Bolivian Family Searching

by Atamhi Cawayu, doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’ (Bolivia). Together with Vicente Mollestad and Teresa Norman, they run Network of Bolivian Adoptees.

This blogpost was initially posted on Atamhi’s Facebook profile and Instagram-account @displaced.alteño

Searching for first family and adoptee activism: Some reflections

In 1993 I got displaced/adopted to Belgium when I was six-month-old. According to my papers, I was found as a new-born in the city of El Alto in Bolivia. Since my twenties, I started to return and reconnect with Bolivia. In the past two years I live more in Bolivia than in Belgium and I consider myself ‘based in Bolivia’. In all these years, I have attempted to search for information about my pre-adoptive past. Since June, together with a fellow Bolivian adoptee friend, we started our search here in Bolivia by starting a big campaign to make ourselves visible.

Reflection 1: Putting up posters in the city

In June 2020, my friend and I started to prepare our searches for our Bolivian relatives by designing posters and putting them in various streets and neighbourhoods in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. It’s not the first time I engage in searching for first families, in the past years I have completed searches for other Bolivian adoptees, which sometimes led to reunions. However, searching is challenging, especially when you don’t have names, places or anything that might lead to our families. 

In Bolivia there is a central authority responsible for international adoption, yet there is no support from organisations or institutions who can really help us. In our cases, we have limited information, but other adoptees have the full name of their mother, or names of family members. Even in their cases it’s often a bureaucratic journey to obtain more information. In addition, most of us don’t know the language, are not familiar with the system, and do not always have the time to search. 

When I started to do my PhD on this topic, my goal has always been to have not only a better insight into the adoption system in Bolivia but also to ‘crack’ the system and understand which clues are necessary in finding one’s family. Besides I think it’s important to document the stories of the first parents and take their experiences into account if we really want to make an honest evaluation of the system of adoption. 

When preparing the posters, making the design, paying the prints, I could only think of one thing: we as adult adoptees have the resources to start this search and do it in an almost professional way. Our parents probably didn’t have the same amount of resources, and even if they did, their stories were regarded as less interesting than ours right now.

Reflection 2: Engaging with TV media

After our first round of posters, we received a message from a journalist from a Bolivian TV channel who was interested in our stories. A few days later they interviewed us, and it was broadcasted one day later. Since then our story was covered by national TV media in Bolivia and it received lots of attention. The media is a necessary evil. It helped a lot in having our cases visible, yet it’s hard to control the questions. They also have their own narrative they want to show.

These experiences made me reflect about several things. Our stories were largely framed as ‘abandoned babies’ returning to Bolivia, after being adopted internationally, however this narrative already makes a lot of assumptions of our mothers abandoning us. When reading the comment section (I know I should not do this) a big part of the viewers didn’t understand why we would search for someone ‘that doesn’t look for us’. However, it’s so much more complex… 

In my case I was found, but I don’t know what really happened. It’s easy to assume I was ‘abandoned’ by one of my parents, but I don’t know. In my research on first parents, I have encountered several parents who never gave up their child to adoption, did it in vulnerable circumstances, or were even pressured by intermediaries (and I’m not even talking about kidnap and illegal adoption). Yet, in many cases they were interested to know what happened to their children, if they were still alive, if they ended up well, etc. Part of our activism is also to speak about this other side of adoption. It’s not always a fairy-tale as many people think. We are part of system that exploits global inequalities, displaces poor brown/indigenous bodies from South to North, and prefers parenthood from the Global North over parenthood of the Global South. 

It is irritating people don’t understand the complexity and violence relinquishment and adoption can entail. Even if our parents wanted to look for us, they wouldn’t be able to find us as we have been relocated and displaced to other continents. When I search for my ‘family’, it is to make myself findable, so they know I am here in Bolivia and willing to be in touch with them. 

Reflection 3: The violence of international adoption

In the days after our first interview, various Bolivian TV channels called us for an interview. Our story was spread nationwide by radio, TV, newspaper. We tried to take advantage of this moment to open the discussion on transnational adoption.

During the interviews we tried to mention that for us adoptees there is no assistance for adoptees to search. Not in our adoptive countries, nor in Bolivia. We have to do almost everything by ourselves, and then I am not even talking about learning the language, understanding the documents, being familiar with the city. As my friend mentioned in several interviews, “searching is something political”. For me searching is doing something you were not supposed to do. It’s opening up histories that were meant to be hidden, it’s doing something within a system that tried to erase everything of your being.

Moreover, another dominant idea is to be lucky and fortunate when being adopted transnationally. One of the journalists said to me “you must be very fortunate”, “many people here would love to be in your shoes”. Throughout the years I have met many people, especially here in Bolivia, who told me I must have been lucky to be have been saved from my ‘miserable future’ in Bolivia and to have a ‘wealthy’ life in Europe. It’s like people think we only ‘won’ by being adopted internationally, but they often forget we have lost many things. I consider all the opportunities I have because of growing up in Europe as compensation for everything I have lost, and I have lost everything.

From my personal perspective, the violence implicit in transnational adoption is to be involuntary transcontinentally displaced, completely severed from our genetic ancestors, disconnected from our community, culture, language, nation, continent, and without any possibility to find our families ever again. For most of us Bolivia will become a country we once lived in. In addition, all our former identities are erased so we can be reborn, renamed, Christianised and assimilated with our adoptive countries. We grow up with complete strangers we are expected to love and call family. We are being brought into a society that doesn’t want us, that racialises us and discriminates us, without any community that provides shelter or understanding. This so-called child protection system – mostly in the benefit of well-off Western adoptive parents who wants to fulfil their heteronormative parental dream – erases everything from us. It is not the first time in colonial history child welfare systems are used to shape, control and erase indigenous children’s identities, and most children adopted from Bolivia have an indigenous background, be it Aymara or Quechua. Transnational adoption is for me an ongoing colonial project of civilising, controlling and managing children from the Global South, transforming them from ‘savages’ to ’civilised’ citizens in the benefit of the capitalist machine of the North. Transnational adoption would not have been possible without a history of colonialism and its ongoing colonial gaze towards countries in the South such as Bolivia.

The adoptee experience is something very diverse. I know some adoptees might disagree on this and that’s fine. I also know other adoptees might recognise themselves in what I write. Every experience is valid. However, my fight and activism are structural against a system that has caused a lot of injustices and is not in the benefit of first parents and adult adoptees. As another adoptee once told me: our parents maybe didn’t have the resources to fight for their rights, but we have, and we will fight for them.

Further Reading

Atamhi’s latest research paper: From Primal to Colonial Wound – Bolivian adoptees reclaiming the narrative of healing

Adoption Laws – IF

There was an interesting post going around an adoptive family facebook group during National Adoption Awareness Month that I haven’t seen before. It got me inspired to share from the intercountry adoptee perspective what I would change IF we could.

The question was: “If you had the power to change any adoption laws, what would you change?” As you can imagine in an adoptive parent forum, many of the answers were adoptive and prospective parent centric. I did share a few of my initial thoughts, which unsurprisingly, in that group, not very popular. So let’s share my thoughts here as essentially this is the crux of what ICAV tries to do – we speak out to help policy makers and implementors think about what their processes and practices do to the child, the adoptees for whom it’s meant to be about. Some of the responses from ICAV members are incorporated as we did have quite an active discussion in our facebook group for adult intercountry adoptees.

If I could change adoption laws as an intercountry adoptee, in no particular order, I would:

  • make it illegal to traffic children via intercountry adoption and ensure a legal pathway for reparative & restorative justice — such as allowing us to return to our homeland and/or original family, if and when we desire;
  • make it illegal to rehome or return us;
  • make it illegal to change or falsify our original identity that includes DNA testing the relinquishing parents to confirm their parentage of us;
  • make it illegal to abuse us;
  • create a legal pathway to prosecute the agency for failing to adequately psychologically assess our parents to ensure no further harm is done via the adoptive family environment;
  • make it a legal requirement for all the actors who participate in the facilitation of adoption to provide lifelong post adoption supports that are free, equitable, and comprehensive, arising from a trauma informed model. It needs to be itemised what Post Adoption encompasses e.g., full search and reunion services, translation of documents, language courses, cultural activities, psychological counselling, return to homeland services, open access to our identity documents, etc.,
  • make it illegal to trick birth parents, to ensure they fully understand what relinquishment and adoption means;
  • make it illegal to adopt a child until it is proven beyond doubt that no immediate family, kin or local community can support and raise the child; this must include proof that the provision of a range of financial and social welfare supports have been offered;
  • create a legal pathway for orphanages, agencies, lawyers and judges to be prosecuted by birth families who are prevented access to their child, especially in situations where they change their minds;
  • create a legal pathway to prosecute countries who fail to give citizenship or deport intercountry adoptees; this includes removing these countries who accept or send deportees from any international convention;
  • make it illegal to separate twins;
  • centralise adoption, bring back full accountability of adoption to the State and remove the privatised model of intercountry adoption agencies to remove the conflict of interest and the blame shifting;
  • remove money and fees;
  • make it illegal for private lawyers to facilitate intercountry adoptions;
  • make expatriate adoptions go through the same process as intercountry adoptions in the adopting country rather than being able to by-pass the tougher requirements.
  • make all plenary adoptions illegal;
  • legalise a new form of care internationally that incorporates the concepts of simple adoption, kinship care, stewardship, permanent care, and guardianship models that provides for our care but not at our cost in identity and removal of connection to ALL kin;
  • create a law that allows adoptees the right to decline their adoptive parents as an adult if they wish;
  • create a pathway to ensure Dual citizenship for all intercountry adoptees that includes citizenship for our generational offspring, should they wish.

This is just a starting list for thinking about what laws would need creating or changing in order to protect the rights of adoptees! I haven’t even started to discuss what laws would be needed from our original family perspectives. It would be interesting to hear their perspective. One has to question the current bias of existing laws that are skewed and mainly protect the interests of the adopters instead of a balance between all three and prevent intermediaries taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of each of the triad members.

There will always be vulnerable children who need care but today’s existing Plenary adoption laws are archaic and outdated. We adoptees know from living the experience that there are many gaps and pitfalls in the current plenary adoption laws used in intercountry adoption today.

Adoption: Neat & Tidy? Not So Much!

Hello everyone. My name is Jessica Davis. My husband and I adopted from Uganda in 2015.  I would like to share my thoughts regarding a memory that appeared on my facebook timeline.

If you are at all familiar with timehop on facebook you know that almost daily either a photo, video or post from your past will show up on your timeline giving you the opportunity to reflect and share.  Well, today this is the photo that popped up for me.

Davis Family.jpg

Four years ago today, we found out Namata’s visa was approved to come to America with us. As westerners, we tend to love pictures like this when it comes to adoption and in some ways that is understandable. If Namata had actually needed to be adopted, it would’ve definitely been a photo worth getting excited over!

The problem is that all too often, we want things to be just like this picture. Everyone smiling and things wrapped up neat and tidy. But real life, even in this moment pictured here, things aren’t always as they seem. Adam and I were definitely happy in this moment and ready to be home and begin our life together, and on the outside Namata was too. But on the inside, she was about to leave everything and everyone familiar to her, for reasons she was too overwhelmed by to even question. Thankfully, over the next year she was able to express to Adam and I her questions about how she ended up being adopted. Thankfully, Adam and I didn’t go looking for the answers we wanted to hear. We chose a road that was definitely filled with uncertainty, but one we hoped would lead us to the truth. Namata deserved that!

Intercountry adoption should never be about doing a good deed in the world or becoming a mom or dad. Yes, those reasons are normal and usually are the basis for beginning the process, but at the point when one begins the process to adopt, we need to recognize that those feelings are all about the adoptive parents and not the child or children we are hoping to adopt. Adoption for them stems from a complete loss of everything and everyone familiar to them. Recognizing this is vital to a healthy adoption process. I’m convinced we, as a society, have made adoption all about becoming a family. When we do this we tend to see adoption in this happy light that doesn’t allow the adoptee the freedom to express what adoption actually is for them — loss. There should be absolutely no focus on becoming “mom” or “dad”. While I do believe it can become a natural outcome through a healthy adoption scenario, I believe it needs to come when, and only if, the child feels that connection.

I often get asked how Adam and I did what we did when we chose to reunite Namata with her family in Uganda. While there are several factors that contributed to being able to do this, the main reason was that Adam and I had both committed to meeting the needs of Namata. Finding out that she had a loving mother and family that she was unlawfully taken from, made the decision for us. As a parent I could never have lived with myself knowing I was contributing to the Ugandan sized hole in Namata’s heart. Her family and culture should never have been taken away from her in the first place. I’m eternally grateful now looking back that even in the midst of our heartache in losing one of the most amazing little girls I’ve ever met, we were given the opportunity to make things right!

Currently, there is no legal precedent for situations like ours. There are kids here in America that have been kidnapped, their families lied to, and their adoptions produced from bribes and manipulation. There are families in Uganda, and all over the world that hope daily, just see their children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.One way to address this madness is by fighting for intercountry adoption laws to be reformed. Another way is to help change the narrative behind intercountry adoption. Within our churches, social circles and places of business, we need to recognize that intercountry adoption has become infiltrated with money and greed. When we read the statistics that say 80-90% of children in orphanages overseas have families, we need to be doing more to ensure we aren’t contributing to a system that is actually tearing families apart. There are many Facebook groups and websites that delve into the intricacies behind intercountry adoption. Join these groups and visit these pages to learn. Appeal to legislators for change and become a person that stands up against these horrible miscarriages of justice.

About Jessica