Catherine I have been looking forward to our interview. Let’s get straight into it.
Adopted people, after decades of invisibility and being relegated to the silent party in adoption, are finding their voice and speaking out about what it is like to live with the legacy of adoption and even to question the practice of adoption itself. This is evident around the world and also in Australia. In recent years, through your Australian Adoptee Rights Action Group, you have become a prominent activist challenging traditional orthodoxy about adoption. What is it that gets you fired up about fighting for adoptee rights?
What gets me fired up is listening to other adoptees and finding again and again that their experiences and feelings correlate with mine when all my life I thought I was alone.
These are voices speaking out of oppression: I don’t mean in the sense that adoptees have no money, or education, or things like that, although some of them don’t, but in the sense that adult adoptees do not have equal rights and are struggling to articulate a suppressed narrative. The dominant narrative of adoption not only covers the field, leaving little space for alternative voices, but specifically works to maintain the oppression of adult adoptee voices because they disrupt and threaten adoption ideology and it’s misinformation which really is ubiquitous.
When people think of adoption they rarely look at it from the point of view of the adoptee in any depth. For example, there are definitely comparisons that can be made between child removal at birth for adoption and child removal at birth for slavery, or indentured servitude. Like these two forms of oppression the subject cannot escape: adult adoptees can rarely discharge their own adoptions if at all.
The total theft of our birthrights is another example – people think that we just get our inheritance rights ‘swapped over’ to the new family, who is supposed to be better off, but this is not really what happens at all. All children gain family provision rights from people upon whom they are dependant – but only adoption says “hey, we’ll increase that right so it’s automatic and you get to inherit ‘as if born to’ the new family and, by the way, the pay-off is total annihilation of every single right that you have to provision from the estate of your own parents.”
So what that means is we don’t even have the tiniest right to be notified of our mother’s death – can you imagine that? Or to ask for the tiniest memento of her existence – no photos of our ancestors – nothing. No rights at all. It’s not a fair ‘swap’ of rights at all, even if you profit by it materially.
The only other group of people who are disinherited are criminals that murder their own parents because they are not allowed to profit from their crime. But can you remind me why tiny babies are disinherited? It was something to do with not wanting bastard children to profit from their ungodly situation I suppose. But we are still doing it even today.
And what about being given a second birth certificate? Honestly! When you are adopted why don’t you just get an Order of Adoption that you show to prove change of name, like a woman might show her marriage certificate?
The idea of a replacement birth certificate was to make it look like you were ‘as if born to’ the new family – that is the phrase used in the legislation. It was to hide the fact that you were illegitimate. No-one cares about illegitimacy anymore – and in fact it is considered discriminatory to use that kind of language and it’s been removed from legislation – and yet we still use this antiquated form of adoption that was developed to hide the whole thing.
It’s time that Adoptee PRIDE was fostered by our society: tell these new adoptees that they should be proud that they are negotiating a childhood – a lifetime – with people unlike them, that they are walking a path between, and as part of, two families.
These sorts of things are hardly even broached by self-professed ‘experts’ in adoption – at the most they will do a survey of a few kids who cannot understand the implications of these things for their lifetimes. As for the general public and everyone else: It’s all ‘forever families’ – maybe a bit of parenting support – a few happy reunions – and that’s the end of the story in the dominant narrative. And there’s very good reasons for this illusion: adoption is an ideology of child commodification and child trafficking is a global disaster which adoption facilitates. People make money, get other people’s babies, fall in love with their own benevolence – you don’t want to fight that kind of desire, that kind of power!
In your experience, as someone who has lived with your adoption for over four decades and listened to the personal stories of many adopted people, what are the most hurtful and harmful aspects of living with adoption?
The utter ignorance of the general public as to what adoption actually is the most hurtful thing.
The most harmful aspect is the denial that premature and permanent maternal separation causes babies suffering and that this also has long-term psychological, emotional and physiological impacts.
The idea on which adoption flourished – that a baby is a ‘clean slate’ – has been completely debunked and yet no-one wants to give up on the idea that babies don’t suffer when removed: my case in point being surrogacy – even altruistic surrogacy has to deny the baby suffers losing the woman they are born to. ‘Altruistic surrogacy’ is an oxymoron because it is in no way altruistic toward the baby! Losing your mother at birth is a pre-verbal trauma – is this a revolutionary statement?
Nowadays, it is not unusual to hear that all the bad stuff surrounding adoption happened in the past during the period of ‘closed adoptions’, which included forced adoptions. In contrast, with all domestic adoptions now being ‘open’ there is a belief that harmful impacts no longer exist and therefore it is justified to increase, both the number and tempo of adoptions, as good public policy. Does making adoption ‘open’ any more acceptable or bearable for the adopted person?
No it doesn’t. Adoption violates the rights of the child – violates the human rights of adoptees in a number of ways – closed records was only one of them. Adoption as it stands today was developed to hide our illegitimacy – the shame of being born to an unwed mother – and yet all the things that they developed to hide the adoption: duplicate birth certificate, disinheritance, the inability to escape your adoption because you are now ‘as if born to’ the adoptive parents, things like that are exactly the same.
These things were not invented as a ‘child care measure’ nor as a way to ‘save orphans’ and yet that is what people are trying to say we should use adoption for today.
Opening records and now open adoption are two reforms – slowly dismantling the veto system may become the third. That leaves about five to go and after that – there will be a few more if we are to make adoptees even remotely “equal” in rights to other citizens in this country.
We live in a world where many more adults claim parenthood than ever before. There is growing belief that regardless of personal circumstance, if an adult wants one, they have an automatic right to a child. In these situations the ‘rights’ of adults tend to trump the rights of the child with the catchphrase ‘in the best interests of the child’ regularly being used to justify or legitimise open ended parenting pathways. When considering the ‘best interests of the child’ what have we learnt from adoption that would put child-centric rather than adult-centric factors back at the top of the priority list?
The testimony of adoptees, the high rates of mental illness among adoptees, and the high rates of suicide among adoptees tells us two things. The first is that babies are deeply, profoundly and holistically attached to the woman who gives birth to them and to remove them causes them to suffer and has long-term impacts on their well-being. It should only even be done in situations where the mother is really going to be violent or extremely neglectful toward her child. Yet the reasons babies are denied their rights to remain with their mother after birth are way broader than that.
We now conceive children for the purposes of removing them. We call this surrogacy. Surrogacy finishes off what adoption ideology began: the idea that babies do not suffer from removal from their mothers – that infant mother-loss is not a pre-verbal trauma inflicted on the baby – comes full circle in ‘altruistic surrogacy’.
We can no longer even pretend that the best interests of the child are paramount when it comes to parenting orders in surrogacy – they are not conceived with those interests in mind at all so why would they be considered when it’s time to remove the baby and hand him or her over to the stranger or donor whom they do not know from a bar of soap? It is the ultimate in child commodification.
The second thing we have learnt from adoption is the importance of genetic/biological connection with ones’ ancestry and heritage. This is something that the donor-conceived also tell us about. Adoptee activists and donor-conceived activists have joined forces on this issues and are demanding accurate birth records, the continuing abolition of anonymous donor conception, things like that.
One French senator called anonymous donor conception ‘ancestor theft’ which is an extremely rare example of an adult actually looking at donor conception from the offspring’s point of view.
Once again in Indigenous cultures the importance of kinship and ancestry is fundamental to identity and self-knowledge – what have we lost by throwing this all away? Only the people know who had it stolen from them.
‘Child rights’ is a bit of a joke in this country and everywhere else: because the child literally has no voice it is just too easy for adult stakeholders to equate their interests with the baby’s. And yet it’s not as if we don’t actually know the baby’s interests: every single baby born wants, needs and desires little more than their mother and their mother’s milk for at least the first few months, the first year even. I believe in indigenous societies children breastfeed until 4 years of age so the full separation from the mother’s body really isn’t complete until then – the child re-attaching at will, re-visiting the dyad at will over years.
Earlier you touched on adoption, particularly in Australia, being repackaged primarily as a child protection measure rather than a way of forming a family. Can you expand on this and do you support it?
It’s a red herring completely. Adoption has always been and still is about sourcing babies. Child protection is usually about removing slightly older children from bad situations and that means they are not that attractive for adoption by people who want a child – they usually want a baby for obvious reasons.
In other words – adoption has nothing to do with taking children off the apparently multiple placements carousal and finding them a forever family – they are too old for that. Instead it wants to get the youngest of babies before they enter the foster care system for the duration and get them adopted instead. That is why Pru Goward, the former NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, got the laws changed so babies have to be considered for adoption before care of the Minister. The idea is to waylay the next generation of babies and get them into private homes where they don’t cost anything because they are no longer the responsibility of the government and do not need to be monitored in any way.
And then of course they can go and have a Royal Commission into abuse in institutions to which adoptees are not invited as we are outside the scope of the inquiry because being private property – which in one sense is what adoptees are – we were not held in an institution. The government has no duty of care towards us once an adoption order is given – and this is another very good reason the government still promotes adoption.
No I don’t support open adoption because I don’t support adoption – it is purely a cost saving measure – which is what Hansard reports show adoptions has always been about. Why in Earth’s name do we need to permanently take a child off a so-called dangerous mother and disinherit them too? Is that the icing on the cake for the adoptee? They should be able to inherit off both families like stepchildren can – give them a break! And let us escape if we want too! And – yes – two birth certificates! You know, these things are our ‘normal’ and yet it is exasperating to know that somewhere out there, right now, someone is reading my words and thinking “she’s a radical!”
Once an outcast, then invisible, now a radical – adoptees are the ultimate chameleons, there are many roles we have to play!
An interesting aspect of this repackaging strategy is the emergence of the Institute of Open Adoption Studies at the University of Sydney, which is currently recruiting its first director. A stated role of this Institute, as stated in the job description, ‘is to understand open adoption practice and any barriers to open adoption in NSW, in addition to developing a knowledge translation strategy for advising its partners in support of the Children’s Court and the Supreme Court’. What are your initial thoughts on this Institute and its stated agenda?
My initial thought on this Institute is that it is what it is: a propaganda machine, the purpose of which is to make adoption more palatable to the public and more achievable in practice. I actually read something like this in its own mission statement – but since have gone back to find it in its objectives and it appears to have been removed.
If the institute is really there to carry out high quality genuine research then I look forward to applying for a job there – as I have a PHD on Adoption in Literature and also a Law degree. I expect a lot of us highly qualified and extremely experienced adoptees will be employed there. Won’t we?
The Institute is strongly aligned to Barnardos which, the last time I looked, is not a research body. There is a very, very significant conflict of interest here isn’t there? They are paid tens of thousands of dollars for each successful adoption placement they make. It will be interesting to see what research angles they take and how many will involve research into the long term effects of adoption drawing on the lived experience of adult adoptees. Or will they do the same thing as they have tried to do in donor conception and surrogacy studies – ignore affected adults who grasp the bigger picture?
As for “advising its partners in support of the Children’s Court and the Supreme Court” – I’m not sure what that means. I’m a typical Australian adoptee, that is, adopted because my mother was unmarried, not as a child protection measure, so my legal knowledge of what goes on at the child protection end of the spectrum is currently limited. But I do know that if adoption is going to be seen as the answer for some of these children then we better reform it – and reform it fast – or we are just further disenfranchising people who are already in trouble.
We know that there are alternatives to adoption which can provide children with care and protection, love and a family, opportunity and hope for their futures, without permanently separating them from their first families as adoption does. What alternatives to adoption would you put on the table when considering the welfare of children at risk?
Kinship care, foster care, guardianship, permanent care orders. There is also a new model developed by some Victorian adoptees called ‘Stewardship’. There are as many ‘alternative’ forms of care as our imagination can think up. It’s just that no-one uses constructive imagination when it comes to adoption: they prefer delusion. Adoption is the only form of child care or welfare where the people who get the child use delusional language and sentiment believing things like “this child was meant by God to be my child,” or that the adoption process was “like a pregnancy”, or who will actually enter a birthing suite, take photos of the baby being born to its mother and publish it online with a caption that says: “the birth of MY baby!” The latter may be an extreme example coming from the top country in adoption baby trade – the US – but we have some pretty high profile people here taking the trip to the US to get their babies there: and to be in the birthing suite ready to grab their prize.
Comments made during this interview indicate you are a passionate opponent of surrogacy. What is it about your adoption experience, and maybe about being a mother, that makes you fervently opposed to surrogacy?
Adoptees were usually accidental pregnancies – not all the time – but usually, and so the professed dilemma was what to do with us. We were removed as the solution. Babies born from surrogacy are not accidental: they are conceived for the purpose of removal. It astounds me that everywhere professionals from a wide variety of fields are suddenly proclaiming themselves ‘experts’ in the field of bio-ethics. Yet not one of them, as far as I can see, has any experience in the impacts of infant child removal. They are doctors, lawyers, academics and accountants. They preach for the increasing trend of child commodification because they are privileged enough to have no experience of it – they are not victims of it themselves; in short, they have no idea what commodification is.
They want surrogacy to be great and, like adoption, they don’t want to hear the truth about child removal – that is hurts, that it damages people.
You ask me what it is about being a mother that makes me opposed to surrogacy? Experiencing the fourth trimester with my babies: when my babies were born they wanted one thing: me. Not their father, not another woman, not another man – and if they had been born by donor conception – not the donor. It was me. It was my breast the babies latched onto, my body the babies knew, and my self the babies still thought of as part of themselves.
It takes months and months for babies to understand that they are a separate being to their mother – to destroy that in one fell swoop is devastating for both – despite any subsequent repression or denial by them later on. It’s cruel. But we do it to animals – and now we do it to our own children to satisfy adult desires. The post-partum mother-baby dyad is unique – all the love in the world cannot fully compensate for its destruction. That is why it is vital that we uphold children’s rights to remain with their mother after birth as declared in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and in the United Nations Convention. There is a very good reason why child commodification flourishes in American values: they are the only country in the UN who will not ratify the Convention. Imagine the litigation!
Getting back to activism, if we look around the world, Korean adoptees provide the best example of being very successful in lobbying their government to make legislative changes and introduce new services to accommodate the rights and needs of adopted people. What we can learn from their example?
We can learn a lot from them. Just to do it. But there are some differences in our situations that make our task different. For one thing – the majority of adoptees in Australia are ‘local’ adoptees. That is – most adoptees are invisible in the community, many of us actually matched with parents who look a bit like us. This means that unlike intercountry adoptees who may stand out as being different from their families – it cannot really be pretended that they are actually born of their adoptive parents – local adoptees have had a different kind of adoptee experience from infancy onwards. They developed their identity in a fog of denial: that they were actually someone else’s child.
Adoptees ‘in the fog’ think that their problems are purely personal because there are so few indicators in our society that respond to their experience. They are invisible – and so is their personal experience which is denied.
And this is probably the biggest factor that has made adoption and child removal so acceptable. The way that closed records adoption impacted the adoptee rendered them ignorant and silent – potential knowledge was stripped from us – who we were, our names, who our parents were. Some people still don’t even realise they are adopted because the whole world has pretended since their birth that they are not! So adoptees themselves rarely question adoption and child removal.
To explain a bit better: when a baby is taken into a family from birth they naturally become socialised into the values of that family. It can take decades for a person to think their way out of family socialisation; decades for a person to make the link between their personal symptoms and the fact that they were permanently and prematurely removed from their mother’s body at birth and denied all connection with their own kin, heritage and ancestry. Adoptees ‘in the fog’ think that their problems are purely personal – they concentrate all their efforts on fitting in and being seen as just like everyone else; they may take some anti-anxiety pills, or anti-depressants, and just get on with the game thinking there is something wrong with them. Because that is the message they have got their entire life – from their families, from professionals like doctors, counsellors, psychologists – and of course the media. All their life they have heard and still hear: adoption is fine if it’s early and quick and you have a good life – so what’s wrong with you?
To expand on this by way of an analogy – think about slavery. If you make someone a slave as a young person or adult they are going to be wise to what you are doing. But if you get a slave as a baby – why then you just bring that baby up in the understanding that slavery has saved that baby, that without slavery they would have nothing – no food, no family, no education – and that slavery gave you the love of a forever family. Then imagine that person grown up with all these good things – aren’t they going to appear just a little bit ungrateful if they say “hang on – but I’m a slave! I’m not free!” Yes they are. And if they talk they are betraying those very people who they think saved them and gave them things, and whom they most probably have grown to love over their childhoods if they have been loved. It’s a catch-22 that adoptees rarely escape.
But when they do – woah! Just try to stop them talking! Adoptees call this process ‘coming out of the fog’. It means becoming educated about what adoption is, about how it has led to the horrific abuse and death of some adoptees, how it facilities child trafficking by normalising baby trade and child removal. It can mean becoming an activist – because to speak the truth means you are suddenly subversive of the adoption narrative. You have no choice to fight because just opening your mouth is seen as shocking to some people.
A catch-22 indeed, nonetheless more and more adoptees are strong and speaking up, which is needed as the true long term impacts of adoption remain little known to people who don’t live with their adoption on a daily basis. That is why your voice along with others is needed.
Before we close is there anything you would like to add?
Yes thanks. Adoption is an old clunky form of moving a child about to hide the fact that they were born out of wedlock – what possible relevance does that have today? And yet we still use it because its just there – on the table as a cheap option – and because the desire and power of people who want other people’s children, and a government who wants to offload those children, is just so strong. But the peak demographic year of adoptions means that the largest number are now in their forties – and so – we are strong too.
In addition, lets stop pouring money into adoption: we need to take up the cause of our child welfare system and make it work properly. Its time that the government and we, as a society, shoulder our responsibility to children who for one reason or another cannot be brought up by their own parents – this means stopping any and all abuse that occurs in the foster system – and do our very best to stop multiple placements. Listen to the children, listen to the carers, monitor the children with vigilance and give the situation financial, professional and personal support. Most of all – give families support before you take their children – and inform those people who still ‘consider relinquishment’ of the short and long terms impacts of maternal abandonment on babies. Basically – the government needs to budget properly and increase its spending on children in need.
Thank you Catherine. Your work, and those of other adopted people, in exposing the hurt and harm inherent in adoption has only just begun. I wish you continued strength in continuing to rally for the rights, and service needs, of adopted people in NSW and elsewhere.
Thank you, Thomas.