Would Adoptees Adopt an Orphan?

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Here is out latest ICAV Perspective Paper, a compilation of responses from ICAV’s members around the world, who wanted to contribute and provide answers to the question:

Would we Adopt or Not, via Intercountry or Transracial Adoption?

This collation is provided just over a decade on since ICAV compiled our first lot of answers to this question. I was intruiged to see if our views have changed over time as we journey on and mature in our understandings of adoption.

Reading our views gives you some thoughts to consider on this question from those who have lived the experience. We welcome your views and you can do so by commenting on this page.

Expectations of Gratitude in Adoption

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I was recently contacted by a fellow adoptee who is seeking views and experiences of adoptees where gratitude is expected and how we feel about this. I immediately responded because gratitude in adoption is such an unspoken about subject, particularly from the adoptee perspective. For me, it was definitely a burden I felt whilst growing up and carry still to this day. Interesting that little has been written on this topic specific to intercountry adoption because our adoptions are so rife with connotations of being saved from poverty, war, slums and the streets. These connotations also come with equal expectation that we flourish in our Western white adoptive countries and families for which we should be grateful for.

It is assumed, somehow, magically, our losses in relinquishment should be negated by the gains in adoption.

I can understand how the majority of people who think of the word adoption would not necessarily equate that with living an experience of being expected to be grateful. But, from my own life experience, the word “grateful”, “thankful”, “be happy”, or “lucky” pops up in adoption conversation regularly. People who are not impacted by adoption expect us to be grateful for the material wealth and education we gain in life having been adopted. As an adoptee, not only have I experienced people’s assumptions about how lucky I am in their eyes to be adopted, I also experienced the expectation of gratitude said out loud by my adoptive parent during my childhood. It was said to me once or twice, but the way in which I was treated most of my childhood until I became independent and moved interstate, told me without words that it was the foundation of my adoption.

In hindsight, knowing now that my adoptive father was not comfortable to adopt a child not his own, from a foreign country, he went against his instincts and clearly gave way to his wife’s desire to save a child from the Vietnam war. What they saved me from, I’ll never know unless I find my first family. Whether I was indeed saved, who knows. Am I grateful? If I answered no, people naturally would recoil and look at me horrified, stunned. How dare I be ungrateful for my life in a wealthy country with material comforts, an education, and the life everyone in poverty aspires to.

But, of course I am grateful in many ways! Without choosing to be grateful, my emotional well being would be one of dissatisfaction, depression, unease and wishing to be dead.

I have been there! For plenty of years! And I had to battle to find a way through.

I choose actively to be consciously grateful, to focus and spend my life turning it into something positive. And it’s much nicer to be in a stage of life where I can choose to be grateful in general, as opposed to being forced to feel indebted for being saved via adoption.

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I’m a female adoptee born in Vietnam, flown out as an infant to Australia in the early 1970s. I’ve told my personal story what feels like a thousand times, but yet no one has asked before what it was like to carry that expectation to be grateful for my existence in my adoptive family.

My adoption was not legally facilitated until I was 17 years old and it is still a mystery as to whether my legal adoption paperwork exists somewhere in Vietnam. I hadn’t really come to acknowledge or understand the true meaning of this until the past 6 months. It is enlightening to observe how my story of adoption and relinquishment has changed over time as I’ve become more fully aware of the truths, perceived and real. I am constantly having to rethink what was told to me growing up and comparing that to the truths I find today, and who I have become.

Not having an identity on paper for 17 years, of course I feel the expectation to be grateful to my adoptive country Australia in giving me a birth certificate and hence allowed an identity. But at what cost? The expectation to be grateful these days is overshadowed by questions I have on why it doesn’t seem to have been questioned whether I had an identity in Vietnam or how to preserve or respect it legally.

The words “gratitude” or “grateful” are like an alarm bell ringing inside me. It grates on my nerves and I feel myself inwardly flinching. For me it comes with so many negative memories. Even googling to find an image for this blog and seeing the visuals, created feelings of unease and discomfort in my body. If you can relate to me as an adoptee, saying, seeing or reading the word “gratitude” in relation to adoption is a trigger that I have to deal with all the time.

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My adoptive childhood was spent working like a boy slave on the family’s dairy farm. Being thrown the “you owe this family because we adopted you” line because I was standing up for myself, was one of the toughest moments I remember. It was one of those rare times where I was trying to be stand up for myself about not wanting to be forced to help with milking the cows. The other children were allowed to peacefully sleep in every morning. My childhood sense of justice was strong. Why was I constantly singled out to be made to work around the farm with my adoptive father who inappropriately touched me whilst in the dairy or in my bedroom? He had no sense of respect for my privacy as my body developed in early teenage years. I recall a few times he woke me with his cold hands running over my bare chest and stomach, then dragging me out of my bed by my legs, nightie flinging up over my head exposing my naked body, laughing at how “funny” it was to be dragged along the frost covered grass on a cold Victorian morning. This would happen just on daylight before the sun even rose. Nobody else was awake. My hatred rose further when I once removed the outside key from the lock of my door but was authoritatively told how dare I try and lock him out. Everything about my life was dependent on him and I was given no sense of privacy, respect or control.

I grew to resent my adoptive father during my childhood but yet I pined for a tiny bit of love to be shown. I wasn’t grateful for this existence and I certainly hated that my lack of blood relative status meant it seemed to give him licence to work me like a slave and touch me in the way no father should. His other bio children were left to do what they wanted. They were not forced to work like me on hard physical tasks; chopping barrow loads of hardwood, milking cows day and night, cooking and cleaning in the kitchen, being forced to run out in the dark and shut the chooks in every night (I was terrified of the dark), etc. It felt like slave labour with no empathy for my feelings at all. It certainly wasn’t a childhood filled with love, safety or understanding. Nor was there any room for any compassion or support about what I might be feeling from being separated from my biological family and wondering why.

The expectation, verbalised out loud, to be grateful for being adopted was a heavy heavy burden to carry .. and still is. I was forced to justify why I needed hair conditioner and shampoo (I had waist long hair) and he would only provide soap as that was good enough for everyone else who had short or little hair. I was made to feel that buying a toothbrush was too much and how dare I need or ask for anything. I was made to feel and was told many times that I was a “fussy”, “difficult” child, always “telling lies” and “stealing“.

To this day, the “you should be grateful because we adopted you” mantra is what has stopped me from speaking openly about the emotional and sexual abuse I endured from early childhood to teen years. No adoptee should ever have to be thrown that line of feeling we owe a debt of gratitude to our adoptive families. Even when abuse does not occur. Whether spoken or not, we adoptees do NOT owe our families. They adopt for their own self fulfilling reasons. I had NO choice but to survive the adoptive family I was placed in.

You can probably feel the anger I still carry at the injustice of being made to feel that I owed my adoptive family for being rescued/saved. It brings lifelong consequences of being fiercely independent and not easily allowing anyone to help me. I suspect other adoptees can relate. For me, being helped, being given something I don’t ask for, usually comes with a fear of the unspoken price at which that help is provided. Hence, I would rather do it myself. The expectation of gratitude for being saved by adoptive family and society at large, is a heavy burden.

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This burden of expected gratitude in being adopted is enhanced by the religious elements intertwined in much of modern adoption advocacy.

Fervent religious organisations and individuals who willingly promote and facilitate the adoption and rescuing of children add another layer of expected gratitude onto us. People who believe adoption is an ordained action by God, that they are following his command to help an orphan, makes it difficult for adoptees to share about the struggles of being adopted and relinquished.

I rarely hear of any adoptee who will willingly stand up in a church or religious institute and share their adoption experience with all its complexities. For me, this would be the worst audience ever! I can’t imagine receiving validation or empathy. Instead, I suspect I would receive unsolicited advice to be grateful and thankful to God that I am in a better place and that all is going well now. The all familiar saying of, “Count your Blessings!” by religious people in response to adversity is one I find hard to stomach.

Google for yourself the word gratitude and you will see the many religious and spiritual images linked to this concept. Our struggles as adoptees go unvalidated and unsupported because of blind prejudice that somehow adoption is meant to be, ordained by God. How can anyone question the unspoken assumption that we should be grateful for our adoption, when this is the long held religious and spiritual belief?

Thankfully, my adoptive family and others have apologised in recent years for the wrong doings in my childhood and I have chosen to be grateful for this and to move on. It’s interesting how with apologies I now feel more at liberty to be open about my life. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer carry the burden of responsibility for family secrets and shame, trying to protect them from the consequences. For many years now, I have been true to myself and will not allow the expectation of gratitude to overwhelm my truths.

I have focused my energies on rebuilding the relationships with adoptive family as they are my one and only family I know, to raise me and give me an identity. For this I am truly grateful – but that’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a struggle and at many costs.

Gratitude in adoption should never be an expectation. It should be a choice we are free to make about life in general – after we come to terms with, and are supported in, understanding our losses and gains from relinquishment and adoption.

What Intercountry Adoptees Need

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Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.

The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?

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Truth and Answers

Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.

This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,

“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”

Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:

  1. Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
  2. Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
  3. Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
  4. Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.

Chaitra had none of these things in her life.

The important part

The Desire to Find Biological Family

For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:

Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.

For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!

When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.

No Adoption

This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,

Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?

Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”

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Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:

When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?

As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.

Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong

For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”

Restorative Justice

Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.

An End to the Ongoing Pain

Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.

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For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.

Kim shared it very clearly:

“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”

Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.

Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.

It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.

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LIONHEART Review

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I had no idea that I had a deep need to see my children feeling happy. I realise now how negatively I viewed anger and frustration. I hadn’t realised that when I set out to adopt a child, part of it was about fixing a broken child. I had so much love to give, and I thought I could love a baby until he was whole again. p94

LIONHEART: The Real Life Guide for Adoptive Families is a book written by what I would term awesomely switched on adoptive parents. If all adoptive parents were as embracing of our traumatic beginnings as these 3 couples, with the efforts they’ve clearly gone to to deal with the complexities involved, my guesstimate is – we would see far less tragic and negative outcomes from intercountry adoption worldwide.

This book needs to be read by prospective adoptive parents in every receiving country! In America alone, this book would make a HUGE impact to the necessary and truthful education that should be provided to prospective parents about the reality of the task they are taking on via intercountry adoption.

This book is the best hands-on manual I’ve read that comprehensively gives prospective and adoptive parents a relevant guide to handle the challenges we inevitably bring as adopted people. From the go-start, the authors make it clear this is not a book for the faint hearted, hence the title Lionheart. The authors outline the reality which I’ve also experienced as an intercountry adoptee, raised in the same type of family as represented in their book i.e., of being an intercountry adopted child amongst adoptive parent’s biological children.

I related to this book on a few levels. Firstly as an adult intercountry adoptee I saw myself through the journey’s of their adopted children – struggling to feel secure, behaving in many of the same ways in childhood, wanting to develop trust but afraid, confronting many of the same challenges, etc.

” … parenting a baby who was both desperately ill and emotionally scarred is different in a lot of ways. I am a biological and adoptive parent, and I can tell you from first hand experience, they are not the same.” p90

Secondly, as a parent to my own biological child with additional needs, this book was a reflection of my own parenting across the past 11 years! I could totally relate to the sensory issues, the challenging behaviours, the search for answers and therapies, the exhaustion of trying desperately to find something that works, and the differences in parenting a child with no additional needs versus one with many, etc. The authors correctly make the connection, that adopting a child is literally the same as having a child with additional needs.

Much of the standard advice for parenting children with a mental illness applies to adoptive families. p102

Thirdly, these 3 families came together to form their own support network because they realised they were in a unique situation and that support was crucial to their survival in adoption. This book came about as a result of their friendship, from supporting each other and realising the lessons learnt could be valuable to others. So too, I have built a support network with my fellow adult intercountry adoptees, and we have produced many great papers, books and resources that are of value to others.

The one area this book doesn’t cover at all, which I would recommend any prospective and adoptive parents investigate, are the big picture ethical, political, social, and human rights questions and dilemmas within intercountry adoption. My personal adoption journey is a lifelong one and what I’ve noticed particularly after having children of my own, is I’ve slowly opened my eyes to the bigger picture of intercountry adoption. This stage includes asking questions my adoptive parents never asked but which sit deep within and eventually rise to the surface.

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Questions such as: was my relinquishment and hence adoption legitimate, was money exchanged and was it equivalent to what it would cost to process the adoption or was money made from the transaction, who gained from that money, how many children are sent from my birth country each year and why, what happens for the birth families and how do they cope after losing their child, what if they didn’t have to loose their child and how can we empower that option?

Human rights questions like: what did my birth country do to try and help keep me with my family, my extended family, my community, my country, before I was intercountry adopted out? How did my adoptive parents participate in this trade/business? Was it willingly or blindly? Does it make any difference? Is intercountry adoption as black and white as generally portrayed in media? Were there other outcomes I as an adoptee might have lived, if I had not been adopted in an adoption industry fuelled by money?

Maturing in my understanding of adoption, I’ve realised it is not what it first appears and we need to prepare adopted children at age appropriate stages for the big picture questions. The book had a couple of intersections where this could have been explored but was not. For example, the death of a child allocated to one adoptive family and later because of the grief and feelings of loss, the parents changed country and agency to adopt from. Then in a different chapter, one adopted child asks (what is termed a “strange” question), “can you buy a child?” I pondered how can it be that we adoptees clearly see the connection but not adoptive parents. In our simple view, if you choose and select a child from whatever country you wish, or change because it doesn’t suit any longer, pay some money to process the transaction, how is this not akin to shopping i.e., buying a child? Is the question really that strange? It’s a powerful reality we adoptees eventually come to question and reflects just one aspect of the social-political-economic-gender complexities which all adoptive parents would be wise to consider and discuss openly as adopted children grow up.

Within ICAV, I can vouch we DO think and discuss these higher level complex issues. We also write extensively about how intercountry adoption is facilitated, by whom, whether the cycle is perpetuated by demand (prospective parents), and why we have no legal rights – clearly apparent when our adoptions break down, we are trafficked or have falsified documents, or suffer abuse or deportation.

Perhaps the authors of the book have yet to reach this stage with their children and that could possibly explain why it is absent. If so, I would love to see them write in years to come, a longitudinal book covering the later stages of adoptive parenting as their children grow to my age and beyond.

Regardless of the omission of big picture questions, I’d highly recommend this book to all prospective parents because it’s certainly a massive head start from the help adoptive parents from my generation received.

This book provides a no-punches spared, honest account of what REALLY happens when you adopt a child from a foreign country. The premise of the parenting advice comes from a trauma informed and attached parenting perspective. In my opinion as an intercountry adoptee, this is a true account of the emotional baggage we come with regardless of whether we are adopted as infants or not. I have written before we are not blank slates. If prospective parents are NOT prepared to take on the realities as presented in this amazing resource written by experienced adoptive parents, then I suggest intercountry adopting a child may not be for you. But if they are willing to embrace what this book has to offer, plus be open to discuss the bigger picture of intercountry adoption, I believe this will enable your family, the best chance of better outcomes.

Visit their website for details on how to purchase Lionheart.

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Personal Message from Lynelle

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To clarify, for those who are reading the misinformation spread about me personally and ICAV’s position since June this year, with regards to a stance on UNCRC and Hague Convention on ICA:-

As stated to the entity spreading the misinformation, as the Founder of ICAV, I have always supported the UNCRC and it’s position with regards to intercountry adoption. I have tried to openly educate adoptees and the adopted community about it. I have continually encouraged people to understand the Hague Convention and it’s pitfalls in intercountry adoption. I have pointed out for US based intercountry adoptees, it’s harder to fight for what the UNCRC represents because their adopted country hasn’t even been a signatory and therefore not legally bound – so their first and foremost guidance on intercountry adoption is the Hague Convention on ICA. Of course, it would be awesome if the US were ever to become a signatory to UNCRC and why this isn’t the case? I’m sure is another essay in itself and I am no expert on that!

Personally, I believe the Hague & UNCRC fails to protect us intercountry adoptees for fundamental key reasons:

1. We are never checked up on (protected) for more than the minimum timeframe (sometimes specified by our birth country) once the adoption transaction occurs. The post placement report is provided by the adoptive parents but no followup is ever done by the adoptee themselves at an age where they can give a true account at a mature age. Intercountry adoption cannot be argued to be a child protection measure as compared to foster care, permanent care or any other alternative form of care where the child is still within the State’s control and care. No receiving country even gathers statistics on how our adoptions turn out.

2. We have NO rights – legally or economically – for any representation or help if our adoption turns out to be a failure (either from abusive families, deportation, lack of citizenship, falsification of papers, and being rehomed), or if we are lost or stolen for intercountry adoption. We are left to the whims of whichever country has taken us in, whether they be merciful or not. What message is given by the world’s largest receiving country who actively allows the deportation of adoptees back and treats them as “less than” citizens. Not to mention birth countries who receive the deported adoptee back AND continues to send more of it’s children after this occurs.The Hague and UNCRC both remain toothless tigers for there exists no entity or process to investigate any questionable actions by signatories.

3. Money is still unregulated and involved in our adoptions. Personally, I believe most intercountry adoptions as they are conducted today, cannot be said to be ethical while money is still involved and uncapped. While money is the driving force behind most baby scammers, agencies or lawyers involved in both countries, one cannot guarantee a market will not follow. Too much evidence exists showing that families in our birth countries are tricked or coerced to relinquish, or that the birth country fails to provide social welfare to support single mothers/families who are struggling or have conceived a child with a disability.

I also don’t believe “special needs” intercountry adoption is any more ethical than non-special needs children – because we should be encouraging our sending countries to develop the supports necessary to help the less abled child grow up in their own country. Just because one is born with “additional needs” doesn’t mean it is a ticket to being “shipped out” and stripped of one’s rights to origin and family. Material well being is only one factor in life and definitely 1st worlds can offer more to a special needs child than less developed countries. Not sure why the 1st world economies are still adopting their children out via intercountry adoption then?! But why couldn’t this help be in the form of flying the child out and providing the medical services necessary but without having to “adopt” the child. Keep the child with their family of origin, assist them with medical and special needs; help their societies understand that additional needs people can have just as much to offer society as any abled bodied person. I personally have a special needs son myself and I would hate to consider him being intercountry adopted out just because he was born with this extra need because I didn’t have the means or services to support him or us as a family!

I don’t believe immediately obliterating all types and forms of adoption (domestic and intercountry) is the answer either. Simple adoption as practiced in France remains a form of adoption that allows a child to retain their identity. Clearly every country in the world struggles with what to do with their most vulnerable children and families! If there was one simple answer other than adoption, foster care, and alternative care models, countries would all be doing it by now. One cannot deny that some children now adults, wished for and are glad to be given a safer more permanent family to support them. We cannot deny that some biological families of intercountry adoptees might still choose intercountry adoption even if presented with other choices. We cannot fix the underlying belief systems in other cultures overnight that creates the shame for why some biological parents choose to give up their children. Perhaps we’ve gotten to this state of being because of the breakdown in families, villages and communities. Our society remains so fragmented and isolated as individuals. There is little place to turn for people who are struggling to exist.

I aim for respectful discussion from stakeholders in all arenas on the topic. I especially aim to help us hear of the real impacts of adoption from  adoptive families, adoptees and biological families, hoping that current adoption as practised today may one day be removed and replaced with something better. Perhaps we also need to change the word so the old associations with the pitfalls of adoption as it has been practiced domestically and internationally are removed? Whatever the answer may be, it needs to be one where children first and foremost have a right to be with their original family; secondly, where if for complex reasons a child has to be removed from their family, then we are empowering birth countries to develop as many welfare and social support systems as possible to keep children in their home countries with kin; and as worse case scenario, if we have to be adopted to another country or within our country, that any form of giving us to another family that’s not kin, allows us to retain our birth identity if we wish, and doesn’t annul our identities without our consent.

With future generations of adoptees growing up and speaking out and as we start to hear the experiences of our biological families, these inputs might change again how we think of intercountry adoption. As it is, one cannot ignore the huge pitfalls of intercountry adoption. Turning a blind eye is not going to fix the problems. Loudly proclaiming all adoption should be eliminated won’t fix the fundamental underlying complex issues either. Somewhere in the middle is where I search for the answers because I don’t proclaim to have THE answer to such complex problems.

I believe we need to critically look at what we’ve done in the past 60+ years of modern intercountry adoption and at least learn the lessons offered. This is why I choose to build relationships and work with various organisations (government and non government) around the world.

So, in case you have questions as to what my personal position is, or what ICAV is about, please feel free to message me. I like to be open and transparent and I know that some want to do damage to the work and reputation of ICAV, which has been around now for almost 20 years. I stand true to who I am and what I do. I  try and make it better somehow for other intercountry adoptees who are already adopted and I speak out against how adoption is currently practiced, to prevent the same historical problems being perpetuated for future vulnerable children who need care.

Note: I also believe adoptees and adoptee groups are entitled to their own opinions. If they differ to mine, I have no issue with this. Adoption is such a personal experience and everyone has their own unique journey.

The Power of Peer Support

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I was recently reminded when providing the history of how ICAV came into being that we originally started as a support network for intercountry adoptees by intercountry adoptees. We began because I experienced nowhere to turn when wanting to connect in with others like me. Since then, I’ve learnt many times over about the power of peer support and that it cannot be underestimated!

I constantly hear from adoptees about the lack of post adoption supports that could improve the complex journey of being an intercountry adoptee. Wherever we are adopted to and from, the lack of accessible and known post adoption support is the common theme across our sending and receiving countries.

Today, I share Stephanie’s experience, a Filippino adoptee from the mid 1980s. Her story highlights the extent in which some intercountry adoptees can feel alone. I use the word “some” because I don’t want to over generalise but instead point out that no-one in our governments actually faciliate surveys to assess how we as adult adoptees fare once our adoption is transacted.

It is peer support groups like ICAV that become the melting pots for en masse experiences of intercountry adoptees around the world.

Our governments should not underestimate the power of our peer support and the positive impacts this can have in helping reduce the sense of isolation many can feel. I hope one day we will see our governments who facilitated our adoptions, provide the much needed funding to financially support peer group support organisations (formal or informal) like ICAV and those associated with ICAV.

We provide an immense amount of support around the world that is currently either not provided at all by our governments, and/or some supports that cannot be provided by professionals who do not understand the lived experience.

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The power of peer support comes from providing true empathy, removing the sense of isolation derived from a/some situation(s) and giving someone (figuratively speaking) a hand to hold onto; from those who have travelled before and intuitively understand the challenges.

Some examples of current peer group support within ICAV’s wider informal network:

  • Search & Reunification, including DNA Testing
    (Australia currently provides a free service via ISS Australia funded by our Federal Government but in most other sending & receiving countries, no such government funded service exists).
    Some adoptee led groups providing this: Brazil Baby Affair (BBA), Born in Lebanon, Plan Angel Colombia, 325Kamra.
  • Return to Homeland
    Some adoptees setup home stay places for other adoptees
    Knowledge is shared in FaceBook groups from adoptees who have returned before
    For those returning to live for an extended period, knowing how to navigate visas, finding work, or where to go for translation services
    Some adoptee led groups providing this: International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) and their large network for Korean adoptees, Adopted Vietnamese International (AVI), The Voice of Adoptees (La Voix Des Adoptes – French), some individuals for Sri Lanka & Vietnam.
  • Informal Mentoring for the every day experience of being an intercountry adoptee
    Being available via social media 24×7 (which can be exhausting and difficult with little stated boundaries and all support provided by volunteers).
    All Adoptee Led groups listed by ICAV.
  • Books, Artwork, Films, Multi Media of the lived experience
    Some adoptee led groups providing this: Decoding Origins (Colombia), Adoptionland, ICAV, Lost Sarees, Out of the Fog, The Rambler, L’Hybride.
  • Face to Face Contact
    Informal social events that facilitate friendships and networking
    Formal events like conferences, gatherings, meetings,
    Some adoptee led groups providing this: AdoptionPolitiksForum, ICAV, Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), The Voice of Adoptees, Asian Adult Adoptees of British Columbia (AAABC), I’m Adopted, Chinese Children International (CCI), Also Known As (AKA).
  • Advocacy to improve our situations and educate the wider public of the complexities we face.
    Some adoptee led groups providing this: AdoptionsPolitiksForum, Adoptionland, ICAV, ARC, The Voice of Adoptees, Adoption Museum Project, CCI.
  • Research completed by fellow intercountry adoptee academics specific to intercountry adoption from around the world.

Hopefully this gives you some insight into the immense amount of work being provided by adoptee led organisations and individuals who provide for free, peer support to our fellow intercountry adoptees. We want to reduce the number of experiences like Stephanie’s and ensure that for those already adopted, they are provided the support they deserve.

Note: all groups listed above are provided on ICAVs page Adoptee Led Groups

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The Colour of Time

A new book, The Colour of Time: A Longitudinal Exploration of the Impact of Intercountry Adoption in Australia is to be released in June this year.

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This is the sequel to The Colour of Difference: Journeys in Transracial Adoption by Federation Press, 2001 (no longer available in print but can be purchased as an ebook at Google Play).

The Colour of Time follows the journeys of 13 of the original 27 contributors from The Colour of Difference. Reading about their experiences 15 years on, you will gain a greater understanding of how the adoption journey is navigated over time as adoptees mature and age. The book looks at whether things change, and if so, how?

Included in The Colour of Time is a new younger generation of 15 intercountry adoptees, some as  young as 18 through to others in their early 30s. They shed light on whether the issues they’ve experienced mirror the complexities raised by the older generation in The Colour of Difference. Has the mandatory education for prospective parents made a difference? Has racism been an issue compared to those raised in the 70s and 80s, post White Australia Policy era? Has greater awareness of the complexities highlighted in The Colour of Difference made any impact?

Overall, the book The Colour of Time includes 28 intercountry adoptees raised in Australia and adopted from 13 birth countries. The book provides a snapshot of some issues faced over the life long journey of being adopted, specific to intercountry adoption. These range from being young adults finishing high school wrestling with identity issues, searching and reuniting, navigating dating relationships, becoming parents, chosing to remain single, navigating post reunion relationships, losing adoptive or biological parents through age, resolving or learning to manage traumas and mental health issues long term, and much, much more …

The Colour of Time is a must read for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the life long journey of intercountry adoption, whether an adoptive parent, an adoptee, an adoption professional, or anyone interested in adoption.

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Many of the book participants aim to attend and it will be a great way to celebrate this amazing milestone in recognising and recording Australia’s history in intercountry adoption. The book will be available with limited print copies and unlimited as an ebook.  Details as to how to obtain a copy will be provided in the next few months.

This project is a joint initiative between International Social Service (ISS) Australia, The Benevolent Society – Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC), and InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV).

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Special thanks to the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) who funded the project.

Book Review: Birth Mothers in South Korea

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Released today, 8 November 2016, at Palgrave-MacMillan

https://www.amazon.com/Birth-Mothers-Transnational-Adoption-Practice/dp/1137538511

Gut wrenching to learn of our biological mothers’ life experiences!

This book is a must read for those who think critically about intercountry adoption.  It is written by an academic, Hosu Kim, who is herself Korean born and moved to the USA in the 1990s. She is a sociologist and regards herself as a transnational feminist scholar. She provides amazing insight into the history of South Korean intercountry adoption and most importantly, focuses on experiences of South Korean mothers who lost their children to intercountry adoption.

As an intercountry adoptee myself, raised in Australia and adopted out of the Vietnam War, I have always advocated for empowering and including the voices of our original families to ensure a more balanced perspective of intercountry adoption. ICAV has been instrumental in helping to bring to the forefront the voices and experiences of intercountry adoptees. Intercountry adoptees have continued to evolve, connect, and collaborate, speaking loudly throughout the world about our experiences. In comparison, our mothers and fathers are still invisible and mostly not considered when it comes to intercountry adoption policy and decision making at all levels.

I hope this book, being the first of its kind to academically research the experiences of a number of South Korean mothers, will help the world take steps for inclusion of their voices and experiences!

About the Book

Kim coins the term “virtual mothering” to describe the process by which South Korean mothers get separated from their children for intercountry adoption via maternity homes and then reconnected again with their child via imaginary or real processes such as TV shows, internet blogs, and oral history collections. Her book demonstrates how these South Korean women begin as mothers in the traditional sense but it is not a fixed identity based purely on birthing. Instead, mothering as a South Korean woman who has given up her child via intercountry adoption is a transient and transformative process.

To help us better understand the concept of virtual mothering she cites phrases from mothers such as:

“I am a mother but not a mother”,

“I abandoned my baby but I really didn’t, I didn’t abandon my baby but I might as well have”,

“I was alive but it cannot really be called living”.  

Early chapters explore the historical emergence of intercountry adoption within the context of post war South Korea.  Often we assume mothers relinquish in intercountry adoption contexts because of poverty but Kim gives you the in depth view of what happened in South Korea. She demonstrates the direct links between war, war orphan crisis, the need for emergency relief programs provided by foreign aid organisations (usually religious NGOs) that turned into permanent child welfare institutions. The emergence of these NGOs as maternity homes and then adoption agencies subsequently allow the South Korean government to avoid the responsibility of developing social welfare infrastructure. In turning a blind eye to taking responsibility, coupled with long held patriarchal beliefs and traditions, the South Korean government chooses to sacrifice mothers and children at the expense of the country’s first priorities – national security and economic development.

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Upon reading this book, I gained insight and answers to my long pondered question of why South Korea remains the largest exporter of children yet have a strong economic situation. A strong economy was achieved at the expense of the children exported enmasse and the mothers who were never given any other choice! As an intercountry adoptee, this injustice makes me angry! I often hear other intercountry adoptees wrestling with the same sense of abandonment, not from our mothers, but from our countries who choose to give away their responsibility of us.

The chapter on the role of televised searching/reunion narratives was insightful and fitted with what I’ve also learned from adoptees’ perspectives. The overt orchestrated reunions to “portray the cultural belief that transnational adoption offers a better life” via the American Dream. The “idealisation that adoptive parents and life in the west” is better. The lack of empowerment for the parties involved. The sensationalised first meeting that does little to be real about the complexities. The sadness that encompass adoptees and mothers post reunion. All of these realities struck me head on and highlighted the glibness of such televised search shows!

Kim correctly states television shows “linearise the loss of time .. flatten the complexities of loss”. The harshness of the biological mothers realities post reunion is something I see mirrored in the lives of intercountry adoptees .. the almost impossibility of being able to build any meaningful relationships due to “language, culture, finances, bureaucratic barriers and differences” .

Kim’s following statements powerfully bring home the reality of our mother’s truths:

“it is therefore thru reuniting with her child that the birth mother finally sees and feels the metaphorical death of her child”..

“it is the acknowledgement of the magnitude and irretrievability of these losses”

” .. reunion was both a final realisation, an acknowledgement of loss of time, loss of child, and loss of their own mothering”.

I felt crushed by the weight of South Korean mother’s experiences! It was as heavy as I had sensed in my years of being connected with intercountry adoptees and from the realities I gained from our latest paper on Search & Reunion: Impacts & Outcomes.  Adoptees find out the truth of their relinquishment and adoption when they reunite. As Kim highlights from these mother’s experiences, it’s often not as the adoption and television industry try to make us believe.

Kim adequately used the phrase:

“the social death of birth mothers is not merely a state of invisibility, but rather the result of violent processes involving .. domination and humiliation that devalues the lives of these women”.

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Once we open ourselves to our mother’s realities, one can’t help but judge the adoption industry harshly for its dehumanising consequences to mother and child. Our mothers really had no choices and their value was crushed from the beginning. So too, it is reflected for adoptees whereby we continue to have little legal, financial, ethical rights or assistance when we experience an intercountry adoption that has not been in our interests e.g. outright or suspected trafficking, deportation, rehoming, and abuse/death at the hands of unsuitable adoptive parents.

Kim wrote about mother’s who inevitably end up “estranged from their own lives”. This same “severance from self” is one of the fundamental issues many adoptees also struggle with. Our mother’s accounts cannot be ignored or denied!

Her loss severs her from her past and seeps into her present wherein her feelings, needs, and desires become estranged from her; through this estrangement, she becomes cut-off from her own future”.

Intercountry adoption cannot be undertaken without acknowledging the lifelong impacts on our mothers who have been separated from us, their child. Kim challenges everyone to recognise the losses our mothers suffered and the processes and means by which their lives are rendered invisible and devalued. This book asks us to be engaged and affected by what has happened in the name of economic development.

My special thanks to Hanna Johannson who connected me to Hosu Kim and her research!

You can also read related research on the experiences of Ethiopian mothers separated via intercountry adoption by Rebecca Demissie and South Indian mothers who relinquish for adoption by Pien Bos.

Note: I chose to use the term biological or just mother as opposed to “birth” mothers out of respect for the countless mothers who feel offended by the adoption industry terminology.  So too, I use the term intercountry adoption as opposed to “transnational adoption” due to legal terminology derived from the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption

When will Intercountry Adoptee Services be provided by Federal Government?

The latest LifeWorks press release from newly established intercountry adoption vendor LifeWorks  (with no prior experience in intercountry adoption support) is frustrating and disappointing to say the least! Another AU$3.5m on top of the $20+ million spent on establishing the 1800 Hotline for prospective parents! Not to mention this appears to be a duplication of State provided services already for prospective parents who have been approved and waiting! Overall by 2019, the Australian government will have spent $33.6m yet to date, not one cent has been spent on providing services for existing adult intercountry adoptees who’s numbers are far greater than the number of children who will possibly enter the country in the next 3 years – taking into consideration the declines in intercountry adoption in Australia and reflected around the world!  Last year only 77 children arrived to Australia via intercountry adoption.

I’ve been involved now in advocating for the rights of adult intercountry adoptees in Australia and worldwide since 1998. I was granted the only officially allocated “adoptee representative” role out of 15 in the Rudd government’s establishment of the National InterCountry Advisory Group (NICAAG) which began in May 2008 as a result of recommendations from the 2005 Senate Enquiry into Overseas Adoption in Australia under the Howard government. NICAAG’s role was to consult and advise the Attorney General’s Department on InterCountry Adoption matters. The other 13 roles were adoptive parents, a couple of them in dual roles of professionals or researchers, and one other adoptee whom WA had wisely included in their two state roles. At that time, I felt like the token adoptee. A couple of years later, the group included a another official adoptee role and a 1st/natural/biological mother and other professionals who were not also adoptive parents.

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Original NICAAG Group Established in 2008

At the time of closure of NICAAG by Tony Abbott in Dec 2013, we had already identified many gaps in service provision and the Australian Government was already working on harmonising services for prospective parents across States/Territories, restricted within the reality of our various State & Territory family laws that underpin adoption. This $33.6m could have been better spent in providing for the “gaps” that NICAAG had identified. One of the largest areas was and still is, post adoption support services for existing adult adoptees and adoptive families – especially during teenage and early adult years. For example, psychological counselling services to train professionals (doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers) in understanding the trauma that adoption is based upon and the added complexities intercountry adoption brings; education material for teachers to be provided in schools, and churches, community centres, to help young adopted children grow up in environment’s where their adoption experience is more deeply understood outside their immediate adoptive family; funding for adoptee led groups to better provide what is already given but on a voluntary basis; hugely needed reunification and tracing services; healing retreats for adult intercountry adoptees; DNA testing and a central DNA database that includes the DNA of relinquishing adults; research into the long term outcomes of intercountry adoption, the stages of development where post adoption support is most necessary, and intercountry adoption disruption rates.

Receiving governments continue to promote and push intercountry adoption as “the solution” for many child welfare issues and yet they do so with little research to support their claim that it is a solution focused “on the best interests of the child”.  Perhaps in the short term as a solution to poverty or lack of options of stability for many birth families, intercountry adoption might be seen as the best outcome, but what hasn’t been measured is whether there is a positive emotional, cultural, social, and financial outcome for the adoptee or the biological family in the long term!

Research conducted in other receiving countries like Sweden have shown that intercountry adoptees suffer at a much greater rate from mental health issues and are far more likely to become recipients of social welfare. Yet Australia has done little to no research on how we Australian intercountry adoptees fare in the long term and what is not looked at is the long term cost to the country. By providing children to families via intercountry adoption, the Australian government is not only spending millions to help them achieve their dream, but also it could be costing millions in the long run due to the unresearched outcomes happening in reality. My point is, if Australia wants to provide children for families then you also have an ethical responsibilty to ensure these children’s outcomes in the long run are as positive as possible.

Last year I spent time gathering together the interested adult intercountry adoptees and lobbying the Australian government under Tony Abbott leadership, who dismantled NICAAG and left the intercountry adoption community with little avenue for community consultation. Now in the Malcolm Turnbull leadership nothing has changed except to continue on with the push to spend money on the appearance of increasing the number of children bought here .. but despite the amount of money spent so far and the promises of Tony Abbott’s era, not one extra child has yet arrived nor one day taken off any “red tape” process. So what is all this money being spent for?  Just how logical is this push given the worldwide trend for sending countries to look at better providing for their own and therefore the reduction in available children for intercountry adoption? Not to mention our own domestic child protection issues need a lot more focus and consultation within the local adoption/permanent care community. And just who is measuring the outcomes of all these millions spent?

As an adult intercountry adoptee, I have to question the sense in spending all this money when it might otherwise have helped us deal with the issues already here, faced by adoptive families and adult intercountry adoptees on a daily basis. Or to be more pragmatic and focused on the “interests of the child”, we could have assisted sending countries, like Vietnam, establish the much needed infrastructure to support their own families especially in the special needs/disability area, eliminating the need for intercountry adoption.

The Australian government has been too affected by lobbying efforts of those whose interests are not first and foremost about the children who grow up but about their desire to form a family because of their wealth, power, and privilege in a world full of inequalities.

I ask, when are our Australian politicians and government going to treat us as more than just token adoptees in their consultations and spending?