What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families?

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

In memory of Oscar André Ocampo Overn, adopted from Colombia into a family in Norway. He was murdered last year at the age of 15 years old, by his adoptive father after speaking out about the sexual abuse he endured at his adoptive father’s hands. Look at the price he paid for speaking out! Abuse in adoptive families happens. It is one of the most hushed up topics in adoption. Perhaps we fear the reality will shatter the illusions of the happy forever adoptive family marketing myth?

Sexual abuse within adoptive families needs to be talked about. I didn’t say “.. talked about more” because it currently just isn’t talked about at all! The only sexual abuse the adoption community openly talks about, is that which happens in orphanages which acts as a way to further demonise our origins and make our adoption fantasy seem even more like saviorism. I know intercountry adoptees who suicide where sexual abuse within the adoptive family was a known added layer in their traumas, yet adoptive families fail to understand why their child decided to end it all, or their role in this death. We need to help adoptive families reach out for help when they become aware of sexual abuse happening in their environment. We need more education on what are the signs and symptoms to look out for in adoptees who suffer sexual abuse, we need deeper psychological assessments of prospective parents to understand more how their own traumas can manifest in the lives of their prospective children, we need further resources to guide adoptive families on how to respond to sexual abuse. Silence should never be an option!

Due to my own life experience, I have a strong sense when other adoptees have lived a similar experience without saying so in absolute words. I know how to gently ask and it saddens me each time I meet another and they tell me what they’ve rarely or never told before. I hear all the scenarios – mother is abusive, father is abusive, grandparent is abusive, uncle is abusive, adopted sibling is abusive, parent’s biological sibling is abusive, close family friend is abusive. It is rarely a stranger! Adoptive parent preparation sessions and post adoption education sessions need to include more discussions on sexual abuse. Sometimes sexual abuse might be talked about in the context of children being removed from a family because of abuse and hence available for adoption or abuse that happens in the institution before arriving to adoptive home, but it is rarely considered that a child can be placed into an abusive adoptive home.

We need adoptive couples to be mindful of what healthy boundaries are so they can identify early on when things do not seem right. We need to create an environment that doesn’t result in hushing things up, burying the knowledge. I cannot say more loudly and strongly enough how damaging it is for an adoptive family to ignore any sexual abuse that occurs within the family dynamic. When left with no professional support, we develop coping strategies that are unhealthy for us and leaves an aftermath of destruction. Suicide is one path of that destruction, there are others like alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, perfectionism, over achieving, workaholism, eating disorders. As Bessel van der Kolk says, the body never forgets. Adoptees who have been sexually abused have to find one way or another to deal with the dis-ease that sits within us.

If your adopted child tells you of some form of sexual abuse, please believe them and seek professional help immediately. Report the issue to the police. Do the right thing even if it is your spouse, your other child, your family friend whom you have to report! I am told too often of adoptive families who treat the victim as if there’s something wrong with them, saying they’ve lied, made up stories, saying they have a mental illness and cause trouble in the family. Most children do not make up these stories and the child should never be made to feel it was their fault in any way!

We need the adoption community and professionals to talk more openly about these questions: how does sexual abuse within the adoptive family occur? How does demonising the birth family with a history of abuse set us up to heroise the adoptive family as if they are immune from being as abusive? How are adoptees more vulnerable to abuse than the non-adopted child? How can we better prevent sexual abuse in adoptive families? How can we better listen to adoptees who struggle with this type of trauma? How can we better record and capture data to reflect how often this occurs? How can we better assess prospective parents? How does sexual abuse impact the whole adoptive family? How does sexual abuse compound the relinquishment trauma already held by an adoptee? How can we help family members come to terms with the terrible deeds of the perpetrator(s)? How can an adoptive family heal and move forward from what has happened?

I’ve lived years of seeing exactly what happens when these questions aren’t discussed or addressed. It’s devastating for all family members and leaves generational impacts. We need to help shift the fear, shame and guilt that prevents adoptive families from openly acknowledging when sexual abuse happens so that adoptees and the family can find healing.

By not responding appropriately, the trauma of sexual abuse within the adoptive family is compounded with our relinquishment trauma.

Do not allow adoptive family shame to be more powerful than love and honesty.

For adoptees who’s adoptive family closes their eyes to your abuse, I hope you will one day find your voice and speak your truth. Your vulnerable child did not deserve abuse and it’s okay to walk away if your adoptive family are not capable of bearing their truth and giving you the support, love and protection you deserve. It’s taken me 27 years to be this open about this topic, being abused and adopted certainly is not an easy journey! The hardest part has been feeling so alone and wanting to belong to a family so desperately that even an abusive one will be okay. I share in the hopes of encouraging others who walk this path. Don’t give up on you. You do not have to feel alone. Find professional support, connect into your peers, don’t isolate yourself. Create a new sense of family for yourself. Find other “mother” or “father” figures in your life who CAN be nurturing and supportive. Fight to give yourself the healing you deserve! Speak up!

Resources
Possible Solutions

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