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

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide

These past few weeks since easter has been reflective and sad for me. Whenever an adoptee friend commits suicide, it brings on many emotions:

  • Raw sadness that we’ve failed another person impacted by adoption!
  • Helplessness that the powers-to-be (sending and receiving governments, agencies, lawyers, social workers) who control and continue to facilitate intercountry adoption, don’t do enough to prevent this type of outcome. We know after 70 years of intercountry adoption, that the trauma involved in intercountry adoption HAS to be supported for LIFE!
  • Anger that it is documented and well understood that we continue to suffer much higher rates of suicide than non-adopted people and yet – the powers-to-be still continue to facilitate intercountry adoption with very little commitment to adequate post adoption supports, nor any consequences to being held accountable for their role in facilitating the adoption.
  • Grief for the people left behind, who are suddenly made intensely aware of the feelings of powerlessness that led the person to leave this world in this manner.
  • Frustration that for the majority of adoptees, we can get to this space without reaching out for help because we are often surrounded by public ignorance and media misrepresentation that adoption is only “wonderful” and provides a “forever family”; or of “a moment-in-time-reunion” that creates an illusion that this will fix the internal pain of needing to know where we belong. The damage these fake messages create when not balanced or listening to those who live it from a broad spectrum across time, is that this message can act to negate and amplify the struggles adoptees often feel.

And where are the supports for those left behind? How does our peer community deal with the ripple effect when this happens? I have not seen many resources to equip us with this. We struggle along, wandering in the dark.

What this does to me is put me on high alert for any adoptees I know who share about being in this dark space. You would be surprised by how many there are – often the ones whom nobody suspects! All I can do is reach out, offer to listen, tell them I am here when they need it most and encourage them to reach out for professional help. This is because the pain is often our deep trauma from relinquishment and possibly complicated if the adoption wasn’t supportive and positive. It’s an awful feeling to wonder who’s going to be next. I’m only one person and there are thousands of us intercountry adoptees. It feels like a ticking time bomb! Yet I also totally know how they feel because I was there during my most painful years. I know how easily life becomes that dark space where you truly believe no-one cares but even if they do … it feels like the pain is never ending.

For those who don’t understand and want to, for me when I was in that space, I just wanted the pain to end! I just wanted to feel some peace! I was tired of crying, tired of being so sad, so angry, exhausted trying to pretend I was “normal”. But suicide is a temporary solution and often when in that space, we aren’t looking at the reality of not being here in life and all the things we will miss out on, or the impact on the people who we leave behind – we just become consumed with wanting to end the pain!

Somehow, we must create a space that helps adoptees deal with this pain in a safe way.

Adoptee suicide drives me to continue to reach out to my peers, to try and create a safe space where their emotions and confusions can exist without judgement. ICAV is about providing resources and connecting peers to enable the journey of finding their truths, encouraging them to find healing, and offering some hope.

I can only wish that adoptee suicide stimulates more of us to reach out regularly to our adoptee peers; check in, show an interest, be a listening ear and help encourage them to reach out to spaces/places where they will be uplifted and supported.

ICAV created the Intercountry Adoptee Memorial Facebook page 2 years ago. Sadly, we have over 30 intercountry and transracial adoptees memorialised there in just this short period of time — but what about those we don’t know of because they never tapped into support networks? They are the ones whom I worry about the most!

This is why I spend my energy advocating to stop or change the way intercountry adoption is done to ensure better post adoption supports (such as free search and reunion and DNA testing, free counselling, free mental health assessments and support), better assessment and education of adoptive families, find ways to enable justice for those who have been dealt the worst hands (deportation, abuse in adoptive families, illegal and illicit adoptions, rehoming). There are so many complicating issues in intercountry adoption and adoptees should not be left to navigate these alone without the right support systems in place. Sending and receiving countries should be held accountable on whether their intercountry adoptions are a success or not. This implies there should be long term follow up on those whom government, agencies and lawyers place — including followup with the families on both sides (adoptive and birth).

Adoptee suicide tells me we still haven’t done enough to prevent and minimise harm caused by the structures that facilitate and support intercountry adoption.

Lynelle Long

Resources

If you are an adoptee impacted by the loss of your adoptee friend via suicide, or you are contemplating suicide, please consider reaching out for professional crisis support and to your local Post Adoption supports.

Peer support can also be useful as we can sometimes advise where to find these professional post adoption and crisis supports. A list of adoptee-led post intercountry adoption supports can be found here; but unless professionally trained, peer support is informal and not provided 24×7.

An article by a local adoptee: Toward Preventing Adoption-Related Suicide.

An article by intercountry adoptive parent: Understanding Why Adoptees are at a Higher Risk of Suicide.

Myths and Facts about Suicide