Hello folks! It’s Sunday morning, the skies are gray in my lovely locale. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the weekend, despite the clouds. It couldn’t have come sooner.
Today, I wanted to talk about adoption…well, duh. I have something more specific in mind. For the past 7 years, I’ve actively searched for and read blogs, books, scholarly research, adoptee group sites, birthmother sites, and adoptive parent sites seeking connection, knowledge, resources, and validation. There are as many views on adoption out there as the colors of the rainbow. As an international and transracial adoptee, my own perspective on adoption has evolved. I don’t think it uncommon for our views to change as we experience personal growth and for lack of a better term, mature. Adoptees have strong inclinations regarding adoption rooted in their own life experiences, and multiple factors shape those attitudes. I’ve spoken with adult adoptees who are not terribly interested in connecting to their cultural roots or birth heritage, nor searching for their birthfamilies. Perhaps there’s a glint of interest, but there is not yet a compelling enough reason or desire to follow it. There are other adoptees who speak strongly against international adoption and for reasons that are quite justified. International adoption has a jaded history, and there are countless adoptees who were adopted illegally, through unethical adoption practices – in some cases both the agency and adoptive parents were plainly aware of the falsification of information. These deplorable practices still occur around the world. There is evidence, and though the U.S. attempts to keep the public aware of these dark practices, they continue.
I have several friends who are adoptive parents and have adopted children internationally from China, India, Africa, Ethiopia, and Russia. They also have very strong opinions and attitudes about international adoption. Sometimes – maybe even frequently – my friends and I do not see eye to eye; nevertheless we remain friends. I strongly believe in family preservation and the support of services to keep children with their biological families. As an adopted person, I cannot see past that. And yet, we live in a world where adoption is still thriving, although in decline internationally. I feel conflicted at times because I have my own very strong attitudes about adoption and yet I am supportive of my friends and other adoptive parents, and that will not change. I am for the welfare of children whether adopted or not.
What I particularly struggle with across the landscape of adoption is judgment and how we judge one another based on our attitudes and opinions towards international adoption. I know that I am judged by others for what I believe and support. I don’t necesarrily like being judged; the word ‘judge’ itself is so harsh. And yet I also judge – it’s inevitable. We all do because it’s human nature. I have no control over what others think and say, but I can temper my own thoughts, words, and actions. I’ve gone through the gamut of emotions related to my own adoption/identity and international adoption in general, from curiosity and awe, to self-loathing and anger, to grief and loss and depression, to acceptance. Like so many adoptees, ignorance makes me angry. It’s complex. There’s a lot of ignorance surrounding international and transracial adoption – adoptive parents experience it, too, and people can say some really dumb things. Sometimes I laugh it off, and other times I get angry and vent to a trusted friend or another adoptee who gets it. There is healing and validation in sharing our experiences.
And what about birthmothers? Of all involved in the adoption ‘triangle,’ their voices and stories are the least heard. And yet, I am certain that they have also experienced trauma, separation, grief and loss, and judgment. We know that women throughout the world have been forced to ‘give up’ their children through coercion for generations (Australia, Brazil, etc). And their children were later adopted by families/individuals from other countries. Societies often judge unwed, single pregnant women who are then stigmatized and left with few options.
What to make of all of this? I will be judged by what I say and do. That’s life, and I can accept that, as painful as it may be. There are a lot of adoptees and other folks out there with some very strong voices and opinions about how things should be. What I won’t accept is bullying by others who believe that everyone should share the same attitude and carry out the same actions. That’s just unacceptable. Adoptees do not all share the same points of view. Similarly, adoptees, adoptive parents, and birthmothers have vastly different experiences. Sometimes what we see on the outside is not what’s on the inside. I realize that we may not always agree, but we can certainly respect one another and our own personal and matchless journeys. We can look for ways to inform others who have not walked in our shoes. I’m speaking as one adoptee to another – I hope to support you wherever you are in life and wherever life takes you. I do believe that collectively, we can make a difference.
I finally framed the picture of my birth mother, the only photo I have of her, which was given to me by my sisters in Taiwan. It was one of the first things they gifted to me at the airport upon my arrival to Taipei. It’s a 5×7 black and white photo. My sisters had the photo carefully laminated to prevent any damage. Such a thoughtful gesture. Her name was Shiow-Jean Lu according to my original adoption contract, which my adoptive parents hid from me.
My initial thought was that my birth mother looked so solemn. She’s wearing a black mandarin collared jacket or shirt. Her hair is short and neat in the style of older women. Her eyes are downturned slightly at the outer corners. I thought she appeared sad, as though she had seen many sorrows in her lifetime. She is not quite smiling, and I often wonder what she was thinking when the photo was taken. I never asked my sisters how old she was at the time. I think that I was so overwhelmed with joy to have her picture. Well, that and I didn’t want to ask too many questions, although I had many. My guess is she was somewhere in her fifties. My sisters told me that I look very much like our mother in her younger years. Unfortunately, there are no photos left of her when she was a young woman, as they were burned according to my sisters by our mother in a time of conflict. I don’t know much more about it, but I’m so curious.
It’s a really odd feeling knowing that I was born to two people who I will never have an opportunity to meet, partly a sense of numb, emptiness. The story of why and how I was placed for adoption is nearly unbearable of think about. Yet my sisters believe and told me more than once that my adoptive parents were angels and are very happy and thankful that I had the opportunity to be raised in the U.S. I understand why it happened the way it did. My birthfamily was impoverished, per my adoption contract, and I’m certain that life for my birth parents was not easy. I have benefited from white privilege due to my adoption, yet often feel conflicted by this. My adoptive parents loved me, yet there were numerous challenges, especially when I was a teen. My parents were ill-prepared to parent an adoptee with identity issues, and I feared my adoptive mother because of her instability, emotionally and psychologically. Her mood could change in a split second, and when she was angry, it struck terror in me.
I am happy that my sisters and family wanted to reunify. They have very big, kind, and generous hearts. The picture of my birth mother is now sitting in a place where I see it every morning. Framed, she appears happier, if only in my imagination. Sometimes I’m pained to look at the photo. Other times, I’m filled with such curiosity. I wish that I knew more about her, and I wonder what she was like, what she enjoyed, if she was happy, how she managed when I was relinquished unknowingly by my birth father…did she ever think about me? There is nothing that I can do but wonder…
“Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering…” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia, March 21, 2013
Adoption has gotten a lot of rap in the media lately. Unfortunately, not the kind of rap that tells of happy “forever families.” They are stories of adoption that have gone tragically awry. I’m speaking of the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (Veronica) and the Hana Williams cases, both heart wrenching in their own right. There is yet another story that has captured my attention and that of other adoptees. It’s of a national apology issued on March 21, 2013 by former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to birth mothers/fathers, adoptees, and others affected by forced adoptions that took place in Australia primarily during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The excerpt above is the opening sentence of the apology delivered by Gillard. I was intrigued, first of all, that a government would publicly take responsibility for their share in such a scandal and apologize, but also seek to make reparations to those whose lives have been irreversibly affected. Second, I wanted to know how these events occurred, what has changed since in adoption practice, what prompted the government to finally act, and what is currently being done?
“We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support. To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise. We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal. We know you have suffered enduring effects from these practices forced upon you by others. For the loss, the grief, the disempowerment, the stigmatisation and the guilt, we say sorry.” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Julia Gillard, March 21, 2013
Recently, a national research study was conducted by a team of Australian researchers to examine experiences of past adoption practices as they relate to the current support and service needs of affected individuals. It was a mixed methods study utilizing a series of large-scale quantitative surveys and in-depth qualitative interviews with those affected by closed adoption (in Australia), including birth mothers and fathers, adoptees, adoptive parents and extended family members. The researchers also engaged with representative bodies, service providers and relevant professionals, including psychologists, counselors and social workers.
According to the study, adoption practice in Australia from the mid-20th century was enshrouded in secrecy, and the concept of having a “clean break” from the birth parents was idealized as the right solution. Unwed single women who were pregnant were encouraged–rather forced–to “give up” their babies for adoption. These women were stigmatized as “unfit” mothers due to their status as single, unwed and pregnant. The adoption practices at that time were referred to as “closed adoption.” This meant that an adopted child’s original birth certificate was sealed forever and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child’s new identity and relationship with their adoptive family. Legislative changes in the 1960s tightened these secrecy provisions, ensuring that neither party, the birth mother nor adoptive family, saw each other’s names. At its peak in 1971–72, there were almost 10,000 adoptions in Australia. It has been cited that more than 250,000 Australian women had “relinquished” a baby for adoption since the late 1920s, although it is not known what proportion of these adoptions involved force, coercion, or other unethical or illegal behaviors (Kenny, P. Higgins, D., Soloff, C., Sweid, R. (2012). Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. Research Report 21. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. ISBN978-1-922038-05-0).
Mothers who were coerced into closed adoptions were subjected to unauthorized separation from their children, later to become known as “forced adoption.” From the 1970s, advocacy led to legislative reforms that overturned the secrecy within adoption, such as mothers receiving identifying information. However, it was not until further changes were made in the 1980s (1990s in some Australian jurisdictions) that information on birth parents was made available to adopted children/adults. Further changes took place in 1976 when state/territory-based registers were established for both birth parents and adopted children who wished to make contact. And, in 1984, Victoria implemented legislation granting adopted persons over the age of 18 the right to access their birth certificate (subject to mandatory counseling). Similar changes followed in other states/territories.
In the study, birth mothers reported numerous accounts of maltreatment including, “experiences of abuse or negligence by hospital and/or maternity home staff, administration of drugs that impaired their capacity, lack of the ability to give or revoke consent, not being listened to about their preferences, and being made to feel unworthy or incapable of parenting, particularly from authority figures.” Physicians and nurses used highly unethical methods to prevent mothers from seeing their babies, such as not allowing the mother to hold or feed the baby. They frequently lied to mothers telling them that their babies had died, did not allow a mother to see the baby through active shielding with a sheet or other physical barrier during birth, or removed the baby or mother from the ward immediately after birth. The traumatization of these experiences caused many mothers to feel emotions such as grief, loss, shame and secrecy surrounding their experiences. The next excerpt is just one of several accounts from young mothers who share their painful stories. Please be advised before reading it that the information contained here may cause distress for some.
“I have gone through my life feeling guilty about my daughter being given up to adoption … If only I was able to have more support instead of being forced … From the time my hands were shackled to the bed to stop me from touching my baby’s head while she was being born, and pillows and sheets being put over my face until I was in a drug-enforced sleep to stop me from being a nuisance … Then the memory of waking up in a ward with three other young girls, … all in the same position as me … That room had baby weighing scales in there … The nurses brought babies in there to weigh them … We would all sit up and try and see the babies … We were all told not to bother because the babies weren’t ours … I will never ever forget that!!! I couldn’t understand why we were in that room … How could another human being be so cruel to another … Such painful memories.” (Kenny, P. Higgins, D., Soloff, C., Sweid, R. (2012). Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. Research Report 21. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. ISBN978-1-922038-05-0).
As I continued to explore the information available about this dark period in adoption history, it reminded me of other horrific events that have occurred in the past that were later brought to the surface. I know that no one was sent to the gas chamber, yet so many young, frightened women were tortured psychologically, emotionally, and even physically in a way that most of us have not nor ever will be. And that the Australian government was willing to acknowledge such abuse is quite amazing to me. I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical as to why the government was now taking responsibility, but the fact that they did so is a step closer toward healing for all those many, many individuals affected.
“We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate through many, many lives. To you, the siblings, grandparents, partners and other family members who have shared in the pain and suffering of your loved ones or who were unable to share their lives, we say sorry. Many are still grieving. Some families will be lost to one another forever. To those of you who face the difficulties of reconnecting with family and establishing ongoing relationships, we say sorry. We offer this apology in the hope that it will assist your healing and in order to shine a light on a dark period of our nation’s history. To those who have fought for the truth to be heard, we hear you now. We acknowledge that many of you have suffered in silence for far too long.” National Apology for Forced Adoptions by Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, March 21, 2013
So what are the next steps? Following the national apology by Prime Minister Gillard, the National Archives established a project team to deliver a website, exhibition and education program with 2 main purposes: to increase awareness and understanding of experiences of individuals affected by forced adoption practices and to identify and share experiences of forced adoption. The Forced Adoptions History Project website was launched in March 2014. At this website, a link is provided for individuals who would like to share their stories, which may be included in the project. In 2015, an exhibition will follow to be launched at the National Archives in Canberra. And last but not least, as part of her apology, Prime Minister Gillard announced that $5 million (£3.4 million) would be provided to improve access to specialist support and to help records-tracing and mental health care for those affected by forced adoption. Surely this cannot repair all of the damage suffered by so many women. Yet it is a step in the right direction.
I hope that as a result of the national apology issued by the Australian government, mothers who were forced to give up their children find some solace in knowing that their pain, grief, and loss has at last been acknowledged. That they were in no way at fault, that their voices deserve to be heard, and that reparations must be made. I fear that unethical practices in international adoption continue to exist in certain parts of the country and that the only way to prevent this immorality is to advocate, advocate, advocate for ethical adoption practices. There is more that must be done. To birth mothers everywhere who have been forced to give up a child, I grieve with you and wish you a lifetime of healing.
The other day I happened upon a video of an adoption reunion posted by writer, Vicki-lynn, who blogs at adoptionfind. The video, called “Recovering What Was Left Behind,” by Korean adoptee, Kira Donnell, documents her reunion with her birth mother, which took place in October 2010. Kira also blogs at starlingblue. Vicki-lynn describes the footage well in this statement, “you are privy to the torment many birth mothers carry in their hearts after relinquishing a child.” It is a reminder of the grief and loss experienced by many birth mothers who must give up a child due to poverty or their status as unwed, single women. The footage also speaks to the adoptee’s need to know in many instances and desire to connect with her/his birth heritage. I often wonder if my birth mother mourned the loss of her fourth child (my biological father secretly relinquished me due to financial stress). As a mom, I cannot imagine being separated from my own daughter. There was such a strong emotional and spiritual bond I felt immediately following her birth. It’s almost indescribable. We were inseparable from that moment on. My heart goes out to any woman who is forced to relinquish a child or consider such a plight because of adverse circumstances during that period in her life. Kira and her birth mother celebrated their reunion, although not all reunion stories end as happily. Kira sends out a beautiful poem at the end of the video meant for her birth mother. Watch the video (approximately 7 minutes) below. Thank you, Vicki-lynn, for sharing this story.