by Abby Hilty, born in Colombia adopted to the USA, currently living in Canada. She wrote and shared this on her Facebook wall for National Adoption Awareness Month.
Adoptees are constantly grappling with a life full of complex dualities.
I am an only child, but I have at least 4 siblings.
I have a birth certificate from 2 different countries.
I had to lose my family so that another family could be created.
I grew up in a middle class family, but I lost my original family because I was born into poverty.
I am very attached to the name Abby, but I know I was named after someone else’s ancestor.
I am occasionally told I look like my mom, but we don’t share the same genetics, racial group, or ethnicity.
I love my adoptive family, but I needed to search for my original family.
I am reunited with mi mamá, but we are no longer legally related to each other.
I am my mother’s daughter, but I am mi mamá’s daughter too.
I loved and lost my dad, but I don’t know who my father is.
I am short in my receiving country, but I am tall in my sending country.
I am brown, but I grew up with internalized whiteness.
I am an immigrant in my receiving country, but I am a gringa in my homeland.
I have lived in the northern hemisphere since I was 3 months old, but my body still struggles in the cold.
I speak English fluently, but my body responds to Spanish viscerally.
I have always celebrated my birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but those have never been easy days for me.
I know how important it is for (transracial, intercountry) adoptees to share their lived experiences, but the emotional cost is high for every NAAM post, every panel, every podcast interview, and especially for every discussion in which my fellow adoptees or I personally get pushback from non-adopted people who want to challenge our lived experiences.
And, believe me, this happens DAILY in various adoption groups. So, if an adopted person that you know and love is slow to reply to your texts or emails or if they seem to sometimes be lost in a day dream or not paying attention, it may just be because so many of our daily decisions have to be run through multiple – and often competing – thoughts and even family systems.
It was October 10, 1990. “Imagine” by John Lennon played on the radio. I heard my adoptive mom on the phone tell my sister that our father passed away….
14 years and orphaned again. My adoptive father suddenly died because of a medical mistake after a hernia surgery. As a result, our family would never be complete again.
As a child my surroundings often told me to be grateful for my new life with my new parents. No one told me adoption not only causes you to get new parents, but adoption also causes you to lose your parents twice.
The pain and sadness I felt as a 14 year old was immense and loneliness was unbearable. I didn’t understand then that I not only mourned the loss of my adoptive father, my safety and my new family, but that the loss triggered my old loss trauma.
Nowadays I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of adopted people have traumas that originated before they were adopted.
Traumas invisible and unpredictable and triggered by loss. Loss of a pet, home, friendship, health, job, divorce of adoptive parents or loss of a loved one or adoptive parent(s).
Sometimes the early child traumas are too large with all the consequences. But often knowledge of loss trauma can help with relinquishment and adoption, we need to declare this “abnormal” reaction to an apparent small event.
The circumstances surrounding my adoptive father’s death have helped me to make it my mission to create knowledgeable aftercare through and for adopted persons.
At AFC we notice that adoptees benefit from adoption coaches who specialise in relinquishment and adoption. This is because those adopted themselves have also suffered similar loss. Knowing the loneliness and the sadness, carrying their fate and surviving the pain.
And today I comfort myself with the thoughts that my adoptive father is proud of me, my passion and drive. And that this didn’t make his death entirely pointless….
I was born in 1968. My mother had concealed her pregnancy for eight months when she boarded a plane in the Middle East bound for London. On her arrival, she visited a doctor in a Harley Street clinic and asked for help to give birth secretly. The doctor contacted a private adoption agency who agreed to place me with an adopted family in England so she could return to her homeland and escape the threat of an honour killing. If her family discovered she was pregnant with me, we would have been killed to protect their honour and reputation.
We spent ten days together in hospital before I was removed and taken into temporary foster care. My mother had signed all the relevant documents but she had named a father on my birth certificate and it was this that prevented my adoption into a family. At two months, I was handed over to the care of another foster mother who had been deemed unsuitable by social services and desperately longed for a baby of her own.
I was taken on a train to Suffolk and raised in a rural community of white English people. My mother was a single woman who did not have any extended family or partner to support her. I did not look like her; I had thick black hair, dark brown eyes and a tan on my skin that never faded. I felt like an outcast not only in my town but in my own home too.
My mother refused to tell me the truth about my birth and I was raised to believe that she was my biological mother. She also claimed that my father had come from Iran and apparently died before I was born. She did not have a photograph of him or myself as a newborn. I can remember questioning her many times but she would not discuss how I came to be in this world.
I grew up feeling extremely lonely and isolated, not just by my physical difference but also by her inability to be open about my existence. Social workers used to visit our house regularly but I was never told that I was the reason for these visits; I thought they were just being friendly when they asked about racial abuse I was experiencing at school. My mother used to tell me that the social workers were bad people who wanted to destroy her life and I believed her.
When approaching sixteen I discovered the truth. My mother woke me one night to tell me I was not her real daughter but she would not explain how I got there to be with her. In that moment, my whole world froze before me. I felt empty and frightened. I did not know who I was and I needed to find out. She told me that the name I had been known by for sixteen years was not officially mine.
A social worker came round to explain that I had a different name all along, a foreign name and that I was ‘a foreigner’. I wasn’t given any counselling or support during this period and it has set me up for a lifetime of mental health issues. I don’t think you will ever understand how it feels to discover you are not the person you thought you were. Everyone and everything becomes a lie.
I began to run away from home and each time I did this I was picked up by the police and taken back to the place I was running from. I eventually made it to London where I found the adoption agency and met with the woman who helped my birth mother. However, she didn’t want to help me and insisted I should drop any idea of searching because I would put my mother’s life in danger as the threat of an honour killing was indeed real. She also said that my mother had ‘moved on’. I was bereft, with no one to turn to and nowhere to go.
There is no help for an intercountry adoptee, which is essentially what I was – no helpful social worker, no access to records and no intermediary. The only way I was able to trace my birth family was by travelling to go in search of them, which at the time was to an extremely dangerous region, as a war and then later an invasion all hampered my efforts but didn’t stop me from pursuing the truth.
I found my birth mother when I was twenty four years old. She was married and had four children. I was afraid that she would reject me all over again, but she didn’t. She wanted to meet me. I wasn’t aware that my arrival would trigger her shame and guilt for having a child out of wedlock in a Muslim society. At the time, I was overwhelmed by my own feelings and it felt like rejection when she insisted on pretending I was somebody else. It was deeply upsetting for me to have found my birth mother after years of searching to then have to pretend I was someone else. It felt like another lie.
For the first time in my life, I was in the same home as my biological mother and my half sibling. I saw likenesses and mannerisms; I saw a physical resemblance that connected us all and yet they were strangers who had a different upbringing to me. They were raised in a different culture to the one I had been brought up in. It wasn’t just about colour, it wasn’t just about race, it was about a cultural identity that I found difficult to partake in because it was so unfamiliar to me. I may have appeared the same as them but my mindset was completely alien to theirs. My birth mother was a woman who had grown up in a restrictive society and this prevented her from openly acknowledging me because she feared the consequences.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get long enough to know her because she died quite suddenly and by the time I received the news, it was too late – she had already been buried. I would spend the years that followed trying to build a relationship with my half-siblings and trying to reach out to my birth mother’s relatives who did not want to build any relationship with me. They wanted to keep my identity a secret to protect their family honour, which meant rejecting my existence.
I think my life would have turned out differently if I had always known the truth about my adoption because it wouldn’t have been such a shock. I didn’t know then that I was led by trauma and living a traumatic existence. I was searching for honest people but I only found deceptive ones. I had a right to the truth because it is my history, my biology and my genetic code. From the moment I was born until now everyone who could give me information has tried their best to withhold it from me, using the threat of an honour killing as a justification.
Now I am a grown woman with children of my own and I am searching for the truth about my biological father’s identity, so my story continues….
Do I look like my father or mother? What is my real name? When was I born? Who am I really? I have been going through these questions my whole life and not quite sure if I will ever find the answer.
I was born in Vietnam, adopted by a white family in Canada in the early 70’s. I am part African-American and Vietnamese but I look more African-American, and I’m also physically disabled which I contracted from polio and a gun shot wound (something I have been told as a child, but not sure if it’s true). I have always known I was different growing up, not because the colour of my skin but because I was disabled. When I arrived to Canada I had to go to the hospital for many surgeries to straighten my legs and back due to scoliosis. When I arrived home from the hospital, this is when I felt I didn’t belong in the family. As a young child I was stubborn and barely spoke because the effects of leaving Vietnam and being in a different environment, I was overwhelmed.
Being an African-American Asian disabled child, living in a white world, I knew I was different and I wanted so much to fit in. At an early age, I knew that my adoptive mother treated me different than my other siblings. They had two other biological children along with another adopted child from Children’s Aid Society, so I was the black sheep in the family and that was my nickname to other family members and neighbours. My adoptive mother wasn’t the perfect mother everyone thought she was behind closed doors. Using my wheelchair was forbidden in the house so I had to always crawl around on the floor and carpet, but leaving marks on the carpet didn’t look good and caused my adoptive mother to always vacuum, so I had to have my bedroom moved down in the basement – being isolated away from my siblings. Whenever my siblings would come down to play with me, they were sent back upstairs and told not to play with your “black sheep” sister. Being alone in the basement, I stopped talking and had to entertain myself as a child. From not talking, my vocal cords didn’t develop well so whenever I went to school, I had trouble interacting with other students and was bullied and labelled as being dumb.
My adoptive mother always told me I should be grateful to them for adopting me. I always kept my feelings inside because if I told them how I really felt, I would be beaten. I always had to thank her for saving my life every time I did anything wrong. The first time I said “I wish you’d never adopted me” my adoptive mother emotionally and physically abused me. Sometimes I wouldn’t care what she did to me, I was happier just to be in my own shell in the closet.
I was never involved in any of the family gatherings or family vacations. I would always eat alone after everyone else ate. The one memory I will never forget was when my adoptive family went away to Florida and I wasn’t allowed to go because my adoptive mother said “black and crippled children were not allowed”. I went to the mirror and looked at myself. I wanted so much to be white that I scrubbed my skin so hard but it just turned red. I pushed my wheelchair down the stairs and tried to push myself up to walk, instead I fell down and was left lying on the floor for days until a neighbour found me bleeding. Instead of being a good neighbour and help a young girl, he took advantage of me for days while my family was away having fun. When my family returned, I tried to tell my adoptive mother what happened. All she said was, “You were looking for attention and that’s what you deserved”.
I wanted so much to be a part of the family to the point that I would agree to clean the house. My adoptive mother would always introduce me to her friends as the “black maid of the third country”. My adoptive mother emotionally abused me by continuing saying she never wanted me because of my disability and skin colour. She didn’t think I would turn out to “be soo dark” and a troubled child needing therapy appointments. All I wanted was to make my adoptive mother proud of me, but nothing I did ever satisfied her. Whenever my siblings got into trouble, I would stand up for them and would lie and steal for them so they would play with me. There were times I would sneak food at night because I was so hungry but whenever I got caught, I was sent to the closet for days. Nothing I did was good enough for my adoptive mother.
When I was 11 years old, I was told that I was leaving the family and spending a few days somewhere else. I didn’t know what I did wrong. That night I stayed up all night rethinking the day – what did I do to displease my adoptive mother. All she told me was I would be going to a better place that can care for my “crippled-black” behaviour. I cried the whole way begging my adoptive mother that I would be a “good girl”. Four hours later I was dropped off to a big stone house with lots of stairs and other children running around the living room. My adoptive mother told me it was only for a few weeks and that the family will help me with my behaviour. For the next few days, all I did was sit by the window waiting for my adoptive mother to return. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. I had to eventually realise that I was staying in this house and no-one was coming back for me.
I was living in a house with 25 other children. I tried to fit in and be a part of the family but still felt like an outcast. Even though I was not the only disabled child, I felt that I didn’t belong. I found out that the foster mother of this home, was the woman who helped my adoptive parents adopt me from Vietnam. The foster mother had an organisation that helped Canadian and American families to adopt children from third world countries out of orphanages that she opened. I wasn’t the only child adopted and sent to the foster family. During the years, living at the foster family I became a reserved and quiet child and during my teen years I still wanted to know “who am I”? I asked the foster mother if she knew anything of my birth mother and every time I asked her, the answer was always, “Wait until you are eighteen”. From then I just left the question alone and tried to live my teen years in the home.
When I first went to the foster family, I was placed in a school with other disabled children but I felt it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be independent and be left alone so I became very stubborn especially during therapy sessions. Having therapists lift my legs and try to stretch them wasn’t working for me, they tried to get me to use braces and crutches, I definitely didn’t want that. So they finally agreed for me to use a sports wheelchair and what freedom I felt!! Using the wheelchair built up my teen arms and I became very strong, during recess time. While other children were at therapy, I could be found in the gym bouncing basketballs. This is when a sports coach saw me throw my first basket and she asked me, “Do you want to be an athlete and travel?” I quickly answered her, “Yes!” Little did she know that I didn’t just want to be an athlete but I wanted to travel so I could be out of my foster house as much as possible. My foster father was abusing me whenever we went to the family home in Montreal every summer, so whenever I found out that I would be travelling in the summer – I looked forward to the summer knowing I would be out of the country!
If it wasn’t for that sports coach, I wouldn’t have been able to be the Paralympian athlete I am today. I have travelled to many countries and won numerous medals, but a part of me felt that I didn’t deserve it. Whenever I was away, I still felt like an outsider to my team mates and other athletes. Deep down I believed they all knew who they were and they always talked about their family. With my timidness, I still had trouble interacting with my team mates. By the end of every trip, I dreaded going home because I knew what I was going home to.
My foster family didn’t really recognise my athletic achievements. There were times they didn’t even know I went away for a week because there were so many children in the house and the foster mother was busy with her work. I remember one time I arrived home from my first competition where I’d won my first 5 gold medals (being the youngest on the team) and when I arrived home, I just sat at the front door with my bags waiting for someone to greet me. When my sister came down the stairs to see me she just said, “Are you running away?” From that moment, my enthusiasm just dropped from my heart and I wished I could just run away. So from then on, I just continued on with my competitions with no feeling of accomplishment, feeling like a nobody.
I competed in two Paralympics, two PanAm games and many small competitions. When I won my first Paralympic 5 gold medals, I was interviewed by the paper but a lot of the words written were just not true. The story portrayed a young girl winning medals from a foster home that cared for her, but they really didn’t know the truth.
I am grateful for the foster family to let me stay with them, but behind closed doors they portrayed themselves as looking like the perfect couple helping many children. The house was not accessible, I continued to crawl up and down stairs to get to my bedroom, and I had to crawl up and down and bring my chair down stone stairs outside to get to my school bus.
My whole life living in the foster family, I wanted so much to be out and living on my own. When I turned 16 years old, I finished high school and left the foster home. I went to college and received a degree in Business Administration.
Throughout my life, I always felt unloved and not wanted by anyone. I thought of my biological mother not wanting me, my adoptive mother not wanting me and within the foster family, I was just “another child”. I have tried my best to do right things, never gotten involved on the wrong side of the law, etc. I always felt I didn’t fit in anywhere, had trouble with social gatherings and interacting with adults my age. To this day, a large part of me continues to feel isolated, not wanted and most of all not knowing who I really am.
Recently, I decided to register with 23&Me to know my background and I discovered I have many 2nd and 3rd cousins out there. I was surprised to know that I have some sort of distant family out there but disappointed to not have any information about my parents. I just want to have the feeling of belonging. Growing up, I never had that feeling.
Hi. I’m Laney Allison, adopted from Ma’Anshan, Anhui Province, China in August of 1994 by a single mom. I was raised in Dallas, TX and I now live/work in Washington, DC, USA. I am a co-founder/co-president of China’s Children International.
You can reach me @Lane_Xue on instagram and follow the CCI instagram @cci_adoptees
This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.
‘Be your own hero, be your own saviour, send all your suffering into the fire. Let no foot, mark your ground, let no hand, hold you down.’
I don’t know about you but as a woman we are force fed the idea since we were little girls that a big strong man will come along and ‘save us’ from our troubles and fix all of our problems. And maybe not everyone believed that literally but I think you will find that especially for women the fantasy may linger in our subconscious more than we think. It can sometimes be a narrative we subconsciously place ourselves into, especially in relationships where all our inner fears and unhealthy beliefs are mirrored to us. I also know especially for the younger generations that love is painted as this happily ever after where the partner will come along and solve all our problems if we just find the right one, when really it is no one else’s responsibility but our own to fix our problems.
Maybe that’s just the nativity that comes with youth and young love. And for me personally I believed that as a little girl and when I got older I thought that to an extent that my partner should be there to go through every battle with me, to hold me up, be a shoulder to cry on, to cheer me on, to be everything to me, and I went through an abusive 3 year co-dependent relationship to realise that is not love. Its co-dependency. And co-dependency tends to happen with people who haven’t worked on themselves and their unhealthy coping mechanisms to defence mechanisms to having an unhealthy definition of what love is.
With being adopted as a little girl in some way or another I would dream of getting a letter from my birth family to come in the mail and to come tell me everything as to why they abandoned me. To come and save me from my loneliness, from feeling like I don’t belong in this country or community. It felt like I was an alien that fell out of the sky with no history, no past, just a blank canvas. I remember watching films like ‘Lilo and Stitch’ and feeling like Stitch exactly; who was exactly an alien with no real parents and trying so hard to understand why he didn’t. I felt like every hero and heroine who had no back story, and would often fantasize about being suddenly whisked away on an adventure, where I would find out an epic story about my roots and my birth family and realise my place in the world.
Basically, I was waiting for someone to come save me, to help me understand my pain but no one ever came. And that was devastating.
What I realised growing up, and from having experiences in different relationships that I was the one who had to save myself. I was the woman who had to pick up the sword and fight my own battles, to find out my own truth, to wipe my own tears from my face. I had to be the hero in my own story. I had to be the one to unpack my trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms, unhealthy definition of love, and heal myself because no one else was going to do that for me. And frankly it’s no one else’s responsibility but mine. I think as adoptees we need to realise that, take accountability in our pain and trauma and take the steps in unravelling that and healing ourselves.
Because honestly if we’re told since children or traumatized into a narrative where we have to rely on others for our happiness and our rescue from our pain or suffering; we rid ourselves of our own personal power to do so. We put ourselves into a narrative where we become even more powerless than we already imagined ourselves to be as orphans or children or adoptees. But we have a choice when we get to adulthood; we can choose what our narrative is, we have the power, the proverbial pen to our story in our hands.
This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.
‘Forgive those who have wronged you, not because they deserve forgiveness but because you deserve peace’.
Depending on your unique individual adoptee story, adoptees in general experience a lot of hardships, from trauma, separation trauma, to abuse. Trauma can rewire the brain sometimes in a way that makes us more susceptible to pain, whether that be from rejection, bullying, abuse or stress. It’s very easy to hold onto pain and build resentment and anger, and I know for me personally growing up I was the type to hold grudges, even years after the wound had been inflicted.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across this quote that it shifted my perspective on forgiveness; that it isn’t something we do for the other person, but what we do for ourselves, for our own sanity, for our own healing and wellbeing. Carrying around pain (and this is not to say we have to do this to deal with trauma as trauma is more complex than that, that’s not to say it cannot be a part of that process) is a heavy burden to carry, and you might not think so, but when you begin to unravel all the past pains, whether that be on your own or in therapy, and you see how it can affect you emotionally, psychologically as well as physically, and spirituality you will be surprised about how big of an impact it can have on a human being.
Carrying around anger or resentment is like carrying around poison, it may be repressed and under the surface, maybe buried down deep, but it can eat away at the beautiful soul you have underneath all that pain. You can easily spot someone who is plagued by their past and pain from a mile away, you can feel the weight of their pain within the way they carry themselves, the way they speak and speak about themselves and the world around them.
When I found this quote and I truly embraced it into myself. I felt so much weight being lifted it was almost euphoric; although for me I carried around years of pain and anger, from being bullied all my childhood to separation trauma and neglect. And truly I did sit there and think ‘why should I carry around this pain while this other person goes on with their life with no care in the world? Why should I suffer for their mistakes or their mistreatment made from another human being?’
Sometimes it’s a choice we make for ourselves, whether or not to move on, or carry that pain with us, or to let it go so that we can find the peace and happiness we deserve.
by Lily Valentino, Colombian adoptee raised in the USA.
We adoptees are absolute masters at compartmentalizing, I am no different. I can go on my way, not acknowledging, ignoring and stuffing my shit in the back of the closet. But it never fails that eventually something will trigger me into facing my feelings, and downward I usually go for a few days, and sometimes weeks and months.
Yesterday was one of those days, it was like walking through a field and getting bitten by a snake! It happened fast, yet while it was happening it was playing out in slow motion. But now it is nearly 24 hours later and I can quite sharply feel those words coursing through my veins like the poison of a snake.
“….they were brought to this country, were stripped of their names, language, culture, religion, god and taken totally away from the history of themselves”
These were words I heard in passing yesterday, that were the initial sting, bite, if you will, which left me literally stunned. These words came out of Luis Farrakhan, and as I was listening to him speak them, it hit me, he was talking about the slaves brought to America and I too, I too, was sold and brought to this country away from my birth land, for money.
As these words slipped down my throat, I thought of being minority, being Hispanic and how my white adoptive mother pushed and tried to get me to date white guys. How she often spoke about how she wanted me to marry an Italian man. This thought always makes me sick and the term, “whitewash” comes to mind as being her motive. Memories of how she spoke of Hispanics by referring to them using the racial slur, “spics” rush to the forefront of my mind.
It left me shrinking into my seat for the rest of the day. Choking on thoughts of all that I have lost and continue to lose, my culture, my language, my native food, my name, my family and mi tierra (my land). Thinking of how my world is literally cut in half (because I have my birth family that live in Colombia and my husband and kids here in the US), how true happiness of having my world combined will never be had, true belonging is a shadow that I’m forever chasing just like time lost.
I sit here uneasy, fighting the tears from filling my eyes. I’ve been in deep thought about this sudden cry for human rights that does not seem to include adoptees, yet we are walking a near similar path to the slaves of 300 years ago. The difference, we were not bought to fulfill physical labor but to fulfill an emotional position for many white families. Some of us were treated well, part of the family like nothing “less than” while others remained outsiders, forced to fit into a world not our own and punished emotionally and physically when we could not meet their needs. When we stood up for ourselves and decided that we no longer wanted to fulfill that emotional roll to another human for which we had been bought or withstand the abuse, we have been cast out and off of the plantation and told never to return.
The crazy thing is that it is 2020 and my basic human rights to know my name, to know my culture, to grow up in the land that I was born in, to speak my native language, though violated mean nothing, as nobody other than other adoptees are concerned, or have a sense of urgency about this violation.
Part 2 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption
When abuse happens to a child from the very people who are supposed to protect it, a devastating legacy of impacts is created. I lived with my adoptive family for 19 years until they left to go overseas to be missionaries. Up until that point in my life, I had learnt to suppress my truths and bury it deep within my body.
How can one ever describe the impacts and legacy we are left with as a victim of sexual abuse within an adoptive family? Words feel inadequate.
I watched Darryl Hammond’s Cracked Uplife story on Netflix – it helped me find the words. I highly recommend watching it for those who seriously want to understand childhood trauma and the legacy it leaves. I related to his story on so many levels: the anger at self for having been so vulnerable, the conflicting emotions about these very people who are your parents who others only see as amazing and wonderful people, the memories of abuse where my body felt violated, disrespected and used for their own purposes, the coping mechanisms I developed to survive, the trail of devastation left behind in early relationships and choices because I knew no better until I got professional help, the attempts to take my life because the pain was so unbearable, the depression, the darkness that would consume me. So many parallels with the life I lived until I found help and healing. Thankfully it didn’t take me over 50 years, but it certainly consumed a large part of my prime adult life and I still continue to deal with the impacts to this day. I think this is the part most people don’t understand which Darryl’s documentary highlights – our trauma never leaves us – what can get better, is that we learn to forgive ourselves for our survival and coping mechanisms, and we can learn to reconnect with and care about ourselves. It is a lifetime journey of healing and coming to terms with what was taken from us – our innocence and potential to live life without those brutal scars.
Each day, each week, each year I struggle to comprehend my adoptive family. My childhood mind just can’t integrate that they could have been so cruel, nasty, neglectful, mean — but yet they were also my saviours, my lifeline to surviving a war, my rescuers. It is their unspoken expectation that I should just get on with life as if nothing has happened that continues to hurt the most. I did this for many years but it becomes harder the older I get and I can no longer accept this anymore. I can no longer deny the emotional impact I feel each time I interact with them. It’s been so hard to pretend that I don’t hurt, I can’t do it anymore. What they choose to see is a strong, resilient survivor who has overcome. Yes that is part of who I am, but what they don’t want to see, is the other half – the hurt, traumatised inner child me who wants to be protected, loved and nurtured. I have had to learn to give to myself because they have not been capable. Not one member of my adoptive family wants to know how I’m impacted or understand my struggle. This is because their shame is deeper than my pain. This is what no-one will talk about. It did not escape my notice that Darryl Hammond tells his story publicly after both his parents have deceased. I recognise we subconsciously protect our parents if they’ve abused us and it’s at our cost in mental health, to do so. This is the sad reality of childhood trauma inflicted upon us by our supposedly “loving” parents.
I’ve barely written about this topic in over 20 years – in places I refer to it briefly but rarely in-depth. It’s not a topic I love nor is it a topic I talk about to shame my family. I do so now, to encourage others who are tortured by the shame of what happened to them — to speak out, find their voice and empower themselves. The first article I wrote on this topic I kept anonymous out of my own shame and desire to protect my adoptive family. I look back at how ridiculous it is that I should have ever felt I had to protect them. As an adopted person, there is nothing worse than being relinquished by my first family then being unprotected by my second. My layers of loss and grief are multiplied!
We never forget what happens to us as survivors of sexual abuse, we can only simply move forward from the hate and anger that is so valid, to realising it only damages ourselves if we allow it to fester or hurt ourself. For my own survival, I have to live with it and move on – somehow I’ve learnt to remain true to my own needs and ensure my life is no longer controlled by the thoughtless actions of the perpetrators many years ago, or the shame and guilt that controls them now.
My sexual life is forever tarnished and damaged. I will never have a relationship with my partner that I might have had, had I not been sexually interfered with. Being abused in this manner has always compounded my ability to trust, to want to be close, to feel safe with people and figures in power, it destroys my belief in a greater power – my spirituality. It was not surprising that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, the documentary Revelation revealed that many children had suicided whom the investigators attributed directly to having been sexually abused. It is no secret that many of us who have been abused end up self intoxicating, destroying ourselves because our soul is so damaged and hurt. We just want the pain to end, we want someone to reach out and help us.
I cry for the child within me who was so vulnerable and trusting but was so misled and taken advantage of by the males in my adoptive family (extended and immediate). I cry for those all over the world who have to live with this horrendous crime to us as innocent children. Sexual abuse is a terrible reality for anyone but having it done to you from within an adoptive family adds so many more complex layers of trauma that become almost impossible to unravel and deal with. Relinquishment trauma in and of itself is terrible enough. Relinquishment and then abuse in adoptive family is just soul destroying. I hope one day people will stop talking about adoption as if it always saves us and awaken to the realisation that sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse is too prevalent in adoptive family environments. We need to change this!
I want to note that I have met many amazing adoptive parents and I am not that bitter and twisted to label them all with this brush stroke, but I do want to awaken our society to the biggest myth that adoption saves us. From a place of honesty – for those of us who live abuse in adoptive families, it is likely the biggest silent killerof adoptees!
I never spoke up while I was young because I was constantly told how lucky I was by friends and strangers. I never spoke up because I was made to feel like shit in my adoptive family, picked on, singled out, the family slave, called names like “tree trunks” or “monkey face”. I remember one young man Matthew, I never forgot him, he was a rare one who was kind to me and could sense what was going on. Matthew was employed as our new farm hand by my father to help out. He was blonde, blue eyed, respectful and strong. I remember he stood up to my adoptive father questioning why he was so tough on me, forcing me to do the labour a young man like himself could do, but yet I was pubescent girl. My father quickly got rid of him. I never heard or saw from Matthew again.
I wonder how Matthew is today and whether he found another job. I felt bad that it was because of me that he lost his job but to this day, I always remember him for being kind without sexual implications and very respectful of me. He had shown pure concern for me. I wish he’d reported my father and his ways. Little does he know how far my father went with the abuse and if he knew, he’d probably hate that he didn’t do something.
My friends at church and school sometimes saw how my father treated me but it seems no-one reported anything. Why would they? My mother was the school Principal, my parents both seen as strong Christians with a missionary background, active in the church and community, leading the youth groups, hosting the fire brigade. I wasn’t acting out. I was a school academic and high achiever. I wasn’t into drugs. But I retreated within myself. I always thought I was an introvert until my adoptive family left while I remained behind to start Year 12 while they went to live and work overseas as missionaries.
In reconnecting with some of my extended adoptive family in the past few years, it has confirmed that some had concerns about how I was being treated from as early as toddler years. Some have said to me they wish in hindsight, that they had done more, reported their suspicions. As an adopted person, I’ve just never experienced a protective or safe parent. I grieve that!
I have the resilience these days to watch things like Revelationand Cracked Up. I use to avoid because I’d be such a wreck watching anything that closely resembled my traumas. I have learnt to turn my emotional churning into something constructive. I write to share with the wider world about how we can better protect vulnerable children. I turn my childhood tragedy into an opportunity to speak out and empower others to do likewise. I advocate for those who are still struggling to find their voices. I talk about the hushed up topics that people don’t want to discuss. I speak out to give hope to other adoptees like me, with the message that your life doesn’t have to be destroyed. There is a way to heal and move forward. We don’t have to stay ashamed. We have nothing to be ashamed of! We can speak up even if we don’t get legal justice. We can help encourage our fellow sufferers to find their braveness and shed off their mantles of shame. It’s not ours to carry, it is the system and the adults who fail to protect the most vulnerable!
I speak out to bring light to this hidden tragedy of sexual abuse within adoptive families. We don’t even know what our rates of sexual abuse are because nobody captures it or researches whether we are more prone to sexual abuse in adoptive families than others. I can only refer to research in similar situations like foster care and if our statistics somewhat mirrored foster care, then we really are the silent victims because we don’t have any one monitoring us once we join our adoptive family. We have no avenues to call out for help. We are totally vulnerable within our adoptive family. We have to do better to protect vulnerable children and ensure we are placed in better environments than what we have already lost. Sexual abuse in adoption must be talked about for this change to happen!
Coming Next: Part 3 – What Needs to be Done about Abuse within Adoptive Families
Part 1 of a 3 part series on Sexual Abuse within Adoption
I write this in honour of the survivors who spoke out with much courage in both the Royal Commission and Revelation. They inspired me to no longer be afraid to speak up. Change is only going to happen if we shake off the mantle of shame and name the perpetrators and no longer allow them to hide!
Most people in the adoption community understand and accept that there is trauma and loss involved for us, the adopted person. The trauma we refer to in adoption is usually what I more correctly term “relinquishment trauma” – the trauma that comes from having connected in utero with our mothers and then ripped away for whatever reason, never to connect to her again, unless we are lucky enough to be reunited or have an open adoption (which is rare in intercountry adoption contexts). Many well known professionals like Dr Bessel van der Kolk and Gabor Maté have spoken at length about the childhood traumas involved in being relinquished or abandoned.
In this 3 part series, I want to talk about one of the traumas that occurs to some of us after our adoption – the trauma of sexual abuse within our adoptive families. This topic is too often hushed up in shame and guilt and we, the adoptees, are left to deal with the ramifications – alone, and unsupported.
During COVID-19 I’ve had extra time to be able to watch some documentaries. One of the most impactful was Revelation on ABC which is an investigative documentary by Sarah Ferguson following on from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. I felt compelled to watch it because at the time, the media was covering the release of Cardinal George Pell, who reached one of the highest levels of office in the Catholic hierarchy, and was set free on legal technicalities after taking his case to the Supreme Court in Australia. He had previously been found guilty of child sexual assault by two separate courts but those decisions were overturned. Being a survivor of sexual abuse within my adoptive family, I was horrified and angry at this news like many other survivors! I was triggered and reminded of the lack of justice for people like me, whose perpetrators get away with their crimes! Triggered also because I understood intuitively how much courage it must have taken for the one brave soul and allies to stand up against the Catholic church and dare to take it on, speak his truth, and hope/pray that justice would prevail. Sadly it didn’t! Like me, that brave soul has to live knowing that no matter how hard we fight for our inner child who has been so badly wounded, there is sometimes no legal justice to ensure the perpetrator is punished for their crime. The other trigger was to watch the Pope shortly after, speak out in support of Cardinal Pell, likening his “suffering” to that which Jesus Christ suffered. Ughh for those of us who do believe the victims, this is like the ultimate twist and it sounded just like my adoptive father crying out when I confronted him a couple of times over the phone for his deeds from the past. He demanded that I stop “crucifying him”. Could there be any further twist to us victims being portrayed as the perpetrator, causing their suffering?!
I am compelled to speak out for adoptees like me, who suffer within our adoptive families from sexual abuse. I believe it’s one of the worst forms of trauma that is layered upon our already fragile bedrock of trauma from relinquishment. It has taken me decades to feel open and liberated enough to speak freely about how this has impacted me. I speak out because I tried to participate in the Royal Commission but in the end, I didn’t get to because by the time my lawyer confirmed I was indeed considered technically “under State care” whilst my abuse had occurred, I was too late – the Royal Commission had 1 week left to go and were no longer taking testimonies.
I was initially denied the opportunity to share my story in the Royal Commission because as soon as I said “I’m adopted” they automatically told me that abuse occurring within the “private domain” was not included. I should have said my abuse occurred technically while I had not been adopted. This point in itself highlights one of the areas in which we adoptees speak out about for what is wrong with adoption – and that is the lack of responsibility for us long term, by the Stateor Institution. The State/Institution takes us, places us, assesses our adoptive family, theoretically screens them, educates them, matches us to them, and deems them “eligible” to adopt. So if the institution that is so intricately involved with placing us “gets it wrong” (in hindsight), and it turns out we are abused by the people chosen by them to be our “parents” – how is it that they can escape having “no responsibility” for any part in our abuse? Remember – we are young children and never got a say. We are in the most powerless position. I argue that being adopted should not deem us as being outside “institutional carefrom a long term perspective” i.e., adoption is a long term form of State/Institutional care. The astute will understand that the prevailing “once-off transactional view of adoption” is one of the largest reasons why States/Institutes are happy to adopt children out and push adoption as a first solution. It enables them to wash their hands of us and not be held accountable for what happens after. In comparison to our peers who end up in other forms of alternative care that don’t sever the State/Institutional responsibility – e.g., foster care, guardianship, stewardship, or kinship care; they were allowed to participate in the Royal Commission and are followed up on long term.
I know in speaking with other adoptees around Australia how frustrating it was for us to have been excluded from the Royal Commission. While the Royal Commission is holding most institutions accountable for the lack of responses to sexual abuse, the very institutions who placed us into adoptive families where abuse happens, ends up never being accountable for their role.
The Royal Commission was just one way in which I would have liked to have helped create visibility to those of us who suffer sexual abuse whilst in adoptive families we are placed in, as a form of institutional care.
Another option I have, is to seek the services of a lawyer and take up my own personal case against the perpetrators and/or those who deemed my adoptive parents fit to adopt a child. This path in itself is a lengthy and emotionally taxing process. Not many of us end up doing this because being adopted, the mantra to be grateful weighs heavy. Our relinquishment trauma also usually means we have so much to deal with already. I have met only one intercountry adoptee who took legal action against their adoptive family for sexual abuse. To do so, has been a heavy price of further abandonment and unresolved family dynamics. It is a toxic mix of issues adoptees have to struggle through if they are to ever seek legal justice for this type of crime.
Over the past few years, I sought to find a lawyer who could pave a way to claim justice for me but the experience has been just awful! It is terribly re-triggering each time I speak to a lawyer who has no idea about intercountry adoption from the adoptee perspective and the impacts of abuse in the adoptive family. Too many adoptees in ICAVs network have experienced sexual abuse. For most, contemplating seeking justice is just too hard. To have the fortitude and emotional strength to get through the process is almost an unattainable goal, the financial cost prohibitive, finding a lawyer with the right expertise is difficult; most of us just want to move on and try to put it behind us. Each time I spoke to a new lawyer, I’d have to tell my experience all over again. It’s been one of the most invalidating experiences of my life! The last lawyer was the worst, telling me the initial consult would be free but then proceeding to bill me anyway. Lawyers can re-trigger us with their preying mentality that reminds us of our perpetrators! Out of six lawyers, I experienced only one who had any compassion, acted humanely and with empathy. The rest were all legalistic with no heart or soul. There’s something to be said for a profession who needs to be trained from a trauma and racially informed perspective to represent us. Every adoption lawyer I spoke to has never heard of representing us, the adoptee. Their services are all for the adoptive families! It’s taken me over 2 years to be strong enough to write about this experience or to consider trying again.
Coming Next: Part 2 – The Legacy and Impacts of Abuse in Adoption.
Listen to Kaomi Goetz’s Adapted Podcast in which she shares her story of Sexual abuse and the Institutional Response when she approached them.