Adoptees at the Hague Special Commission

Next week on 4-8 July, the 104 signatory countries of the Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption will gather online together at the Special Commission meeting to discuss Post Adoption and Illicit / Illegal Adoption matters. It is a significant event that happens usually every 5 years and this marks the first time there will be broad representation of intercountry adoptees attending as Observers. Historically since 2005, International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA), the network representing Korean adoptee interests has been the only adoptee organisation to attend. In 2015, Brazil Baby Affair (BBA) was the second adoptee led organisation to attend with IKAA. Due to COVID, this current Special Commission meeting was postponed and over the past years, I can proudly say I have helped to spread the knowledge amongst adoptee led organisations of HOW to apply and encouraged lived experience organisations like KUMFA (the Korean mothers organisation) to represent themselves. This year, we proudly have 6 adoptee led organisations representing themselves and their communities. We have progressed!

Back in 2015, I wrote the blog titled Why is it Important to have Intercountry Adoptee Voices on this website. Many times over the years I have advocated about the importance of our voices being included at the highest levels of government discussions. So I say again, our voices are immensely important at these highest levels of adoption policy, practice and legislation discussions.

Some critics might say we change nothing in intercountry adoption by attending these meetings, however, I would like to suggest that merely seeing us represent our adult selves in numbers, helps governments and authorities realise a few key points:

  • We grow up! We don’t remain perpetual children.
  • We want to have a say in what happens to future children like ourselves.
  • We help keep them focused on “who” we really are! We are not nameless numbers and statistics. We are alive people with real feelings, thoughts and a myriad of experiences. Their decisions MATTER and impact us for life and our future generations!
  • We help them learn the lessons from the past to make things better for the future and remedy the historic wrongs.
  • We are the experts of our lived experience and they can leverage from our input to gain insights to do their roles better and improve the way vulnerable children are looked after.

One of the advantages of the framework of the Hague Convention, is that it creates opportunities like the upcoming Special Commission where adoptees can have visibility and access to the power structures and authorities who define and create intercountry adoption. Domestic adoptees lack this framework at a global scale and are disadvantaged in having opportunities that bring them together to access information and people which is important in advocacy work.

I’m really proud of our team of 8 who are representing ICAV at this year’s meeting. I have ensured we cover a range of adoptive and birth countries because it’s so important to have this diversity in experiences. Yes, there’s still room for improvement, but I’ve been limited by people’s availability and other commitments given we all do this work as volunteers. We are not paid as government or most NGO participants at this upcoming meeting. We get involved because we are passionate about trying to improve things for our communities! Equipping ourselves with knowledge on the power structures that define our experience is essential.

Huge thanks to these adoptees who are volunteering 5 days/nights of their time and effort to represent our global community!

  • Abby Forero-Hilty (adopted to the USA, currently in Canada, born in Colombia; Author of Colombian adoptee anthology Decoding Our Origins, Co-founder of Colombian Raíces; ICAV International Representative)
  • Cherish Asha Bolton (adopted to the USA, born in India, President of People for Ethical Adoption Reform PEAR; ICAV USA Representative)
  • Colin Cadier (adopted to France, born in Brazil, President of La Voix Des Adoptes LVDA)
  • Jeannie Glienna (adopted to the USA, born in the Philippines, Co-founder of Adoptee Kwento Kwento)
  • Judith Alexis Augustine Craig (adopted to Canada, born in Haiti; Co-founder of Adult Adoptee Network Ontario)
  • Kayla Zheng (adopted to the USA, born in China; ICAV USA Representative)
  • Luda Merino (adopted to Spain, born in Russia)
  • Myself, Lynelle Long (adopted to Australia, born in Vietnam; Founder of ICAV)

We represent ourselves together with our adoptee colleagues who represent their own adoptee led organisations as Observers:

I’m not expecting great changes or monumental happenings at this upcoming meeting, but it’s the connections we make that matter whether that be between ourselves as adoptees and/or with the various government and NGO organisations represented. Change in this space takes decades but I hope for the small connections that grow over time that accumulate and become a positive influence.

The next few posts will be sharing some of the key messages some of our team put together in preparation for this Hague Special Commission meeting on Post Adoption Support and what the community via these leaders, wish to share. Stay tuned!

Sue-Yen Bylund on Racism

On 3 April 2022, a group of 19 Australian intercountry adoptees participated in an ICAV consultation for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) who have developed a Concept Paper for a National Anti-Racism Framework. We believe intercountry/transracial adoptees are under represented in race discussions in almost every adoptive country and wanted to make sure we had a say. The next few blogs will be a selection of the inputs from adoptees who participated to give a more nuanced insight into our lived experience of racism and our thoughts on what needs to be done to better support us.

by Sue-Yen Bylund, adopted from Vietnam to Australia, ICAV VIC Representative

Racism is here to stay. It is enmeshed in the very fabric of society, at every level. It manifests within us as individuals, at a systemic level pervading our policies and practices, reflected in our interpersonal behaviours and is accumulated and compounded in the base structures of our history, culture and ideology.

In order to mitigate the harm caused by racism we must be actively anti-racist. It is not enough to merely be “not racist”, as this, often results in a passive racism, which is as equally toxic as overt racism. Tolerance is a poor substitute for acceptance. Tolerance offers tokenism and indifference. Acceptance offers a place for all voices, a public validation as individuals and a genuine place at the table to self-determination.

Every person carries their racial biases differently. Acknowledgment of these biases on a personal individual level is important, however being open to listening, validating and accepting the experiences of others takes courage. 

My expectation within this forum, is to offer to an opportunity to broaden the discussion of anti-racism to embrace all forms and manifestations of racism within Australian society today. To offer encouragement to address the complex “grey” zones of racism. Through this broadening a more mature collective and inclusive voice will evolve, which I believe Australia is ready to share with the world.

The foundations of my identity lie amongst the chaos of war time Vietnam 1974. Within the first 3 weeks of my life, I experienced my initiation into the full audio and aromatic reality of war, surrounded by screaming and traumatised children and adults. Racial identity did not protect any of us from the horrors, what we all absorbed would remain forever with us as visceral burdens to tame. War and terror are the greatest levellers in stripping even the bravest to the very foundations of humanity. And then in one swift spin of the planet I would find myself a world away in the eerie quiet and calmness of Perth, Western Australia. This journey would also mark the beginning of a life’s self-education of racial fluidity. Being one heart and soul, but a chameleon of racial identities. Born of one culture, raised in another, looking as though I belong to one group, but in at my core, I belong to another, the duplicity and fluidity is complex and exhausting.

The need to feel safe, accepted, understood and validated seems to be a naturally human pursuit. As an intercountry adoptee the journey is complex and confusing. We slip into the cracks of racial stereotypes offering up apologetically a reason for inclusion or explanation for exclusion. Either way no matter where we are in our communities we are an anomaly. We are constantly offered up as a reminder that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover and if you care to listen carefully, you will hear the simple request for safety and acceptance.

My childhood cultural identity was shaped through the lens of middle class suburban 1970’s Australia. It was fortunate that the primary school I went to attracted a good proportion of Asian immigrant families. This enabled me, at a young age to observe the “other” type of Asian. The Asian person who spoke the language, ate the food, complied with the Asian cultural norms, while they themselves were carving out the unique existence in post “White Australia Policy” era. It was clear to me from the very beginning that I was an “Asian variant”. I was to experience racial prejudice from all sides. My immediate family comprised of a white Australian adoptive mother, a white Dutch (first generation migrant) adoptive father and their two biological white sons. Straddling my home and school environments I began to acknowledge the fragmented racial identity which was uniquely mine.

I would learn to instinctively navigate the pros and cons of racial profiling expressed by adults and classmates. At times it afforded me a shield to hide behind, at other times it just bewildered me at how ignorant and entitled people could be. 

Teachers would regard me with the marginalising stereotype of female Asian student, this meant that no matter what I did, or didn’t do, I was considered polite, conscientious and studious. This enabled me to glide through my studies relatively smoothly. Where this backfired was when I would be herded together with all the Asian “look-a-likes” to be given special instructions in Chinese/Cambodian/Vietnamese. There were always a few of us that would simply shrug our shoulders, knowing it was too hard to explain to the teachers that English was in fact our only language. 

Classmate interactions were more complex. While they seemed to want to flex their insecurities through bullying behaviours, I suspect they would often leave these bullying interactions more confused and with increased insecurities about themselves. They would corner me and spit out racial slurs “Ching Chong!”, “Go back to where you came from!”, “Asians out!” with the standard accompanying slanted eye gesture. I learnt very early to lean into the bullying. To not turn away in shame or embarrassment, I summoned the  airs of entitlement I learnt from my white Australian family. It was an educational opportunity. I would not show weakness. So armed with a vocabulary not generally associated with a small Asian female of 11 years I would lean in and say with a perfect Aussie twang, “Get f***ed you immature ignorant bigot!” While they processed the response in stunned silence, I was already half down the hall or across the oval. When I think back to those times, I know in my heart I still hold a deep resentment toward those who racially vilified me. The fact I could still name those individuals today shows how deeply it affected me. I built a wall to protect myself, a tough persona that would later in life be softened with self-depreciating humour. 

Humour has become one of the most powerful tools for disarming awkwardness though it should be noted that humour can only be genuinely offered by me (the vilified) otherwise it can have the effect of adding insult or increasing alienation.

Australian society in general is getting better at navigating racially blended families. However, there have been times where an awkward visual double take or racial slur has been reconsidered once formal introductions have concluded. 

For example, my adoptive mother is the personified “white saviour” heroine and therefore in this narrative, I embody the role of a grateful saved soul. There is no place in this narrative version for reality and it only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes. This distilled classification of our relationship as an adoptive mother and daughter has resulted in a chasm of empathy where my experience of racial prejudice and marginalisation cannot be reconciled with my adoptive mother’s version of my lived experience. She cannot/will not acknowledge that I have/do experience any racial prejudice. It’s unfathomable and therefore remains a taboo subject between us. I would suggest a classic case of “colour blindness” which is the most common manifestation of passive racism. Let me strongly suggest that racial “colour blindness” is not a positive construct to build a relationship in. I don’t advocate for a monochrome world. It cancels out important conversations that need to be had to build empathy and understanding. It bypasses the integral act of individual and collective validation.

A typical interaction in a social setting with my white husband, would start with a few awkward glances while people assessed my proficiency in English. Once the conversation has warmed up a little, the question is always asked “How did you two meet each other?” At this point all newbies begin listening in the hope to hear some spectacular Tinder dating app story with me gaining Australian citizenship when we married. Sad to say the story takes an epic sad tone when it is revealed I was a baby from the Viet Nam war. The conversation moves very quickly from one set of stereotypes to another. The chameleon game is afoot. We have now moved into the Viet Nam war genre and to be honest the racial stereotypes are just as nauseating. As the conversation peters out, I am left with a very uncomfortable feeling that I might be the daughter of a B-Grade war romance story of a soldier and prostitute but on the positive side, I have ruled out that I am a “mail order bride” from Asia desperate to get my claws into a rich white “sugar daddy”. Either way, I always leave these gatherings feeling like I have shared way too much about myself, simply to justify my equal status at the table of white Australians. Needless to say, it’s exhausting and incredibly invasive. At times my inner evil chameleon just wants to re-enforce the stereotypes rather than use my life as an education case study. In the end I see curiosity is better than fear and putting examples forward and building knowledge is a slow continuous but necessary journey.

With regards to my children, I am conscious that they physically are racially ambiguous. They could have genetic origins from various backgrounds, but once I stand next to them then it becomes evident their dark features come from me and they are of Asian origins. My daughter has experienced racial slurs from having an Asian looking mother. It wasn’t until she spent her gap year in Viet Nam that she developed her own understanding of her origins. She has in fact spent more time in Viet Nam than me. 

School parent social groups are an interesting micro society and navigating them is a full-time job. In the private school my children attended I had two very distinct social groups that I interacted with. One was a group of Asian looking mothers where I felt like an honouree member. I learnt Asian cultural things and etiquette that I didn’t get elsewhere. I did a lot of listening. The other group were all Anglo-Saxon looking mothers and I was dubbed the “token” Asian (humorous chameleon!) These girlfriends understood how I saw the world. It’s in these situations that I reflect on the sophistication of my chameleon gift and in a positive moment reflect on the bridges I can construct between the groups just through listening and sharing.

There is a niche and powerful position that intercountry adoptees have in the conversation around racism and prejudice. It’s borne from the hybrid and fluid nature of our self-identities. We exist in the space between cultures and races. The triumphal story of our survival is in fact a narrative of weaving together of cultures, racial identity, tolerance and acceptance. Intercountry adoptees must reconcile the disparity between the physical and internal nature of racial identity, because at every turn we are challenging the stereotypes and presumptions. As an Asian in white Australia, we challenge the mainstream colonial stereotypes, as an Asian in Asia, we find ourselves challenging the long-held stereotypes in our birth culture. We belong to both yet neither wholly. 

If I was to consider the future of racism in context of Australia, I would continue to raise the challenge to government and individuals to embrace the complexity. Find the words, create the platforms, lead with optimism. Systemic racism embedded in the policies and practices by government and institutions needs to be constantly questioned and reviewed to ensure it leads in activating change. Structural racism that unpins mainstream think-tanks needs to be shaken loose. It is an uncomfortable and confronting task, but I believe Australia is mature enough to take this task on. Interpersonal racism is very difficult to navigate as an intercountry adoptee, but the freedom to express an alternate reality from the stereotypes is a good platform to build upon. Internalised racism is insipid and so very damaging. We want to move from passive tolerance to active validation of individuals. 

Ongoing political bi-partisan support for research and consultation is an essential investment to engage in effective societal change. A firm commitment to reviewing and evaluating key milestones is required for accountability and integrity.  Educational resources coupled with public awareness and youth engagement are core to developing a more mature future for all Australians.

For more from Sue-Yen, read her ANZAC Day Reflections, her contribution to What’s in a Name? and advocacy with Green’s Senator meeting.

Resource

Read ICAVs small collation on Color blindness in Adoption

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.

Adoptee Academic on UNCRC and Intercountry Adoption

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

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

What do you think?

You can read more from other intercountry adoptee academics.

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