The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption

Part 2 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

When abuse happens to a child from the very people who are supposed to protect it, a devastating legacy of impacts is created. I lived with my adoptive family for 19 years until they left to go overseas to be missionaries. Up until that point in my life, I had learnt to suppress my truths and bury it deep within my body.

How can one ever describe the impacts and legacy we are left with as a victim of sexual abuse within an adoptive family? Words feel inadequate.

The Worst Crime is Being Expected Not to Tell – Darrell Hammond

I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Up life story on Netflix – it helped me find the words. I highly recommend watching it for those who seriously want to understand childhood trauma and the legacy it leaves. I related to his story on so many levels: the anger at self for having been so vulnerable, the conflicting emotions about these very people who are your parents who others only see as amazing and wonderful people, the memories of abuse where my body felt violated, disrespected and used for their own purposes, the coping mechanisms I developed to survive, the trail of devastation left behind in early relationships and choices because I knew no better until I got professional help, the attempts to take my life because the pain was so unbearable, the depression, the darkness that would consume me. So many parallels with the life I lived until I found help and healing. Thankfully it didn’t take me over 50 years, but it certainly consumed a large part of my prime adult life and I still continue to deal with the impacts to this day. I think this is the part most people don’t understand which Darryl’s documentary highlights – our trauma never leaves us – what can get better, is that we learn to forgive ourselves for our survival and coping mechanisms, and we can learn to reconnect with and care about ourselves. It is a lifetime journey of healing and coming to terms with what was taken from us – our innocence and potential to live life without those brutal scars.

Each day, each week, each year I struggle to comprehend my adoptive family. My childhood mind just can’t integrate that they could have been so cruel, nasty, neglectful, mean — but yet they were also my saviours, my lifeline to surviving a war, my rescuers. It is their unspoken expectation that I should just get on with life as if nothing has happened that continues to hurt the most. I did this for many years but it becomes harder the older I get and I can no longer accept this anymore. I can no longer deny the emotional impact I feel each time I interact with them. It’s been so hard to pretend that I don’t hurt, I can’t do it anymore. What they choose to see is a strong, resilient survivor who has overcome. Yes that is part of who I am, but what they don’t want to see, is the other half – the hurt, traumatised inner child me who wants to be protected, loved and nurtured. I have had to learn to give to myself because they have not been capable. Not one member of my adoptive family wants to know how I’m impacted or understand my struggle. This is because their shame is deeper than my pain. This is what no-one will talk about. It did not escape my notice that Darryl Hammond tells his story publicly after both his parents have deceased. I recognise we subconsciously protect our parents if they’ve abused us and it’s at our cost in mental health, to do so. This is the sad reality of childhood trauma inflicted upon us by our supposedly “loving” parents.

I’ve barely written about this topic in over 20 years – in places I refer to it briefly but rarely in-depth. It’s not a topic I love nor is it a topic I talk about to shame my family. I do so now, to encourage others who are tortured by the shame of what happened to them — to speak out, find their voice and empower themselves. The first article I wrote on this topic I kept anonymous out of my own shame and desire to protect my adoptive family. I look back at how ridiculous it is that I should have ever felt I had to protect them. As an adopted person, there is nothing worse than being relinquished by my first family then being unprotected by my second. My layers of loss and grief are multiplied!

We never forget what happens to us as survivors of sexual abuse, we can only simply move forward from the hate and anger that is so valid, to realising it only damages ourselves if we allow it to fester or hurt ourself. For my own survival, I have to live with it and move on – somehow I’ve learnt to remain true to my own needs and ensure my life is no longer controlled by the thoughtless actions of the perpetrators many years ago, or the shame and guilt that controls them now.

My sexual life is forever tarnished and damaged. I will never have a relationship with my partner that I might have had, had I not been sexually interfered with. Being abused in this manner has always compounded my ability to trust, to want to be close, to feel safe with people and figures in power, it destroys my belief in a greater power – my spirituality. It was not surprising that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, the documentary Revelation revealed that many children had suicided whom the investigators attributed directly to having been sexually abused. It is no secret that many of us who have been abused end up self intoxicating, destroying ourselves because our soul is so damaged and hurt. We just want the pain to end, we want someone to reach out and help us.

I cry for the child within me who was so vulnerable and trusting but was so misled and taken advantage of by the males in my adoptive family (extended and immediate). I cry for those all over the world who have to live with this horrendous crime to us as innocent children. Sexual abuse is a terrible reality for anyone but having it done to you from within an adoptive family adds so many more complex layers of trauma that become almost impossible to unravel and deal with. Relinquishment trauma in and of itself is terrible enough. Relinquishment and then abuse in adoptive family is just soul destroying. I hope one day people will stop talking about adoption as if it always saves us and awaken to the realisation that sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse is too prevalent in adoptive family environments. We need to change this!

I want to note that I have met many amazing adoptive parents and I am not that bitter and twisted to label them all with this brush stroke, but I do want to awaken our society to the biggest myth that adoption saves us. From a place of honesty – for those of us who live abuse in adoptive families, it is likely the biggest silent killer of adoptees!

I never spoke up while I was young because I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends and strangers. I never spoke up because I was made to feel like shit in my adoptive family, picked on, singled out, the family slave, called names like “tree trunks” or “monkey face”. I remember one young man Matthew, I never forgot him, he was a rare one who was kind to me and could sense what was going on. Matthew was employed as our new farm hand by my father to help out. He was blonde, blue eyed, respectful and strong. I remember he stood up to my adoptive father questioning why he was so tough on me, forcing me to do the labour a young man like himself could do, but yet I was pubescent girl. My father quickly got rid of him. I never heard or saw from Matthew again.

I wonder how Matthew is today and whether he found another job. I felt bad that it was because of me that he lost his job but to this day, I always remember him for being kind without sexual implications and very respectful of me. He had shown pure concern for me. I wish he’d reported my father and his ways. Little does he know how far my father went with the abuse and if he knew, he’d probably hate that he didn’t do something.

My friends at church and school sometimes saw how my father treated me but it seems no-one reported anything. Why would they? My mother was the school Principal, my parents both seen as strong Christians with a missionary background, active in the church and community, leading the youth groups, hosting the fire brigade. I wasn’t acting out. I was a school academic and high achiever. I wasn’t into drugs. But I retreated within myself. I always thought I was an introvert until my adoptive family left while I remained behind to start Year 12 while they went to live and work overseas as missionaries.

In reconnecting with some of my extended adoptive family in the past few years, it has confirmed that some had concerns about how I was being treated from as early as toddler years. Some have said to me they wish in hindsight, that they had done more, reported their suspicions. As an adopted person, I’ve just never experienced a protective or safe parent. I grieve that!

I have the resilience these days to watch things like Revelation and Cracked Up. I use to avoid because I’d be such a wreck watching anything that closely resembled my traumas. I have learnt to turn my emotional churning into something constructive. I write to share with the wider world about how we can better protect vulnerable children. I turn my childhood tragedy into an opportunity to speak out and empower others to do likewise. I advocate for those who are still struggling to find their voices. I talk about the hushed up topics that people don’t want to discuss. I speak out to give hope to other adoptees like me, with the message that your life doesn’t have to be destroyed. There is a way to heal and move forward. We don’t have to stay ashamed. We have nothing to be ashamed of! We can speak up even if we don’t get legal justice. We can help encourage our fellow sufferers to find their braveness and shed off their mantles of shame. It’s not ours to carry, it is the system and the adults who fail to protect the most vulnerable!

I speak out to bring light to this hidden tragedy of sexual abuse within adoptive families. We don’t even know what our rates of sexual abuse are because nobody captures it or researches whether we are more prone to sexual abuse in adoptive families than others. I can only refer to research in similar situations like foster care and if our statistics somewhat mirrored foster care, then we really are the silent victims because we don’t have any one monitoring us once we join our adoptive family. We have no avenues to call out for help. We are totally vulnerable within our adoptive family. We have to do better to protect vulnerable children and ensure we are placed in better environments than what we have already lost. Sexual abuse in adoption must be talked about for this change to happen!

Coming Next: Part 3 – What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families

Trauma Informed Resources

Adoption, Abuse & Exclusion from the Royal Commission

Part 1 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption

I write this in honour of the survivors who spoke out with much courage in both the Royal Commission and Revelation. They inspired me to no longer be afraid to speak up. Change is only going to happen if we shake off the mantle of shame and name the perpetrators and no longer allow them to hide!

Most people in the adoption community understand and accept that there is trauma and loss involved for us, the adopted person. The trauma we refer to in adoption is usually what I more correctly term “relinquishment trauma” – the trauma that comes from having connected in utero with our mothers and then ripped away for whatever reason, never to connect to her again, unless we are lucky enough to be reunited or have an open adoption (which is rare in intercountry adoption contexts). Many well known professionals like Dr Bessel van der Kolk and Gabor Maté have spoken at length about the childhood traumas involved in being relinquished or abandoned.

In this 3 part series, I want to talk about one of the traumas that occurs to some of us after our adoption – the trauma of sexual abuse within our adoptive families. This topic is too often hushed up in shame and guilt and we, the adoptees, are left to deal with the ramifications – alone, and unsupported.

During COVID-19 I’ve had extra time to be able to watch some documentaries. One of the most impactful was Revelation on ABC which is an investigative documentary by Sarah Ferguson following on from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. I felt compelled to watch it because at the time, the media was covering the release of Cardinal George Pell, who reached one of the highest levels of office in the Catholic hierarchy, and was set free on legal technicalities after taking his case to the Supreme Court in Australia. He had previously been found guilty of child sexual assault by two separate courts but those decisions were overturned. Being a survivor of sexual abuse within my adoptive family, I was horrified and angry at this news like many other survivors! I was triggered and reminded of the lack of justice for people like me, whose perpetrators get away with their crimes! Triggered also because I understood intuitively how much courage it must have taken for the one brave soul and allies to stand up against the Catholic church and dare to take it on, speak his truth, and hope/pray that justice would prevail. Sadly it didn’t! Like me, that brave soul has to live knowing that no matter how hard we fight for our inner child who has been so badly wounded, there is sometimes no legal justice to ensure the perpetrator is punished for their crime. The other trigger was to watch the Pope shortly after, speak out in support of Cardinal Pell, likening his “suffering” to that which Jesus Christ suffered. Ughh for those of us who do believe the victims, this is like the ultimate twist and it sounded just like my adoptive father crying out when I confronted him a couple of times over the phone for his deeds from the past. He demanded that I stop “crucifying him”. Could there be any further twist to us victims being portrayed as the perpetrator, causing their suffering?!

I am compelled to speak out for adoptees like me, who suffer within our adoptive families from sexual abuse. I believe it’s one of the worst forms of trauma that is layered upon our already fragile bedrock of trauma from relinquishment. It has taken me decades to feel open and liberated enough to speak freely about how this has impacted me. I speak out because I tried to participate in the Royal Commission but in the end, I didn’t get to because by the time my lawyer confirmed I was indeed considered technically “under State care” whilst my abuse had occurred, I was too late – the Royal Commission had 1 week left to go and were no longer taking testimonies.

I was initially denied the opportunity to share my story in the Royal Commission because as soon as I said “I’m adopted” they automatically told me that abuse occurring within the “private domain” was not included. I should have said my abuse occurred technically while I had not been adopted. This point in itself highlights one of the areas in which we adoptees speak out about for what is wrong with adoption – and that is the lack of responsibility for us long term, by the State or Institution. The State/Institution takes us, places us, assesses our adoptive family, theoretically screens them, educates them, matches us to them, and deems them “eligible” to adopt. So if the institution that is so intricately involved with placing us “gets it wrong” (in hindsight), and it turns out we are abused by the people chosen by them to be our “parents” – how is it that they can escape having “no responsibility” for any part in our abuse? Remember – we are young children and never got a say. We are in the most powerless position. I argue that being adopted should not deem us as being outside “institutional care from a long term perspective” i.e., adoption is a long term form of State/Institutional care. The astute will understand that the prevailing “once-off transactional view of adoption” is one of the largest reasons why States/Institutes are happy to adopt children out and push adoption as a first solution. It enables them to wash their hands of us and not be held accountable for what happens after. In comparison to our peers who end up in other forms of alternative care that don’t sever the State/Institutional responsibility – e.g., foster care, guardianship, stewardship, or kinship care; they were allowed to participate in the Royal Commission and are followed up on long term.

I know in speaking with other adoptees around Australia how frustrating it was for us to have been excluded from the Royal Commission. While the Royal Commission is holding most institutions accountable for the lack of responses to sexual abuse, the very institutions who placed us into adoptive families where abuse happens, ends up never being accountable for their role.

The Royal Commission was just one way in which I would have liked to have helped create visibility to those of us who suffer sexual abuse whilst in adoptive families we are placed in, as a form of institutional care.

Another option I have, is to seek the services of a lawyer and take up my own personal case against the perpetrators and/or those who deemed my adoptive parents fit to adopt a child. This path in itself is a lengthy and emotionally taxing process. Not many of us end up doing this because being adopted, the mantra to be grateful weighs heavy. Our relinquishment trauma also usually means we have so much to deal with already. I have met only one intercountry adoptee who took legal action against their adoptive family for sexual abuse. To do so, has been a heavy price of further abandonment and unresolved family dynamics. It is a toxic mix of issues adoptees have to struggle through if they are to ever seek legal justice for this type of crime.

Over the past few years, I sought to find a lawyer who could pave a way to claim justice for me but the experience has been just awful! It is terribly re-triggering each time I speak to a lawyer who has no idea about intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective and the impacts of abuse in the adoptive family. Too many adoptees in ICAVs network have experienced sexual abuse. For most, contemplating seeking justice is just too hard. To have the fortitude and emotional strength to get through the process is almost an unattainable goal, the financial cost prohibitive, finding a lawyer with the right expertise is difficult; most of us just want to move on and try to put it behind us. Each time I spoke to a new lawyer, I’d have to tell my experience all over again. It’s been one of the most invalidating experiences of my life! The last lawyer was the worst, telling me the initial consult would be free but then proceeding to bill me anyway. Lawyers can re-trigger us with their preying mentality that reminds us of our perpetrators! Out of six lawyers, I experienced only one who had any compassion, acted humanely and with empathy. The rest were all legalistic with no heart or soul. There’s something to be said for a profession who needs to be trained from a trauma and racially informed perspective to represent us. Every adoption lawyer I spoke to has never heard of representing us, the adoptee. Their services are all for the adoptive families! It’s taken me over 2 years to be strong enough to write about this experience or to consider trying again.

Coming Next: Part 2 – The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption.

Resource

Listen to Kaomi Goetz’s Adapted Podcast in which she shares her story of Sexual abuse and the Institutional Response when she approached them.