• Deborah-Lee Furness and Hugh Jackman are two of Australia's most prominent adoption advocates. (AAP)
Adults who were adopted from foreign countries as children say there is a lack of support for adoptees in Australia and they feel powerless to have their voices heard.
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30 Jun 2015 - 12:05 PM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2015 - 8:13 PM

Stacey Lim* has heard differing accounts of why her parents adopted her from South Korea. Some said her adoptive mother wanted to have more children but couldn't conceive. Others claimed it was done altruistically - to give a child a home.

Stacey's biological mother had given her up at birth after being left by her partner. The prospect of bringing up a baby alone had been too much for her to bear.

But life in Australia was tough. Stacey's adopted parents separated when she was five and her mother suffered ongoing mental health problems. Stacey and her siblings – a biological daughter to her parents and a son also adopted from South Korea – went to live with their father, who had been given sole custody.

When Stacey was 12, her adopted mother took her own life, leaving her more alone than ever.

"At the funeral, family members didn’t acknowledge my brother and me at all," says Stacey, now aged 30. "They gave condolences only to my sister."

"I'm not sure we were ever truly accepted [by our wider family]. We were sort of on the periphery, just… there."

The relationship between Stacey and her father got worse in the years that followed and she says that at 17 she was forced out of home. Eventually, she cut contact with her father altogether.

Stacey is one of a number of people to take part in a new study about the experiences of adults adopted from foreign countries as children. All of them say there is a woeful lack of support for intercountry adoptees living in Australia and the government needs to do more to help. Furthermore, they say celebrity advocates paint an unrealistic picture of the reality of intercountry adoption and the challenges adoptees face, including racism, isolation, identity issues and disconnection from their birth culture.

'I hated the way I looked'

Griffith University's Patricia Fronek carried out the study with 43 adult intercountry adoptees, 12 of whom took part in lengthy interviews. The results have not yet been released, but Dr Fronek has given SBS early access to some of her findings.

Her focus was on post-adoption support.

"It's been known for a long time that resources are very scarce in post-adoption support and it's been something that adoptees have been calling for for a very long time. [Support] has really been conceptualised as being needed immediately after adoption but there are needs that adoptees have that go throughout their lifetime," she says.

"I'm not sure we were ever truly accepted. We were sort of on the periphery, just… there."

Dr Fronek says all the adoptees she interviewed had experienced racism, with some saying they had even experienced it within their adoptive families. "The adopted parents had racist attitudes that they probably weren’t aware of - for example, speaking negatively about Asian people," she says.

Stacey Lim says for her the problem was compounded by isolation. "There were no role models," she says. "I had no Asian role models at all. There was no one to talk to. You couldn't talk to your parents because they couldn't understand or they basically dismissed it.

"We live in a culture where blonde and blue-eyed is beautiful. I hated the way I looked and I hated myself," she says. "I would wish that I would wake up with lighter hair and lighter skin."

Finding family

Brooke Arcia remembers a happy childhood in Australia. She was adopted from Sri Lanka at six weeks old and brought back to Newcastle, New South Wales, where she still lives today.

Brooke's Australian parents joined a playgroup for other families with adopted children so their young daughter could get to know other kids like her. "I didn't think about being adopted a lot," Brooke says. "I just thought of it like how some people don't have a dad."

Her biological mother had given her up after Brooke's father rejected the pregnancy. Brooke ruled out ever meeting her because she believed her birth had brought so much shame on her mother that trying to find her would only make it worse.

But when she became pregnant at 30, all that changed. "It was the first time I realised about the connection between a mother and a baby in utero," she says. "I thought, 'If that was me, how would I go on living knowing that my son or daughter was out there for 30 years and I didn't know if they were safe or not?' I wanted to find her to let her know I was okay."

Brooke as a child with her adoptive mother, left, and right as an adult in Newcastle. (Supplied)

Like many adult adoptees, Brooke embarked on the complicated journey of tracking down her family. She trawled through documents, and spoke with government officials and people on the ground in Sri Lanka. The Australian government offered to assist her but it had no contacts in Sri Lanka. In the end, a contact in Sri Lanka offered to find her mother for her and managed to after just one week.

"I got an email the day before my son's first birthday saying she had been found," Brooke says. "They sent a message from her to me as well, and that was the first time I'd had any communication with her. It was pretty amazing." In the message, her mother said she had blessed her every year on her birthday and wished that one day they would meet.

That day came eight weeks later when Brooke and her husband travelled to Sri Lanka with their young son in tow. Brooke remembers their first meeting well. "She hugged me and she was crying and she said to me in English, 'I am crying but I am happy.'" Brooke was also introduced to her biological sister, whom she now emails every day. 

If you are an adult adoptee who would like to contact Brooke, email eastwestofthebodhitree@gmail.com

She says she doesn't think of adoption as positive or negative, but says people should move away from thinking that children adopted from developing countries are being "saved”.

"If I hadn't been adopted I wouldn't have known my [adoptive] parents. I wouldn't be married to my husband. I wouldn't have my son or the friends I have," she says. "But on the other side, I've lost a great deal. I lost my mother, whom I now have a very strong relationship with. I lost the relationship with my only sibling."

Brooke's biological mother with Brooke's son, now aged two. (Supplied)

Intercountry adoption in Australia

Intercountry adoption started in Australia in a pretty ad hoc way around the 1960s, when individuals brought children into the country of their own accord.

State governments didn't get involved until the late 1970s when the Vietnam War was ending, with large numbers of children in the country being separated, displaced and orphaned. In 1975, almost 300 children were brought to Australia by plane as part of "Operation Babylift" to be adopted by couples all over Australia. Today, intercountry adoption is facilitated by the Federal Attorney-General's Department along with state and territory governments.

Although there were international consultations, principles and guidelines from the 1950s, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of intercountry Adoption wasn't created until 1993. This set a framework for adoptions and required signatories to adhere to certain standards and obligations. The convention focused on children, stating that their needs must be at the front and centre of all intercountry adoptions. A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Attorney-General George Brandis told SBS this document was the "primary guide for Australia's dealings with overseas countries about intercountry adoption".

At the moment, Australians can adopt children from Chile, China, Colombia, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand. While most of these countries are party to the Hague Convention, Hong Kong and Taiwan are not. Mr Brandis' spokesman told SBS: "Australia only facilitates intercountry adoptions with countries where [we are] satisfied that the principles and standards of The Hague Convention are met in practice, regardless of whether the partner country has signed the Convention."

Australia used to have a program with Ethiopia but it was closed down in 2012. In a statement about the closure, the government said it had encountered many challenges with the program, including "identifying orphanages in which Australia could have trust and confidence".

"The growing numbers of non-government adoption agencies operating in Ethiopia, and the closure of orphanages due to greater government scrutiny, led to increased competition for referral of children to intercountry adoption programs," the statement said, adding: "A competitive environment such as this is not always conducive to ethical adoption practices."

Many Australian families who had been waiting for years for a child from Ethiopia were bitterly disappointed by the decision. South Australian couple Kym and Leonie Phelps had adopted their son Degu from Ethiopia in 2005. "We wanted him to have siblings that were culturally-related and would grow up with him and have the same joys and same frustrations," Mr Phelps told The Australian.

"When we realised that wouldn't happen, it was just sheer frustration, anger, all of the emotions I think."

Leonie and Degu Phelps on holiday with their adopted Ethiopian son Degu in Western Australia in 2012. (AAP)

Star power

Adoption has a host of high-profile advocates including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie - who have three adopted children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam respectively - Meg Ryan, who adopted her daughter, Daisy, from China, and Australian actor Hugh Jackman and wife Deborra-Lee Furness, who have two adopted children from the United States, where the family lives.

These stars paint a glowing picture of adoption, with Jackman stating in a 2009 interview: "Adoption is about taking a baby into your home and your heart. It's the best thing we've ever done."

But respondents in Dr Fronek's survey say they feel as though celebrities too often speak for them.

"The adoptees are concerned that there’s a very simplistic picture painted of intercountry adoption," Dr Fronek says. "[They are] not necessarily anti-adoption but sometimes it's hard for them, and acknowledgement of that would be good.

Brooke Arcia says they shape the narrative. "Everything you read [about adoption] the representatives are adoptive parents," she says. And biological parents are treated as irrelevant.

"Celebrities represent 'saving' children and a complete disregard for the family of origin. The image they portray doesn't do justice to the reality of what's actually happening for those families.”

Stacey Lim also believes that children are treated as secondary. "When we talk about adoption in the media we almost refer to the child as an object not a person," she says. "We don't think about what it could mean for that child, or what circumstances they've come from. It's just, 'Oh wow, this person has saved this child,' and that's not necessarily the case."

Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are among many celebrity couples to adopt children. Pictured here with adopted daughter Zahara and son Maddox. (AAP)

Political change

In Australia, the federal government is pushing to make adoption easier and more accessible. It's also considering opening up intercountry adoption programs with more countries including the United States, Poland and Vietnam. Discussions with Latvia and Bulgaria are also underway.

As part of its plan to reform the adoption system, the government launched Inter-country Adoption Australia - an agency designed to help Australian parents wanting to adopt children from overseas - earlier this year.

Australian organisation Adopt Change supports the government's efforts in boosting adoption. CEO Jane Hunt told SBS it advocates for open, ethical adoptions, which can have enormous benefits for children.

"If a child is abandoned or orphaned – and we’re talking about an estimated 17 or 18 million children who are genuine orphans and they're either in orphanages or living on the streets – we argue that those children should have the opportunity for a loving, permanent family," she says. "The preference is in-country first and if that's not possible then intercountry adoption."

Speaking at an event during Adoption Awareness Week, Tony Abbott said Australia needed to make adoption more of a priority. "There are millions of children in overseas orphanages who would dearly love to have parents," he said. "There are thousands of Australians who would dearly love to help those kids have a family."

But Dr Fronek says that while foreign adoption is meant to be about helping children, it is increasingly becoming about servicing infertile couples.

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"The needs of children overseas become conflated with the needs of prospective parents," she says. "These unborn children are already being talked of as 'my children,' and that becomes very confused. It's only after the child comes to Australia that it becomes part of the adoptive family."

Stacey Lim agrees. "The thinking around adoption needs to change," she says. "This country is a very pro-adoption country where it's very much based on the right of the parent. A person can say, 'I want a child' and then go and get one, but what about the child? They always say, 'All a child needs is love', but that's not actually true.'"

Community

Both Brooke and Stacey struggled with their identity as they were growing up, a common experience among adoptees.

Brooke says her upbringing was loving and her parents were eager to treat her the same as anyone else. She says parents face a difficult balancing act of making children feel accepted while also allowing them to understand their background.

"My mum and I have had a lot of discussions about it and she says in hindsight she would have done things differently," she says. "At the time, the information my parents were given was that it was a very simple process, like you get a baby and you do all the same things you would if it were your biological baby."

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Stacey says her detachment from her culture worsened when her mother died.

"Mum was quite encouraging of me and my brother to get to know our Korean heritage, so all of that sort of went out the window with her," she says. "We didn't even have access to getting anything remotely Korean, culturally. We lost a lot when she passed."

She says these feelings of isolation and confusion around their identity could be helped with more support services.

"We didn't get enough support around identity growing up and that's got to change," Stacey says. She recently found a Facebook group for Korean adoptees living in Australia, which has been a huge breakthrough.

Jane Hunt of Adopt Change agrees that more support is needed. "All of us as we go through our life stages will encounter issues that will pop up for us and adoptive children and adults need the support around that," she says.

She says Australia needs a "centre of excellence in pre- and post-adoptive care" and Adopt Change has lobbied federal and state governments to implement the model. Ms Hunt says the NSW government has so far been the most responsive.

"They have committed funding to the institute for open adoption, which is basically modelled on the centre of excellence we have been arguing for," she says. "They are about to release an issues paper on that." She says the federal government is "really interested in that model" but has made no further announcements around new support services.

Brooke says she has found some resources for adoptees but they are usually only available in major centres.

"In New South Wales we have the Benevolent Society and they're awesome but they're in Sydney so I can't really go there because I live in Newcastle," she says. "It's almost like everything is for children because they expect that you have no issues [when you're an adult] but you actually have more issues as you get older.

"The lack of support is the most alienating thing."

*Name has been changed

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.

Resources for adult adoptees: