Review: One Child Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Including Those Most Impacted in Policy Discussions

I’m an intercountry adoptee born during the Vietnam War in the early 70s, adopted prior to the war ending, to a white Australian family who had their own biological children. My childhood adoption experience was one where I never really understood that I was impacted by being adopted – I absorbed the mantra of the era that I would just “assimilate and fit in” with my new country and family. I spent a lot of energy trying to do just that, but as I reached my teens, I started to become aware that things weren’t quite the same for me as for my Australian peers. I seemed to struggle more in relationships, I definitely felt alone all my life even amongst a so-called “loving adoptive family”. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I became acutely aware of how much I had absorbed the racism towards my own ethnicity, my Asianness. It took me a decade to explore how being adopted impacted me and I grew through this journey because of the many other adoptees who I met online and face to face in the community I built up. It was the isolation of my childhood that drove me to create this community, that is now one of the largest intercountry adoptee networks around the world that includes adoptees of any birth country and it is this community, that enabled me to grow, learn and find my voice. Today, this network is one of the largest online communities that encourages adult intercountry adoptees to speak out at government level (nationally and internationally) and seek involvement with policy discussions.

Why be involved in policy discussions? And what is so important about being involved?  Let’s first clarify what is meant by policy. Referring to Wikipedia’s content on “policy”, we consider it to be: a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes; a statement of intent that assists in decision making; different to rules or law where policy guides actions towards the desired outcome whereas law compels or prohibits behaviours; should include looking at the alternatives and choosing among them on the basis of the impact they will have; and is about trying to maximise the intended effects while aiming to minimise the unintended effects.

When it comes to intercountry adoption and how it is conducted in each birth and adoptive country, we all know that regardless of being a signatory of The Hague Convention or the Childs Rights Convention, laws and policies vary from one country to another because of the ways in which intercountry adoption is understood and implemented, both in theory and in practice.

Artwork by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

At the heart of all this, WE are the children who grow up to become adults and it is us whom intercountry adoption is all about. In theory, intercountry adoption exists because it supposedly provides for us due to our vulnerable situations in which we are not able, for whatever reason, to be looked after by our first parents. Many of us are the recipients of past and current intercountry adoption policies or a lack thereof, and in ICAV we talk openly about the known pitfalls and issues that being intercountry adopted creates. Many of our birth countries view adoption as a once off transaction that involves legally handing us over to our new forever families and countries. However, we know from our lived experience, that adoption is not a once-off transaction — it is a psychological journey that lasts our lifetime – for which we are forever impacted, for good, bad, and every other shade of experience in between.

At ICAV, we speak openly about the many complexities of intercountry adoption that impact us. For instance, our right to original identity is ignored because most adoptive countries issue us with a new “as if born to” birth certificate upon adoption. Most countries also completely sever our legal right to our family of origin through the use of plenary adoption (as compared to simple adoption which would maintain kin connections). Most of us have very limited to no access to our adoption paperwork which once provided (until DNA technology) our only ability to find our first families and our origins. Our paperwork can vary from being outright falsified to containing some elements of truth but in too many cases, it’s modified to make us seem more marketable for prospective families, hiding our truths including fundamentally important medical information and history. For those adoptees who ended up in intercountry adoption via illegal or illicit means, there is a lifetime of injustice that we are expected to live with, with little to no supports. For those who end up in an adoptive family that isn’t a good match, we end up suffering further layers of trauma. Too often people and governments forget, that our foundation is relinquishment / in utero trauma from being separated from our biological mother.

In ICAV, we encourage our members and leaders to seek out ways in which adoptees can be heard at government level where policy is created that constructs the future of our lives. We believe it’s important for government to understand the ways in which policy impacts our lives. Without this understanding, how can policy be in our “best interests”? How can adults who have never lived our experience possibly know what is best for us? Having adoptee voices involved in policy means inviting us to the table, really listening to our points of view, incorporating what we say into policy, and recognising we are the experts of our own experience.

The fundamental premise of intercountry adoption is to give a vulnerable child a “family” and “country” to belong with. Why attempt to do good for vulnerable people if you aren’t going to listen to how effective or not the policy and practice is? Governments can only truly understand the real impacts (positive and negative) of their policies by listening to those whom it involves. In intercountry adoption, this is the adoptee, first families, and adoptive families, not the adoption agencies, the lawyers, nor any other intermediary. Without listening to our voices, governments run the risk of continuing to make the same mistakes they’ve made from the beginning.

One of the worst mistakes that has been made in modern intercountry adoption since it’s beginnings in the 1950s and 60s (beginning with the Greek, German and South Korean adoptees), is to not do enough to curb the monetary incentives in intercountry adoption that allow intermediaries to take advantage of the lack of, or to bypass, policies and laws allowing them to facilitate and participate in illegal and illicit practices. We have generation upon generation of impacted adoptees who’s adoptions were illicit or outright illegal. They have nowhere to turn and certainly have very little justice. Today governments around the world today should be concerned at the growing momentum of groups of first families and adult intercountry adoptees who have already sought legal pathways to take actions for the failures of the past.

For example, Chilean mothers of loss are working together with Chilean Adoptees Worldwide (CAW) and have demanded an investigation into their adoptions from the 70s and 80s. The investigation in Chile has found that a large number of the children who left Chile during that era were not voluntarily relinquished for adoption and they are seeking justice.

Similarly, Guatemalan adoptees have banded together from around the world and are demanding an investigation by the Guatemalan and Belgium governments. A most recent well known legal case is of a biological father who won at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and sentenced the State of Guatemala for irregular adoption and use of illegal procedures. View video here .

Another example is Brazilian adoptee Patrick Noordoven who became the first in the Netherlands to win a legal case for his Right to Original Identity. With this win, the Dutch Ministry of Justice is now investigating the role of the Dutch Government in illegal adoptions from Brazil, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia! See article here.

Artwork by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

When governments fail to respond responsibly for their roles or for the roles individual facilitators played, in historic adoptions, it leaves those impacted no other choice but to find legal pathways to seek justice. We now have over 70 years of modern intercountry adoption around the world with our adoptee numbers in the hundreds of thousands from many different birth countries. Asia is by far the the largest sending continent of children (Peter Selman, HCCH Statistics). Adoptees en-masse have reached maturity where they question their identity, how they came to be raised in another country often with parents of dissimilar race, and to think critically of why they have been sent away from their countries of birth. Our adoptee movement is growing and gaining momentum. ICAV often speaks about the lack of an international body to hold governments accountable for their roles played in facilitating or turning a blind eye to the historic illegal and illicit practices.

Could there could be another pathway? If governments would be willing to listen to those impacted – to learn from the lessons of the past and ensure we don’t continue to repeat the same mistakes?

Part of the ICAV Vision is: A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.

This can only be achieved if those in power in government value and engage us. When our voices are ignored, government acts contrary to their goal of acting in our “best interests”, instead they set up adoptive, first families and adoptees for failure at worst, or more preventable trauma at minimum.

Another of the largest areas of policy failure in intercountry adoption around the world for any government, is the lack of freely funded, equitable, lifelong comprehensive post adoption supports that are trauma and resilience informed, with inclusion in service delivery from those who know the journey best – adoptees, adoptive and first families. 

Anyone who has lived intercountry adoption knows intimately that our journey is one of multiple losses that exhibits as trauma and must be supported throughout our life. By inviting adoptees, first families, and adoptive families to share the lessons learnt from lived experience, government will better ensure they decrease the risks of unintended consequences and become more responsive in their policy making.

Inviting us to participate, listening to us with genuine openness and respect, hearing our experiences and heeding our lessons learnt — this is how governments can strengthen their outcomes and become more innovative and balanced. It is not agencies or intermediaries that government should be engaging and listening to the most, it is adoptees, first and adoptive families! I hope to see the day when we will be equally represented and invited to be involved in government policy and legislative forums for intercountry adoption! 

This article was initially written in response to a request for a Korean publication but was subsequently unpublished. The request asked me to write about the importance of including the voices of adoptees in policy forums.

Vulnerable children are not blank slates

Honduras Feature.jpg

Today I want to share with you Joey’s Journey. He is one of the few male Chinese intercountry adoptees adopted out of China who I hear from, due to the 1-child policy that has seen an unequal proportion of females being adopted out, rather than males.

Joey’s experience highlights the issue I wrote about in my LION review early this year; of trauma that occurs prior to adoption and how adoptive families cope (or not) with this. How it impacts everyone in the adoptive family and how our society turns a blind eye to this aspect of adoption.

Adoption agencies and governments (both sending and receiving) need to step-up and be accountable because after 60-plus generations of  intercountry adoption worldwide, with all the blogs and forums now available where adult intercountry adoptees are actively speaking out, governments and agencies need to embrace what we who live it are saying and start to make changes in intercountry adoption policy and practice. Without this, we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

Change could include things such as:

  • family preservation and support first to be reunited if lost, support if a known disability exists, micro financing if poverty is the reason why families are placing their child in an orphanage to begin with.
  • extensive trauma training within our sending countries. It begins at the start. Carers of vulnerable children need to recognise the trauma a child goes through in being separated from their genetic family. Having multiple carers go through a child’s life while in an orphanage or foster care is not optimal. Look at ways to reduce this and ways to identify those children more at risk and develop early intervention pathways that flow into the transition a child undergoes when being adopted to a foreign country.
  • mandatory trauma training of social workers and professionals who are assessing prospective adoptive parents. How can we expect adoptive families to “get it” if those assessing them don’t even understand the depths of trauma that vulnerable children are living daily and will live with, forever?
  • mandatory trauma training of prospective parents who are deemed eligible not just in the early phases of considering adopting a child, but once they’ve been approved and when matches are made, this trauma training needs to continue long past picking up the child and bringing them home.
  • develop centralised portals of trauma specialists who adoptive parents can turn to from the beginning of their journey and through out, to ensure they are surrounded by the right professional supports.
  • adopting multiple children to one family at the same time should not happen if the adoptive parents have no experience in adopting/fostering or caring for vulnerable children. I’ve written before about the practice of separating biologically related children (twins) and keeping bio siblings together should be the only exception for allowing multiple children into one family at the same time  – but with the requirement that a full support plan needs to be in place.

I’m not saying we adoptees have the answers or that any solutions will be easy, but at least we can start the conversations and bring these issues to the forefront!