What Intercountry Adoptees Need

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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?

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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:

  1. Knowing the truth about the circumstances that led to my adoption.
  2. Meeting and having a relationship with my birth family.
  3. 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.
  4. Having adoptive parents who openly communicated with me about adoption and race.

Chaitra had none of these things in her life.

The important part

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.

No Adoption

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.”

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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.”

Restorative 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.

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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.

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Degrees of Being Trafficked in Intercountry Adoption

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As an adult intercountry adoptee, having been outspoken now for 20 years in ICAV, I’ve often wondered whether my intercountry adoption was legitimate or not. That means asking questions like: did my Vietnamese parents really understand the legal concept of “adoption” and relinquishment? Were they offered any other types of support to keep me? Given I came out of war torn Vietnam, was my status really as a true orphan with no surviving parents or family? Was family and kin reunification even attempted before I was adopted out to Australia? And what about any attempts to place me in my own home country first? One day I hope to find the answers to these questions if I’m lucky enough to be reunited with my biological family.

I’m sure other fellow intercountry adoptees ask themselves similar questions at some stage in their life. These are the realities we face as we grow older, mature in our understandings of the complexities of intercountry adoption, and grapple to integrate our realities with the worldwide politics that created our lives, as we know it today.

To consider oneself as trafficked as an intercountry adoptee is challenging because of the legal definition which cuts us out and doesn’t allow any legal scope to take action against the perpetrators.

Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people, within national or across international borders, for the purposes of exploitation in the form of commercial sex, domestic service or manual labour.

Trafficking in intercountry adoption certainly exists but we cannot take legal action because of the fact that no international law or framework exists to allow us to be legally considered as “trafficked” unless we can prove we fit the criteria of “exploitation for sex or labour”.

Yet within intercountry adoption, the degrees to which we can be trafficked can vary immensely. There are those who have:

  • outright falsification of documentation and were stolen from their birth families, sold into intercountry adoption for profit, where legal action was taken against those who profited and it was demonstrated in a court of law, that wrong doing had transpired.
  • documentation that could appear suspicious but at the time not questioned further; demonstrated years later to be inconsistent or incorrect.
  • paperwork that appears legitimate, but at reunion decades later, the story from birth parents does not match in any way the documentation provided by the adoption agency / facilitator.
  • no identity paperwork exists due to having been a “lost” child and with little attempt to reunify back with family, we became sold/transacted via intercountry adoption.

Where does the spectrum of having been “trafficked for intercountry adoption” start or end? Difficult to discuss when the concept is not allowed to exist in law. Even ISS International’s best practice learnings from these types of scenarios don’t label it “trafficking”, but refer to it as “illegal adoptions” in their Handbook. And out of the conclusions and recommendations in that handbook, the question has to be asked how many of the Hague signatories have a process to enable biological family, adoptive parents, or adult adoptees who suspect illicit practices (i.e., trafficking) be given any type of support or process  – financially, legally, or emotionally?

On 7 December 2017, ICAV facilitated a small group of 7 intercountry adoptees representing India, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka to request the Australian Federal Government, via Department of Social Services (DSS), consider providing some financial support to those who have been trafficked in various degrees. For these adoptees, no amount of money is ever going to compensate for their losses and trauma directly brought on by the degree of trafficking they have endured. Not to mention their biological family! But we can at least ask that some forms of restorative justice be provided by the powers to be who facilitate adoptions and allow it to continue.

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There is no way of ultimately fixing the dilemma caused by trafficking in intercountry adoption because adoption IS legally binding, despite the existence of cases of successful prosecution against those who falsified documents.

Sadly, the only legal case that can be made in intercountry adoption for known trafficking is for falsification of documents. The perpetrators get a slap on the wrist, some jail time, and a small fine (compared to how much they profited). In comparison, what does the adoptee or biological family get? Nothing. Not even services to help them move through and past this unnecessary trauma.

I want to raise awareness of the impacts trafficking has on those adoptees who have to live it, forever. Their voices are unheard and diminished by those who advocate for adoption. Their experiences go by without us learning from the mistakes and putting in place much needed processes and international laws to prevent further injustices like theirs. For them, even when the perpetrator is punished by law, they as adoptees are left to live the consequences with NO recognition of what they’ve had to endure. There is NO justice for them.

Please read Roopali’s story. Hers is an example of living the lifelong consequences of an adoption in which it appears her first parents did not voluntarily consent, nor was she a true orphan, and she was old enough to be listened to and given a choice. Her story gives voice to the extra challenges endured directly as a result of having been “trafficked” to some degree. She was brave enough to share her story to the Australian Government with ICAV in 2015 when we met the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisors. There was not a single dry eye in the room, we were all so affected by the obvious trauma she endures day to day. Trafficking of vulnerable children via intercountry adoption needs to stop!

I hope Roopali’s story encourages others to speak out and demand from their governments that action towards legal recognition of “trafficking” via intercountry adoption AND restorative justice needs to occur.

Vulnerable children are not blank slates

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Today I want to share with you Joey’s Journey. He is one of the few male Chinese intercountry adoptees adopted out of China who I hear from, due to the 1-child policy that has seen an unequal proportion of females being adopted out, rather than males.

Joey’s experience highlights the issue I wrote about in my LION review early this year; of trauma that occurs prior to adoption and how adoptive families cope (or not) with this. How it impacts everyone in the adoptive family and how our society turns a blind eye to this aspect of adoption.

Adoption agencies and governments (both sending and receiving) need to step-up and be accountable because after 60-plus generations of  intercountry adoption worldwide, with all the blogs and forums now available where adult intercountry adoptees are actively speaking out, governments and agencies need to embrace what we who live it are saying and start to make changes in intercountry adoption policy and practice. Without this, we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

Change could include things such as:

  • family preservation and support first to be reunited if lost, support if a known disability exists, micro financing if poverty is the reason why families are placing their child in an orphanage to begin with.
  • extensive trauma training within our sending countries. It begins at the start. Carers of vulnerable children need to recognise the trauma a child goes through in being separated from their genetic family. Having multiple carers go through a child’s life while in an orphanage or foster care is not optimal. Look at ways to reduce this and ways to identify those children more at risk and develop early intervention pathways that flow into the transition a child undergoes when being adopted to a foreign country.
  • mandatory trauma training of social workers and professionals who are assessing prospective adoptive parents. How can we expect adoptive families to “get it” if those assessing them don’t even understand the depths of trauma that vulnerable children are living daily and will live with, forever?
  • mandatory trauma training of prospective parents who are deemed eligible not just in the early phases of considering adopting a child, but once they’ve been approved and when matches are made, this trauma training needs to continue long past picking up the child and bringing them home.
  • develop centralised portals of trauma specialists who adoptive parents can turn to from the beginning of their journey and through out, to ensure they are surrounded by the right professional supports.
  • adopting multiple children to one family at the same time should not happen if the adoptive parents have no experience in adopting/fostering or caring for vulnerable children. I’ve written before about the practice of separating biologically related children (twins) and keeping bio siblings together should be the only exception for allowing multiple children into one family at the same time  – but with the requirement that a full support plan needs to be in place.

I’m not saying we adoptees have the answers or that any solutions will be easy, but at least we can start the conversations and bring these issues to the forefront!

Adoptee Anger

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quote Joan Chittister

I was writing to an adoptive mum about how we adoptees express anger and it reminded me of how frightened people are, in general, of that “adoptee anger”. In the aim of creating greater understanding of this misunderstood and feared emotion, I thought I’d write about why anger is a valid component in an adoptee’s journey and how people can support an adoptee in the midst of the anger.  I don’t speak for all adoptees but share from my own experience.

I don’t recall being aware of my anger being related to my abandonment until I reached my mid 20s. I do recall feeling angry as a teenager but at the time my anger felt like a result of feeling confused about my place in the world, feeling like I didn’t fit in, that people teased me about my looks, and at being treated differently in my adoptive family. I know if anyone had approached me during those teenage years and talked about adoption or abandonment I would have brushed it aside saying it had nothing to do with how I was feeling. I was a teenager who had no idea of the issues that were underlying my feelings. My adoptive family didn’t seek to look for issues other than normal teenage issues – they were told that love should be enough – an era where adoption and abandonment was just not understood.

I was the teenage adoptee who never rebelled overtly. Personality? I’d say it was my fear of rejection that created my drive to “fit in” and my desire for “acceptance” that drove me to succeed at school academically. My emotional outlet was music. I played the piano all the time and I recall my adoptive sister demanding I stop thumping the piano so loudly and angrily. Looking back I realise now it was my only outlet and sign of deep seated anger and primary to that, sadness. I certainly felt like I had no-one who talked to me about those feelings, to initiate those conversations, and perhaps I was so shut off from trusting anyone instinctively that I couldn’t see them even if they were in front of me. I grew up with other children at school and church who were also adopted domestically, but I don’t recall any conversations about “adopted” children except to overhear that they were causing their parents a lot of trouble.

As an adult adoptee, I I personally know quite a few intercountry adoptees who grew up rebelling and getting into drugs, alcohol, sex. They’re all addictions to a degree that help to bury our feelings because they are so overwhelming. I can totally understand why we turn to these comforts and what is driving them. For adoptees, it’s our deep seated feelings of hurt at being abandoned. The persistent questions in our psyche of why were we given up? People are so blinded by the fairytale myths of adoption of “forever family” and “love is enough” they don’t see the signs so obvious to an adoptee like me. You may treat us like forever family and love is enough but WE don’t feel like that. Not for a long time. For kids like me, who appeared well behaved, our struggles go undetected – only to show up later in early adulthood as deep seated depression and suicidal attempts or other covert symptoms. Perhaps parents should consider themselves lucky if they have a child who is acting out – at least the adopted child is trying to tell you there is something they are struggling with – it’s their call for help. As for adoptees like me on the other hand, my parents had no idea of the depth of my struggles and for some unknown reason I’m still alive to write about it. For those adoptees who manage to cut off those feelings permanently by ending it all, I say it’s a terrible reflection on our society in the ways we perpetuate adoption myths, failing to support and offer the help and acceptance they are seeking before it’s too late! My parents certainly never realised I had deep seated underlying issues that might have benefitted from some guided assistance. I looked on the exterior as the model child, always conforming, performing highly at school, despite being caught for shop lifting in my early teens.

The reality is anger is a normal emotional response to our unordinary beginnings of loss, detachment, disconnection, severing of our ties to mother who carried us, loss of our genetic heritage, feelings of not belonging in our adopted land and environment, feelings of displacement, confusion as to where exactly do we fit in and why it is so hard to wrestle with all these feelings that no-one else seems to have, let alone relate to. Unless the people surrounding us and closest to us understand this anger and have an interest in “hearing” what this anger is about, I think as adoptees we continue to escalate in our behaviours of expressing anger in poor and dysfunctional ways which sabotage further our abilities to develop relationships that otherwise might be supportive.

I came to the realisation in therapy one day that in fact harming myself was my anger turned inward. Adoptees who act out their anger are displaying it out, those of us who are perfectionists and trying to conform will turn it inwards if there is no appropriate avenue to express it. So how can we best help an adoptee with anger? First and most importantly we need someone to listen to us and accept we have a real valid reason for feeling anger. This means not being afraid to hear the adoptee’s anger. Don’t turn the issue away from the adoptee and make it about you. I know many people who are afraid of hearing/seeing/being on what they perceive is the receiving end of anger – if so, I encourage you to read The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. In blocking the adoptee’s innate need to express that anger, you will also be blocking their need to express their innate sadness of loss and disconnection.

Second, don’t react to the anger expressed in a negative way. If you do, this gives the impression that our anger is wrong. No, what is wrong is not the emotion and sound reasons for it, but the way in which we turn that anger energy onto others or ourselves. What we need when we express anger is someone to validate and confirm that our anger is ok and that underlying it is our pain and sadness at being abandoned.

Third, once you allow the anger to exist, you might be surprised to see it turn into tears of raw sadness, hurt, and pain. This is when we need a nice warm accepting cuddle that offers comfort and demonstrates you are sharing our pain with us.

As adoptees, if we constantly receive the message overtly or covertly that our anger is not ok, you are reflecting back to us that it is not ok to be who we are. We are a result of a terrible beginning so naturally our psyche has to resolve this and find a way to heal. If you block the anger, the adoptee will never get to the other end of the spectrum of healing because anger is our secondary emotion to sadness. If we are too afraid to express our sadness, we express it as anger. If you can’t hear our anger, you won’t be able to hear our sadness. If we never get to express our sadness and pain, we never get to resolve our beginnings.

The message I’m trying to convey is please don’t be scared of our anger or try to inhibit it from being expressed. Once our anger gets heard, we won’t be as explosive or reactive. It is like uncorking a bottle of wine, if you let the anger gas out, the wine goes nice and mellows. Now I’m not saying we only have to let our anger out once, no, sometimes we need multiple times of expressing this anger and being “heard” and listened to. In my experience, the power of healing for me came from being able to tell my story fifty different ways to fifty different audiences. It was the validation I needed. Having people come up to me and empathise and give that understanding I’d been seeking all along. After a while of getting people’s validation, I learnt that my feelings were ok and not to run from them. I learnt it was good to listen to my anger within but the trick was to find an appropriate method to channel the energy and turn it into something useful for ourselves. For me, it was to create a support network for other adoptees who were struggling like I did. For others, it could be an artistic outlet, music, writing, anything that allows us to express the anger and sadness in a safe and healthy way.

The above is written specific to adoptee anger based only upon the initial abandonment wound. If an adoptee gets further hurt, abuse, racism on top of their abandonment, then of course the anger gets compounded by these extra causal factors. I’m also not advocating for violence which is anger acted out towards others or justifying an adoptee purposively hurting others because of their “anger”. I’m simply writing about a much misunderstood topic specific for intercountry adoption and hoping to share some insight as to why we display anger, where it’s coming from, and how you might help us resolve it in a healthy way.

My wish is to live in a world where an adoptee’s anger will be heard for what it is i.e. instead of labelling us and pushing us away because people are afraid of the force in the emotion, they would instead embrace us and validate that we have every reason to feel sad and angry. If our anger is embraced, you will enable us to heal ourselves by being true to our feelings and to start to truly connect to you and share our deepest needs by embracing who we are at our deepest core.