How to Prevent Coercion in Newborn Adoption

My journey into domestic infant adoption started much like most newer adoptions do. I was in a crisis pregnancy and constantly worried about how I was going to raise a child as a single mother. In a moment of sheer panic over not having a car, I contacted an adoption agency, and the rest is history. The counselors at the agency were quick to respond and very good at making sure I stayed in crisis, while assuring me that what I was doing was best for my child. Right at 20 weeks pregnant, I received a box full of hopeful adoptive parent profiles and was told that the next step was to pick one of them so we could build a relationship. I didn’t know anything about adoption except for what the agency told me, so I did as I was told. Each step of the process before birth was carefully crafted to make sure that I placed my child instead of parented. I’ll walk you through each step and talk about how it could have been slightly changed to be helpful instead of coercive.

Profile Books

I was given profile books 20 weeks before my child was due. I had no idea the sex of the baby, but I was supposed to pick parents to shape the rest of their life. Looking through the books was a stressful process. Every single book contained families who desperately wanted a child. There were stories of infertility, pictures of empty cribs and “Dear Birthparent” letters congratulating me on the choice I was about to make. I couldn’t afford a huge house with a swanky nursery. I didn’t have two cars and a husband with a full-time job. There was no way I would be a stay-at-home mom who could enroll her child in a fancy preschool. These families could though. The shame that I already felt intensified. I worried about picking a family and screwing everything up. What if this baby was destined to a terrible life with a single mom who couldn’t even pick a family right? Obviously, my self-esteem was at the lowest point it’s ever been. I truly felt like my child would have a better life without me as a mother, so I picked parents I thought would do a better job.

Could this process have been better and less coercive?

  • Profile books shouldn’t be given out so soon in pregnancy. If I had time to bond with my baby and really wrap my head around being pregnant, adoption would have been an idea in the back of my head instead of a sure thing.
  • Ideally, I believe profile books shouldn’t be given to a mother until after the child is born and her hormones have had a chance to settle down. The next best thing would be a few weeks before birth.
  • Profile books should not contain any detailed information about infertility. When an expectant mother is told about failed IVF, miscarriages, and “failed” adoptions, she starts to feel responsible for the happiness of the family. When she becomes the only person to give those people a child, the pressure is on.
  • If you must put something about your reasons for adoption in the profile book, make it short and sweet. Here is an example: “We are pursuing adoption after infertility.”
  • Profile books should focus on who you are; not what you can give financially.

Contact between expectant mother and hopeful adoptive family before birth

Once I had it narrowed down to one family, we were officially matched. They told me that their family knew including their young child. We spent quite a bit of time talking about what I wanted for my child—the life I couldn’t provide. We agreed on everything parenting-related. I didn’t want my child being spanked. They had a “gentle parenting” style. They seemed perfect in every way and I was, in a word, smitten.

The first time we met in person was stressful. I spent the 10 minutes before they got there pacing. What if they hated me? Because I had no faith in myself to parent, I thought I had more to lose than they did. I felt like I had no power and would have done anything to please them. Our dinner was delightful and I learned so much. I got to watch them parent their older child and we laughed all night. I left the visit feeling good.

The next few weeks are a blur. The adoption agency sent me paperwork to look over and a video called “Letting Go.” I sobbed while watched the video about grieving the loss of my son to adoption, while my sweet baby was happily kicking away at my insides. Every conversation with the agency or the adoptive parents was about “our” baby: What name we were going to choose, if I was allowed to breastfeed after birth and who was going to hold the baby after birth first. Looking back, I realize that the agency made sure I was a birth mother before I walked into the hospital.

How could this process be better for everyone involved?

  • The best case scenario is waiting to match a mother pursuing adoption to a family after birth. This ensures that a relationship built before birth does not influence the mother in any way. Agencies would inform mothers that there are temporary caregivers available while the mother makes a decision. The baby could be placed with a safe family that is not interested in adoption, and the mother could have time to decide what she really wants to do.
    • The mother has the chance to bond with the baby, which should be a part of every single adoption plan.
    • There is no pressure to complete the pre-adoptive family. The mother is able to focus on what is best for her and her child rather than think about the people she may be disappointing.
  • If there is contact before birth, it should be very limited and brief. If the adoption occurs, there is plenty of time for a relationship to build, and relationships formed before the adoption usually change quite a bit when the adoption has happened. The pre-adoptive family should not share any preparations for the baby or excitement of the extended family. They should keep their own feelings about the adoption and eagerness to adopt separate from the mother.

The following things should be part of the conversation:

  • Making sure the adoption agency is helping the mother make a parenting plan as well as an adoption plan. Offering to get her connected to resources in her area and being a support system. If she decides to parent her child, they’ll know that they did everything right in keeping a family together. If she decides to choose adoption, they’ll know that they did their best to make sure the situation was not coercive.
  • Reminding her that it is not about about them as the pre-adoptive family. Statements such as “We want you to know that no matter what you decide, we are here to support you. We know that you would make a great parent and are still going to be here if you decide that’s the best option.”
  • All discussion about post-adoption contact should be very clear and mother-led. Everything needs to be in writing. The goal of the pre-adoptive parents should be laid out and they should not make promises they cannot keep. The agency should make sure that the mother knows even with an “open adoption contract,” the adoptive parents can still close the adoption in the future.

Birth and hospital contact

After an eventful birth, the adoptive parents came in to meet the baby. They cried as I handed the sweet bundle to them, and pictures were taken. The hospital informed us that they had an extra room they could put the adoptive parents in so they could bond alone, and the doctor started referring to them for medical care. We filled out parts of the baby book together, I breastfed (against agency advice) and pumped for them to feed from a bottle. Our time together was much too short and my alone time with my baby was brief.

All too soon it was time to leave. I asked for more time alone with my child, and held them while I sobbed. I kept repeating how sorry I was, that I had picked out the perfect parents and I would always be here. As I cried, I kept thinking “How do I do this? How do I leave my baby? I can’t.” At the same time, I thought about the adoptive parents standing in the lobby. I thought about how much they already loved this baby, how excited the older sibling was, and how much they had gone through to get to this point. I was stuck and just wanted time to stop. I was this baby’s mother but I didn’t feel like it. I felt like parenting would take the baby away from a family who already loved the baby dearly. I would be taking an amazing life of financial security and travel away, and a huge extended family that seemed healthier than my own. I told myself that I was being selfish, the baby deserved more than I could give, and I called the adoptive parents into the room.

I left a part of my soul in that hospital room that day, and because of that I’ll never be whole again. The adoption agency achieved their goal of “creating a perfect family” without any thought to the one they were destroying.

This contact sealed it for me. If I had never met my child’s pre-adoptive family, I would be parenting. How can this be fixed?

  • Pre-adoptive parents shouldn’t be at the hospital at all. This time is for the mother, father, and baby—not a part of the adoption.
  • If the adoptive parents are there, they should not be in there for the birth. That is such an intense and sacred time. If it is a woman’s first time giving birth, the transformation into a mother is a life-altering experience.
    • They should not be the first to hold the child. That is always for the mother and then the rest of the biological family.
    • No mention of “our baby” should be made and emotions should not be shown where the mother can see. The child belongs only to the mother and father until the adoption happens.
    • The mother should be encouraged to bond with the baby. She should be encouraged to breastfeed if she wishes. All care should be directed to her, especially from medical professionals.
    • The pre-adoptive parents should not be given a room in the hospital. The baby and mother are patients—not the pre-adoptive couple or the adoption agency.
    • The baby should be released with the mother, not beforehand to the adoption agency or the pre-adoptive parents.
    • Pre-adoptive parents should again reaffirm that the decision is completely up to the mother and that they will support her. Remind her that they should not be a factor.
  • Paperwork should not be signed in the hospital, especially under the influence of medication.
  • The mother should have an advocate only for her; she is not the adoption agency’s client. All hospitals have social workers and they may be able to advocate.
  • The mother should receive a copy of the child’s original birth certificate, and be made aware that it will be changed and possibly sealed forever. She should be informed that the new birth certificate will not mention adoption. She will be erased from it completely.

These changes would have made a world of difference in my life. My child and I would not have been separated if even a fraction of these had occurred. I truly believe that without pre-birth matching, we would see a steady decline in domestic infant adoption, which should be everyone’s main goal after researching adoption trauma.

 

DAI believes that education comes in various forms. One way we can all learn about the diverse experiences of the community is by listening to their voices. We encourage those closest to adoption to share their personal narratives but they do not always reflect DAI’s ideas. Nichole Johnson is a first/birth mother in a recent open adoption. She works with members of the triad to build and maintain contact in their adoptions, specializing in adoptive parents. Her activism work focuses on bringing to light what happens behind the scenes in the current domestic infant adoption climate. She is always looking to learn more from others, especially adult adoptees. Follow Nichole on Twitter.

If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

Understanding Options Counseling Experiences in Adoption: A Qualitative Analysis of First/Birth Parents and Professionals

The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) has long since worked to explore and better understand the experiences of all members of the extended family of adoption. Through our works in areas impacting expectant and first/birth parents, we in particular hope to provide a platform for the voices of those who have long since been marginalized within the wider adoption discourse. DAI is excited to release our latest work in this area, the second study in our comprehensive options counseling research: Understanding Options Counseling Experiences in Adoption: A Qualitative Analysis of First/Birth Parents and Professionals. Building on the work that was released last November, this second phase provides for in-depth interviews with first/birth parents as well as adoption professionals to better understand their experiences as well as the context in which services are offered to expectant and first/birth parents. The findings reveal a variety of areas for improvement in both practice and policy. Furthermore, understanding the individual experiences in adoption allows for education of the wider community and will undoubtedly serve to create a healthier and stronger extended family of adoption.

The experience of an unintended pregnancy is rife with many complex feelings and emotions as well as a multitude of physical and hormonal changes. Given the vulnerability inherent during pregnancy, it is paramount that women who wish to explore their options surrounding a crisis pregnancy are provided with unbiased and comprehensive support surrounding the full range of options available. In order to provide effective services in this area, professionals who work with expectant parents must be well aware of both the policy and practice parameters that dictate ethical services in options counseling. Yet, DAI’s studies reveal that the framework surrounding options counseling practice lacks uniformity and can be inconsistently applied. Further complicating matters is that well-intentioned professionals’ express confidence in their ability to communicate effectively and comprehensively with expectant parents. However, first/birth parent perceptions revealed in this study show that many experienced confusion surrounding the full range of options available as well as a general lack of support. Of particular concern is that many mothers reported a lack of discussion surrounding parenting options or access to women who had considered adoption but had ultimately chosen to parent.

In terms of support, many of the first/birth mothers interviewed expressed a dearth of support from family and friends which impacted their decision-making in many ways. Of the mothers who expressed feeling unsupported, many described a sense of shame and social stigma that led them to feel judged because of their circumstances. Moreover, many mothers reported feeling pressured by family, and sometimes by professionals, to “choose” adoption instead of considering other options in their situation.

Although some mothers in this study felt assured that they had made the best decision possible at the time in relinquishing their parental rights to adoption, the majority expressed some level of regret which was further complicated when they realized the lifelong impact of their decision. For the women interviewed, many felt the general lack of discussion surrounding the lifelong impact of adoption while they were expecting and the absence of comprehensive support after relinquishing has negatively impacted them.

Ultimately, this study continues to support the need for a variety of changes to practice and policy in order to ensure the greatest support for women and couples experiencing an unintended pregnancy and to ensure they can arrive at an empowerment-based decision surrounding their pregnancy. These changes to practice and policy include, among other areas, the need for uniformity in the provision of options counseling services, including the minimum number and type of counseling sessions; avoiding dual roles for service providers who work with prospective adoptive parents as well as expectant parents; ensuring practitioners are well versed in the availability of the full range of options for women in a crisis pregnancy; and ensuring an appropriate time frame after the child is born for women to re-evaluate their options before surrendering their rights. Additional recommendations are included in the full study.

This research was led by Dr. Elissa Madden, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University and Dr. Scott Ryan, PhD, Dean and Jenkins Garrett Professor at the School of Social Work at The University of Texas of Arlington. Additional researchers include Dr. Donna Aguiniga, PhD; Olga Verbovaya, MSW; Marcus Crawford, MSW; and Chandler Gobin, BA. This project was underwritten by DAI’s Lynn Franklin Fund with initial funding by James Stevens. Brenda Romanchik (LCSW, ACSW, CTS and author of A Birthparent’s Book of Memories and other publications) served as the Project Lead. The Lynn Franklin Fund Advisory Council provided invaluable insight throughout this project.

Later this month, DAI will host a panel discussion at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, which will include a discussion of the research as well as experiences in adoption through the lens of women’s rights. To learn more and register to attend this free event, please visit “Women, Family and Adoption: Reclaiming our Narrative.”

Providing options counseling services to expectant parents is a critically important process. It is essential that services are offered in a way that ensures the client’s self-determination and are structured within a framework of a strengths-based, empowerment practice. Practice in this area should not lead any expecting parent to one particular outcome; rather services should be geared towards supporting parents in making decisions that are fully informed and represent their choice for what they believe to be the best solution for themselves and most especially their child.

 

Since 1996, The Donaldson Adoption Institute has been on a mission to improve the lives of children and families through research, education and advocacy. We investigate the issues of greatest concern to first/birth families, adoptive/foster families, adopted people, the people who love them and the professionals that serve them. We educate and train professionals, enlighten parents and engage members of the community to make a positive impact on laws, policies, practices and perceptions.

Women, Family and Adoption: Reclaiming Our Narrative

The Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) is excited to be hosting an important event about the experiences of expectant and first/birth parents in adoption. Join us on March 21st, 2017, for “Women, Family and Adoption: Reclaiming our Narrative,” a free event at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

The experiences of expectant parents and first/birth parents have long since been marginalized in the adoption conversation and their voices are often not included in essential dialogue about needed changes in policy and practice. In collaboration with the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, DAI will provide an overview of our recent comprehensive studies surrounding options counseling experiences followed by a robust panel discussion that includes first/birth mothers as well as an adoptive mother.

Our panelists come with a wide repertoire of experience in child welfare and adoption, both professionally and personally. Their first-hand experiences will undoubtedly offer critical insight into the nuances of the many diverse experiences of women and adoption:

Leslie Pate Mackinnon

Leslie Pate Mackinnon, L.C.S.W., has maintained a private psychotherapy practice for four decades. She is in private practice in Atlanta, GA, where she works with individuals, families and groups. Drawn to the field by placing her two firstborn sons for adoption when she was a teenager, her passion today is to educate as many therapists as possible before she drops! She has been involved in adoption education and reform for many years. Mackinnon, an expert on the complex issues encountered by these modern families, speaks nationally and internationally, and is especially committed to educating the psychotherapeutic community about adoption and donor issues.

She currently serves on DAI’s Board of Directors. She has been on “Good Morning America” with Robin Roberts, and on CNN discussing the impact of the Internet on adoption. She was featured in Dan Rather’s investigative report, “Adopted or Abducted?,” and was most recently on the Katie Couric show along with her oldest son Pete. Leslie’s story is included in the book, The Girls Who Went Away, and the documentary “A Girl Like Her.”

Read more

Brina Collins

Brina is a first mother in an open domestic infant adoption. She contributes to the blog, Reflections of a Birth Mother, and writes as a guest blogger for a variety of other sources. She currently focuses much of her adoption activism on bringing light to the issues in current domestic infant adoptions, as well as consulting with adoptive parents on building and maintaining open adoptions with their child’s first family. She also runs an online support group for other first/birth parents seeking community.

 

Sheila Anderson

Sheila Anderson has 50 years of experience as a champion of children and families. With an early life organized around her father’s work as a newspaper publisher and a secretary to California’s governor, she developed a passion for supporting equity and opportunity for all children.  Professionally, she enjoyed 30+ years highlighted by management positions in not-for-profit agencies in Southern California. This work involved serving children and their families who were encumbered by poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence, AIDS and other complex challenges. She frequently writes and speaks about the amazing strengths she witnessed in these families.

Following her work in Southern California, she taught early childhood development and managed a laboratory childcare center in Santa Cruz serving disadvantaged college students and their children. She continues to be a national advocate for children and families. Anderson graduated from the University of California at Davis and earned a master’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In addition to a lifelong professional commitment to child and family advocacy, Anderson is the proud mother of 12. Three children joined their family by birth and nine joined through adoption, foster care, guardianship and informal arrangements. Each of her children has a huge and important story. She is now the doting grandmother to 15 grandchildren plus five other little ones who claim her as “Nana Sheila.” With children and grandchildren from France to Hawaii, she has always actively sought and maintained relationships with her children’s other families. Anderson is often called upon to share the many stories of her heroic children and the sometimes-hilarious tales of a household with nine teenagers.

Read more

The adoption experience is a critical aspect of women’s history yet has been largely absent from the wider discourse on experiences that impact women. In large part, the lack of formal study into the narratives of women who relinquish their parental rights, the children that become adoptees, and the mothers who ultimately raise them has led this to be an experience that is often misunderstood. It is equally as important to join together as a community of women who, although our roles in the adoption experience may be diverse, many of us have been negatively impacted by policies, practices and procedures that do not always have the best interest of mothers as the focus. For this reason, we must work to build solidarity and engage in developing a strength-based, empowerment solution that ensure all women in the extended family of adoption are treated ethically and with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Register today to join us on March 21st for “Women, Family and Adoption: Reclaiming our Narrative.” The program will run from 6:30 PM until 8:30 PM and light refreshments will be served. We look forward to seeing you at this critical event!

Lion: An Extraordinary Journey of Love, Loss and Courage

Stephanie Kripa-Cooper Lewter (Photo Credit: Russell Adair Photography)

Dr. Stephanie Kripa-Coooper Lewter is an Indian-American social worker, life coach, speaker, author and philanthropist. She came to America as a toddler through international adoption from an orphanage in India giving her tender heart a deep desire at a young age to understand her “why.” Believing a person’s present circumstances never determines their ultimate destiny in life, her life’s work is to uplift, connect and inspire. She is co-founder of Lost Sarees, along with Founder and National Chair of Roshni, Lost Sarees’ National Women’s Giving Circle that connects women with South Asian heritage to give, serve and lead. In 2017, she penned a “Manifesto for the Adoptee’s Soul” as a gift for Dear Adoption. She has also written online for Lost Daughters and Masala Mommas. She is the recipient of the 2012 Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award by St. John’s Adoption Initiative which explored the identity journeys of women adopted transnationally as children in their quest for authenticity and connection. In 2012, she co-authored a chapter with her daughter, “Beautiful,” in Parenting as Adoptees. In 2013, she wrote the forward to An-Ya and Her Diary: Reader and Parent Guide, “Dedicated To Nikhila And The Nikhila’s Of The World.” Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute graduate and former President/CEO of a nonprofit youth mentoring organization, she can be followed and reached here.

On Christmas Day, I watched Lion with my family and it shook me to my core. Poignant, soul-wrenching and stunning with powerful acting, breathtaking cinematography and a touching musical score, Lion is deserving of its multiple nominations and awards. Actors Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel’s magnificent performances are bound to steal your heart.

Based on a true story, 5 year-old Saroo Munshi Khan (Sunny Pawar) falls asleep waiting for his older brother Guddu to return for him at an Indian train station. After awaking, he walks onto an empty train carriage thinking Guddu may be there and falls back to sleep. He later realizes the train is in motion. When Saroo is finally able to unboard, he is nearly 1,000 miles away from home in Calcutta where a completely different language is spoken. Escaping weeks of harrowing experiences living on Calcutta’s streets, then one of many children at Liluah Juvenile Home, Saroo is eventually brought to the Nava Jeevan orphanage. He is adopted by Sue and John Brierley in Australia. As he adjusts, he longs for a sibling to play with, and later Mantosh joins the Brierleys through adoption from India also. Midway through the film, grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) embarks on the college journey. Encounters with other international Indian students triggers memories of his mother Kamla, Guddu and little sister Shekila. Introduced to Google Earth, he begins the painstakingly slow process of searching for his hometown and family.

It’s unrealistic for one film to portray the full complexities of poverty, loss and adoption that Saroo’s single story holds. While there were departures from Saroo Brierley’s 250-page memoir, A Long Way Home, adapting his story to film, I applaud the way Lion keeps Saroo’s perspective as an adoptee central (although adoptive parent savior and rescuing themes emerge based on how Saroo frames his story to the world — see Chapter 4 in Saroo’s book entitled “Salvation”). Lion gets many aspects right about the adoption journey and is especially heart-rending for Indian adoptees and others transnationally adopted. Many can relate to the awkwardness of being asked to introduce who we are and where we are from, or the sleepless nights spent wondering about our families far beyond our reach oceans a part. Lion eloquently captured on screen the longing and pull upon my soul to find my Indian family and the reunion I have dreamed about a million times in my heart.

Lion also affirms quietly the following truths:

  1. Children can be active agents of change in their lives when listened to. Saroo told multiple adults in Calcutta he was lost, that his home was really far, and he needed help to find his mother only to be dismissed, taken advantage of or misunderstood. Saroo remained so clear about his family even after experiencing emotional trauma that separation bears. Too many adults he reached out to — especially those in authority — did so little to listen and care.
  2. A mother’s grief when a child goes missing is unfathomable. Kamla tried to find Saroo for years spending any little spare money she had to look for him and remained in the neighborhood believing he would one day return. Kamla couldn’t read or write and newspapers notices of Saroo’s whereabouts never reached her. Such grief she endured for so many years without any closure on how her son disappeared. More must be done to reunite children with their families who have lost a child that has gone missing or is trafficked.
  3. Children who are adopted are not blank pages; they arrive with a past. Whether adopted on the first day of life, at five or 15 years of age, adopted children join their families connected to a past. Saroo’s strong instincts, agency and survival skills before being separated from his family, undoubtedly helped him stay alive when he lived on Calcutta’s streets alone. His brother Mantosh arrived to Australia with a completely different history and trauma. Adoption professionals and adoptive families should ensure a child’s background history is honored and not ignored.
  4. The desire to search is healthy. Family and societal norms often impose a gratitude narrative upon adoptees expressed by the lengths many adoptees take to shield their adopted parents or family members from their desire to search. This underestimates the capacity adoptees have to simultaneously love multiple families, places and homes. Greater resources are needed for adoptees who are searching.
  5. Processing the losses and gains that accompany adoption is an ever-changing, lifelong journey. Time changes many things including how we feel about adoption as new life experiences shift how we look at the world. Saroo’s perspective will likely continue to evolve when new questions undoubtedly emerge as it does for so many adoptees who are navigating the complexities of reunion.

Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley and Priyanka Bose as Kamla in “Lion.” Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

A few weeks ago, I watched Lion again, this time with several Indian women whose friendships I treasure: Poornema, Anuradha and Jyothi. Although we do not share the adoption journey, we share so many other aspects of our identities together – as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and immigrants in America. The universal themes in Lion of family, loss, identity and a mother’s love and search for home touched their hearts. We cried together as Saroo and Kamla finally embrace 25 years later after so many endless days and sleepless nights searching. As the credits finished rolling, their presence, hugs and heartfelt words conveyed to me that they understood, more deeply, the quiet ache my heart holds. They know first-hand the intricate contradictions and complexities that growing up in India holds.

Lion is a must-see film for those in the adoption constellation. It’s also for anyone who has felt the love of a mother, sibling or a child. Lion reminds us to never give up on unspoken dreams for our families despite impossible odds. I will never stop searching for my Indian family although the likelihood of a reunion grows infinitely smaller with each passing year. Unlike Saroo, I have nothing – no names, words or memories – to guide me home. We adoptees are so much more than what happened to us even amidst our deepest heartaches and losses that shape part of who we are in this world. Ultimately, Lion shows us that love transcends borders and the courage it takes to listen and follow one’s heart.

Watch the Lion trailer below.

 

If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

From Paper Trail to DNA: an Australian-Vietnamese Adoptee’s Search for Kin

For many adopted people, adoption can feel like a series of transactions. According to DAI’s research and knowledge base of lived experiences, we understand that adoption is a lifelong journey that requires professionals and everyone in the extended family to be educated, have access to resources and act with openness. Our vital work in adoption allows us to meet and connect with members of the community from around the world. We were thrilled to meet Dominic Hong Duc Golding and we are honored that he chose to share his personal journey with us.

As an “Operation Babylift” adoptee, I was one of the 3,000 children from who were evacuated from Vietnam to America, Europe and Australia in April 1975. I was formally adopted in 1977 and grew up on a sheep farm in rural Australia. In 2000, I moved to Melbourne to work with Vietnamese youths as a theater and media arts worker. My show Shrimp (2007) was performed for high school senior dramatic arts students across Victoria. It was an autobiographical work on my travels in Vietnam and being raised in a white family. I provide anti-racism and cultural awareness training to prospective parents in Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) adoption program in addition to social workers on the complexity of searching for overseas first/birth parents.

In my work with Family Information Networks and Discovery (FIND), I handled social worker folders at DHHS archives. This prompted me to retrieve my own South Australian adoption file. All it contained were translations of Australian adoption documents.  My file doesn’t contain any information from the South Vietnamese government. I found to be very disappointing. This experience has led me to become a Committee of Management member of VANISH (Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help). The President of VANISH states:

“Victoria’s adoption laws were significantly amended in 1984 after much lobbying by individuals and grassroots organizations. The Victorian Adoption Act 1984 introduced ground breaking reforms to information access provisions – namely retrospective access for adults who were adopted as children to their previously sealed records, including original birth certificate, original name and identifying information about their parents. It also introduced ‘open’ arrangements for subsequent adoptions.”

“VANISH was established in 1989 in response to demand following implementation of the Adoption Act 1984. Since 1990, the Victorian Government has continuously funded VANISH to provide search and support services to people affected by adoption. VANISH has always advocated for the rights and needs of people affected by adoption – particularly adoptees, whether born locally, interstate or overseas.”

“VANISH, along with others, advocated for an Inquiry into past (pre-1980s) unethical and coercive adoption policies and practices, and for those responsible to apologize. This resulted in a series of formal Apologies by the federal and state/territory governments, and some faith-based/non-government agencies.”

“At the time of the Victorian Apology in 2012, the Government undertook to enable parents to seek identifying information about their child. But it also introduced ‘contact statements,’ making it an offence for a parent to contact their adult adopted child if the adoptee specified no contact. VANISH strongly advocated that this was too punitive, and contact statements were subsequently removed in 2015.”

Thanks to the lobbying of organizations like VANISH and the apology by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, adoptees in Australia have gained better support services since the forced adoptions era. In the area of intercountry adoption, I along with a team from InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) also lobbied the Australian federal government to provide much long awaited support to intercountry adoptees in searching and counseling. Despite this, intercountry adoption is marked in two ways. One we all know is the absence of identifying information or closed records. Family separation means cultural alienation for the intercountry adoptee. The second is the risks of looking for relatives in the country of origin is surrounded by concerns about trafficking by international adoption agencies, fraud from people finders, war and forced displacement.

According to my records, “Diun Quang” is the first orphanage I was in. Yet those involved in Operation Babylift have never heard of it. An Australian woman involved in the evacuation of children did not even have my adoptive family name on her records or names of families with an allocated child. My visit to the People’s Committee offices in Cho Lon, Saigon’s little Chinatown, turned up nothing as well. This left me pursuing a Family Tree DNA test which was organized by Vietnamese American adoptees at the 40th Anniversary of the Operation Babylift reunion in Saigon in 2015.

Dominic with his 4th cousin Kim

The results or matches led me to meet my 4th cousin in New York last year who is also an adoptee from Vietnam and from the same district of Cho Lon. Vietnamese see the significance of DNA test results as a way to find missing relatives abroad or in Vietnam due to the separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. For Amerasians and adoptees, DNA tests has been the only way to prove relations to other birth family members when the paper trail leads nowhere or is insufficient to satisfy government endeavors.

Meeting my cousin in New York was transformational. It was a joy to finally meet a blood relative (however distant). It was like meeting a family member one has not seen for a long time. Because of this positive experience, I am less skeptical and less pessimistic. I’d like to re-examine my adoption records with the support of the ISS (International Social Service) – a tracing service supported by the federal government – and use another DNA test. To score closer matches is to discover more about my ancestry.

DNA tests become especially vital when we try to find our fathers: former defense force service personnel. Matches are closer when GIs, children or partners left behind in Vietnam are seeking connections. DNA tests, like adoption record searching, comes with all the emotional pitfalls and ethical dilemmas that adoptees face. Both adoptees and birth family members must address issues around time, failed match results, trauma and complications about attachment and people’s expectations.

Today, I am 42 and have met several birth mothers in Vietnam. A few of my peers have found elderly relatives and extended family members. I am not interested in why I was relinquished. What I seek is a memory of knowing that I’m not a lone orphan of war. “I have a blood relative,” Kim proudly stated to me over soul food in Harlem, New York. I have a cousin.

Dominic Hong Duc Golding is a member of the Committee of Management for VANISH. He created several theater productions (“Shrimp,” “Mr. Saigon” and “Ms. Hanoi”) upon three separate visits to Vietnam. Dominic is also the curator of “Unseen Habitation” (2014) and “Vessels to a Story” (2015) for RISE (a refugee drop-in centre). Follow him on Twitter @golding_dominic.

 

 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.