Lived Experience Suggestions for Responses to Illicit Adoptions

On 8-10 July, ICAV was invited as an Observer at the HCCH Working Group on Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.

Attached is our latest Perspective Paper that provides our lived experience input on suggestions for How Authorities and Bodies could Respond to Illicit Adoptions in English and French.

Huge thanks to all our 60+ participating adoptees and adoptee organisations, 10 adoptive parents & adoptive parent organisations, and first family representation!

Extra special thanks and mention to two amazing people:
Nicholas Beaufour who gave a huge amount of time to translate the entire English document into French!
Coline Fanon who assisted our one and only first family member to contribute! We so need to hear more often from the voices of our first families!

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 Blame Game

A statement was made while at the recent intercountry adoption symposium in Washington DC about “children at the border and how we need to get them adopted into American families“.

That statement combined with articles I’ve seen on Facebook about migrant children who have been separated from their families and are now being adopted into US families certainly stirs up a lot of negative emotions in me. It should — for all of us! These vulnerable children are now going to be further victimized by a broken system that is all too often, fuelled by greed, savior attitudes and politics. 

While I agree that the Trump administration is accountable at some level, I believe there is a LONG list of accountable parties contributing to this very complicated issue. The atrocities indicated in these types of articles have been ongoing for decades under multiple administrations. It’s time we all stop and take note of the many levels in this broken system, including our own participation and how we contribute.

First off, many adoption agencies are more concerned with money, timelines and streamlining rather than the true welfare and interests of the child. I’m sure having prospective adoptive parents who are agitated from a lengthy and costly process doesn’t help, but the desire to appease disgruntled adoptive parents should never supersede the importance of a system that is both thorough and ethical. One of the hardest things for many to come to terms with, is that the adoption process has become a massive money making industry. According to statistics adoption agency revenues in 2015 were over 14 billion dollars and are now projected to reach 16 billion dollars in 2019. 

The State Department is now implementing vital reforms and regulations to hold all agencies to a higher degree of accountability and do you know what I see and hear as a result? People complaining that the State Department is making it harder to adopt children in need.

As a society we tend to do this. Adoption, especially intercountry adoption, is an extremely complex matter — yet we want it to be easy, cheap, quick, and open to our demands. There is no easy or quick fix to this process and there shouldn’t be. Adoption agencies and the process to adopt must be held to a high level of accountability and it takes time and money to achieve this. If we ever hope to see intercountry adoption free from corruption, then holding the agencies and the processes they are implementing to a higher level of accountability is a good place to start! 

Next, there are the government agencies such as Child Protection Services which are often over-worked, underpaid and understaffed, therefore, far too many kids are getting lost in the system or victimized by a broken system. 

Another large part of the problem is adoptive parents who all too often, want to turn a blind eye to the truth. We don’t want to have to answer the tough questions because the act of adoption has somehow become a glorified act – and no matter what losses, corruption or illicit acts exist behind the scenes, the “better life” is a free pass to ignore the child’s “best interests”, which should always be to remain in their culture and with their biological families (minus situations of abuse and neglect). 

Then there is what I consider to be, the largest part of the problem. The Westernized and often religious narrative of adoption. We have learned to see adoption in a romanticized light using scripture and the Christian faith to support this broken system. We use verses like “take care of the orphan and the widow” to adopt children regardless of the need for them to be adopted. We have families raising tens of thousands of dollars to adopt, while at the same time saying this child needs us to adopt them because their biological families are poor and can’t meet their basic needs.

The number one reason children are placed in the system for international adoption is poverty. Poverty should NEVER be the reason to separate a family. There is nothing godly or glorious about using money one fundraised or actually has at their disposal to adopt a child, when that money could be used to empower a family and keep them together.

We continue to support a narrative that says America is better meanwhile what I hear from adult intercountry adoptees, is that it’s not! They are losing their identities, their voices, their culture, their families and their role within those families and communities, as a result of adoption.

There are times in which adoption is the best and last solution to a complicated situation, but what we are routinely failing to do, is ensure that every possible avenue to keep the child in their culture and with extended family or community has been explored. Many times, when adoptive parents come into the picture, their emotions, both in love for the child and exhaustion from the process, tend to overshadow what is truly in the best interest of the child. We continue to ignore the voices that should matter the most because listening to adult intercountry adoptees also means admitting that we ourselves may have done things wrong. 

I really hate confrontation and I truly never want to hurt someone’s feelings. Whenever I speak out on this topic, I tend to hear a lot of negativity, especially from adoptive parents, but I feel like I have to speak up. In fact, we all need to speak up.

There is nothing to get defensive about if we have adopted and have investigated to ensure that this is the best possible scenario for that child. I know many families who have adopted and have done so while truly putting the best interest of their child(ren) first. They get it. Adoption doesn’t need to be this sugar coated, rainbows and butterflies fairytale. It’s a situation brought about from a place of loss. There is nothing beautiful about the word adoption to a child who has been adopted because that word represents everything they have lost.

The real beauty in adoption comes from those who choose to do the hard work on behalf of that child(ren) because they need someone to advocate for them, love them unconditionally and constantly work at putting the child’s best interests ahead of their own.

I feel I can speak to these things because unfortunately in the past, I perpetuated these same ideals. Obviously, I did not realize the damage I was doing with my “good intentions“. Excuse my bluntness here, but my intentions didn’t matter then and they don’t matter now! What matters is my ability to listen, learn, admit when I’m wrong and then change!

My family and I almost destroyed another family, stripped a child from her culture, contributed to the trauma in a child’s life that might never have healed, no matter how great as adoptive parents we were trying to be, all while we were being praised and cheered on for “saving” a life. Not once was I ever challenged on the complicated nature of a transracial and intercountry adoption nor as to my intentions behind adopting a child who had extended family in her birth country.

From the moment I announced the truth of the corruption behind our adoption and our plans to reunite, I received so much criticism and speculation regarding Mata’s family about where they lived, what religion they practiced and the country to which I was reuniting her to. It was unacceptable! Unacceptable yes, but not surprising! Correct me if I’m wrong, but we have become a society that is outspoken, combative and divided. We tend to speak more through clicks on a keyboard and less with action. We know international adoption statistics say as high as 90% children in orphanages have been separated from their families, yet what are most of us actually doing to resolve this tragedy? 

Is adopting the children in these orphanages an act of love? Or is using our time and resources to bring change to the communities they belong to and empowering their families and communities to stay together, the truer act of love?

There’s nothing wrong with sharing articles and opinions on facebook, in fact it is a great way for us all to become more aware and bring about the changes necessary both in ourselves and as a society. But let’s not just post, debate the post and leave out the most important part … action.

While I agree there’s a certain level of finger pointing that’s necessary to stop heinous acts like separating children from their families from happening, this problem is way bigger than one administration. Our desire to pick sides and the anger we feel when someone hasn’t chosen our side has become more important than becoming the difference we long to see in this world.

It’s time for the narrative around Intercountry adoption to change. Let’s not forget, it is children’s lives hanging in the balance and I truly believe we all have to take a long hard look at this complex and broken system, accept our part in it and work to correct it.

About Jessica Davis

When will Intercountry Adoptee Services be provided by Federal Government?

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.

NICAAG Group
Original NICAAG Group Established in 2008

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?