by Mark Erickson, adopted from Vietnam to the USA.
Sharing this to process feelings about my birth family, trying to write down some difficult things.
I have a confession to make: I killed my Vietnamese parents. I don’t know when I did it or how I did it, but I did. Actually, what I did was worse. In order to kill them, I would have actually had to know them, acknowledge their existence, and forget them. Instead, I fully erased them: no names, no memories, no feelings.
No one specifically told me to do it, but the message was loud and clear. Let’s play pretend. Your Vietnamese parents are never to be acknowledged or mentioned. We are your real parents. You were born in our hearts.
If there was a part of my young self that ever believed that my Vietnamese parents were still alive, then the burden of carrying that hope was too much for me. So I stopped. I was not Oliver Twist. I was not Little Orphan Annie. Instead, I became a twisted three-headed Scarecrow-Tin Man-Lion: unable to question my experience, disconnected from my feelings, and non-confrontational to a fault.
What I didn’t count on was that this matricide-patricide was actually a double homicide-suicide. In order to erase them, I also had to erase a part of myself. I self-medicated. But instead of self-medicating with substances like others in my immediate circle, I became a compulsive over-achiever.
This worked for many years. But my Vietnamese parents wouldn’t play along and stay erased. Instead, they haunted my nightmares and later my day dreams. When I looked in the mirror, was I looking at the image of my creators?
I’m an intercountry adoptee born during the Vietnam War in the early 70s, adopted prior to the war ending, to a white Australian family who had their own biological children. My childhood adoption experience was one where I never really understood that I was impacted by being adopted – I absorbed the mantra of the era that I would just “assimilate and fit in” with my new country and family. I spent a lot of energy trying to do just that, but as I reached my teens, I started to become aware that things weren’t quite the same for me as for my Australian peers. I seemed to struggle more in relationships, I definitely felt alone all my life even amongst a so-called “loving adoptive family”. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I became acutely aware of how much I had absorbed the racism towards my own ethnicity, my Asianness. It took me a decade to explore how being adopted impacted me and I grew through this journey because of the many other adoptees who I met online and face to face in the community I built up. It was the isolation of my childhood that drove me to create this community, that is now one of the largest intercountry adoptee networks around the world that includes adoptees of any birth country and it is this community, that enabled me to grow, learn and find my voice. Today, this network is one of the largest online communities that encourages adult intercountry adoptees to speak out at government level (nationally and internationally) and seek involvement with policy discussions.
Why be involved in policy discussions? And what is so important about being involved? Let’s first clarify what is meant by policy. Referring to Wikipedia’s content on “policy”, we consider it to be: a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes; a statement of intent that assists in decision making; different to rules or law where policy guides actions towards the desired outcome whereas law compels or prohibits behaviours; should include looking at the alternatives and choosing among them on the basis of the impact they will have; and is about trying to maximise the intended effects while aiming to minimise the unintended effects.
When it comes to intercountry adoption and how it is conducted in each birth and adoptive country, we all know that regardless of being a signatory of The Hague Convention or the Childs Rights Convention, laws and policies vary from one country to another because of the ways in which intercountry adoption is understood and implemented, both in theory and in practice.
At the heart of all this, WE are the children who grow up to become adults and it is us whom intercountry adoption is all about. In theory, intercountry adoption exists because it supposedly provides for us due to our vulnerable situations in which we are not able, for whatever reason, to be looked after by our first parents. Many of us are the recipients of past and current intercountry adoption policies or a lack thereof, and in ICAV we talk openly about the known pitfalls and issues that being intercountry adopted creates. Many of our birth countries view adoption as a once off transaction that involves legally handing us over to our new forever families and countries. However, we know from our lived experience, that adoption is not a once-off transaction — it is a psychological journey that lasts our lifetime – for which we are forever impacted, for good, bad, and every other shade of experience in between.
At ICAV, we speak openly about the many complexities of intercountry adoption that impact us. For instance, our right to original identity is ignored because most adoptive countries issue us with a new “as if born to” birth certificate upon adoption. Most countries also completely sever our legal right to our family of origin through the use of plenary adoption (as compared to simple adoption which would maintain kin connections). Most of us have very limited to no access to our adoption paperwork which once provided (until DNA technology) our only ability to find our first families and our origins. Our paperwork can vary from being outright falsified to containing some elements of truth but in too many cases, it’s modified to make us seem more marketable for prospective families, hiding our truths including fundamentally important medical information and history. For those adoptees who ended up in intercountry adoption via illegal or illicit means, there is a lifetime of injustice that we are expected to live with, with little to no supports. For those who end up in an adoptive family that isn’t a good match, we end up suffering further layers of trauma. Too often people and governments forget, that our foundation is relinquishment / in utero trauma from being separated from our biological mother.
In ICAV, we encourage our members and leaders to seek out ways in which adoptees can be heard at government level where policy is created that constructs the future of our lives. We believe it’s important for government to understand the ways in which policy impacts our lives. Without this understanding, how can policy be in our “best interests”? How can adults who have never lived our experience possibly know what is best for us? Having adoptee voices involved in policy means inviting us to the table, really listening to our points of view, incorporating what we say into policy, and recognising we are the experts of our own experience.
The fundamental premise of intercountry adoption is to give a vulnerable child a “family” and “country” to belong with. Why attempt to do good for vulnerable people if you aren’t going to listen to how effective or not the policy and practice is? Governments can only truly understand the real impacts (positive and negative) of their policies by listening to those whom it involves. In intercountry adoption, this is the adoptee, first families, and adoptive families, not the adoption agencies, the lawyers, nor any other intermediary. Without listening to our voices, governments run the risk of continuing to make the same mistakes they’ve made from the beginning.
One of the worst mistakes that has been made in modern intercountry adoption since it’s beginnings in the 1950s and 60s (beginning with the Greek, German and South Korean adoptees), is to not do enough to curb the monetary incentives in intercountry adoption that allow intermediaries to take advantage of the lack of, or to bypass, policies and laws allowing them to facilitate and participate in illegal and illicit practices. We have generation upon generation of impacted adoptees who’s adoptions were illicit or outright illegal. They have nowhere to turn and certainly have very little justice. Today governments around the world today should be concerned at the growing momentum of groups of first families and adult intercountry adoptees who have already sought legal pathways to take actions for the failures of the past.
For example, Chilean mothers of loss are working together with Chilean Adoptees Worldwide (CAW) and have demanded an investigation into their adoptions from the 70s and 80s. The investigation in Chile has found that a large number of the children who left Chile during that era were not voluntarily relinquished for adoption and they are seeking justice.
Similarly, Guatemalan adoptees have banded together from around the world and are demanding an investigation by the Guatemalan and Belgium governments. A most recent well known legal case is of a biological father who won at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and sentenced the State of Guatemala for irregular adoption and use of illegal procedures. View video here .
Another example is Brazilian adoptee Patrick Noordoven who became the first in the Netherlands to win a legal case for his Right to Original Identity. With this win, the Dutch Ministry of Justice is now investigating the role of the Dutch Government in illegal adoptions from Brazil, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia! See article here.
When governments fail to respond responsibly for their roles or for the roles individual facilitators played, in historic adoptions, it leaves those impacted no other choice but to find legal pathways to seek justice. We now have over 70 years of modern intercountry adoption around the world with our adoptee numbers in the hundreds of thousands from many different birth countries. Asia is by far the the largest sending continent of children (Peter Selman, HCCH Statistics). Adoptees en-masse have reached maturity where they question their identity, how they came to be raised in another country often with parents of dissimilar race, and to think critically of why they have been sent away from their countries of birth. Our adoptee movement is growing and gaining momentum. ICAV often speaks about the lack of an international body to hold governments accountable for their roles played in facilitating or turning a blind eye to the historic illegal and illicit practices.
Could there could be another pathway? If governments would be willing to listen to those impacted – to learn from the lessons of the past and ensure we don’t continue to repeat the same mistakes?
Part of the ICAV Vision is: A world where existing intercountry adoptees are not isolated or ignored, but supported by community, government, organisations and family throughout their entire adoption journey.
This can only be achieved if those in power in government value and engage us. When our voices are ignored, government acts contrary to their goal of acting in our “best interests”, instead they set up adoptive, first families and adoptees for failure at worst, or more preventable trauma at minimum.
Another of the largest areas of policy failure in intercountry adoption around the world for any government, is the lack of freely funded, equitable, lifelong comprehensive post adoption supports that are trauma and resilience informed, with inclusion in service delivery from those who know the journey best – adoptees, adoptive and first families.
Anyone who has lived intercountry adoption knows intimately that our journey is one of multiple losses that exhibits as trauma and must be supported throughout our life. By inviting adoptees, first families, and adoptive families to share the lessons learnt from lived experience, government will better ensure they decrease the risks of unintended consequences and become more responsive in their policy making.
Inviting us to participate, listening to us with genuine openness and respect, hearing our experiences and heeding our lessons learnt — this is how governments can strengthen their outcomes and become more innovative and balanced. It is not agencies or intermediaries that government should be engaging and listening to the most, it is adoptees, first and adoptive families! I hope to see the day when we will be equally represented and invited to be involved in government policy and legislative forums for intercountry adoption!
This article was initially written in response to a request for a Korean publication but was subsequently unpublished. The request asked me to write about the importance of including the voices of adoptees in policy forums.
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.
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!
Since May, over 2,300 immigrant children have been forcibly separated from their parents at the Mexican border due to President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. When I watched the news, I was speechless. I was terrified for the children being placed into foster care because they don’t belong there. These children belong to families, they are wanted and certainly aren’t in need of new care. And I believe foster care should never be used in this way–their services shouldn’t be used to house children who belong to families.
How was this even made possible? I wondered.
And another thought struck. Where is this leading to?
I read recent news to find out how the funding evolved. It looks like back in 2014, the Obama Administration created a network of foster care programs back when immigrants and unaccompanied minors were crossing the Mexican-United States border. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent “zero tolerance” immigration policy, these foster care facilities are being used to house the children who were forcibly separated from their families too.
This is what shocks me. Back in May, 2014, it looks like the federal U.S government gave a US$2.28 billion budget to help set up state-licensed shelters and foster care agencies around the country, for these unaccompanied minors. From this Newsweek article, I learned that the White House established a linked network of foster care programs to cater towards these immigrant children too. Thus, now presently, these foster care programs are funded in the same way that state or county laws and regulations govern domestic foster care.
Additionally, the news article states that the children who are removed from their parents by ICE are still legally considered “unaccompanied alien children.” Because of this technicality, these children could spend an average of 51 days in a temporary shelter before they are put into sponsor homes with relatives already living in the U.S — or be placed into the U.S foster care system. And this is where my horror turns into anger since the immigrant children at the border wereaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
I’m shocked because the U.S is not being truthful in its own administration–which from experience can be extremely damaging for these children in the future when they become adults. This detail is also destructively misleading, assisting children into dangerously enter the world of foster care and the adoption industry where so many risks are involved.
My Personal Statement
As a Filipino-American adoptee, I was orphaned at birth because of destitute poverty. My birth family couldn’t take care of me. I wasrelinquished and had to live in an orphanage until I was two, then adopted in the U.S, where I grew up experiencing the hardships of my displacement and my adoption placement. I wouldn’t want to wish this on any child especially for those that aren’t a part of the intercountry adoptee realities.
I believe these immigrant children do not have the same qualities surrounding their displacement as intercountry adoptees.
These children belong to families who want them.
They had not been abandoned or relinquished and they should not be termed “unaccompanied” when they were accompanied. These children were forcibly separated by the U.S government, a traumatizing action which will need healing and repair for each family that this is impacting.
Shame on the U.S government for creating a funded system in place that would even begin the process of orphaning these immigrant children at the border. In my opinion, the U.S. government should be reprimanded for the mistreatment of children and for the flagrant misuse of today’s foster care system.
And, I think we should all care about this issue–because the misuse of the foster system and the systematic funding that allows this, especially in a leading developed country like the U.S, jeopardizes today’s foster care system and adoption industry on domestic and international levels.
I urge spotlighted attention to be placed on the immigrant children being placed into foster care and shelters. I am asking journalists, writers, social media networkers, lawyers, caring citizens, adoptees, non-adoptees and everyone to watch the news and make sure that these children are being treated well and will not be placed for adoption. We need to see that these government funds will be used to reunite these children back to their families.
Intercountry adoptees and adoptive families, what are your views? Do you have feedback, or ideas of what can be done or ways to keep an eye on each immigrant child that is placed in U.S foster care and shelters?
Part of my personal goal in the past couple of years within ICAV, has been to find ways to help empower the voices of our first families in the intercountry adoption arena. For some years I have been pointing out they largely have no voice and remain invisible. Having not found my own Vietnamese mother yet, I often wonder about the circumstances that led to my relinquishment. Now, as an educated professional raised within western thinking, I view the larger picture of intercountry adoption and wonder how much our journey’s as intercountry adoptees and those of our families, could be prevented. In speaking with other adult intercountry adoptees from all over the world, I know I’m not alone in this pondering.
Last year in October, I had the privilege to meet online an inspiring young woman, a Colombian intercountry adoptee raised in Germany. She spoke with enthusiam about a project she was about to embark upon which connected with my personal goal. I shared with you here about Yennifer’s goal to raise awareness of the experiences Colombian mothers live, who have lost their children via intercountry adoption. Like me, she was driven to do this because she too had always wondered about her mother and what caused her own relinquishment.
Now, just over half a year on, I interview Yennifer to hear how her first journey to homeland has been, together with an update on her project.
Read here for Yennifer’s update on her project entitled No Mother, No Child.