you need to write over one third of your assets and you will be monitored with the baby for six months before the adoption gets finalised.

If you don’t think the Iranian way sounds like a more reasonable solution for orphans it’s probably because of the colonialist viewpoint, that western countries have to be a better option for EVERYBODY to grow up in. You probably think the stigma of being spotted at every class photo as an adoptee (italics), not knowing your native language or culture, getting questions about your background every single day and being subjected to racism from early childhood is a price everyone is willing to pay.

The most reasonable solution is, of course, what we would do to our “own” here in the West. I am aware this requires a movement in the poorer countries to create a shift. That’s why we need adoptee voices!

by Sarah Märtensson

When I see this question – I feel it’s a classic sea-lioning trope i.e., a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretence of civility and sincerity. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.

This question and others like it puts the onus on adoptees to have the solutions and answers while declining to centre adoptee voices as integral to defining the issues.

I look to guardianship over adoption, care not erasure. Care of children in crisis doesn’t need to involve wide scale secrecy, severing of family bonds and complete removal from birth culture.

An emotional and financial burden of search lies on adoptees because of the secrecy. Birth families are often disempowered and actively discouraged from contact. And yet it seems that more adoptees are open to contact if it’s led by the birth families, when the fear of rejection is lessened. No government assisted systems are in place to offer genetic testing and support for reuniting and no pressure exists from adoptive or birth countries, or the Hague Convention to do so. Adoptees are forced to deal with complicated feelings about searching because of ongoing concealment of information in adoption which is especially the norm within intercountry adoption. Clandestine practices are entirely normalised within adoption where it would otherwise be unacceptable and illegal.

The public is fascinated with family secrets and reunion stories. Television, film and books on search and reunions are plentiful but never does anyone question the reason for such punishing anonymity and severing of all biological relationships. Never does anyone ask the adoptive parents why it’s a component of adoption or ask them to imagine what affect that would have on a person, or invite them to imagine how easy it would be to talk about those feelings with adoptive parents who convey fragility and fear around the topic.

by Juliette Lam

Keep the children and babies in their own families and culture where possible, if applicable!

by Kate Coghlan

The answer to this question could be an essay, thesis, or book in itself. I can’t do it justice here but I’m going to mention some initial thoughts because it is such a relevant question. Ultimately, this question asks:

Is adoption a solution and should we be doing it? 

The underlying concept in adoption is that most people recognise humanity is not perfect, there exist children and families who struggle and need help, and most of us want to help vulnerable children but how we go about giving that help is really what we think about when we ask for alternatives to adoption. It is assumed that the legalised way of intercountry adoption must be a good thing because governments have agreed on it, they look like they have safeguards in place in the form of Conventions (The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption) and it’s been happening for decades. However, having lived the life of an intercountry adoptee and knowing thousands around the globe, my response to people who ask what alternatives to adoption is three-fold.

Firstly, I believe we should be doing more to prevent the need for intercountry adoption and many organisations are doing amazing work in this. We need people to spend the amounts of money from the adoption industry into preventative programs that focus on family and community preservation.

Here are just a handful of some amazing NGOs who are doing wonderful work to help empower families and communities to prevent the need to ever consider intercountry adoption or orphanages:
Captivating International
Selamta Family Project
Collective Calling
Pamoja Leo
Helping Children Worldwide
Martin Punaks
Friends of Shishur Sevay
I highly respect organisations like LUMOS who focus on ending institutionalisation without promoting intercountry adoption. You can read their report as they speak about funding organisations that promote community & family-based care. This is the action we need to take that helps prevent the need for intercountry adoption.

Secondly, when people ask what alternatives to adoption, I reply with asking whether they know who the top 10 sending countries are in the past 20 years. I then point out that China, South Korea and Russia are in the top 10 sending countries despite being first world nations with substantial GDPs. One has to ask why are they continuing to send their children abroad? And this includes America who is in the top 25 sending countries. Intercountry adoption is NOT about a lack of money and resources yet most people will not consider alternatives to adoption because it’s about their need for a child, having that child as “theirs” to keep forever, instead of focusing on what is best for the child. If we were interested in what is best for the child, we’d listen to adult intercountry’s adoptees who by and large, share about the difficulties of growing up between two lands. Adult intercountry adoptees say we need to do more to help keep children in their countries and address the lack of alternatives to adoption there.

This brings me to my third point. If we look to some of our first world countries who have great alternatives in place already, we know that alternatives exist and many of them work effectively.

Some examples: 
France uses Simple Adoption compared to the widely used Plenary Adoption
In Australia, some states use Guardianship/Stewardship, Kinship Care/Out-of-Home-Care, and Permanent Care/Foster Care models which have been operating for many years now. 
Sweden is rewriting their social infrastructure to ensure that children’s rights are central.
A Swiss report that compared child protection systems internationally, provided 14 recommendations of what is necessary for “good practice”.
A recent Quartz report lists the best countries in Europe who are currently providing amazing family welfare programs. This sort of social infrastructure is often missing from poverty stricken birth countries. Helping them develop family support systems would go a long way to prevent the need for ever having to consider adoption.
There are also some experts in the field like Lori Carangelo whom we can turn to and understand what they consider as alternatives to adoption. More recently, a first-of-it’s-kind research has just been released by Karleen Gribble at Western Sydney University in which she surveyed impacted foster and adoptive people, asking what we preferred to plenary adoption. Her research has been given to the Australian government by AdoptChange, where you can access the whole report for free.

I believe asking about alternatives to adoption is one the most relevant questions we should be discussing in intercountry adoption. When this is properly discussed, it leads to the realisation that other solutions exist and that holding onto an outdated Plenary Adoption model is for no useful reason other than — because “we’ve been doing it like this for decades”. People don’t like change. Change costs money. Change requires a new mindset. We do know alternatives exist, we just don’t have the political will power to change the hugely profitable industry that has built up over decades to do what is right for the children and families involved.

Intercountry adoption is all too often portrayed as the ONLY saviour to a complex problem that gets simplified to marketing concepts such as “Orphanage vs Adoption” i.e., darkness vs light, death vs living. This portrayal is overly simplistic and to think of change, we need to move away from these all or nothing concepts.

Adoption in its current Plenary form should not be a solution today given we have alternative options and more importantly, ways to prevent the need for such an extreme solution. Plenary adoption should never be a first solution. If a community and family can no longer care for their children despite first being offered many preventative strategies, then Kinship Care, Simple adoption, Guardianship models do far better to protect the rights and interests of all involved. It’s time we discuss this question fully and to listen to those who live it from a broad range of experiences.

by Lynelle Long