Lifelong Impacts of Identity Loss

On 1 July, I was asked to speak as part of a webinar panel for the Transforming Children’s Care Webinar Series #4: Child’s Right to Identity in Alternative Care. We had an amazing panel of experts, moderated by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, President of Child Identity Protection (CHIP), and hosted by the Better Care Network in partnership with CHIP.

I was asked to speak about the lifelong impacts of identity loss. So I shared my story and some statements from fellow adoptees to highlight our experience.

My Story

 I am one of these children who has not had my identity protected. Children like me, grow up. We don’t stay children forever – and we can have opinions and thoughts about the structures, processes, policy and legislations that impact us and create our lives. I am honoured to be asked to represent just one small group of us with lived experience, that the forum represents as “children from alternative care options”.

I was adopted from Vietnam during the war in 1973. The war ended in April 1975. My adoptive father flew into the country while it was still at war and flew me out as a 5 month old baby. My papers were supposed to follow but they never arrived and my adoption was not finalised.

I lived for almost 17 years in Australia without an identity. It was the family joke that I made the perfect spy because I didn’t exist. I was keenly aware of not existing and having no paperwork – it made me feel insecure, insignificant, unseen.

The practical impacts of not having any identity papers for 17 years were that I could not apply for a passport and travel outside Australia, I could not get my drivers licence, I could not apply for anything like a bank account and, more importantly, I was not followed up on since arriving in the country by any child welfare authority nor the adoption agency. 

Finally when I was 16 years old, I wanted to get my drivers licence so my adoptive parents were finally propelled to take action. They went though the adoption process again, this time through the State not a private agency, and my adoption was formalised just before I turned 17 years old.

I was given a brand new Australian identity. It does not state my Vietnamese identity only recognises the country that I was born in, Vietnam.

Via this 17-year-late process of intercountry adoption, was there an official check for any of my identity documents in Vietnam? Or a check to confirm my adoptability or relinquishment? These questions remain unanswered for me. I was certainly never offered other options like having help to look for my origins in Vietnam .. I was only ever told that being adopted was THE solution so I’d be able to exist and have some sort of identity. 

In my mid 20s – 30s, I spent over a decade trying to obtain my identity and adoption papers from Vietnam. Via my ICAV network, I came across an ex-policeman who had helped a few other Vietnamese adoptees. He somehow found what appears to be a Vietnamese birth certificate, and he took a blurry photo and sent it to me.

When I traveled to Vietnam in 2019, I went to the place where that document was said to be kept, only to be told the usual story – a flood or natural disaster destroyed ALL paperwork from that whole year. They have nothing for me. I visited the hospital where I was apparently born, only to be told I could not access my mother’s file without her permission – what a vicious cycle! I visited the police station precinct where the stamp on the birth certificate identifies it is held, only to be also told they wouldn’t help me. I asked for help during my visit to the central authority of Vietnam and was told to fill out a form via the website — which is in Vietnamese, which I can’t read or write in. There are so many barriers to being able to access my identity. Language is a HUGE one!

I have since done a few DNA tests and had genealogists help me, but that hasn’t been too successful either. 

This struggle to find our identity, is very common for an intercountry adoptee like myself and is definitely worse for those of us who have been adopted out of a war torn or crisis filled country. In the rush to help “rescue” children like myself, processes are bypassed or sped up and vital information gets lost.

Our ICAV Community

Feeling isolated for most of my childhood, in my mid 20s I founded our international network ICAV that provides peer support to intercountry adoptees like myself who struggle just like I did. But I am only one voice amongst hundreds of thousands globally, so it’s important you hear more than just my voice! 

I asked the ICAV community to share with you what their lifelong impacts of identity loss are. I’m going to share with you just 8 out of the 50 responses to highlight some of their experiences:

Many thanks to those adoptees who were willing to share!

Within our ICAV community, we could write a few books about the lifelong impacts of identity loss, many have already. There are so many more complexities that I haven’t talked about such as twins being purposively separated for adoption (not being told they’re a twin and the extra layers of impact for them of identity loss); 2nd generation adoptees (children of adoptees) and their lack of access in legislation to their inherited identity; etc. I hope my short talk helped expand your mind from the theoretical to the lived experience which speaks so loudly about the importance of identity rights for communities such as mine.

You can watch the complete webinar here.

Twins separated by Adoption

Are you feeling sick whilst reading about the number of twins who have been separated at birth via intercountry adoption?! It’s wonderful that SOME are managing to accidentally find each other and reunite .. but think of how many aren’t!  Based on this recent article alone, it indicates 1500 sets of Chinese twins! What happens when you consider all the other countries of origin?

I am angry that these children (who grow up to be adults like me) are growing up robbed of their rights to their basic identity! The situation of twins being separated acts to highlight the gross Child’s Rights violations that intercountry adoption facilitates.

I place the blame squarely on the adoption agencies and the birth and adopting countries who are clearly not interested in the child’s rights but are doing adoptions as financial transactions. What is overtly wrong in these separations, are that adoptive parents are reportedly not even being asked if they want to adopt twins, nor are they being told the child is a twin! So they inevitably become complicit in the systemic child’s rights violations that occur for intercountry adoptees who are twins.

When will this stop? When will adoption agencies and countries who are a signatory to the Hague Convention on intercountry adoption, ever start to listen to what adult intercountry adoptees think of such practices and make appropriate changes?!

As you can read in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which every country has ratified except for the USA, it is against our fundamental right to split twins up from birth and remove all traces of our identity. Not only are we separated and not told, but agencies make no efforts to followup and enable the re-establishment of a twin’s identity even if they found out later a child had been a twin.  Knowing as I do, how important biological ties mean to us intercountry adoptees, I call it an outright crime that agencies and governments do little to remedy this situation.  After 60 plus years of modern intercountry adoption worldwide, we should not still be agreeing to “twins” being separated at birth without even notifying an adoptive family that the child is actually a twin or giving them this knowledge and choice.

The leader of the world, the United States of America has not yet ratified the UNCRC!  Would it be too much to expect that the world’s leading superpower who happens to trade (yes import AND export) the greatest number of children via intercountry adoption, actually follow through and enable these same children to retain their family relations via intercountry adoption?

Would it be too much to expect that Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) stand up and ensure that the Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption finally take into consideration the views and experiences of intercountry adoptees themselves and make the changes necessary to prevent further abuses of fundamental child rights? This includes ensuring the UNCRC remains the foundation for intercountry adoptions.

Here’s a link to the  UNCRC and note for intercountry adoption situations, relevant articles are 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (directly relevant for deportation cases); 12 (for adoptees who are older), 20, 21, 25 (note the lack of this followup in intercountry adoption cases as post placement report is not sufficient), 30, 34 (for those who end up sexually abused in their adoptive families), 35 (for how we are sourced).

For twins, Article 8 is most relevant to what I raise awareness to in this blog.

1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.

2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.