IS ADOPTION TRAUMATIC?
Originally published, circa 2020
This piece has been decades in the making but written hastily from my heart.
I am writing this in response to a recent twitter exchange between academics and adult adopted people. Rather than refer people to my thread, I decided to publish this.
During this recent twitter exchange, I saw academics (in the field of adoption) split hairs about adoption and trauma. That is, they questioned whether the maternal separation was the cause of trauma vs the legal act of adoption. Whilst these attempts at making distinctions seem innocuous, they were in fact in relation to an overwhelming response from adult adoptees who were sharing their experiences of adoption as trauma. We all know the effects of maternal separation, but we are, in fact, speaking about adoption as trauma.
In that context, I viewed the tone by said as academics as dismissive and reflective of a broader issue in mainstream which is: adult adoptees, who speak to adoption trauma, are deemed as not being representative or unworthy of consideration? It seems that once we ‘age’ out of a system, we are no longer viewed as having a voice or worthy of research? In fact, we do have voice, it’s just difficult to be heard, as evidenced by this twitter exchange (although not limited to this and not unusual), which again demonstrates that we are marginalized, disenfranchised — minoritized. It feels like we are continually being silenced?
If research that supports adoption excludes the experience of adult adopted people, then how can it be representative of our population? How can it be used to justify plenary adoption? Case in point, there is no national data collection on adoptees as service users across: health, statutory services etc. That said, my objective in writing this is not to scrutinize research methodology (my undergraduate psychology days are way past me), but rather to address the topic of adoption trauma.
Is adoption traumatic? My response as an ADULT adoptee who has lived with adoption, is YES!
Although I have not undertaken any significant research in the area of trauma, there is a general consensus that it is subjective. The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders contend that definitions of trauma are guidelines only and “everyone processes a traumatic event differently because we all face them through the lens of prior experiences in our lives.”
To that end, I am adopted, and this lens shapes my experiences. Whilst I can only speak for myself (and I don’t speak for all adopted people) I have collated a list of why my experiences with adoption has been difficult and distressing. This is not exhaustive, and I invite other adult adoptees, who have likewise openly discussed their experience of trauma as a function of being adopted, to comment.
• I found out that I was adopted when I was five years of age when eavesdropping on a conversation. I went to school and asked the Nun what ‘adopted’ meant and I all remember is going dizzy (memory is subjective, but I think I had ringing in my ears). That was distressing.
• I was raised by an adoptive father who was Northern Italian, but I was always drawn to those around me who were Sicilian. I have visited Sicily twice and I felt a strong connection and one which I didn’t experience in Northern Italy. I felt like they ‘saw’ me in Sicily – I felt mirrored (incidentally, mirror loss is a real phenomenon that adoptees experience). Seven years or so ago, I found out that my natural father was a Sicilian immigrant. To this day, I still get triggered when I watch cooking shows which feature Southern Italy or Italian chefs who speak to their strong Sicilian roots. They’re proud of their culture and recipes and traditions are passed down from one generation to another. I cannot convey to you how important cooking is in my personal life. When I met my biological paternal siblings, they spoke to growing up with our Nonna and I selfishly felt desperate and a keen sadness which goes to the core of my being. I was denied. Please don’t tell me that culture doesn’t matter and this loss isn’t painful. There are reminders everywhere. Most people take it for granted. I don’t. That is not to say that I don’t recognize I am one of the lucky ones, at least I was raised with an Italian father in an Italian community in North Qld. Adoption is a lottery after all!
• My adoptive Nonna (who I absolutely adored) was a little upset when I first started dating a local boy whose parents had emigrated from Sicily. It is important to note that Nonna’s views, having herself emigrated from Northern Italy, were shaped by her experience growing up in Italy! I won’t say anything more on this matter, except that she passed away before I knew my heritage. I often wonder about how she would have reacted to this information.
• I wasn’t entitled to get my original birth certificate until circa 2011, however, I still have not applied for it. I can’t to this day look at it. It is difficult to explain but it contains my original name (the name my natural mother gave me) and my natural mother’s name, but I can’t use it and it upsets me. It doesn’t contain the name of my natural father, because my records at the government department, have his phonetic name listed as: putative.
• Pursuing this further, the information on the paperwork describing the nationality, traits and hobbies of both my natural parents (the information on the dept records was given to them by my natural mother but even the details on her were wrong) was erroneous! Obviously, as an adoptee, I wasn’t deemed worthy of having accurate information and my adoptive parents were given nonsense.
• My natural father died (that is and of itself a long story in terms of finding him and family tragedies) and I am not recognized as his daughter on any paperwork. I don’t exist. I am not legally entitled to any heirlooms (I don’t want anything and my paternal siblings are loving and generous, but that’s not the point!). The legal act of adoption means that adoptees, like me, are disinherited. Dr Catherine Lynch has written extensively on this, but in sum, only two groups can be disinherited in Australia: criminals and adoptees.
• My natural mother and I confronted the hospital where I was illegally taken. They destroyed her records and mine, and a US documentary (if I recall right, it was for Dan Rather: Adopted or Abducted) reveals that this destruction of records was systematic across many countries. Ask me how it feels to have no knowledge on how or where I was cared for prior to my adoption? Was I drugged or experimented on (read this)? During the senate inquiry, I heard that nurses were ‘allegedly’ discouraged from holding us because they didn’t want to interfere with our attachment to our adoptive parents. Some mothers have spoken about hearing our cries! We now know so much about the influence of this separation on our brain. This is the maternal separation trauma that academics tend to split hairs over. There is no adoption without trauma.
• I am no longer in reunion with my natural mother, we are both at fault, but adoption has influenced and shaped us. We are both victims and I am a survivor. I will never stop fighting for adoptee rights and equality! That’s another story…
•As aforementioned, I did apply for my records from the government department (adoptions) and in there I saw BFA marked on some paperwork. I also saw my natural name and two different dates for adoption. I also realized that the police tracked my natural mother and apparently this was the practice for unwed mothers in Queensland. Yes, this was disturbing and distressing. I won’t comment further on this because I have previously written about my forced adoption and you can read that if you require further context. Suffice to say, this is upsetting.
• Ask me how it feels to be excluded from other inquiries into adoption (aside from the senate inquiry which in principle was for the natural mothers) because apparently, adult adoptees are not representative! Unless you have experience institutional silencing, you have no idea how painful it is. Psychology 101 speaks to the issues inherent with exclusion.
Vicarious Trauma Within The Adoptee Community
•Ask me how I felt during the senate inquiry, when I heard testimonies from adoptees who were abused? Why isn’t their outrage in the community? Where were all the pro-adoption lobbyists then? Where are the services? Where is the national data collection on our wellbeing?
•I have spoken to adoptees, who won’t speak out publicly, who were kicked out of home as teenagers. Who is mapping their outcomes?
• Every time I read about Gotcha Day; I feel a keen sense of angst for those young adoptees who have no choice but to go along with this. Their safety often depends on being compliant – the fear of a secondary rejection is real!
• Every time I read about another adoptee being murdered or abused, I feel anger!
• Every time I see pro-adoption propaganda in mainstream movies or TV, I feel invisible. We rightly talk about how important diversity is, but their experiences do not mirror mine. Why doesn’t this matter?
• I read a book by an investigative journalist who wrote about the fact that adult adoptees were receiving hate mail and even death threats for speaking out! Why are our dissenting voices so threatening? When I publish I wonder if I will receive backlash too. This is obviously troubling!
• Adoptees are being deported from America. This has occurred in Australia too! Where is the outrage?
•What of child trafficking to feed the adoption market?
• What of the practice of adoption rehoming? There’s been investigative reports on this. We can’t even get statistics in Australia on adoption disruptions. What we do know is that adoptive parents have an exit clause in the legislation but adult adoptees in Australia, who try to discharge their adoptions, are faced with huge barriers (legally and financially). This is inequality at work and most of you are oblivious!
•Why don’t you inquire into the adoptions undertaken by The Family; including allegations, by investigative journalist Phillipe de Montignie, that the former Victorian Premier (Rupert Hamer) swept concerns of child abuse under the carpet. Any inquiry should fully explore the findings and recommendations by Victorian detectives involved in ‘Operation Forest’ and their call for a Royal Commission, which according to former detective - Lex de Man, was denied. Additionally, the documentary alleges that The Family members associated with influential Victorians (e.g., Raynor Jonson, Robert Menzies, Bob Ansett), this should be examined. These adoptions were organised by sect Doctors, Nurses and Social Workers, there was also a systemic failure to adequately respond to allegations of abuse of said children? Why and how? The adoptees taken and abused by that cult never ever got justice. Why haven’t we had a Royal Commission? This is distressing!
• Research suggests that adoptees are over-represented in attempted suicide and I know some who are at risk. Anecdotally, a psychologist at the private hospital I accessed, commented that it was common to see middle age adoptees as in-patients – but who cares, right? We are invisible.
•As adoptee activist Sharyn White (and founding member of Adoptee Rights Australia) notes: the ostracism from family and kin is the legal adoption order. The social and legal exclusion from kin is the most extreme form of social rejection that can be effected upon a human being. Tell me again how this isn’t traumatic, especially for those adoptees who seek reunion and acceptance?
So, non-adoptees (kept) with your bio privileges, do not tell me that my experience of adoption (or any other adoptee who bravely shares), isn’t traumatic! I don’t speak for or over any other marginalized group that I am not part of, nor should any of you! You are merely observers. By ignoring our voices, you are further contributing to our marginalization and therefore, you are part of the problem.
Please stop conflating permanency in out-of-home care (OOHC) with plenary adoption. You are arguably promoting a system that creates marginalized and unequal citizens.
I assert that plenary adoption from OOHC, and its concomitant issues, needs to end.
The issues are lifelong!
Stop telling me how I feel! Remember, we too were once deemed the ‘children in need of saving.’
“If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.”― Eldridge Cleave
Yes I love my supportive adoptive family (not that it’s anyone’s business).
Also, I have an extensive list of adult adoptees who blog about adoption – you can find this on my other piece on medium: Adoption is the Problem, Not US!