Where Did I Come From?
Exploring International Adoption in Australia

By Kathryn Page

“Mummy, where did I come from?”, is one of the most anticipated questions that parents face. Yet for some children, the answer is not straight forward. Intercountry adoption is on the rise in Australia
The Inter-country Adoption Service (ICAS) ‘…?finds? families for children who are unable to remain in the care of their family, and for whom no other permanent family placement can be found in their country of origin’.1 Australians became more aware of intercountry adoption in 1975 during the Vietnam War. As journalist Peter Overton described in an interview on 60 Minutes (that screened 20 March 2005), more than 2000 Vietnamese children “were evacuated in one of the most extraordinary military missions ever undertaken. It was known as ‘Operation Babylift’”. Today though, it seems we only hear about intercountry adoption in the lime light of Hollywood.
It was not until nearly 20 years later that on 29 May 1993, 64 countries signed a convention for the Protection of Children and Cooperation regarding Intercountry Adoption called the “Hague Convention”. Academic and author Jenny Degeling insists (based on the convention) that children adopted here are adoptable, that adoption is the last resort, that consent was given by the child’s birth parents (where possible), an adult family member or social worker and that counselling has been offered. These “safeguards” protect children from being abducted, sold or trafficked. So what countries do intercountry adoptees come from?
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show Australian couples adopted 434 children in 2003-2004, up 17 percent in 2002-2003. The greatest number of adoptees was from China because in 1999, Australia and China entered into a bilateral adoption agreement that enables adoptions of Chinese children to be finalised in China. Although parents still have to apply to the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs for citizenship for their new child (which can take 12 months to be finalised), the child is automatically recognised as an Australian citizen on arrival. However, there are rules about who can adopt, as well as several application forms based on personal details and legalities involved. Rules and requirements also vary in each State and Territory.
The rules and instructions governing adoption also vary from country to country. The Human Services “Information Kit- Intercountry Adoption Service” in Victoria say that the number of years between a child and its parents can vary between 25-50 depending on the country. For most countries, couples have to have been married for 2-3 years. Ethiopia and Hong Kong are the only countries that consider applications from single people and couples. Hong Kong insists that 12 years of formal education is achieved. In the Philippines and Korea, applicants who practice Christianity are favoured. In India, preference is given to childless couples and couples with no more than four children. Certain appropriate weight and height criteria’s must be met in Hong Kong, and there are numerous legal documents that must also be completed. The process of adoption from all countries requires considerable paperwork including adoption application form, medical and police checks, references, proof of identification, financial and family information forms.
So what is it like to be adopted from overseas? Three intercountry adoptees share their stories, along with two intercountry adoptive parents.
Chris, 20, was adopted from Korea when he was four months old. Chris considers himself lucky because he was able to find most of his biological family- “My mother and father lived on the streets in Korea…My older brother and sister lived in orphanages while my mother worked long hours and two jobs to get a small house for them all to stay in.”
At age 15, Chris began searching for his biological mother but was told by his Korean social worker that he was too young. So at 18, Chris finally met his mother. During their first meeting, he was overwhelmed, but it was not until he arrived back in Australia that he received a letter from her explaining why he was adopted- “It was cold and winter, so they thought it best to send me away…My birth mother- I love her…she is everything…My Korean brother and sister- they’re great. My father- I don’t know him. And don’t really want to.”

During his trip to Korea, Chris visited the nursery where he had stayed 18 years earlier. “I saw a lot of babies waiting for homes. There was one nurse to at least 20 babies. I remember all of the babies were crying and I reached out my hand and they fell back to sleep. I didn’t even touch them, but I believe they knew someone was near.

While Chris is happy with life in Australia, he admits- “?I think about Korea? all the time. When I was younger, I used to go off into a dream world to wonder what it could have been like.”

In regards to how his adoption has affected him, Chris said, “People do often view adoption as either the adopted kid who is happy and the one that has issues- they often forget that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for everyone. For me, I know I was adopted for a reason. Nothing is left up to chance…”

Like Chris, Sarah, 36, understands she was adopted from Singapore when she was only “a few months” old. Sarah says her adoptive mother was very “‘vague” about the exact number of months old she was. Her search efforts to find her biological family wasn’t as positive an experience for her as it was for Chris. “When growing up, I thought very, very positively of the adoption, I was “lucky to be adopted”, but in the past four years (2002-2006), it all went down hill. My adoptive mother got cancer and when I thought she was going to die (Dad had already died, I have no
partner or children), it brought up this unbelievable need to search for my biological parents. I always said that I wouldn’t search until my adoptive mother died but when she was sick, I could not leave it alone and had to do the search then and there.”

Sarah says her journey home to Singapore “revealed lies and discrepancies”. “I was the result of an affair that my birth mother had. I turned up on my biological
mother’s doorstep…it was barely a two minute visit through a window. I wanted to hear from her directly why I was given up for adoption…shedid? not even acknowledge that I existed…When she rejected me, I didn’t feel entitled to eat…I developed an eating problem.”

Through her journey of self-discovery, Sarah has learnt that, “…time is precious and at the end of the day, things cannot be undone or fixed up and people do things with good intentions, even if it’s done the wrong way”.

Leith Harding from the Queensland University of Technology is an intercountry adoption expert. A researcher, mother to four intercountry adoptees and an adoption educator, she said that while some children who are adopted do have problems, most do not.

“?Most children? do very well, flourishing in their new families with love, acceptance and opportunity, vital family elements that most would not ever have experienced in orphanages in developing countries…However, some children come with immense hurts, making their journey to secure attachment and trust harder.”

upraising any child has its challenges but adopting a child from overseas can present even more. Evelyne Schilz-Middleton, President of ASIAC (Australian Society
for Inter-country Aid) conducts information sessions for adoptive-parents-to-be that offers assistance and advice to help them to do the best job they can in parenting their child. “We at ASIAC advocate that our children need love, lots of cuddles and
reassurance as they settle into their new lives and new family, but that essentially they are children and have all the behavioural traits of any baby or toddler. In other words, we try to ensure that our children are comfortable with the notion of adoption and that it is not the only thing that defines them or differentiates them. Children just want to fit in and be treated like any other child,” says Schilz-Middleton.

Like Harding, Schilz-Middleton also has first hand experience, having adopted a son from Korea. She is passionate about the way that a parent handles those awkward, loaded questions from passers-by like, “Are you babysitting this little boy today?” as opposed to “How old is your son?” can determine a child’s attitude to being adopted. “The way you handle it is the way your child picks it up,” she says. At the end of the day though, “a child is a child”. Harding agrees- “Raising children is just that…they all have their challenges and rewards. Adoption adds another dimension but is not always the reason for problems or challenges.”

When adopted children reach the age where they begin to ask questions about where they came from, Schilz-Middleton reassures, “?There is? no right or wrong way [to answer questions such as “Where did I come from” or “Why don’t I look like you?”. Deal with it as best you can and over time, you will have answers you’ve developed…open communication as much as possible.”

Schilz-Middleton also says that at particular life stages and ages, many adopted children experience common emotions. Between ages four to five, children begin to question their appearance- why do they look different to their parents? Then, at about seven to eight years, the “why” questions begin. Here, it is important for parents to have developed strategies to help their child understand their history. Schilz-Middleton warns against ‘sugarcoating’ the truth and to tell the child their story- “Make adoption a part of their lives”. At age 10-11, many feel incomplete by not knowing their birth mother. Finally, adolescents is a challenging time for any teenager but here is when many adopted children feel anger in wrestling with who they are. All of these life stages demonstrate that, “the real journey starts when you come home,” said Schilz-Middleton.

Despite the paperwork involved, when you meet your child for the first time, Schilz-Middleton described it as a, “completely overwhelming and very emotional moment”. Reality and shock almost kicked in immediately when she and her husband went to change their baby’s nappy at the airport before the journey home- neither had changed a baby’s nappy before! “Children canalso? experience some confusion with different smells, sights and sounds on their return to Australia. This is why we recommend a settling in period for our children and…strongly recommend that a parent stays at home with their child for the first six months,” advises Schilz-Middleton.

Gabbie was 6 weeks when she was adopted from Sri Lanka with her twin sister. At age seven Gabbie said, “I can remember asking my parents why I was different to them, and I can remember them saying that when they went to Sri Lanka, they chose me because my mother couldn’t look after me and that they loved me just the way I was.”

Gabbie was welcomed into a family that consisted of two children who had already been adopted from Australia and her adoptive parents adopted another boy from Sri Lanka after Gabbie. Gabbie and her sister were put up for adoption when their birth father was sent to the other side of Sri Lanka for work and their mother was living under a tree and had no money or food. When Gabbie’s father returned, her mother
had already had Gabbie and her sister adopted to Australia so ‘he was devastated and really upset’ said Gabbie. Gabbie says her adoptive parents have always been very open about her adoption and that she always knew she was adopted because of her black skin compared to her parents white skin. “I use to hate the way I looked and tried to scrub out my blackness.”
Gabbie often thinks of Sri Lanka and what life would have been like, had she been brought up there- “I would have been married at age 18 or1 9 and had
a big family by now (she is 24)…I would be a stay at home mum. I would have been able to speak the language and I would have been a practicing Buddhist.” Like Chris, Gabbie met her biological family when she was 18, and speaks of them with warmth. However, she does feel a sense of guilt about having been lucky enough to have been adopted into a country as wealthy as Australia- “I have been lucky enough to meet my birth family- I have a mother and father and a younger sister who is now married with a little girl, and I also have a younger brother. I have met most of my aunties, uncles and cousins and I get on well with all of them. I try to send them money and gifts when I have some spare cash, but I wish I could do more because I feel
responsible for them because I live in Australia. My Aussie mumwas? there with me too because she had made a promise to my birth mother that she would bring us back when we were old enough to understand. So while there are stories of adoptees who have had very negative experiences of being adopted, there are just as many uplifting stories like Gabbie’s.

While parents do need to be persistent in completing the paperwork and have patience while waiting for their child, Harding and Schilz-Middleton both agree that the
rewards of having a child far out-weigh the challenges. “I can’t even describe it,” says Schilz-Middleton. It all comes down to ones attitude to anything in life because, “the way you handle it is the way your child picks it up”.

1 Department of Human Services “Intercountry Adoption Information Kit: http://hnb.dhs.vic.gov.au/children/ccdnav.nsf/fid/-AFA74A26DBA8DEB6CA256F11000407D8/$file/icas_infokit_oct2006v3.pdf
For more information on International Adoption in Australia visit Intercountry Adoption Resource Network (Australia): http://www.icarn.com.au/