Lifelong Impacts of Identity Loss

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

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

My Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our ICAV Community

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

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

Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!

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

You can watch the complete webinar here.

The Lie We Love

by Jessica Davis, adoptive mother in the USA who adopted from Uganda and co-founded Kugatta, an organisation that re-connects Ugandan families to their children, removed via international adoption.

The lie we love. Adoption.

I’ve heard people say that adoption is one of the greatest acts of love, but is it? Maybe what adoption is and has been for the majority of people isn’t really as “great” of an act as it has been portrayed to be.

Instead of us focusing on the fairytale imagery of the new “forever family” that is created through adoption, we should be focusing on how adoption means the end of a family; the absolute devastation of a child’s world resulting in the separation from everyone and everything familiar to them. When the focus is misplaced, we aren’t able to truly help the child and as a result often place unrealistic expectations on them. Expectations of gratefulness, bonding, assimilation and even expecting them to “move on” from their histories.

So what reason is acceptable enough to permanently separate a family? Poverty? If a family is poor is it okay to take their child? OR wouldn’t it be more loving and more helpful to invest time and resources into economically empowering the family so they can stay together?

If a child has medical needs the family is struggling to meet is it then okay to take their child OR is it a greater act of love and human decency to assist that family so they can meet the needs of their child and remain together?

If a family has fallen on hard times is it then okay to take their child? OR should we rally around the family and help them through the difficult time so they can remain together?

What about a child that has lost both their parents? Is it then okay to adopt the child? OR would it be a greater act of love to first ensure the child gets to live with their biological relatives, their family? Why is it better to create a new family with strangers when there are extended biological relatives?

What if a child lives in a developing country? Is it then better to take a child from their family to give them access to more “things” and “opportunities”? To give them a “better life”? Is it even possible to live a “better life” separated from one’s family? OR would it be a greater act of love to support that family so their child can have access to more things and opportunities within their own country? To build up the future of that country, by investing in and supporting that child so they can become the best they can. How does it help a developing country if we keep needlessly taking away their future doctors, teachers, social workers, public service workers, etc.?

I don’t know much about domestic adoption but I know a lot about intercountry adoption and these are some of the many reasons I hear over and over as validation for the permanent separation of a child from their family, biological relatives and country of origin.

Parents and extended family were given no option (other than adoption) when seeking help/assistance. What choice is there when there is only one option given? Not only are the majority of these families not given any options they are often told their child will be “better off” without them and that keeping their child is preventing them from these “great opportunities”. This mentality is wrong and harmful to their child.

So much of the adoption narrative is constructed around a need to “rescue” an impoverished child by providing a “forever family” yet 70%-90% of children adopted abroad HAVE FAMILIES. What other things do we continue doing in adoption knowing 4 out 5 times we are doing wrong?

Some say the greatest act of love is adoption, I say the greatest act of love is doing everything in one’s power to keep families together.

I titled this post The Lie we Love because it seems that so many of us love ADOPTION (and the fairytale often perpetuated by it) more than we love THE CHILD themselves. This is demonstrated every time a child is needlessly stripped from their family and culture, all while we as a society cheer on and promote such a process. This happens when we aren’t first willing to do the hard task of asking the tough questions; when we would rather ignore the realities at hand and live the “fairytale” that some problem was solved by adopting a child who already had a loving family.

Someday, I hope things are different: that more and more people will come to realize there isn’t an orphan crisis but rather, there is a family separation crisis happening in our world and adoption is not the answer, in fact it’s part of the problem. Intercountry adoption has become a business with massive amounts of money to be made and little to no protections for those most vulnerable because most of us sit in our comfortable first worlds and are happy with the fairytale. Adoption is truly the lie we love!

For more from Jessica, she and husband Adam were recently interviewed in this Maybe God podcast : Does Every Orphan Need Adopting.

See Jessica’s other article at ICAV and her Good Problem Podcast with Lynelle and Laura as a 3 part series by Leigh Matthews.

The Aloneness of Motherloss

by Mila Konomos, adopted from South Korea to the USA. Poet, artist, activist.

Mila with her child, embracing all that was lost to her as an infant, separated from her mother.

I have been processing the Aloneness of #MotherLoss a lot lately.

Intellectually, I know what self-talk to cultivate. I know I am not alone. I know that I have people in my life who care for me and value me.

But this aloneness is deeper than that.

This aloneness is the the aloneness of Mother Loss.

I feel so alone so often because I do not have a Mother.

I lost my First Mother at 5 days old.

I lost my Foster Mother at 6 months old.

I grew up with a Mother who could not see my trauma. Hence, she did not know how to love or comfort me through the loss, pain, and grief of my Adoptedness.

I feel alone because I was always alone in my pain and grief.

I feel alone because I have spent most of my life crying alone.

I feel alone because I have rarely known what it is to not be alone, not only physically but emotionally.

I feel so alone so often, because Mother Loss is a loss that remains for a lifetime.

There is no way to replace a Lost Mother.

No one else on earth can compensate for a Lost Mother.

Only One Mother bore me in her own body. Only One Mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and voice were what I heard for 9 months. Her scent, her face were as though my own.

I watched a documentary recently during which the narrator said, “Babies think they are a part of whomever they are within.”

This is profound in the context of Adoptees severed from our mothers as infants. We must have experienced separation from our mothers almost as though being ripped in two, torn away from ourselves. Split violently apart.

I have to allow myself to grieve this Mother Loss. It is eternal. Even 12 years post-reunion, Mother Loss remains. I can never get back the Mother I lost. I cannot retrieve the over three decades of my life that I was lost, compounded by the loss of language, culture, and geography.

There is a pain and loneliness that is hard to describe when you find what you had been looking for all of your life and yet it still slips through your fingers.

This pain of being so close yet still so far.

As though looking through a window but never actually getting to go in.

Mila with her son and a special Korean children’s book called, “Waiting for Mama”.

For more from Mila, follow her at her website, The Empress Han. Her newest poetry album Shrine is being released in May 2021.

#adoption #transracialadoptee #adoptionreunion #adoptee #adoptionistrauma #adoptionloss #adopteevoices

Family thoughts during this time of Year

by Bina Mirjam de Boer adopted from India to the Netherlands and available at Bina Coaching.

December is a month all about fun and family. Many people won’t be able to celebrate Christmas with their family this year. For many adopted people, December is a difficult month every year because they are extra aware that they cannot be with their family on holidays. Some are literally not able to because they are out of contact with their adoptive family. Others haven’t been able to celebrate Christmas with their parents their whole life. Again others ask themselves on these days whether their parents are still alive or thinking about them. And some feel the sadness that they aren’t with the family this Christmas, unlike the siblings that weren’t adopted.

The days surround December are doubly difficult because you have your life that you are grateful or happy about while at the same time, the lack of your family is extra large. The weeks prior to and the holidays themselves make the shadowy side of adoption extra palpable for adopted people and for families of loss. Loneliness is even greater than in other months.

So if you know an adopted person or a family member of loss for whom holidays don’t bring the light, I hope you can be their “Piglet”.

♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡

Pooh woke up that morning, and for reasons he didn’t quite understand, he couldn’t stop tears. He sat there in bed, his little body shook, and he cried and cried and cried. In his sobs, the phone rang. It was Piglet.

“Oh Piglet,” said Pooh, between sobbing, in response to his friend’s soft question how he was doing. “I feel so sad. So, so, sad, almost like I may never be happy again. And I know I shouldn’t feel like this. I know there are so many people who are worse than me, so I really have no right to cry, with my beautiful house, and my beautiful garden, and the beautiful forests around me. But oh, Piglet: I’m just so sad.”

Piglet was quiet for a while, because Pooh’s rocky sniffs filled up the space between them. When the sobs craved for breath, he kindly said, “You know, it’s not a competition.” “What is not a competition?” asked a confused sounding Pooh. “Sadness. Fear. Sadness,” Piglet said. “It’s a mistake we make often, all of us. To think that, because there are people who are worse off than us, that somehow deprives us of how we feel. But that’s just not true. You have as much right to feel unhappy as the next person; and, Pooh – and this is the most important thing – you also have as much right to get the help you need.”

“Help? What help?” asked Pooh. “I don’t need help, Piglet. “Do I even have that? Pooh and Piglet talked for a long time, and Piglet introduced Pooh to some people he might be able to call to talk, because if you feel sad, one of the most important things is to not let all the sad ones get stuck in you. In addition, Piglet reminded Pooh that this support is there for everyone, that there is no minimum level of Sadness that you must feel before you qualify to speak to someone. After all, Piglet asked Pooh to open his window and look at heaven, and Pooh did.

“See that sky?” Piglet asked his friend. “Do you see the blue and the gold and that big fluffy cloud that looks like a sheep that eats a root? Pooh looked, and he did see the blue and the gold pieces and the great fluffy cloud that looked like a sheep eating a root. “You and I,” continued Piglet, “we are both under that same sky. And so, when the Sad one comes, I want you to look at that sky, and know that no matter how far we are physically apart … we are also, at the same time, together. Maybe, more together than we’ve ever been before.”

“Do you think this will ever end?” asked Pooh with a little voice. “This will also pass by,” confirmed Piglet. “And I promise, you and I will one day be together again, close enough to touch each other, and share a little taste of something … underneath that blue, golden sky.”

We all need a Piglet in our lives!

If you are needing support from a professional, don’t forget to check out our Post Adoption Supports.

I Want My Brothers Back

by Erika Fonticoli, born in Colombia adopted to Italy.

What are brothers and sisters? For me, they are small or big allies of all or no battle. In the course of my life I realised that a brother or a sister can be the winning weapon against every obstacle that presents itself and, at the same time, that comforting closeness that we feel even when there is no battle to fight. A parent can do a lot for their children: give love, support, protection, but there are things we would never tell a parent. And… what about a brother? There are things in my life I’ve never been able to tell anyone, and although I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my sister since childhood, there’s nothing of me that she doesn’t know about.

At the worst moment of my life, when I was so hurt and I started to be afraid to trust the world, she was the hand I grabbed among a thousand others. We are two totally different people, maybe we have only playfulness and DNA in common, but she still remains the person from whom I feel more understood and supported. I love my adoptive parents, I love my friends, but she, she’s the other part of me. Sometimes we are convinced that the power of a relationship depends on the duration of it or the amount of experiences lived together. Yeah, well.. I did not share many moments with my sister, it was not an easy relationship ours, but every time I needed it she was always at my side. I didn’t have to say anything or ask for help, she heard it and ran to me.

And the brothers found as adults? Can we say that they are worth less? I was adopted at the age of 5, with my sister who was 7 yo. For 24 years I believed I had only one other version of myself, her. Then, during the search of my origins, I discovered that I had two other brothers, little younger than me. My first reaction was shock, confusion, denial. Emotion, surprise and joy followed. Finally, to these emotions were added bewilderment and fear of being rejected by them. After all, they didn’t even know we existed, my big sister and I were strangers for them. So… how could I possibly introduce myself? I asked myself that question at least a hundred times until, immersed in a rich soup of emotions, I decided to jump. I felt within myself the irrepressible need to know them, to see them, to speak to them. It was perhaps the most absurd thing I’ve ever experienced. “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m your sister!”, I wrote to them.

Thinking about it now makes me laugh, and yet at the time I thought it was such a nice way to know each other. My younger sister, just as I feared, rejected me, or perhaps rejected the idea of having two more sisters that she had never heard of. The first few months with her were terrible, hard and full of swinging emotions, driven both by her desire to have other sisters and by her distrust of believing that it was real. It wasn’t easy, for her I was a complete stranger and yet she had the inexplicable feeling of being tied to me, the feeling of wanting me in her life without even knowing who I was. She was rejecting me and yet she wasn’t be able to not look for me, she’d look at me like I was something to study, because she was shocked that she looked so much like someone else she had never seen for 23 years.

With my brother it was totally different, he called me “sister” right away. We talked incessantly from the start, sleepless nights to tell each other, discovering little by little to be two drops of water. He was my brother from the first moment. But how is possible? I don’t know. When I set off to meet them, headed to the other side of the world, it all seemed so crazy to me. I kept telling myself: “What if they don’t like me?”, and I wondered what it would feel like to find myself face to face with them. The answer? For me, it was not a knowing each other for the first time, it was a seeing them again. Like when you move away and you don’t see your family for a long time, then when you come home to see them again
you feel moved and run to hug them. This was my first moment with them! A moment of tears, an endless embrace, followed by a quick return playful and affectionate as if life had never separated us even for a day.

So… are they worth less? Is my relationship with them less intense and authentic than that with my sister, with whom I grew up? No. I thought I had another half of me, now I feel like I have three. I see one of them every day, I constantly hear the other two for messages or video calls. There are things in my life that I can’t tell anyone, things that only my three brothers know, and in the hardest moments of my life now I have three hands that I would grab without thinking about it. I love my family, my adoptive parents and my biological mom, but my siblings are the part of my heart I couldn’t live without. Having them in my life fills me with joy, but having two of them so far from me digs a chasm inside me that often turns into a cry of lack and nostalgia. Tears behind which lie the desire to share with them all the years that have been taken from us, experiences and fraternal moments that I have lived with them for only twenty days in Colombia.

As I said earlier, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter the duration of a relationship nor the amount of experiences lived together but the quality… that said, even those rare moments to us seem a dream still unrealisable. In the most important and delicate periods of our lives we often feel overwhelmed by helplessness and the impossibility of supporting each other, because unfortunately a word of comfort is not always enough. We can write to each other, call each other, but nothing will ever replace the warmth of a hug when you feel that your heart is suffering.

In the most painful and traumatic phase of my younger sister’s life, when she started to be afraid of the world, when she thought she deserved only kicks and insults, when she thought she had no one, I wrote to her. I wrote to her every day, worried and sorrowful, and as much as I tried to pass on my love and closeness to her, I felt I couldn’t do enough. I felt helpless and useless, I felt that there was nothing I could do for her, because when I felt crushed by life it was my older sister’s embrace that made me feel protected. And that’s what my little sister wanted at that moment, a hug from me, something so small and
simple that I couldn’t give it to her because the distance prevented me from do it. And neither could our brother because he also grew up far away, in another family. I didn’t know what to do, how I could help her, she was scared and hurt. I wanted her to come live with me, her and my little nephew, so I could take care of them and help them in the most difficult moment of their lives. I’ve been looking into it for months, search after search, and then finding out that despite the DNA test recognised that we’re sisters, the world didn’t.

Legally, we were still a complete strangers, just like when we first spoke.

I would like the law to give the possibility to siblings separated from adoption to be reunited if this is the desire of both, that the law allows us to enjoy those rights that only a familial bond offers. We didn’t decide to split up, it was chosen for us, but we don’t want to blame anyone for it. We just wish we had a chance to spend the rest of our lives as a family, a sentimental and legal family for all intents and purposes. It must not be an obligation for everyone, but an opportunity for those biological brothers whose bond has survived. A chance for us perfect strangers who, in spite of everything, call ourselves family. Maybe someone will find themselves in what I felt and I’m still feeling, maybe someone else won’t, but precisely because every story is different I think there should be a chance of a happy ending for everyone. Mine would be to have my brothers back.