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.
Guest artwork by Xiaolan Molly Thornton, adopted at 3 years of age to Australia from China.
Xiaolan says: This artwork depicts how I feel being divided by two cultures. One of Australian and the other, Chinese. The background is supposed to represent the landscape of China and I have blended in aspects of Australian culture which I now embrace as part of my identity.
This artwork may not be reproduced, shared or copied without the consent of Xiaolan.
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.
There isn’t an orphan crisis, it’s a family separation crisis.
Vulnerable families are being targeted and needlessly separated from their children. When you come to realise that 80-90% of children in orphanages have families, we must adjust our thinking. We need to stop saying there is an orphan crisis and when we hear churches, friends, family or see facebook posts claiming these lies, we must be courageous and challenge these misconceptions. If we continue with the adoption rhetoric as it is now we are doing no good! Needlessly stripping a child from their family is not a “better life”. A child losing everyone they love and everything familiar to them is not in their “best interest”. Doing something for the sake of “it’s what we’ve always done” is irresponsible and in this regard I believe criminal. If we are aware of these realities and we do nothing to address them, even if we choose to ignore them, we are complicit.
In developing countries orphanages are not viewed as we in the west understand them to be. Many loving parents have been convinced orphanages are a way to give their children the opportunities they were not given. Just as every loving parent does, we all want better for our children. Orphanage directors and child finders promise families a better education, 3 meals a day, upgraded amenities and a safe place so sleep all while they are still able to see their children. Sadly, the reality is often very different, especially when it is a corrupt orphanage. This type of orphanage will do everything in their power to keep the family and child apart.
I’ve said this before and I will say this again. If you choose to adopt internationally you should not even consider this unless you are willing to invest your time and money into ensuringevery effort has been made to keep that child/children within their family and culture. Trusting an adoption agency, orphanage director or any other party that is profiting from the adoption is not acceptable or enough. At first, I failed miserably at this. I was ignorant to the realities at play, and because of MY ignorance I enabled criminals to traffic an innocent child from her family. I’ve publicly made my mistakes and the realities known within the intercountry adoption community in the hopes that my mistakes and revelations through this process will enable others to do better. In all honesty, should we even be discussing orphans, adoption, etc if we haven’t properly addressed the family separation crisis at hand? It’s only after we have ensured every family has been given every opportunity to stay together that we should ever even utter the word adoption.
Written and shared by Jessica Davis during National Adoption Awareness Month.
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.
This year, one of ICAVs goals is to bring to the forefront, the voices of those who have lived the experience of being illictly adopted via intercountry adoption practices. The experience of an illegal intercountry adoption is now recognised as “existing” by many of our governments and central authorities who facilitate the adoptions. ISS-SSI even provided a Handbook on Responding to Illegal Adoptions about this in 2016, including input from some with lived experience. However, it remains a fact today, that there are barely a handful of adult intercountry adoptees who have received appropriate support and assistance, whether that be emotional, financial, legal, or governmental liaison in response to their illicit adoptions.
What about illicit intercountry adoptions that are technically “legal” but are fundamentally unethical under international or other standards like the Palermo Protocol? The powers who control and regulate intercountry adoption do little to provide useful support to those who experience it.
In 2011, my adoptive country Australia, led the way in a working group at The Hague to developing cooperative measures for the prevention of illicit practices in adoption and they remain one of the few adoptive countries to develop a “protocol” for responding to allegations of child trafficking in adoption. However, this protocol response is severly limited in that it only acts to “review the adoption documentation” and yet it is often the documentation itself, that has been falsified and difficult to ascertain without other sources of information. Even IF documentation is proven to be false, what then? In cases like the Julie Chu Taiwanese trafficking ring where legal prosecution followed, there has been little to nothing done for the Taiwanese adoptees and their first families both in the adoptive and birth country’s. Shouldn’t those impacted be provided fully funded services to help them reunite, reintegrate and reconnect if they want this at any stage of their life? Or do they each have to pursue legal action in order to ever be compensated for their losses and legal implications? And what if they don’t want legal action but still want help?
In my time at ICAV, I have witnessed the lifelong growth that occurs developmentally for adult intercountry adoptees – first we start to explore our indivual journey but as we connect to fellow adoptees and peer support networks, we become exposed to the larger picture of intercountry adoption and the world-wide practice as it occurs today. The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption was designed to combat illegal adoptions but despite it’s ideals, it hasn’t been able to stop them altogether nor does it ensure adequate post adoption supports – especially for this specific segment of the intercountry adoptee population. Many critics say The Hague Convention has made the problem worse by masking the illicit practices under the guise of a “legal” adoption. As the adult adoptee population ages and matures, what I observe is a huge number, enmasse, of adoptees who are becoming actively involved in exposing the many illicit adoptions that have chequered its history.
South Korean adoptees like Jane Jeong Trenka have led the way in the fight for adoptee rights due to their historical place as the first babies enmasse in modern time to be exported in the largest numbers — but more recently there are those who pave the way for adoptees of other birth countries who have been illicitly adopted. Impacted adoptees such as:
Patrick Noordoven from Brazil Baby Affair who recently won his historical outcome of legal recognition that those adopted illegally had a right to their information; in general paving a way for other Brazilian adoptees from the Brazil Baby Affair period; and also a success with the Dutch court appointing an external commission to investigate intercountry adoptions in the past from Brazil but also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia;
Sanne van Rossen who released her ground breaking expose The Sadness from Sri Lanka (english translation avail this year) and the accompanying media coverage by Zembla which has effectively encouraged Sri Lankan adoptees all over the world to work together; Sanne’s work also led to official recognition of the Baby Farming era by the Sri Lankan government;
Alejandro Quezada who founded Chilean Adoptees Worldwide along with other Chilean adoptees are working with the Mothers of Chile who’s children were stolen or lost to adoption. Together they have pushed for a formal investigation into the illegal adoptions from Chile;
Marcia Engel at Plan Angel and other Colombian adoptees in the group are advocating to have illegal adoptions investigated officially;
and Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking who has for decades exposed illegal adoptions out of India and many other countries.
What is to be the government and central authority responses to these enmasse occurrences of illicit adoption practices? For how long will they continue to ignore the voices of those impacted the most from a practical sense – helping them find their families and re-integrate back into their countries if this is their desire? How about funding the “lived experience organisation” who helps the most because they best understand the complexities? Or a “lived experience advisory group”?
I hope that by encouraging advocacy and helping to expose the voices of those who live it, we will see change – not only formally acknowledging the wrongs done, but to attempt to make ammends and provide much needed support for those forced to live it. It is one thing to acknowledge the terrible practices of the past and attempt to avoid repeating them into the future, but it is another to address the current issues and provide support for those who have lived a lifetime resulting from past practices.
Today, I present to you the story of Mariela who has lived the experience of being illegally adopted from Guatemala to Belgium. This is an example of one person’s lived experience of illicit intercountry adoption. We look forward to sharing soon our new project to bring together many more voices like Mariela’s!
We can only ever fully understand the full complexities of illicit intercountry adoptions by listening to those who live it!