In this new 3-part series, Leigh Matthews at the DoGooder Podcast (also the co-founder of Rethink Orphanages), discusses with me the why and how of whether intercountry adoption does good and can it ever be ethical.
Personally I found this interview to be the most in-depth I’ve ever done on this topic. I had no pre-empting of the questions and by the end, I was a little shaken and rattled as I realised some of the content I’d spoken about wasn’t as cohesive as I’d would have liked because nobody had ever asked such intensive questions before. After all these years in speaking, I have usually refined the way I describe and answer questions because in repeatedly speaking on the topic, I get more succinct over time. This time however, my thinking/speaking is raw for a good portion of it and Leigh did a fantastic job of rattling me! She has a natural way of understanding this topic given orphanage tourism is so closely connected.
I can’t wait to hear the next two ladies in this series: Jessica Davis, American adoptive mother who returned her adopted child to her family in Uganda after discovering she had not been a true orphan nor relinquished with a clear understanding of our western legal concept of adoption. Jessica has gone on to found an organisation Kugatta to assist other adoptive families who find themselves in situations like hers. Then Laura Martinez-Mora, a lawyer and Secretary in the Hague Permanent Bureau team, responsible for the intercountry adoption portfolio who provides her professional perspective.
Our views together on this topic will help develop some much needed in-depth conversation about how intercountry adoption occurs today, whether it does more harm than good, and whether it can be ethical.
#1 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
One of the first things people will ask me is how old I was when I was adopted. When I reply that I was 2 months old, I can see them discount my loss. They may even say, “So you don’t remember” but it’s a misconception, not only because things don’t have to be recalled to be subconsciously remembered, but also because I don’t have to remember having something to know what I’m missing.
Imagine if you were bitten by a dog as a baby. You might have no conscious recollection of it, but your subconscious will have it stored somehow and you will likely be terrified of dogs for the rest of your life, without understanding it. Adoptees experience a loss which is pre-verbal but there is no such thing as pre-feeling; implicit memory is body held. Childhood relinquishment creates life-long fear of rejection and loss and either a distrust of others or of self. Our resulting attachment styles can make it difficult to connect with others and maintain healthy relationships.
The smell of our biological families is not remembered, but is palpably different to our adoptive family, even in adulthood I notice this every time and it jars me.
The absence of someone or something can be important not just in the moment of losing it, but in everyday life. For example, the loss of sight or hearing, or use of a limb, or the ability to empathise or navigate. Having no memory of those things doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have a longing for them — their importance and meaning isn’t lost on us because we don’t have it. Those who’ve grown up poor have no memory or experience of being rich — but likely they still would like to have money, just as those of us without our bio families, genetic mirrors, belonging or culture, to name just a few, know there is something missing — but not just missing, taken.
When I was a young-under-20 year old adoptee, I would have agreed with the statement, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. As an over 40 year old now, having fully shed my adoptee oblivion and so fully aware that adoption and relinquishment actually have many impacts on me, I can attest that the body does remember the separation from mother, even if we are infants at the time of separation and adoption.
I remember going through years of therapy, mostly cognitive, until I found an amazing therapist who helped me reconnect with my body. The work I did, helped me to heal the dissonance between my mind (influenced largely by my white adoptive life) and body (influenced largely by my genetics and biological).
My mind always tricked me, telling me everything my adoptive life imbued, for example, that I was lucky to be saved by adoption and living in this amazing country, Australia. But my body told me differently. It was where my deep sadness sat, feeling that I didn’t know who I really belonged with (who was my tribe?), where I came from and feelings of isolation. I spent most of my life in my adoptive family pushing away those body feelings and living the persona of my adoptive life … looking very together, high achieving, and seemingly happy. But it all became too much in my mid 20s and I experienced deep depression and attempted suicide multiple times trying to escape and push away those deep body feelings. The therapy literally saved my life. It was the only space I had been given that allowed me permission and validation to grieve and allow my body to express what I’d spent most of my life until then, trying to suppress. Finally, I was able to grieve for my mother who I actually had no cognitive memory of, but in allowing myself to grieve, I learned that my body did in fact remember.
So, I know today why that therapy was so powerful because despite the myths of adoption like this statement, we DO remember everything about our mother who we are symbiotically connected to for 9 months. That separation from her was imprinted in the cells of my body. I might not have had the words to describe the sadness, grief, pain and confusion of why I never heard, felt, or smelt heard her again, but it took an amazing therapist and certain type of therapy to help me unlock the body memory so that I could do what I needed — to reconnect with that memory of her and honour it. To give it a place in my life and no longer deny she didn’t matter, because she totally did.
In every cell of my body, there was the undeniable truth. So for me, that statement that we do not remember as infants, is so not true. I was just a 5 month old baby when I arrived in my adoptive family but I did remember. She was deeply imprinted in me and I spent years trying to ignore that truth which only made the trauma of separation worse.
I only began to heal once I recognised and embraced the truth of that body memory, which doesn’t lie.
This statement itself is true for me. I don’t remember. I’ve always thought that I’d be more damaged if I came here at an older age. More damaged in the sense that I would be harder to love and easier to disregard if I got into major trouble with either mental health or society at large. It’s as if this is an entry ticket for people to want to get near me, an assurance that I will be just like them.
Even after telling people that I was three months old when I came here, they still continue to ask me if I know the Persian language. That always puzzled me. What baby speaks a language at three months? Is this evidence of how little these people have spent energy putting themselves in my situation? Probably.
When it comes to someone who loses a parent when they are too young to remember, people show a lot of compassion. Nobody would say to them, “You were just a baby, you don’t remember”. Instead they are showered with helpful words about the tragedy. Their trauma is affirmed. The only time our trauma is affirmed is when an adoptee gets into trouble or has depression. Then these same people say that there is nothing to be done about it, that we were already damaged.
I was adopted at 10 months old. Prior to this I lived for six months with a French Vietnamese family with the lawyer who facilitated my adoption. I lived in their house with them. Before this, I was in an orphanage being cared for but not loved nor given all the attention a mother normally gives a new-born. Even in-utero my mother probably knew that she could not keep me.
“As a fetus grows, it’s constantly getting messages from its mother. It’s not just hearing her heartbeat and whatever music she might play to her belly; it also gets chemical signals through the placenta. A new study finds that this includes signals about the mother’s mental state” (Science Daily, 2011)
The first year of a baby’s life and during pregnancy is so important. A mother’s physical and emotional availability is vital for the babies emotional and psychological development. It can also impact on our future ability to learn and retain knowledge, amongst other things.
My body remembers. I had my first major panic attack when my now ex-partner found out she was pregnant. I was happy and excited but my body responded differently. It went into complete panic around the threat of being rejected and abandoned all over again. The physical attack on my body as a result of the trauma experienced in my first year of life was so great that I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I lost 7 kilos in two weeks through stress and physical fear that I would be left and replaced by our new baby.
Any loss of significant intimate relationship I have formed in my adult life has triggered varying degrees of anxiety. I’ve done copious amounts of counselling, Craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, dance therapy, art therapy, massage, regular exercise to manage my body’s response to old stress and trauma stored in every single cell. I’ve done a lot of work to change the narrative that I am enough and I am able to care and look after myself in times of adversity such as a relationship break up.
I know that I will not die now and that I have enough resilience and self-love to care for myself and truly believe I’m worth it.
My son had a recent health scare. Thankfully he’s fine, but at an appointment with his new paediatrician, the subject of family history came up, especially as I’d been diagnosed with a hereditary syndrome only a few months earlier. I said I could only provide limited family history, having been adopted and thus far only able to find my mother and some half-siblings. The doctor asked how my syndrome manifested itself because my son’s symptoms were possibly related. We discussed my physical symptoms and then she asked if I also experienced “brain fog” (moments of forgetfulness and/or being unable to process information). I replied that I do sometimes experience it but I’d always considered it to be “trauma brain.” This, of course, prompted her to ask what trauma I had suffered.
I answered, “I’m an intercountry adoptee. I lost my mother, my everything — and was adopted by a family of a different race on a different continent.” “How old were you when you were adopted?” she asked, a look of sympathy in her eyes. “Around 2 months,” I answered. All sympathy vanished, replaced by a slightly exasperated look, “Oh, but you were just a little baby at the time. You couldn’t possibly remember.”
Her comment implied: (a) babies cannot form emotional/cognitive/somatic memories; (b) babies cannot experience trauma; (c) losing your mother immediately or shortly after birth has no effect on a baby; (c) any combination of the above.
Though I have heard this comment countless times before, I was shocked to hear it coming from a paediatrician. Had she not learned about the numerous studies that have been done on various animal species, as well as humans, showing the detrimental effects of early baby/mother separation?
What if I had told her that the trauma I’d experienced at the age of 2 months hadn’t been the loss of my mother but physical abuse instead? Or sexual abuse? Or severe neglect? Do you think she would have immediately poo-pooed THOSE causes as legitimate causes of pain and trauma – even to a baby – as she did for adoption? No way! She probably would have been outraged and rightfully so!
Programs like Kangaroo intensive care therapy for premature babies are in place in hospitals across the globe because it is widely recognised that babies need skin-to-skin contact with their mothers. Books about early infancy remind us that a baby and its mother are one organism until the umbilical cord is cut, and that newborns do not realise they are separate individuals from their mother. Science seems to grasp the fact that the mother-child bond is critical to preserve, especially very early on in life and throughout much of childhood. Yet society has been conditioned to think that babies who are separated from their mother due to adoption don’t/can’t remember (either cognitively or somatically) and/or aren’t traumatised by this early loss. You can’t have it both ways. Pain is pain. Trauma is trauma. All babies need their mothers – not just the ones that aren’t adopted. Every cell of an adopted person’s body knows empirically that she/he has lost her/his biological mother.
We remember. One woman is not just any woman. One baby is not just any baby. People are not interchangeable. Except when it comes to adoption.
My origins have not left me, my history still lingers in archives and attics, my blood relatives may still be circulating somewhere in the region from where I was scooped up and transported out of South Vietnam and into the United States in 1974.
Sure, as an eight-month-old infant, I had no idea what was going on around me and there was no way I was given any choice in whether I stayed or not.
Being uprooted and re-settled, and re-named and re-homed, all within my first year of life, made not a dent on my infant memory.
The failure of recall of all the micro and macro events and faces behind them who coordinated and shaped my early beginnings was expected and encouraged.
I was trained to not look back at the person I was prior to my transformation into a naturalised U.S. citizen.
My infanthood as an orphaned foreigner was seen as illegitimate; my “real life” was only recognised when I became an American citizen.
But what I cannot remember is still what I cannot forget.
What I do remember are the many times when I withdrew from my community because it became readily apparent to me that I was never going to truly settle quietly and comfortably into the life crafted for me.
What I cannot forget is my adoption was meant to ostensibly wipe the slate clean for me while at the same time wipe my mother and my father and their child off the face of the earth.
Leave room for joy Leave room for pain Leave room for sadness It’s not all the same
are a lot of people who are only joyful or only angry at adoption. While there
is a time for both of these feelings, there has to also be a time to evaluate
the why behind your
adoption always the best? No.
joy or sadness the only options? No.
As adoptees, adoption is part of our reality. It is what unifies us. We have to find and explore what our own personal adoptions mean for each of us! Adoptees do not have to look a certain way, but it is challenging when other people tell society what adoption is like.
I wanted to share my story about how adoption has shaped my life and how I view adoption. Instead of people assuming I want to meet my “real” parents or assume I’m sad or happy – I wanted to share what is really going on in my head. As an adoptee from Russia, now in America, I know very little about my beginnings. While I do not know why I was eligible for adoptive placement, I do know that my worth and value are not determined by missing time or pieces. I love to learn about my birth heritage. I dislike when people assume all adoptees are a certain way… or sometimes people ask bad questions.
I wanted to speak up and have others voice their stories with mine. What is a better way to get the word out about ideas then on social media? I posted a status about wanting to get all of this together to share our perspective! I didn’t know if anyone would reply about sharing their story. I came up with a set of questions for each participant and I waited eagerly for adoptees to reply.
the waiting I also spent many hours journaling and writing about all things
adoption relating to my perspective and story to help educate readers on how
this adoptee sees things.
It was incredible to hear back from so many adoptees – and while we don’t see eye to eye in every perspective, it was important to get a variety of voices. This way readers can really interact and find an adoptee that they may relate to, or learn best from.
I was so excited when the book Through Adopted Eyeswas released! I’ve gotten the pleasure to hear back from people telling me how they felt after reading the book. Some had learned about adoption, others wanted to adopt, others didn’t, and fellow adoptees felt included and heard.
I think it is really important for people to write down their thoughts about their adoption so that they can read it back to themselves and see what this means – some adoptees barely acknowledge their statuses and adapted well, whereas others focus on it a lot! I do not think one way is better than another. I think what is more important is making sure we all find out from our own stories what it is that makes us motivated to share.
What are you most excited to share about? What do you want to keep private? What is the main perspective you want others to take away from your adoptee experience?
Start writing – but also leave room on the paper. Leave room for more thoughts, shared experiences, and joy and pain.
Elena S Hall’s passion for adoption advocacy stems from her faith and family. She loves to write, dance, sing, and tell stories. Her goal is to aid those in the adoption triad to promote healing and growth within the adoption community and empower readers to share their own stories. Her book, Through Adopted Eyes: A Collection of Memoirs From Adoptees, shares 50 adoptee perspective and guides readers though adoption from the viewpoint of adoptees.
Uh oh .. did you write a review like that? Perhaps you bought something based on a review like that? Or like me, did you groan when you saw it because the review just isn’t actually helpful?
We’ve come to increasingly understand that representation changes the conversation through the different experiences that inclusion brings. We are seeing that when the writers’ rooms of Hollywood include women, people of colour and LGBT writers our understanding can dramatically shift altogether and deepen. Seth Myers team have shown this in great comic style with their White Saviour Movie Trailer.
However, it hasn’t yet become expected that adoption stories should have adoptee advocates representing adoption. Adopting parents continue to dominate the narrative of adoption over adult adoptee voices both in Hollywood on social media and within our families. As Angela Tucker pointed out on Red table talks – “For me to talk about transracial adoption is to hurt somebody”. This creates an unusually weighted dynamic in which may adoptees remain silent, maintain the status quo or even promote adoption.
I use amazon reviews as an analogy because you’ll often see gift givers reviewing products based on the fact that someone they gifted it to “loved it”. When I see that, I groan inwardly. This person is either humble, bragging or completely dismissing that many of us will feign delight over gifts we don’t like out of respect for the kindness of the giver. It doesn’t make the giver credible as a reviewer. This kind of review tells us nothing about the product itself in a thoughtful or useful way. Did the product deliver what was expected? Did it break after four uses? How does it fit?
I wouldn’t claim that being a dancer is easy because I know someone who’s a dancer and they seem fine. Try asking a five year old to explain how to drive a car and you’ll get much the same level of coherence and reliability as a non-adoptee talking for adoptees. There are layers and layers of things you don’t even know you don’t know. Even adoptees need time, reflection and validation, to get clear about the experience. I myself have much greater clarity about how adoption affected me now that I can look back over nearly fifty years of patterns of behaviour. How can anyone expect to talk helpfully about it from the outside, when even adoptees can struggle to articulate it from the inside until they’ve processed it.
The only way to even begin to comprehend what adoption is really like is listen to adoptees. Quiet your minds while doing so, resist the urge to listen or argue. We are well used to talking with people listening while finding ways to discount with comments like, “but lots of people feel that way”. If I recounted an assault and the feelings of powerlessness, would you really think it was helpful to tell me lots of people feel powerless in their lives? Or would you consider the context?
Listen to understand, explore and most of all to validate. You can offer healing, you can find ways to empathise, you can be a part of the solution. If you don’t want to offer relief and healing to an adoptee, you really need to ask yourself why you don’t want to do that, what’s in it for you to avoid it?
If you want a garden to grow, you need to prepare the soil and tend the earth. Removing weeds is essential prep and maintenance work. Without weeding and fertilising, your flowers and vegetables can’t grow properly.
If you want a wound to heal, you need to clean it our before you stitch it closed or bandage it. If you leave debris inside the wound, it will become painful and infected. And it will need to be re-opened, cleaned, and treated further.
Sometimes, when I tell people I attend a support group for adoptees and first moms, they ask why I would want to be around people who just sit there and talk about their sad stories. Aren’t we all just dwelling and being downers? My answer is a strong No. The times in my life when I felt the lowest were the times when I was completely alone in my trauma, before I found an adoption trauma-competent therapist, before I found a local support group, before the internet and the creation of FB groups, before I became active in the intercountry and transracial adoption community. Having a community around me of people who share the same primal wound and learning and working together to move forward in a healthy way, is very healing, though it can be painful.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, post-adoption services are critical for all adopted people. And I’m talking about the provision of FREE adoption-trauma-based therapies; local, adoptee-run support groups; access to OBCs and DNA tests; travel budget set aside for trips back to the country of origin; language lessons and translation services for intercountry adoptees. Without adequate, available, and competent pre and post adoption services, we are expecting lush gardens to grow on unprepared land. We are expecting wounds to heal without first helping to clean them out, or worse – by not even acknowledging them in the first place.
To all of my fellow adoptees who are out there, getting down and dirty in the trenches, pulling out those weeds and planting new seeds, I dedicate Digging in the Dirt, by Peter Gabriel.
A statement was made while at the recent intercountry adoption symposium in Washington DC about “children at the border and how we need to get them adopted into American families“.
That statement combined with articles I’ve seen on Facebook about migrant children who have been separated from their families and are now being adopted into US families certainly stirs up a lot of negative emotions in me. It should — for all of us! These vulnerable children are now going to be further victimized by a broken system that is all too often, fuelled by greed, savior attitudes and politics.
While I agree that the Trump administration is accountable at some level, I believe there is a LONG list of accountable parties contributing to this very complicated issue. The atrocities indicated in these types of articles have been ongoing for decades under multiple administrations. It’s time we all stop and take note of the many levels in this broken system, including our own participation and how we contribute.
First off, many adoption agencies are more concerned with money, timelines and streamlining rather than the true welfare and interests of the child. I’m sure having prospective adoptive parents who are agitated from a lengthy and costly process doesn’t help, but the desire to appease disgruntled adoptive parents should never supersede the importance of a system that is both thorough and ethical. One of the hardest things for many to come to terms with, is that the adoption process has become a massive money making industry. According to statistics adoption agency revenues in 2015 were over 14 billion dollars and are now projected to reach 16 billion dollars in 2019.
The State Department is now implementing vital reforms and regulations to hold all agencies to a higher degree of accountability and do you know what I see and hear as a result? People complaining that the State Department is making it harder to adopt children in need.
As a society we tend to do this. Adoption, especially intercountry adoption, is an extremely complex matter — yet we want it to be easy, cheap, quick, and open to our demands. There is no easy or quick fix to this process and there shouldn’t be. Adoption agencies and the process to adopt must be held to a high level of accountability and it takes time and money to achieve this. If we ever hope to see intercountry adoption free from corruption, then holding the agencies and the processes they are implementing to a higher level of accountability is a good place to start!
Next, there are the government agencies such as Child Protection Services which are often over-worked, underpaid and understaffed, therefore, far too many kids are getting lost in the system or victimized by a broken system.
Another large part of the problem is adoptive parents who all too often, want to turn a blind eye to the truth. We don’t want to have to answer the tough questions because the act of adoption has somehow become a glorified act – and no matter what losses, corruption or illicit acts exist behind the scenes, the “better life” is a free pass to ignore the child’s “best interests”, which should always be to remain in their culture and with their biological families (minus situations of abuse and neglect).
Then there is what I consider to be, the largest part of the problem. The Westernized and often religious narrative of adoption. We have learned to see adoption in a romanticized light using scripture and the Christian faith to support this broken system. We use verses like “take care of the orphan and the widow” to adopt children regardless of the need for them to be adopted. We have families raising tens of thousands of dollars to adopt, while at the same time saying this child needs us to adopt them because their biological families are poor and can’t meet their basic needs.
The number one reason children are placed in the system for international adoption is poverty. Poverty should NEVER be the reason to separate a family. There is nothing godly or glorious about using money one fundraised or actually has at their disposal to adopt a child, when that money could be used to empower a family and keep them together.
We continue to support a narrative that says America is better meanwhile what I hear from adult intercountry adoptees, is that it’s not! They are losing their identities, their voices, their culture, their families and their role within those families and communities, as a result of adoption.
There are times in which adoption is the best and last solution to a complicated situation, but what we are routinely failing to do, is ensure that every possible avenue to keep the child in their culture and with extended family or community has been explored. Many times, when adoptive parents come into the picture, their emotions, both in love for the child and exhaustion from the process, tend to overshadow what is truly in the best interest of the child. We continue to ignore the voices that should matter the most because listening to adult intercountry adoptees also means admitting that we ourselves may have done things wrong.
I really hate confrontation and I truly never want to hurt someone’s feelings. Whenever I speak out on this topic, I tend to hear a lot of negativity, especially from adoptive parents, but I feel like I have to speak up. In fact, we all need to speak up.
There is nothing to get defensive about if we have adopted and have investigated to ensure that this is the best possible scenario for that child. I know many families who have adopted and have done so while truly putting the best interest of their child(ren) first. They get it. Adoption doesn’t need to be this sugar coated, rainbows and butterflies fairytale. It’s a situation brought about from a place of loss. There is nothing beautiful about the word adoption to a child who has been adopted because that word represents everything they have lost.
The real beauty in adoption comes from those who choose to do the hard work on behalf of that child(ren) because they need someone to advocate for them, love them unconditionally and constantly work at putting the child’s best interests ahead of their own.
I feel I can speak to these things because unfortunately in the past, I perpetuated these same ideals. Obviously, I did not realize the damage I was doing with my “good intentions“. Excuse my bluntness here, but my intentions didn’t matter then and they don’t matter now! What matters is my ability to listen, learn, admit when I’m wrong and then change!
My family and I almost destroyed another family, stripped a child from her culture, contributed to the trauma in a child’s life that might never have healed, no matter how great as adoptive parents we were trying to be, all while we were being praised and cheered on for “saving” a life. Not once was I ever challenged on the complicated nature of a transracial and intercountry adoption nor as to my intentions behind adopting a child who had extended family in her birth country.
From the moment I announced the truth of the corruption behind our adoption and our plans to reunite, I received so much criticism and speculation regarding Mata’s family about where they lived, what religion they practiced and the country to which I was reuniting her to. It was unacceptable! Unacceptable yes, but not surprising! Correct me if I’m wrong, but we have become a society that is outspoken, combative and divided. We tend to speak more through clicks on a keyboard and less with action. We know international adoption statistics say as high as 90% children in orphanages have been separated from their families, yet what are most of us actually doing to resolve this tragedy?
Is adopting the children in these orphanages an act of love? Or is using our time and resources to bring change to the communities they belong to and empowering their families and communities to stay together, the truer act of love?
There’s nothing wrong with sharing articles and opinions on facebook, in fact it is a great way for us all to become more aware and bring about the changes necessary both in ourselves and as a society. But let’s not just post, debate the post and leave out the most important part … action.
While I agree there’s a certain level of finger pointing that’s necessary to stop heinous acts like separating children from their families from happening, this problem is way bigger than one administration. Our desire to pick sides and the anger we feel when someone hasn’t chosen our side has become more important than becoming the difference we long to see in this world.
It’s time for the narrative around Intercountry adoption to change. Let’s not forget, it is children’s lives hanging in the balance and I truly believe we all have to take a long hard look at this complex and broken system, accept our part in it and work to correct it.
It’s interesting to watch and read what goes on within the USA, the largest adopter of children internationally, into so called “forever homes”.
I’ve seen a plethora of internet articles from people and organisations who espouse saving children from their desperate situations or institutions and are upset that intercountry adoption numbers have plummeted in the past 15 years to the USA. Check out the latest from the National Council FOR Adoption by Chuck Johnson and by Elizabeth Bartholet, Harvard Law Professor.
I’m guessing these proponents barely hear the voices of adult intercountry adoptees who live it and can share what the experience has been like growing up in the USA or elsewhere, and whether we should be calling for more intercountry adoptions or to save the business or not — especially without learning lessons from the past.
I asked adult intercountry adoptees are we upset that intercountry adoptions to America (and elsewhere around the world) have plummeted? Should we make the process less stringent, with less balances and checks via government oversight, allowing private agencies to do as they had in the past? Membership within ICAV, an informal worldwide network of adult intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who advocate for the needs of intercountry adoptees, answered with a resounding NO to both questions.
Why? Because many of us live the reality knowing intercountry adoption is not as simple as what the proponents try to gloss over. Adult intercountry adoptees talk openly about wanting to prioritise and ensure children are never stranger adopted internationally when families, social structures for support, or extended family and communities exist within their birth country.
Adoptees celebrate that intercountry adoption numbers have plummeted!
The reasons for numbers plummeting is complex and specific to each sending country, but overall we see our birth countries finally starting to create better alternatives for vulnerable families and are coming to understand their most valuable resource is their children! Imagine where our birth countries would be, if instead of exporting us, they’d kept us, raised us and been able to access resources from our adoptive countries?
Perhaps our birth countries have realised intercountry adoption doesn’t always equate to a “better life” for vulnerable children. Point in case are the thousands who sit fearful of deportation in the USA because if adopted prior to 1983, they are still not granted automatic citizenship. Intercountry adoptee led organisations, like Adoptee Rights Campaign, will tell you that US Congress and President don’t appear too outraged by the citizenship situation which intercountry adoptees face! Certainly not a lot of jumping up and down or drawing attention to this fact either by Bartholet or Johnson!
I hear from adult intercountry adoptees daily from all over the world. Many of our lived experiences, especially those who manage to find biological family, learn that often our adoptions were faciltiated because our biological families were not offered financial or social supports at the time. Then there are some cases (too many for my liking to ever thoughtlessly promote adoption) where our biological families were coerced, given false expectations e.g., education, without fully understanding the consequences of legal “relinquishment“.
As an adult intercountry adoptee, I do not see adoption agencies as “saviours” but rather as “exploiters” – financially benefiting from our vulnerabilities.
As adult intercountry adoptees, we prefer more government oversight and taking of responsibility for the lifelong journey of adoption! In the past, our adoption agencies have not always done the right thing: in preserving the truth of our origins, in ensuring we are true orphans, in making sure no undue financial gain from the adoption transaction, in providing adequate post adoption support for the duration of our life, etc. In the past, our birth and adoptive governments have sometimes (often) turned a blind eye to the troubles persisting that give intercountry adoption it’s legacy of illegal adoptions. We as adult intercountry adoptees could never state enough how necessary it is to have independent oversight of any intercountry adoption process with direct and real input from those who live the experience, the adoptees themselves!
Lessons learned from the past should include a country only taking us on via intercountry adoption IF they can also provide the much needed comprehensive and lifelong support services to ensure positive outcomes and a guarantee of permanency! This should include free psychological counselling, free search and reunion, free DNA testing, free returns to birth country, free translation services, etc.
A country should only give us away if they can also provide the much needed comprehensive and lifelong support services to our biological families who face the consequences for generations of having relinquished their children.
The emotional, social, financial and generational impact that relinquishment has on a birth family and country has never been studied!
As intercountry adoptees we face relinquishment not only from our biological families but also from our birth country. We live the emotional consequences of those decisions throughout our lifetime. We often question why the money spent on our adoption process could not have been provided to our biological family to facilitate us to remain with them, therefore giving the whole family better life options and resources.
I hope this blog will stimulate questions and thoughts about what’s missing from one-sided articles that proponents like Bartholet and Johnson promote. Instead of Bartholet asking “Where is the outrage over the institutionalised children denied adoptive homes?”, we should be asking these questions instead:
Where is the outrage that vulnerable families are not given adequate support to prevent them from institutionalising their children?
Where is the outrage for the children (now adults, some with children themselves) who were intercountry adopted to the USA prior to 1983 and are still denied permanency (i.e., Citizenship) via intercountry adoption?
Where is the outrage over the institutionalised children being intercountry adopted and denied their human right to grow up in their own birth land – knowing their culture, language, values, customs, religion, and family heritage?
Where is the outrage over the insititutionalised children who are intercountry adopted to countries like the USA, who end up in abusive or worse situations that should be prevented if agencies did adequate education and screening? In my mind, this is exactly why the US State Dept should be heavily overseeing all accreditation of adoption agencies and ensuring families are adequately prepared – and most importantly, implementing measures when an agency fails.
What is not in the child’s best interest, is to experience adoption disruption because of failure by adoption agencies who are rarely held accountable for adoptions that fail to provide for a child’s safety and well being, for their lifelong journey!
Bartholet, Johnson and other proponents of adoption write articles that fail to address the lived experiences of the hundreds of thousands of intercountry adoptees around the world, who can tell you what we think about plummeting numbers in international adoption. We can also share where we believe the focus should be to address the real issues.
What I find fascinating and inspiring are the adult intercountry adoptees who spend their life creating and maintaining ventures that provide support to one’s country, without taking away their most precious resource – their children via intercountry adoption. Ventures like NONA Foundation in Sri Lanka to help young women and girls who are disadvantaged, Foster Care Society in India focused on creating alternative forms of care, Family Preservation 365 in the USA, 325Kamra who provide free DNA tests to Sth Korean families in the attempt to reunite them, Centre for Social Protection of Children in Vietnam to help special needs and disadvantaged children obtain an education.
We need the focus to be more about keeping families and societies together and we should be celebrating when intercountry adoption declines — because it should always be the last resort for vulnerable families and countries, as per our human rights!
I received another email from ICAB on June 28, approximately 15 days since I’d emailed a signed form requesting the retrieval of my birth certificate. This email had the subject: “Post Adoption Concern” which made my heart flutter since it sounded so serious and official. The content of this email basically said that ICAB has acknowledged my receipt for request sent on June 22.
ICAB said they would also retrieve my folder for the photocopy of my birth certificate and request the security paper copy from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). ICAB would inform me once my birth certificate becomes available.
In this waiting period, I’ve felt isolated but my life in the United States (U.S) has shifted and blossomed into new pathways. I’ve started a new job at a different school here in Northern Arizona, still close to the Navajo Reservation where I’m building a small, specialized library for K-12 grades, at a fully sustainable charter school. I finished with a mixed media art series that will be shown at a downtown restaurant on a First Friday Art Walk in August. I was able to move into a bigger room in my house for the same rental cost, so I have a more spacious bedroom now for myself and my plants.
I’ve been able to realize my dream even more–of wanting to live in Hawaii one day and work at a library there. I’ve been tweeting obsessively about the children being separated by immigration at U.S borders and forcibly brought into the U.S foster care system. Oh! And I also started wearing contacts, which has been awesome for me since I’ve had glasses all my life.
Personally, I still acknowledge there are missing pieces to the fabric of my identity in some ways. Culturally, I’m estranged. Family-wise, I still live life mostly single and wish to one day have a family for myself. But the good thing is that creatively, I’ve been able to restructure some of what I’ve lost having been orphaned as a baby. And, professionally, I’ve found the best outlet in the work that I do, as the profession I’ve chosen mixes well with the introverted personality that I’ve developed as an intercountry adoptee in the U.S.
I can’t say that everything is fine, because it isn’t. There’s much that still needs to be fought for, shared and brought to awareness. But on a positive note, I think we’re at a better place than a few decades ago when all we had was an old-fashioned mailing system to rely on. I look forward to what innovations life and the rest of our adoptee community can create, especially if we keep believing that our voices matter in this world.
Within ICAV’s private group for adult intercountry adoptees I recently asked the question: “If we lived in an ideal world, given your adoption experience is as it is, what would you need to be at peace with it all?” I made it clear we could discuss and provide answers that were both realistic possibilities and idealistic fantasies.
The discussion that followed was powerful and I’d love to share some of the themed responses which highlight what’s still missing in intercountry adoption to make it really about “the needs of the child”. You’ll see from some of the replies to my question, we do grow up and continue to have ongoing needs that continue to be umet via intercountry adoption. Often times, it seems that intercountry adoption creates more needs than we began with as vulnerable children which makes me wonder what purpose did our intercountry adoption achieve for us, the adoptees?
Truth and Answers
Many of us have adoption documents which have details that are either totally incorrect or somewhat questionable and shades in between. The worst I can cite as an example of totally incorrect, is a Haitian intercountry adoptee who was given an already dead person’s identity, a false birth mother listed on adoption paperwork and subsequently found out the truth years later, that her biological mother never gave consent. An example of the questionable and changeable information provided is the experiences of countless South Korean adoptees who get given differing information each time they approach their Korean adoption agency asking for details, locked away in their agency files.
This lack of knowing the truth or having transparent access to our relinquishment and subsequent adoption information, can further traumatise us in recreating yet another event in which we are completely powerless to know our basic identity information and compounds our already fragile ability to trust others. As Christine shared,
“Having to doubt that what I thought all along was my story now may not be true, is difficult.”
Like others who shared on this theme, Chaitra listed finding the Truth as her first response, along with others:
Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
Being fully immersed in Indian culture as a child so that I would have had knowledge of food, language, holidays, traditions, etc. as well as racial mirrors.
Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.
Chaitra had none of these things in her life.
The Desire to Find Biological Family
For some who reunite, finally meeting biological family gave them a sense of understanding who they were at the level of physical attributes and personality which were always unlike those of their adoptive family. For example, Thomas shared it this way:
“Meeting my birth family has helped me a lot. I met my grandmother’s side of the family and they’re all like the same as me with huge eyes, light skin and curly hair. They’re also all really shy and tend not to say much unless spoken to, like me. It has really helped me to answer some questions about where I come from“.
For others, like Chaitra above who have not been successful yet in reuniting with biological family, there is still the desire and thinking that IF they could meet, it would help to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which makes up who we fundamentally are. Dominic expressed it well, “Just to know I have relatives would give me a sense of peace. Surely they couldn’t have all perished in the Vietnam wars!”
When adoptees are impeded from knowing the answers and finding biological family, we are left with a lifetime of uncertainty. Our fundamental identity questions remain unanswered.
This was a recurring theme for some adoptees who expressed the wish that adoption not be a necessary and created social response to children who are vulnerable. As Parvathi wisely questions,
“Only if the child has got no parents and feel uncomfortable in his country, he should have the opportunity to move. Why a child who has lost his parents should also loose his country too?“
Sunitha also said, “I think the whole society system and humanity should have been different from the beginning of time! What is international adoption if not a new colonialist way? It just reflects the inequalities of the world through the cover of good will and humanitarian feelings. Another way to see it, is just rich people in need of kids, buying kids from poor countries and raising them in their culture which is supposed to be superior to their original one.”
Through our experience of being intercountry adopted, we inevitably end up questioning the system that created our reality. We are not naiive in believing that intercountry adoption is only about poverty because it’s clearly not, as sending countries like South Korea and the USA demonstrate. Kim explains it well:
“When intercountry is done both ways, it doesn’t seem in the best interest of children either. It only looks like a fair trade of children, a business of import-export, done both ways. The USA already export their children (mostly black children) to Europe, why aren’t those kids adopted in their country first before adopted to other countries?“
As Tamieka shared, the world needs to create more services that focus on first families and “helping them be able to maintain and keep their families and children.” If this happened with as large a revenue as what intercountry adoption generates worldwide, I question whether there would be a need for intercountry adoption.
Justice when Adoption is Done Wrong
For those who wonder whether their adoption was legitimate or not, we are all too aware of the harsh reality that there is little to mostly nothing that is done, or can be done, to prevent further injustices or to punish those who create these situations. Tamieka eloquently expressed this as, “The world needs to provide organisations that hold those who are responsible for the corruption in adoptions, responsible for tearing families and people’s lives apart, to be held accountable for their actions and to be brought to justice.”
Whether intercountry adoption continues to be practiced or not, there is the question of where is justice for those who are already impacted? Sadly, our desire for restorative justice for adoptees who are wronged via intercountry adoption is currently a utopia. This is the harsh reality but it won’t stop us from speaking out against this and highlighting how unethical the practice is without any mechanism for seeking justice.
An End to the Ongoing Pain
Sadly, for many the unspoken consequence of relinquishment on the vulnerable child, is a lifelong path of psychological pain in having been abandoned by our biological parents. Followed by intercountry adoption, our experience can become a secondary abandonment, this time by our birth country. Via intercountry adoption we lose our right to our birth family and country forever and are not given the choice to retain our identity, culture, heritage or citizenship. The pain of abandonment by biological parents and birth country have an ongoing effect which can last a lifetime. If this goes unsupported by the majority of adoptive countries who offer little to no post adoption support services, we can be left with an endless amount of internal psychological pain.
For adoptees who feel this pain intensely, they desire an end to their struggles and can at times, see death as the only way out. Little wonder that adoptees are reported in research as suffering higher rates of suicide, attempts at suicide, mental health issues and reflected in greater proportion compared to the non-adopted population, in prisons or drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. The pain of relinquishment is real and has to be acknowledged. Adoption is often portrayed as a win-win solution but it glosses over the real pain that adoptees can experience, whether openly shared or not.
Kim shared it very clearly:
“Death would give me peace. I think only death can make me stop remembering her, the Me before adoption. Only death can remove from me that kind of pain, loneliness and homesickness that adoption injected into my soul.”
Thankfully, within support groups like ICAV, we don’t minimise or diminish our sometimes painful realities. We openly speak and share, which is so important for healing.
Paul eloquently summed it up: “This is such a hard question. Honestly, I think about this with so much hyper-realism that it’s difficult to get to any perfect world state of mind for me, any wishes for what could be different. My birth father is dead. My adoptive mother is dead. My birth mother, who knows? And what does that mean? And yet I am here. And there are friends, family and strangers and _____. That beauty. But still there’s the Unknown, the tension, the contradiction; the complexity of history; our absurd global socio-political circumstances; etc.. What helps me through all of this? This. Our sharing. Our stories. The potential for moments of connection and understanding, even in all their imperfection. Our various bitter realities. Your question. Our voices. The realization of shared experience and circumstances, not sameness, but sharedness. This helps. Thank you.”
It’s amazing to see the power of peer group sharing and connecting and how it facilitates our journey of growth as adult intercountry adoptees. Read Stephanie’s expression of what she gained from the same group discussion.