by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.
April 20th marks the 46th anniversary since I was evacuated on an RAAF flight out of Vietnam. That day changed the course of my life and the memories of it will forever be etched in my mind.
April in general is a significant month for many Vietnamese Adoptees as it is the month in which over 3000 babies/children were also evacuated. Like myself these children boarded military transport planes bound for adoption by American, Canadian, European and Australian families.
The fors and againsts of having done this have been debated. I would like to say there was no telling what would have become of my life had I stayed, nor was there any telling of what was to become of my life by being removed. The fact remains that I was removed at the age of 5 from a family I knew and placed in a foreign country. This experience was very traumatic and I lost my identity, language, culture and everything familiar to me. In Australia I experienced a different form of hardship and difficulty to what I would have experienced had I remained.
Fortunately, many who left Vietnam were adopted into loving foreign families. I wasn’t granted that right and was adopted into an abusive and dysfunctional family. Regardless that family clothed me, fed me and provided me with a good education and I will always be thankful to them for that. Australia is indeed a privileged country offering endless opportunities and being removed from war torn Vietnam like all adoptees I had a chance to make a better life for myself.
What happened I cannot change, but what I have the power to change is my attitude and the way I react and deal in all circumstances. I know I am the person I am today because of all that I have experienced. It has made me stronger, more forgiving, more understanding and more loving. For this I am grateful.
What I have been through is also in part what propelled me 17 years ago to return to Vietnam to find my birth mother and to work with orphaned and disadvantaged children. Without a doubt God’s hand has been upon my life. He has guided me, protected me, opened doors and put some amazing people in my life. Gratitude fills my heart for all those who have impacted my life over the years.
During this anniversary month for adoptees, my thoughts too are very much for birth mothers. Many birth mothers returned to orphanages to collect their children and they had gone. This time signifies permanent loss for them. I have hugged some of these mothers and seen their tears. As my mother’s tears have been wiped dry, I too hope these mothers can reconnect with their children.
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.
I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Uplife 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 killerof 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 Revelationand 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!
by Geetha Perera, adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia
I can stand in a crowd Or I can stand alone And still no one will notice me I cry in a crowd Or I can cry alone And still no one will notice me I can hold someone’s hand Or I can stand next to a person And still no one will notice me For I am not a stand out I’m not the brightest star I’m not the skinniest I’m not the prettiest I’m the one in the corner Alone
by My Huong Lé, Vietnamese adoptee raised in Australia, living in Vietnam. Co-Founder of Vietnam Family Search, an adoptee led organisation dedicated to helping reunite families in Vietnam.
A mother should not just be remembered for being special on Mother’s Day, but each and every day. Just over two years ago I was miraculously reunited with my mother. Every day with her since then has been amazing, but on this Mother’s Day I want to honour her in a special way.
My heart also goes out to mothers all over the world who have been separated from their child/children for whatever reason. Mothers you are never forgotten!
This is my mother’s story:
My eyes gazed upon my baby with love the moment she was born. As I held her the day she took her first breath, a feeling of immense joy leapt into your heart.
She had no father as he left me when I was pregnant and returned abroad having finished his military service. Regardless, I decided from conception that I would cherish this child as a gift.
As I held her close for the first time, I examined her. She had all her fingers and toes and with that relief came the realisation of her larger extended nose.
Within moments everything turned into a blur as I bled profusely. As I lay unconscious the nurse forewarned my mother that I would die. However, hours later as I drifted in and out of unconsciousness, in a faint voice I whispered, “Where is My Huong?”. In response, I was told, “Two friends visited and took your baby to care for her.”
With a sense of relief in my heart, I was grateful that my newborn was safe and as I lay in bed for weeks in a state of weakness, my thoughts drifted — longing to hold my cherished baby in my arms.
After nearly two months of gaining enough strength, I slowly set off on foot to visit my friends to bring my daughter home ….. but they were not to be seen. The questions began to swirl in my head and a feeling of dread began to set like a stone in my chest as the search began.
The days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months into years. I ploughed the fields in the scorched golden sun. With a broken heart, I wept silently each night not knowing what had become of My Huong. I prayed for her safety and yearned that someday she would return. My only wish was to be able to see her face one time before dying.
Then in mid Feb 2018, I received a message to say that My Huong was seen on TV. My mind drifted back over all the years of longing and I wept a valley of tears. That night those tears were tears of relief — that the possibility of finding My Huong could now be real.
My prayers were answered and two weeks later, you stood face to face with me – your daughter who had been cruelly stolen from you. After almost 48 long years of being apart, the overwhelming reality of having your daughter beside you made you want to faint. As you stroked her face and kissed her cheeks, she knew in that moment that you were her mother.
Mum, I don’t know how to express all you mean to me. Since our reunion two years ago, you have shown me that your love is never ending and you have brought immense joy into my life and filled my heart. You are the greatest gift and daily I am thankful to God for the miracle of giving you back to me.
On this special Mother’s Day, I want to honour you. I am honoured and blessed to have you as my mother!
I love you with all my heart! My Huong Lé
For so many years, I have hidden my deepest childhood traumas under a mask of smiles and perceived positivity. Now, I am being forced to face these past traumas and weaknesses, as well as the more recent trauma caused by the web of deception, which was unveiled when I was contacted by my true mother two years ago. Wounds from the fake mother and family are still deep, but daily I am healing and I am so thankful to now have my dear mother living with me. She is such a precious gift and I thank God for the miracle of having her in my life.
For those interested in my story you can read the following article which was written by Zoe Osborne.
Most of my life, until I returned and had a chance to reintegrate my Vietnamese identity with my adoptive identity, I thought of Vietnam as a backward Communist country. I absorbed the mentality I heard from my privileged white western adoptive country. Emotionally, I felt compelled by the assumptions I absorbed, to question how anything good could exist in a country where they couldn’t look after their own children. I was raised to think negatively about my homeland and I was always told how “lucky” I was to be adopted to Australia. Being lucky usually implied “Australia is better”.
Most times, when people make comments about my adopted status, being “lucky” refers to material gains – plenty of food, shelter and clothing; a good education; and plenty of opportunities. Yes, I have had all that for which I am thankful! But having spent over a decade trying to integrate my lost identity after being in the fog about the lifelong consequences of being separated from my birth land, culture, and people — I speak out now to help others realise there is more to being adopted than the material gains in my adoptive country.
COVID-19 has further challenged my beliefs about my birth country compared to my adoptive country. It has been the first time I’ve read something in mainstream media to highlight a positive about my homeland over my adoptive country. Here’s the recent article on Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus. I’ve seen more about other birth countries being held in high regard (see Taiwan and South Korea). It’s an unprecedented time to see some of our birth lands viewed with pride in mainstream media. In contrast, is the wealthiest, first world democratic country America and how it is responding to COVID-19. Right now, with the media coverage, I imagine the whole world is questioning whether America is better than anywhere else. From an adoption perspective, American intercountry adoptees have been trying to voice for some time that not granting automatic citizenship and actively deporting intercountry adoptees back, after 40 years, is completely unethical, unfair, and wrong. No other adoptive country does this yet America has still been upheld by most birth countries as the land to send children. Perhaps now, after seeing how America handles COVID-19, birth countries might think twice about sending children to America? Maybe the rose coloured glasses might fall away?
COVID-19 has made it quite apparent that our birth countries aren’t all backwards! They aredifferent, but not less. Seeing our countries portrayed positively in mainstream media is novel for me. I wonder how many South Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese intercountry adoptees in America might be, for the first time, wondering why they believed the mantra about how “better off” they are compared to being raised in their birth countries? This COVID-19 is impacting far more American adoptees than those impacted by non-citizenship or deportation! And with racism towards Asians at an all time high in so many of our adoptive countries, there’s a lot that COVID-19 raises in our minds.
Right now, the whole world is re-evaluating many things but what it does for me as an intercountry adoptee, is it encourages me to look critically at how our countries are portrayed and challenges me to re-evaluate how I regard my birth land and people. I rarely see any birth country portrayed in a way where other democratic first world governments might look to them as an ideal. I’m sure I’m not the only intercountry adoptee to notice these changes and ponder what it means. This period in time adds yet another layer to consider what it means to be intercountry adopted.
ANZAC Day for people from Australia and New Zealand is a time of reflection that connects us through the generations. For me as an orphan from the Vietnam war, it gives me a time and place, admist all the beautiful gifts of everyday life, to acknowledge the undeniable tragedy I carry in my heart.
To have my whole family and identity lost through war is often something too painful to talk about. For those who know me well, self pity is not my song but in respect to my biological family, I can’t pretend the loss of not knowing them is not a deep wound to carry.
As I have grown older and possibly wiser, the symbols of rememberance have gained in personal significance. As I sit next to the eternal flame at the shrine, in my heart I see the flame as a beacon of light that I pray draws me closer to those I have loved or have loved me, whether we know each other’s names or not. I feel we share our hearts. The warmth of the eternal flame comforts me, as it reflects the love I am praying to send out to the world, like a portal to those I have lost and yet to find.
Please don’t feel unnerved by my sharing. My sharing is a chance to say thank you for allowing me this day, this moment in space to lay down my grief without question or judgement. It is only because I am loved and I can love those around me that I can share these thoughts.
And now, as I do for every other day in the year I will embrace the beautiful life I have and the adventures of the unknown future.
In this new 3-part series, Leigh Matthews at the DoGooder Podcast (also the co-founder of Rethink Orphanages), discusses with me the why and how of whether intercountry adoption does good and can it ever be ethical.
Personally I found this interview to be the most in-depth I’ve ever done on this topic. I had no pre-empting of the questions and by the end, I was a little shaken and rattled as I realised some of the content I’d spoken about wasn’t as cohesive as I’d would have liked because nobody had ever asked such intensive questions before. After all these years in speaking, I have usually refined the way I describe and answer questions because in repeatedly speaking on the topic, I get more succinct over time. This time however, my thinking/speaking is raw for a good portion of it and Leigh did a fantastic job of rattling me! She has a natural way of understanding this topic given orphanage tourism is so closely connected.
I can’t wait to hear the next two ladies in this series: Jessica Davis, American adoptive mother who returned her adopted child to her family in Uganda after discovering she had not been a true orphan nor relinquished with a clear understanding of our western legal concept of adoption. Jessica has gone on to found an organisation Kugatta to assist other adoptive families who find themselves in situations like hers. Then Laura Martinez-Mora, a lawyer and Secretary in the Hague Permanent Bureau team, responsible for the intercountry adoption portfolio who provides her professional perspective.
Our views together on this topic will help develop some much needed in-depth conversation about how intercountry adoption occurs today, whether it does more harm than good, and whether it can be ethical.
#3 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
Let’s say I’ve opened up and shared that intercountry adoption has put me in a place of living beside society and that I’m feeling my losses. If I open up to one family member in Sweden and one family member in my native Iran, both of them will say the same thing in response: “You should be grateful that you didn’t end up an orphan in Iran”. Implicitly all other alternatives would be worse so I don’t have the right to complain. I should stay quiet.
When discussing the alternatives to being adopted, people generally talk about prostitution, poverty, rejection from a cruel society where family is everything – basically zero prospects at all for a good life.
Would I have preferred that to the comfort of growing up in a free country and receiving an education, being able to travel? If that’s so bad, what other solution do I have?
Implicitly my Iranian relative would say that their country cannot change – that orphans will always be frowned upon and that sex outside of marriage, drug abuse or poverty are irredeemable. Implicitly my Swedish relative would believe that intercountry adoption is the best solution. There is an embedded colonialist viewpoint which only becomes visible if you reverse the reasoning: what would you think if a white, Swedish orphan was randomly sent to a strange country like Iran? When we have orphans in Sweden, what would we do with him or her? We would try WITH ALL OUR MEANS to find their relatives and place them there. If that didn’t work, we would put them in a safe home where there’s accountability and support for his or her trauma. We would make sure the child knows as much as possible about their birth family so that they can search for them at any point and always feel connected to them. This would be the alternative to adoption.
But as long as richer countries mine poorer countries for babies, using adoption as bargaining chips in diplomacy, there are no incentives for the poorer country to deal with its problems. The orphanages in my native country are still flooded. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran didn’t want to use us children as bargaining chips anymore and stopped letting the orphans go abroad. Nowadays, you need to be an Iranian citizen, you need to write over one third of your assets and you will be monitored with the baby for six months before the adoption gets finalised.
If you don’t think the Iranian way sounds like a more reasonable solution for orphans it’s probably because of the colonialist viewpoint, that western countries have to be a better option for EVERYBODY to grow up in. You probably think the stigma of being spotted at every class photo as an adoptee (italics), not knowing your native language or culture, getting questions about your background every single day and being subjected to racism from early childhood is a price everyone is willing to pay.
The most reasonable solution is, of course, what we would do to our “own” here in the West. I am aware this requires a movement in the poorer countries to create a shift. That’s why we need adoptee voices!
When I see this question – I feel it’s a classic sea-lioning trope i.e., a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretence of civility and sincerity. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.
This question and others like it puts the onus on adoptees to have the solutions and answers while declining to centre adoptee voices as integral to defining the issues.
I look to guardianship over adoption, care not erasure. Care of children in crisis doesn’t need to involve wide scale secrecy, severing of family bonds and complete removal from birth culture.
An emotional and financial burden of search lies on adoptees because of the secrecy. Birth families are often disempowered and actively discouraged from contact. And yet it seems that more adoptees are open to contact if it’s led by the birth families, when the fear of rejection is lessened. No government assisted systems are in place to offer genetic testing and support for reuniting and no pressure exists from adoptive or birth countries, or the Hague Convention to do so. Adoptees are forced to deal with complicated feelings about searching because of ongoing concealment of information in adoption which is especially the norm within intercountry adoption. Clandestine practices are entirely normalised within adoption where it would otherwise be unacceptable and illegal.
The public is fascinated with family secrets and reunion stories. Television, film and books on search and reunions are plentiful but never does anyone question the reason for such punishing anonymity and severing of all biological relationships. Never does anyone ask the adoptive parents why it’s a component of adoption or ask them to imagine what affect that would have on a person, or invite them to imagine how easy it would be to talk about those feelings with adoptive parents who convey fragility and fear around the topic.
The answer to this question could be an essay, thesis, or book in itself. I can’t do it justice here but I’m going to mention some initial thoughts because it is such a relevant question. Ultimately, this question asks:
Is adoption a solution and should we be doing it?
The underlying concept in adoption is that most people recognise humanity is not perfect, there exist children and families who struggle and need help, and most of us want to help vulnerable children but how we go about giving that help is really what we think about when we ask for alternatives to adoption. It is assumed that the legalised way of intercountry adoption must be a good thing because governments have agreed on it, they look like they have safeguards in place in the form of Conventions (The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption) and it’s been happening for decades. However, having lived the life of an intercountry adoptee and knowing thousands around the globe, my response to people who ask what alternatives to adoption is three-fold.
Firstly, I believe we should be doing more to prevent the need for intercountry adoption and many organisations are doing amazing work in this. We need people to spend the amounts of money from the adoption industry into preventative programs that focus on family and community preservation.
Secondly, when people ask what alternatives to adoption, I reply with asking whether they know who the top 10 sending countries are in the past 20 years. I then point out that China, South Korea and Russia are in the top 10 sending countries despite being first world nations with substantial GDPs. One has to ask why are they continuing to send their children abroad? And this includes America who is in the top 25 sending countries. Intercountry adoption is NOT about a lack of money and resources yet most people will not consider alternatives to adoption because it’s about their need for a child, having that child as “theirs” to keep forever, instead of focusing on what is best for the child. If we were interested in what is best for the child, we’d listen to adult intercountry’s adoptees who by and large, share about the difficulties of growing up between two lands. Adult intercountry adoptees say we need to do more to help keep children in their countries and address the lack of alternatives to adoption there.
This brings me to my third point. If we look to some of our first world countries who have great alternatives in place already, we know that alternatives exist and many of them work effectively.
Some examples: France uses Simple Adoption compared to the widely used Plenary Adoption. In Australia, some states use Guardianship/Stewardship, Kinship Care/Out-of-Home-Care, and Permanent Care/Foster Care models which have been operating for many years now. Sweden is rewriting their social infrastructure to ensure that children’s rights are central. A Swiss report that compared child protection systems internationally, provided 14 recommendations of what is necessary for “good practice”. A recent Quartz report lists the best countries in Europe who are currently providing amazing family welfare programs. This sort of social infrastructure is often missing from poverty stricken birth countries. Helping them develop family support systems would go a long way to prevent the need for ever having to consider adoption. There are also some experts in the field like Lori Carangelo whom we can turn to and understand what they consider as alternatives to adoption. More recently, a first-of-it’s-kind research has just been released by Karleen Gribble at Western Sydney University in which she surveyed impacted foster and adoptive people, asking what we preferred to plenary adoption. Her research has been given to the Australian government by AdoptChange, where you can access the whole report for free.
I believe asking about alternatives to adoption is one the most relevant questions we should be discussing in intercountry adoption. When this is properly discussed, it leads to the realisation that other solutions exist and that holding onto an outdated Plenary Adoption model is for no useful reason other than — because “we’ve been doing it like this for decades”. People don’t like change. Change costs money. Change requires a new mindset. We do know alternatives exist, we just don’t have the political will power to change the hugely profitable industry that has built up over decades to do what is right for the children and families involved.
Intercountry adoption is all too often portrayed as the ONLY saviour to a complex problem that gets simplified to marketing concepts such as “Orphanage vs Adoption” i.e., darkness vs light, death vs living. This portrayal is overly simplistic and to think of change, we need to move away from these all or nothing concepts.
Adoption in its current Plenary form should not be a solution today given we have alternative options and more importantly, ways to prevent the need for such an extreme solution. Plenary adoption should never be a first solution. If a community and family can no longer care for their children despite first being offered many preventative strategies, then Kinship Care, Simple adoption, Guardianship models do far better to protect the rights and interests of all involved. It’s time we discuss this question fully and to listen to those who live it from a broad range of experiences.
Can you imagine if a stranger came into your home and started taking selfies with your child, gave them gifts, hugged and kissed them, then left? The following day a new stranger came into your home and did this exact same thing.
This is a reality for the majority of children living in orphanages throughout the world. We don’t think twice when we see people post these types of pictures, matter of fact we often praise each other when we partake in such activities. For as long as I can remember, visiting orphanages, posing with “orphans”, loving and giving them gifts has been seen as a good and acceptable thing but I believe it’s time to reevaluate! Matter of fact, it’s long past when we should have realised how careless we can sometimes be with the safety and well-being of these children.
How is that when it’s our own children we see things so differently? When it’s our own child, no one needs to tell us the negative effects such situations could bring about, yet when it’s not our child, but a child in an orphanage, we strip them so easily of their individuality and value. The parental instincts that keep our children out of harm’s way should be extended to all children, not just those within our own home. We must work to protect ALL children equally.
While there is certainly much to be understood as to why this discrepancy in value exists that is not what this post is about.
What I would like to discuss is why volunteering in orphanages can be problematic and at times cause harm.
Most children in orphanages are not orphans. In the past, donating to and volunteering within orphanages has been seen as a good and noble thing, but with the understanding that 4 out of 5 children living within those institutions are not orphans it’s our responsibility to ensure we are not contributing to the problem. The act of visiting and volunteering in orphanages has become more and more popular over the years, and as a result there has been a direct increase in the number of orphanages across the world. The desire for donations can incite orphanages to go looking for children to fill their walls, preying on vulnerable families that are desperate for help. As a result, children are removed from families that could’ve been invested in to keep together (which is truly in the child’s best interest). Because of this, children are often being held within these institutions in order to incur ongoing donations from volunteers and religious organisations that have developed a personal relationship with that particular orphanage.
There is no such thing as a good orphanage. While i’m not saying that there aren’t orphanages being managed by good people doing their absolute best at providing a safe and nurturing environment, the institutionalisation of children has never been considered “good” for them. Children do not thrive in institutional care, even within the best of conditions. The rate of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within orphanages is high. If we know our contributions to orphanages can potentially promote the creation of orphans and we also know how harmful institutional care is to a child, then why in the world would we consider contributing to a system that is unnecessarily institutionalising children 4 out of 5 times? Just as it is for our own children, it is best for all children to stay with their biological families where possible. It would be better to support programs that focus on keeping families together or reintegrate children back to their families instead of putting that money into systems that are separating families.
Only properly vetted and trained volunteers and professionals should be working with children in institutional care. Allowing groups of improperly screened and trained volunteers to have access to vulnerable children in orphanages promotes an unsafe environment for the children.
When volunteers visit orphanages, even for a short period of time, they create a bond that will be broken once the volunteer goes home. Children that find themselves in the unfortunate position of being placed in an orphanage have been exposed to trauma. First, there is the trauma that brought about the need for assistance. This could be anything from abuse, neglect, a death in the family, poverty, mental health of a parent, loss of a job, corruption or a multitude of other reasons. Secondly, there is the deep trauma of being separated from everything and everyone they are familiar with. Losing that bond and daily connection to their family members is extremely traumatising. More often than not, orphanages become a revolving door of people coming in, bonding with children, then leaving, thus exposing children to the trauma of abandonment over and over again.
Visiting, volunteering in and donating to orphanages creates a supply and demand market which can lead to the trafficking of children. In many developing countries where the government infrastructure is weak there is often a lack of proper oversight within orphanages. Hence, it is nearly impossible to ensure the majority of these orphanages are being managed legally and ethically. In many countries where the orphanage growth has boomed over the past few years it has become an overwhelming problem to address. With over 500 unlicensed orphanages in Uganda alone, it is near impossible for one to properly donate to or volunteer within these institutions while ensuring things are being run ethically and that children aren’t being exploited in order to receive income from donations.
While I’m not saying that there is absolutely no way to volunteer safely and ethically in an orphanage, I think it’s important to humble ourselves and ensure that in our attempt to “do good” we haven’t somehow participated in a system that may be exploiting children. It can be easy to convince ourselves that if our intentions are good the results of our actions are inconsequential. Good intentions are useless if they are causing harm. For many years I unwittingly undervalued the lives of children in institutional care all in the name of goodwill. I am embarrassed for my lack of better judgement and ignorance. But recognising and admitting where I have gotten it wrong is part of becoming the change I want to see in this world.
May we all do better and be better for these children and their families.