I always thought that my mom gave me up for adoption I was an abandoned child I learnt to believe that adoption is something beautiful Even though it hurt Even though I felt abandoned Even though I felt alone
I searched for my mom for so many years, it was almost impossible to find her until I got in contact with Ana Maria in Chile
When Ana Maria found my mom
I learnt the truth
I was stolen from my mom
at the hospital
right after she gave birth to me
My mom wasn’t allowed to see me or hold me
People at the hospital, a social assistant really tried to force her
to sign papers that she wanted to give me up for adoption
my mom refused to sign any papers
84 days went by, from the day they separated me from my mom in the small town on the country side in Chile until I arrived in an airplane to Stockholm in Sweden.
I came to Sweden with documentation it said I didn’t have any family that could care for me it said my mom had left me for adoption I never question that But I felt abandoned and alone
Today I know the truth I was stolen and forcefully separated from my mom
Few people want to see the truth as society has taught us that adoption is something beautiful
I have learnt that adoption is filthy business, and that people make money I have learnt that adoption is an industry
And I am not sure, who I am anymore if I am not that abandoned child
I have been forced to go back to face all my fears and to look at my choices and experiences
Today when I see the picture of that little girl
in my Chilean passport
I see a sad girl,
all alone in the world
with no legal rights because
no-one took the time to make sure
I came from the situation
that was stated in the documents
After 6 moths I was adopted, according to the law in Sweden despite the law in Chile
What does adoption mean to you?
And please, before you answer that question, Who are you?
I’m an intercountry adoptee born during the Vietnam War in the early 70s, adopted prior to the war ending, to a white Australian family who had their own biological children. My childhood adoption experience was one where I never really understood that I was impacted by being adopted – I absorbed the mantra of the era that I would just “assimilate and fit in” with my new country and family. I spent a lot of energy trying to do just that, but as I reached my teens, I started to become aware that things weren’t quite the same for me as for my Australian peers. I seemed to struggle more in relationships, I definitely felt alone all my life even amongst a so-called “loving adoptive family”. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I became acutely aware of how much I had absorbed the racism towards my own ethnicity, my Asianness. It took me a decade to explore how being adopted impacted me and I grew through this journey because of the many other adoptees who I met online and face to face in the community I built up. It was the isolation of my childhood that drove me to create this community, that is now one of the largest intercountry adoptee networks around the world that includes adoptees of any birth country and it is this community, that enabled me to grow, learn and find my voice. Today, this network is one of the largest online communities that encourages adult intercountry adoptees to speak out at government level (nationally and internationally) and seek involvement with policy discussions.
Why be involved in policy discussions? And what is so important about being involved? Let’s first clarify what is meant by policy. Referring to Wikipedia’s content on “policy”, we consider it to be: a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes; a statement of intent that assists in decision making; different to rules or law where policy guides actions towards the desired outcome whereas law compels or prohibits behaviours; should include looking at the alternatives and choosing among them on the basis of the impact they will have; and is about trying to maximise the intended effects while aiming to minimise the unintended effects.
When it comes to intercountry adoption and how it is conducted in each birth and adoptive country, we all know that regardless of being a signatory of The Hague Convention or the Childs Rights Convention, laws and policies vary from one country to another because of the ways in which intercountry adoption is understood and implemented, both in theory and in practice.
At the heart of all this, WE are the children who grow up to become adults and it is us whom intercountry adoption is all about. In theory, intercountry adoption exists because it supposedly provides for us due to our vulnerable situations in which we are not able, for whatever reason, to be looked after by our first parents. Many of us are the recipients of past and current intercountry adoption policies or a lack thereof, and in ICAV we talk openly about the known pitfalls and issues that being intercountry adopted creates. Many of our birth countries view adoption as a once off transaction that involves legally handing us over to our new forever families and countries. However, we know from our lived experience, that adoption is not a once-off transaction — it is a psychological journey that lasts our lifetime – for which we are forever impacted, for good, bad, and every other shade of experience in between.
At ICAV, we speak openly about the many complexities of intercountry adoption that impact us. For instance, our right to original identity is ignored because most adoptive countries issue us with a new “as if born to” birth certificate upon adoption. Most countries also completely sever our legal right to our family of origin through the use of plenary adoption (as compared to simple adoption which would maintain kin connections). Most of us have very limited to no access to our adoption paperwork which once provided (until DNA technology) our only ability to find our first families and our origins. Our paperwork can vary from being outright falsified to containing some elements of truth but in too many cases, it’s modified to make us seem more marketable for prospective families, hiding our truths including fundamentally important medical information and history. For those adoptees who ended up in intercountry adoption via illegal or illicit means, there is a lifetime of injustice that we are expected to live with, with little to no supports. For those who end up in an adoptive family that isn’t a good match, we end up suffering further layers of trauma. Too often people and governments forget, that our foundation is relinquishment / in utero trauma from being separated from our biological mother.
In ICAV, we encourage our members and leaders to seek out ways in which adoptees can be heard at government level where policy is created that constructs the future of our lives. We believe it’s important for government to understand the ways in which policy impacts our lives. Without this understanding, how can policy be in our “best interests”? How can adults who have never lived our experience possibly know what is best for us? Having adoptee voices involved in policy means inviting us to the table, really listening to our points of view, incorporating what we say into policy, and recognising we are the experts of our own experience.
The fundamental premise of intercountry adoption is to give a vulnerable child a “family” and “country” to belong with. Why attempt to do good for vulnerable people if you aren’t going to listen to how effective or not the policy and practice is? Governments can only truly understand the real impacts (positive and negative) of their policies by listening to those whom it involves. In intercountry adoption, this is the adoptee, first families, and adoptive families, not the adoption agencies, the lawyers, nor any other intermediary. Without listening to our voices, governments run the risk of continuing to make the same mistakes they’ve made from the beginning.
One of the worst mistakes that has been made in modern intercountry adoption since it’s beginnings in the 1950s and 60s (beginning with the Greek, German and South Korean adoptees), is to not do enough to curb the monetary incentives in intercountry adoption that allow intermediaries to take advantage of the lack of, or to bypass, policies and laws allowing them to facilitate and participate in illegal and illicit practices. We have generation upon generation of impacted adoptees who’s adoptions were illicit or outright illegal. They have nowhere to turn and certainly have very little justice. Today governments around the world today should be concerned at the growing momentum of groups of first families and adult intercountry adoptees who have already sought legal pathways to take actions for the failures of the past.
For example, Chilean mothers of loss are working together with Chilean Adoptees Worldwide (CAW) and have demanded an investigation into their adoptions from the 70s and 80s. The investigation in Chile has found that a large number of the children who left Chile during that era were not voluntarily relinquished for adoption and they are seeking justice.
Similarly, Guatemalan adoptees have banded together from around the world and are demanding an investigation by the Guatemalan and Belgium governments. A most recent well known legal case is of a biological father who won at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and sentenced the State of Guatemala for irregular adoption and use of illegal procedures. View video here .
Another example is Brazilian adoptee Patrick Noordoven who became the first in the Netherlands to win a legal case for his Right to Original Identity. With this win, the Dutch Ministry of Justice is now investigating the role of the Dutch Government in illegal adoptions from Brazil, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia! See article here.
When governments fail to respond responsibly for their roles or for the roles individual facilitators played, in historic adoptions, it leaves those impacted no other choice but to find legal pathways to seek justice. We now have over 70 years of modern intercountry adoption around the world with our adoptee numbers in the hundreds of thousands from many different birth countries. Asia is by far the the largest sending continent of children (Peter Selman, HCCH Statistics). Adoptees en-masse have reached maturity where they question their identity, how they came to be raised in another country often with parents of dissimilar race, and to think critically of why they have been sent away from their countries of birth. Our adoptee movement is growing and gaining momentum. ICAV often speaks about the lack of an international body to hold governments accountable for their roles played in facilitating or turning a blind eye to the historic illegal and illicit practices.
Could there could be another pathway? If governments would be willing to listen to those impacted – to learn from the lessons of the past and ensure we don’t continue to repeat the same mistakes?
Part of the ICAV Vision is: A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.
This can only be achieved if those in power in government value and engage us. When our voices are ignored, government acts contrary to their goal of acting in our “best interests”, instead they set up adoptive, first families and adoptees for failure at worst, or more preventable trauma at minimum.
Another of the largest areas of policy failure in intercountry adoption around the world for any government, is the lack of freely funded, equitable, lifelong comprehensive post adoption supports that are trauma and resilience informed, with inclusion in service delivery from those who know the journey best – adoptees, adoptive and first families.
Anyone who has lived intercountry adoption knows intimately that our journey is one of multiple losses that exhibits as trauma and must be supported throughout our life. By inviting adoptees, first families, and adoptive families to share the lessons learnt from lived experience, government will better ensure they decrease the risks of unintended consequences and become more responsive in their policy making.
Inviting us to participate, listening to us with genuine openness and respect, hearing our experiences and heeding our lessons learnt — this is how governments can strengthen their outcomes and become more innovative and balanced. It is not agencies or intermediaries that government should be engaging and listening to the most, it is adoptees, first and adoptive families! I hope to see the day when we will be equally represented and invited to be involved in government policy and legislative forums for intercountry adoption!
This article was initially written in response to a request for a Korean publication but was subsequently unpublished. The request asked me to write about the importance of including the voices of adoptees in policy forums.
Documentary Film by Sun Hee Engelstoft (Korean adoptee to Denmark).
What an emotional and powerful documentary! Very much aligned with the research I read and wrote a review for about the birth mothers of South Korea in 2016. I shed tears through many parts of this film because Sun Hee manages to ask and answer the two most prevalent questions we adoptees have of our mothers: “How could you have given me up?” and “Why?” This is Sun Hee’s journey to understand her mothers decision and situation.
For those not adopted, if you want to get a glimpse into the grief we adoptees carry, this film will do that. It accurately portrays what sits in the deepest parts of our soul (often buried and unknown for many years) and shared in the film. As Sun Hee learned and portrays, this grief and sadness is what binds us to our mothers.
It was heartbreaking to watch. I felt this could so easily be mine and my mother’s journey. I know now why my grief is so deep — because I carry her grief too. No doubt she held it within herself while I was in utero. It wired me. And I remembered it when watching this. I’m sure my mother would have been as powerless as these women — living in situations where there is no support, no empowerment, no voice, no real choice. Not for her, and often not for him either – our fathers, often unspoken about, invisible. He, she, us adoptees — we are all just pawns of circumstance and choices made by others.
This is what adoption is all about but rarely gets talked about. I doubt there would be any adoptee who could watch this film and not be emotionally affected.
What struck me is the entrenched thinking of the grandparents. It was so eye opening to see the various scenarios. Only one out of all those covered, would keep the baby BUT only on their terms and at a price I believe is just as emotionally high as demanding she send her baby away via an agency like Holt. I personally find Asian culture such a contradiction – supposedly they value family first and foremost, but I just can’t fathom how they can send away their grandchild? The individuals at the centre of these situations – mother and baby – are treated like they don’t matter. But watching this film, I realise it’s not family that’s valued at all – it’s all about how everything appears on the surface, saving face, reputation. South Korean culture, like others around the world and how they deal with single motherhood, puts reputation ahead of our souls. Its painful and confronting to watch it unfold so clearly.
I love how Sun Hee weaves her own search and struggles into this honest look at the adoption industry as a whole. This film highlights the overwhelming lack of support, understanding and infrastructure. If only these young mothers could rebel and survive on their own without their families! I can’t wait for South Korea to evolve out from under the patriarchal structures that allow intercountry adoption to continue.
I have no doubt these mothers go on to suffer endlessly with their mental health and depression! The impact on their life is forever. It’s a fantasy of their parents to think the daughter will go on with her life as if nothing happened. The lives of adoptees demonstrate that we often live a lifetime of inner pain, some of us manage to mask it, others not so well. Our mothers are no different.
What would be interesting is to continue following these mothers and babies. How do their lives turn out? Allow the rest of the life journey, the impacts of relinquishment, to become as visible as this beginning, so beautifully captured by Sun Hee. When I speak with mothers who relinquished, as with many adoptees, the grief never ends. Even if we reunite it can’t make up for the life we never had together.
The eyes are the mirror of a human’s soul where, if you look deep enough, you will see the deepest pain and trauma from our big loss. This loss is what connects intercountry adoptees from all over the world. Some of us have the ability to strengthen others through positive energy, but when we doing a deep dive into ourselves, the inner pain is omnipresent.
Even if happiness and joy is in front of us, we tend to see the bad in the good. With this artwork I want to show that if we release ourselves and turn our head to the right side, we can see the good things better i.e., use the sunlight in the right way and we can free the shadows which are caged in ourselves.
Artwork (c) Jonas Haid 2019 who created it for ICAV.
Why do some adoptees need to be on the defensive, overly criticizing, put each other down, and posture themselves as aggressors?
I understand and respect that we all have varied opinions, thoughts, and information on a very complex subject. We all have unique stories and ideas to share. I think people do this because their trauma gets triggered. They feel like they need to have an outburst and they don’t understand why – they lash out in an onslaught of misspelled, poorly written, hateful words but it does nothing to win people over to their argument and it definitely doesn’t give one any credibility.
When I was a small boy, I was told that I would cry and scream when I became frustrated. I think this was me finding relief from the pending frustrations I faced as a child. Being intercountry adopted, I had to learn a new language, was forced to eat foods I didn’t like, I was unfamiliar with my adoptive culture, and worst of all, I was paired with impatient adopters who were strict and unempathetic to my situation. My “father” once smashed my face into a pile of mashed potatoes when I was unable to recall the name for gravy. I was told that children are meant to be seen and not heard. Their ultra-conservative life would not allow me to act out in any way. I think many of us face trauma triggers from our past – unknowingly. We yell when we think we are marginalized. We curse when we feel insecure.
I am regularly attacked for being outspoken. Today I was attacked by two different individuals. One was a very disturbed man who threw a barrage of expletives at me and other people. He posed initially as a calm, loving individual but immediately exposed his true colors – a very aggressive and demeaning individual. He initially drew people in with his looks and charm but the constant belittling soon soured the relationship. The next individual was a woman, threatened by academia or anyone espousing to be semi-intelligent. This woman always knows better, has to show she is well read, wants to show she has the bigger appendage (brain). If one wants to share information with others – it can be done without tearing the other apart. She could have asked clarifying questions or enquired about my thoughts or sought more information to understand my direction. None of this was done.
The forum I want to foster is one with the notion: “let’s share and learn”.
I had a wonderful conversation with a friend today about what transpired and I learned a ton from her. She said to me, “You can’t fix trauma, in my experience, you have to find healthy ways to cope.” My mind was blown away! I know this is true but in the moment, I forget to see the correlation. My first instinct was to write about these two individuals and find ways to tear them apart. I see this “reaction” a lot in adoptee forums. My friend also said, “Another thing to consider is how people act out when overwhelmed. It’s something I think about when considering compatibility.”
I think this is a wonderful idea and requirement. We need to find partners that can see past our outbursts and help us off the ledge. I found her words to be wise and something I’ve not considered before. If we found healthier ways to deal with our triggers, many of these fights could be prevented. We all have them and some wear it on their sleeves and others bury it deep inside. It can build up and be released onto strangers or colleagues who might be unfamiliar with what’s going on in our lives.
So, what triggers you? How do you cope? Have you witnessed any trauma triggers recently?
These past few weeks since easter has been reflective and sad for me. Whenever an adoptee friend commits suicide, it brings on many emotions:
Raw sadness that we’ve failed another person impacted by adoption!
Helplessness that the powers-to-be (sending and receiving governments, agencies, lawyers, social workers) who control and continue to facilitate intercountry adoption, don’t do enough to prevent this type of outcome. We know after 70 years of intercountry adoption, that the trauma involved in intercountry adoption HAS to be supported for LIFE!
Anger that it is documented and well understood that we continue to suffer much higher rates of suicide than non-adopted people and yet – the powers-to-be still continue to facilitate intercountry adoption with very little commitment to adequate post adoption supports, nor any consequences to being held accountable for their role in facilitating the adoption.
Grief for the people left behind, who are suddenly made intensely aware of the feelings of powerlessness that led the person to leave this world in this manner.
Frustration that for the majority of adoptees, we can get to this space without reaching out for help because we are often surrounded by public ignorance and media misrepresentation that adoption is only “wonderful” and provides a “forever family”; or of “a moment-in-time-reunion” that creates an illusion that this will fix the internal pain of needing to know where we belong. The damage these fake messages create when not balanced or listening to those who live it from a broad spectrum across time, is that this message can act to negate and amplify the struggles adoptees often feel.
And where are the supports for those left behind? How does our peer community deal with the ripple effect when this happens? I have not seen many resources to equip us with this. We struggle along, wandering in the dark.
What this does to me is put me on high alert for any adoptees I know who share about being in this dark space. You would be surprised by how many there are – often the ones whom nobody suspects! All I can do is reach out, offer to listen, tell them I am here when they need it most and encourage them to reach out for professional help. This is because the pain is often our deep trauma from relinquishment and possibly complicated if the adoption wasn’t supportive and positive. It’s an awful feeling to wonder who’s going to be next. I’m only one person and there are thousands of us intercountry adoptees. It feels like a ticking time bomb! Yet I also totally know how they feel because I was there during my most painful years. I know how easily life becomes that dark space where you truly believe no-one cares but even if they do … it feels like the pain is never ending.
For those who don’t understand and want to, for me when I was in that space, I just wanted the pain to end! I just wanted to feel some peace! I was tired of crying, tired of being so sad, so angry, exhausted trying to pretend I was “normal”. But suicide is a temporary solution and often when in that space, we aren’t looking at the reality of not being here in life and all the things we will miss out on, or the impact on the people who we leave behind – we just become consumed with wanting to end the pain!
Somehow, we must create a space that helps adoptees deal with this pain in a safe way.
Adoptee suicide drives me to continue to reach out to my peers, to try and create a safe space where their emotions and confusions can exist without judgement. ICAV is about providing resources and connecting peers to enable the journey of finding their truths, encouraging them to find healing, and offering some hope.
I can only wish that adoptee suicide stimulates more of us to reach out regularly to our adoptee peers; check in, show an interest, be a listening ear and help encourage them to reach out to spaces/places where they will be uplifted and supported.
ICAV created the Intercountry Adoptee Memorial Facebook page 2 years ago. Sadly, we have over 30 intercountry and transracial adoptees memorialised there in just this short period of time — but what about those we don’t know of because they never tapped into support networks? They are the ones whom I worry about the most!
This is why I spend my energy advocating to stop or change the way intercountry adoption is done to ensure better post adoption supports (such as free search and reunion and DNA testing, free counselling, free mental health assessments and support), better assessment and education of adoptive families, find ways to enable justice for those who have been dealt the worst hands (deportation, abuse in adoptive families, illegal and illicit adoptions, rehoming). There are so many complicating issues in intercountry adoption and adoptees should not be left to navigate these alone without the right support systems in place. Sending and receiving countries should be held accountable on whether their intercountry adoptions are a success or not. This implies there should be long term follow up on those whom government, agencies and lawyers place — including followup with the families on both sides (adoptive and birth).
Adoptee suicide tells me we still haven’t done enough to prevent and minimise harm caused by the structures that facilitate and support intercountry adoption.
If you are an adoptee impacted by the loss of your adoptee friend via suicide, or you are contemplating suicide, please consider reaching out for professional crisis support and to your local Post Adoption supports.
Peer support can also be useful as we can sometimes advise where to find these professional post adoption and crisis supports. A list of adoptee-led post intercountry adoption supports can be found here; but unless professionally trained, peer support is informal and not provided 24×7.
This year, one of ICAVs goals is to bring to the forefront, the voices of those who have lived the experience of being illictly adopted via intercountry adoption practices. The experience of an illegal intercountry adoption is now recognised as “existing” by many of our governments and central authorities who facilitate the adoptions. ISS-SSI even provided a Handbook on Responding to Illegal Adoptions about this in 2016, including input from some with lived experience. However, it remains a fact today, that there are barely a handful of adult intercountry adoptees who have received appropriate support and assistance, whether that be emotional, financial, legal, or governmental liaison in response to their illicit adoptions.
What about illicit intercountry adoptions that are technically “legal” but are fundamentally unethical under international or other standards like the Palermo Protocol? The powers who control and regulate intercountry adoption do little to provide useful support to those who experience it.
In 2011, my adoptive country Australia, led the way in a working group at The Hague to developing cooperative measures for the prevention of illicit practices in adoption and they remain one of the few adoptive countries to develop a “protocol” for responding to allegations of child trafficking in adoption. However, this protocol response is severly limited in that it only acts to “review the adoption documentation” and yet it is often the documentation itself, that has been falsified and difficult to ascertain without other sources of information. Even IF documentation is proven to be false, what then? In cases like the Julie Chu Taiwanese trafficking ring where legal prosecution followed, there has been little to nothing done for the Taiwanese adoptees and their first families both in the adoptive and birth country’s. Shouldn’t those impacted be provided fully funded services to help them reunite, reintegrate and reconnect if they want this at any stage of their life? Or do they each have to pursue legal action in order to ever be compensated for their losses and legal implications? And what if they don’t want legal action but still want help?
In my time at ICAV, I have witnessed the lifelong growth that occurs developmentally for adult intercountry adoptees – first we start to explore our indivual journey but as we connect to fellow adoptees and peer support networks, we become exposed to the larger picture of intercountry adoption and the world-wide practice as it occurs today. The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption was designed to combat illegal adoptions but despite it’s ideals, it hasn’t been able to stop them altogether nor does it ensure adequate post adoption supports – especially for this specific segment of the intercountry adoptee population. Many critics say The Hague Convention has made the problem worse by masking the illicit practices under the guise of a “legal” adoption. As the adult adoptee population ages and matures, what I observe is a huge number, enmasse, of adoptees who are becoming actively involved in exposing the many illicit adoptions that have chequered its history.
South Korean adoptees like Jane Jeong Trenka have led the way in the fight for adoptee rights due to their historical place as the first babies enmasse in modern time to be exported in the largest numbers — but more recently there are those who pave the way for adoptees of other birth countries who have been illicitly adopted. Impacted adoptees such as:
Patrick Noordoven from Brazil Baby Affair who recently won his historical outcome of legal recognition that those adopted illegally had a right to their information; in general paving a way for other Brazilian adoptees from the Brazil Baby Affair period; and also a success with the Dutch court appointing an external commission to investigate intercountry adoptions in the past from Brazil but also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia;
Sanne van Rossen who released her ground breaking expose The Sadness from Sri Lanka (english translation avail this year) and the accompanying media coverage by Zembla which has effectively encouraged Sri Lankan adoptees all over the world to work together; Sanne’s work also led to official recognition of the Baby Farming era by the Sri Lankan government;
Alejandro Quezada who founded Chilean Adoptees Worldwide along with other Chilean adoptees are working with the Mothers of Chile who’s children were stolen or lost to adoption. Together they have pushed for a formal investigation into the illegal adoptions from Chile;
Marcia Engel at Plan Angel and other Colombian adoptees in the group are advocating to have illegal adoptions investigated officially;
and Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking who has for decades exposed illegal adoptions out of India and many other countries.
What is to be the government and central authority responses to these enmasse occurrences of illicit adoption practices? For how long will they continue to ignore the voices of those impacted the most from a practical sense – helping them find their families and re-integrate back into their countries if this is their desire? How about funding the “lived experience organisation” who helps the most because they best understand the complexities? Or a “lived experience advisory group”?
I hope that by encouraging advocacy and helping to expose the voices of those who live it, we will see change – not only formally acknowledging the wrongs done, but to attempt to make ammends and provide much needed support for those forced to live it. It is one thing to acknowledge the terrible practices of the past and attempt to avoid repeating them into the future, but it is another to address the current issues and provide support for those who have lived a lifetime resulting from past practices.
Today, I present to you the story of Mariela who has lived the experience of being illegally adopted from Guatemala to Belgium. This is an example of one person’s lived experience of illicit intercountry adoption. We look forward to sharing soon our new project to bring together many more voices like Mariela’s!
We can only ever fully understand the full complexities of illicit intercountry adoptions by listening to those who live it!
I was stationed in Korea for eight years and have made more than a dozen trips to Korea since I left in 2007. During my last visit to Itaewon, I came across a small bronze statue of a girl sitting on a chair, next to an empty chair, located at the stoplight intersection closest to the US military base. I read the inscription on the plaque and learned that the statue of a young girl wearing a traditional hanbok with clenched fists commemorates the estimated 200,000 girls and women who were forced into prostitution to service the Japanese during WWII.
Currently, there are 40 comfort women statues erected in and outside of South Korea, located in the United States, Canada, Australia and China. The statue is a visible reminder of the abhorrent pain and suffering the Japanese brought upon so many lives. It’s believed that three-quarters of all comfort women have already died and those that survived, told unspeakable accounts of torture.
In recent years, many comfort women have been outspoken and demanded apologies and reparation for what they endured. In 1994, the Japanese government set up a public fund called the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) to provide compensation to the countries where the Japanese had occupied during the war and enslaved the women for sexual exploitation. In recent years, there has been a public outcry by the Korean citizens against the Japanese government for sweeping this gross violation under the rug. The Japanese government has never officially recognised nor apologised for the exploitation of women in this manner.
The Japanese could learn how to do the right thing from their WWII allies. The German government has apologized for their atrocities during WWII and they’ve erected a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The US government apologized five times to the American Japanese for their involvement in rounding up citizens and sending them to internment camps. Furthermore, the US House and Senate apologized for their wrongdoings to their own citizens, apologizing for slavery and the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the United States.
However, this story doesn’t end with the Japanese. I agree that the comfort women deserve both an apology and reparation for their pain and suffering. I believe this is the proper thing to do. But I want to point out the hypocrisy of the Korean government as they use the same tactics and verbiage of the Japanese government as to how they also deal with the issue of the 200,000 children displaced through intercountry adoption. Korean society ignores that adoptees suffer from adoption trauma as well as a moral injury. Many of my fellow adoptees can remember being forced on planes and sent into the arms of strangers. The psychological damage for many adoptees go beyond that one experience and the US Department of Health and Human Services study estimates the percentage of adopted people seen in mental health settings fall within the range of 5 to 12%, or 2.5 to 6 times the percentage of adopted children in the general population.
Adopted people are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide, according to a study published in the online journal of Pediatrics. The Institute for Family Studies learned through their studies that adoptees are more likely to have difficulties through school and are four times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to be expelled from school. The rosy outcomes promoted by pro-adoption groups in the US and elsewhere are very misleading. The media largely ignores the adoption stories that are about death, rape, abuse and neglect. Numerous adoptees have endured horrific lives, not unlike those of comfort women.
Like the comfort women, adoptees are being ignored by the same government that caused the initial pain and suffering. Adoptees are asking for honesty when their histories are being shared. They ask for honesty and transparency. It’s statistically impossible for all adoptees to have been abandoned and left on doorsteps of every police station in Seoul.
Adoptees have taken matters into their own hands and have become videographers, sharing their stories and showing the flaws in the records and the stories that were told to them. The truth may be that the records of children were switched at birth or exchanged with other children who had more favorable stories.
Adoptees are speaking out and want to be told the truth even if it means there is nothing in our files. The government programs providing assistance to adoptees are largely run by Korean Nationals and have little to no input from adoptees. How can the largest stakeholder have no voice in designing the programs that are meant to support them? Doesn’t it make sense for the Korean government to hire Korean adoptees to support fellow Korean adoptees?
The red tape and lies don’t stop here. Numerous Korean families have been outspoken because they were given lies and the run-around when they enquire to find their children sent abroad. Furthermore, the organizations supposedly providing support to Korean adoptees are largely tone deaf and not motivated to provide assistance. I met a Korean adoptee who was diagnosed with liver failure and when he turned up for assistance, he was given little to none and died a slow and painful death.
Sadly, that is not an isolated case. Adoptees who are stranded and deported to Korea have reached out to the Korean government for resources and support. They were met with a plethora of demands from the Korean government in order to obtain assistance. Individuals with possible learning difficulties or prior formal educational experience were expected to pass Korean language classes to receive benefits. The benefits given were not enough for these adoptees to meet their basic needs. These adoptees then turned to their adoptee peers to pay for basic necessities such as food and clothing. I know this from first hand experience.
I met an adoptee just prior to his death and I have worked with adoptee-led organizations who raise funds to support the deported adoptees in crisis in Korea. I have also met with adoptees who erected the statue in memory of murdered adoptee Hyunsu O’Callaghan. The reality is that the real work for adoptees still comes from fellow adoptees.
3 NOV 15 Korean Herold article stated: “Kang Tae-in, a representative of a group of Korean birth families, said it was untrue that most birth parents don’t want to be found. He said many members of his group have tried to search for their children, only to be insulted and lied to by adoption agencies”.
The Korean government imposes restrictions that make it hard for adoptees to find their biological families. Adoptees have been forced to resolve issues on their own. A group of Korean adoptees got together to start a non-governmental organization (NGO) called 325KAMRA, largely funded by Thomas Park Clement, a Korean adoptee sent to America. 325KAMRA was formed because there was no consolidated DNA database widely available for Korean adoptees around the world to search for their biological families. There are approximately 150,000+ Korean adoptees in America and 50,000+ Korean adoptees in Europe – many of them wish to find biological family in Korea.
The South Korean Police have a separate database that started in 2004 and it has been used largely for missing people. Adoptees can access this but only if their adoption paperwork states that they were not given up by their parents. According to a news article in 2013, this police database had 24,764 samples from “missing people (mainly people with intellectual disabilities at institutions) while only 1,732 family members of missing persons had registered their DNA in this database. As of 2013, since 2004 there had been only 236 cases of reunion (children under age 14 (110 cases) and disabled (112 cases)).
325Kamra has been extremely successful compared to the closed system established in Korea.
As of November 2018, 325KAMRA has enabled 70 adoptees to be re-connected with biological families through DNA matches, genetic genealogy and DNA detective work. Moreover, there have been at least 100 matches to close family members using autosomal DNA tests. That means 170 Korean adoptees have found biological family through the use of autosomal DNA tests in the last three years. This is 72% of what the Korean police database yielded in over a decade. To date, Thomas Park Clement and 325Kamra have distributed over 4,700 DNA kits to Korean adoptees – primarily in the United States, Europe and Korea.
3 NOV 15 Korean Herold article states: “According to the law, one can access their birth records without their birth parents’ permission only if the birth parent is dead or cannot be found, or the adoptee has a medical condition or other reason for doing so.”
I personally think the Korean government needs to be reminded of their own obligations. We should use the same tactics that have been used by the Korean government against the Japanese. We should erect statues by every comfort woman to remind them that another group of individuals is also being overlooked.
I recommend we erect a statue of a younger girl squatting on the ground in her hanbok crying. The girl is crying is because she is forcibly removed from her homeland and exported to a foreign country via intercountry adoption. It’s a girl because a larger percentage of adoptees sent out of Korea are females.
If we don’t speak out, then the Korean government will continue to reduce the support promised for adoptees. To date, the Korean government has already slashed operating expenses which funded adoptee programs – programs such as the travel exchange program that facilitated the return to homeland for adoptees. What also needs fixing is the loopholes in Korea’s legal system. For example the 2012 Adoption Law gives adoptees the right to petition for their birth records but the same request cannot be granted to biological parents wanting to search.
Korea can be a beacon for other countries involved in intercountry adoption but there is still much work that needs to be accomplished. It will require adoptees to speak up and petition the Korean government in order to make real changes. I pray we can accomplish this before all our parents pass away.
It is November, National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) 2018. At ICAV, we want to raise awareness of the realities some live who rarely get to express their voice because they are too downtrodden and trying to survive, let alone tell their story!
Today, I share the journey of a very brave young woman adopted from Ethiopia to the USA. Her life experience needs to be told to intercountry adoption agencies, governments, lawyers, social workers and middle-people who continue to facilitate intercountry adoptions without learning from the past. When I interviewed this young woman, my heart was shredded as I listened to the heartache, trauma, re-trauma and sadness that has filled her life. Adoption is meant to be a forever family isn’t it?? Don’t adoption agencies and governments promote adoption as being in the best interests of the child?? Don’t they equate adoption with permanency??
It is fellow adoptees like this who inspire me to continue to raise awareness in intercountry adoption. Too many times, intercountry adoptions are done poorly, with little responsibility or ethics for the long term outcomes. We need to learn from these worst case scenarios and stop telling ourselves the lie that it only happens to a minority.
In my opinion, if it happens to one, it happens to too many! These issues are a reflection of an international system that clearly has little oversight, little controls, too much monetary incentive to “make the transaction” and not enough checks and balances to ensure the child is actually placed in a safe, loving, psychologically healthy and nurturing family. Not to mention the lack of means and routes for justice for the child who grows up! Until these real life experiences for intercountry adoptees stop happening, I cannot support intercountry adoption as it is conducted today.
We must learn from the lessons and do what we can to stop intercountry adoptions like this from happening. That means, we have to stop blindly promoting intercountry adoption as if it’s the answer for all vulnerable children around the world. The fact that intercountry adoptions like this are happening in recent times and still occurring (not just from my 70s era) tells us that very little has changed to ensure adoptions are done in the best interests of the child.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on intercountry adoption after you read Sha’s life journey, Abandoned by All.
On 15 October 2018, four Chinese intercountry adoptees were brutally murdered in their home by their white adoptive mother in Columbia, Tennessee. We honor the deaths of 14 year old Bo Li, 14 year old Meigin Lin, 15 year old Lian Lin and 17 year old Kaleigh Lin.
In light of National Adoptee Awareness Month, I assert the mantra:
“Adoption creates a different life, not necessarily a better one” for adoptees.
This is a re-imagining (fiction) of the final hours from the perspective of Bo Li, one of the Chinese adoptees murdered not so long ago.
A sound like a firecracker went off. I instantly looked up from the game I was playing on my phone and turned my head around looking for the sound. A couple more bangs followed as if a fireworks show was beginning. But that seemed highly improbable and I wondered where the sound was coming from. I thought maybe they were coming from outside, but they sounded closer. Maybe one of my siblings was just slamming the door really loudly. Our house was rather large and we could each hang out in a room without anyone else and the sound could have come from anywhere. I wasn’t too concerned though and returned to my phone.
BANG! BANG! The same sound echoed through my ears and I began to feel a sense of fear as the same sounds rang out again. A sense of dread came over me. For some reason this feeling of fear felt familiar, as if I’d been really afraid before in my life but I couldn’t remember. My body was in its own fight or flight mode. What was happening in our home? Would the sound happen again? I paused my game and it grew surprisingly quiet. I listened carefully for any sound in the house. There was some rustling and what appeared to be footsteps, but I wasn’t too sure. I texted Meigin and Kaleigh to see if they heard something and then went back to crushing my game.
BANG! BANG! Yet again the sounds pierced the air and I knew for sure they were coming from our house. My siblings didn’t return my texts and fear was beginning to beat in my heart more rapidly. I knew my mother had two guns in our home but couldn’t for the life of me imagine what was going on. I was confused and didn’t want to get up and check. It felt like there was something wrong, like an alarm was going off that just continued to ring louder inside my head. As quietly as I could, I closed my bedroom door and hid under the bed because I didn’t want to leave my room. My limbs felt like giant pieces of stone. A cold sweat broke out over my body as I shivered in fear. An eerie silence filled the house as I couldn’t hear anything. Minutes passed and then, I heard a sound. Footsteps were approaching and growing louder as they came nearer to my room. The pit in my stomach immediately dropped and became empty as anxiety and fear filled it from top to bottom. Were my siblings dead? Was my mom dead? Was this the end for me? I wasn’t even old enough to drive, or to go to my first homecoming dance. I don’t know my birth parents and I also feel like I have lost my adopted father. Will I lose even more? Why was this happening? Was this our mom or one of my siblings? Was it a complete stranger?
The footsteps were now walking outside my room as shadows began to show from beneath the door. I heard the doorknob turn and the door swung open. The shoes of the mother I loved were entering. What happened to my siblings, I thought? Why would she do something like this? She loves me, right? The footsteps came to a stop a few feet inside the room and I heard a voice say, “Bo, it’s me, it’s okay. Bo, come on out. I won’t hurt you, I promise.” The same voice I had heard for years that had provided me so much comfort, now gave me so much fear. I wanted so badly for her to be telling the truth but my gut told me otherwise. I was so confused. Did she love me? What was this sinking feeling in my stomach? However, my body betrayed me. My muscles began to move of their own accord in response to the mother I loved, who I knew, deep down, loved me. But was this love? Before I knew it, I got up from under the bed and stood shakily.
There was a look I had never seen before in my mother’s eyes, as if something had gotten loose and made her crazy. I glanced at her hands and saw a gun in them. My gut told me this was the end but I wanted to believe with all my heart that this wasn’t going to happen. Was my life going to end so quickly? Was this why I was adopted? To be killed by the people who claim to love me, to protect me, to be there forever? My heart was bursting with sadness, confusion, and anger. My brief life was flashing rapidly before me.
With tears in my eyes, I looked back up into hers and whispered so softly, “Mom, why?” Without missing a beat and probably before she changed her mind, she quickly raised her gun towards me and said with a pained look and tears in her eyes, “I’m so sorry.”
BANG! BANG! My eyes glazed over as my focus could only see the barrel of the gun pointed at me. I was falling, losing sight of the lights in my head. My head grew heavier and heavier and the ringing in my ears grew louder. As I drew my last breaths I hit the floor and thought, “Goodbye dear world, to all the memories I shall never know nor have. Alas, my time has come. Farewell”.