When you adopt, you save a child’s life. At least, that’s the narrative we are used to – children who would otherwise live in orphanages are given the security a family offers.
But it’s more complicated than that. Adoptees and experts in Denmark are increasingly coming forward to share experiences that challenge the prevailing wisdom that transnational adoption is a win-win for children and parents alike.
“Taking a child, removing it from everything it knows, and placing it with a couple that doesn’t look like that child, doesn’t smell like that child, doesn’t talk like that child, is an extreme trauma,” says Yong Sun Gullach, chairwoman of the Forum for Adoption Politics (Adoptionspolitisk Forum).
Beyond the psychological issues, transnational adoption is under scrutiny on a number of fronts. Adoption agencies have been accused of corruption and document forgery, and developing countries are increasingly tightening adoption regulations. As a result, the number of transnational adoptions to Denmark has dropped rapidly in recent years, from 527 in 2004 to only 124 in 2014.
The old narrative, that transnational adoption benefits everyone, is under major pressure to make way for a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of transplanting a child from a foreign culture into a Danish family.
Gullach participated in the formal foundation of Adoptionspolitisk Forum in 2013 to give adoptees a critical voice and to create a space where they can collaborate to advocate for their rights. Gullach’s aim is that these initiatives will lead to change in what she perceives to be a stagnant adoption system built on a religious and colonial narrative and structure. She points out that the majority of countries that are open to transnational adoption are those that have previously been colonised.
The flow of children from developing to developed countries fosters a ‘saviour mentality,’ she argues, in which we are framed to believe the child is being offered a better life. This approach persists in Denmark, she argues, under the guise of ‘integration’. Adopters are not encouraged to embrace their child’s heritage. Instead, the child is expected to explore it on their own as an adult.
“It is as though through adoption, the race and the original culture of the child is negated, their past erased. The child is now in Denmark and therefore Danish, regardless of their country of origin,” Gullach says, adding that there is a need to address the trauma these children often feel.
“We cannot talk openly about the challenges that we are experiencing mentally, or talk about needing psychological help, without being framed as too sick to be able to have a voice, or to judge what is best to happen to us. Adoptees might be more likely to seek psychological help but that doesn’t mean we are sicker than others, we are just reacting naturally to a very unnatural situation.”
According to a 2013 report published in the journal Pediatrics, adopted children are four times more likely to commit suicide than non-adopted children. A 2010 study based on the Danish Adoption Register revealed that Danish adoptees have higher mortality rates than the general population. The most common cause of death was alcohol-related.
According to Gullach, adoption has also been historically framed as a class issue, one in which children were taken from lower-class families and raised by families with more money and thus greater resources.
But the question is whether the transnational adoption business is responding to a supply of orphaned and needy children, or whether it is actually creating demand.
According to UNICEF, while there are around 132 million children around the world that are classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents. The organisation states that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent, grandparent, or other family member, and that 95 per cent of all orphans are over the age of five.
“The number of children eligible for adoption does not correspond to the demands from the western world. Transnational adoption is, therefore, an industry creating a market that is unfortunately primarily regulated by demand and financial gain,” says Gullach, who adds that countries that open up adoption to international adopters see an increase in the number of orphanages.
In Denmark, there is only one company today that deals with transnational adoptions: Danish International Adoptions (DIA). Gullach argues that the privatisation of adoption and the demand for children in adopted countries has created a situation that is ripe for abuse. Parents become persuaded into giving up their children for adoption, despite being able to support them, by promising them continued contact. Cases of stolen children have emerged. Gullach cites the example of police officers in Ethiopia who were paid to claim that they personally found a child in order to ease the transnational adoption.
“I know about irregularities in the papers, falsifications of death certificates, certain members of the original families have not been informed about their rights, original families have been lied to, and children have been stolen – taken away on false premises, and stolen.”
In 2015, Politiken newspaper reported that a Danish couple had to return their adopted child to Kenya after spending five months with the child in Nairobi. The girl’s mother had come forward and claimed that her daughter and gone missing during a bus ride the year before.
For Danes who go through with international adoptions, the learning curve can be steep. Sofie and her husband adopted their son from Ethiopia during a time when adoptions from the country were still legal and far more common. She asked to be interviewed anonymously, having grown tired of the public’s increasingly judgemental and often negative outlook towards adoption.
Sofie was quick to emphasise that adoption, in her view, should not primarily serve parents who can’t have children, but children who do not have any other options.
“We should not use adoption to get children to parents who can’t have children, we should use adoption to get parents to children who have no other options wherever they are.”
Sofie and her son often talk about his Ethiopian heritage, but he has so far declined to join an Ethiopian adoption group. They have also talked about returning to Ethiopia with their son and while he has expressed desire to do so in the future, as of now he is more interested in travelling to the same vacation destinations as his peers. He does bring up his birth parents, however.
“We say that he has one set of parents who made him, but we are the parents who are here, the ones whom he sleeps next to every night, and who comfort him when he’s in bed. He’s just got two sets and that’s how it is.”
While she says her son appears to have settled well into life in Denmark, she knows of other families that have struggled. The adoption agency did provide courses to prepare parents, but Sofie thinks they could have been more thorough.
She also criticised the thoroughness of the background checks carried out by the adoption agency. She and her husband noticed some gaps in their son’s files and felt compelled to hire a private investigator to look into his past. The investigator confirmed that while the information provided by the agency was correct, they had failed to deliver the full story.
“I find it odd that the adoption agencies are not better at looking into the stories of the children, because they could have done that as easily as we could. It should be part of clearing a child for adoption that you make 100% sure that you have found as much information as possible.”
As difficult as the process may have been, Sofie is so happy to have her son, and says the joy is immeasurable. When asked what her son has brought to her life, she replies, “happiness and hard work.” She laughs heartily and then adds, “Just like what any parent would say.” She pauses before reiterating, her voice clear with pride, “We really think that we have the world’s greatest little boy.”
Sofie’s son is still young, but a whole generation of transnational adoptees have entered adulthood and are starting to speak out.
Among them is Mija Byung. A graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, she is now head of architecture and construction for the organisation Turning Tables, which gives marginalised and minority youth the opportunity to create music.
Her job is fitting, given that Byung grew up as one of only a couple of non-white Danes in her small hometown.
“As I started growing up, the kids around me also starting growing up and I began to notice the differences between me and them. My parents would never ever understand this experience, of being singled out, of racism. They would never know what prejudice feels like. In that way you are actually very alone as an adoptive kid, because you can’t mirror yourself in your parents. They don’t understand that part of being a minority.”
Byung felt encouraged to integrate into white society without reference to or discussion of her South Korean roots. This negation of her heritage meant, however, that every time someone observed that she was different, it felt like an attack. She perceived her background as something to be ashamed of. It made her feel vulnerable.
“‘You’re so Danish, I don’t even think about it. I never even think about how you’re Korean’,” says Byung, imitating comments she has heard more times than she can count.
“That they want you to be so white, so Danish, that you can’t even be Asian.”
Byung returned to South Korea two years ago for the first time since her adoption, in part, to reclaim her self and her identity.
“For the first time in my life, I was able to blend in, which was the weirdest feeling but so relaxing – to arrive in the middle of Seoul and to be like everyone else,” she says, adding that she was worried about what her parents felt during her trip to South Korea – especially after her father’s reply to an email she sent upon arriving.
“My dad answered very briefly in the e-mail, ‘Okay, good to hear, I hope that you’re coming back to Denmark’. There were so many feelings in that sentence. I realised that maybe they were both scared as shit, and that me going back to Korea made them reflect, maybe for the first time, about me being Korean.”
Byung believes that there needs to be a new approach to the adoption narrative starting from the moment a child arrives.
“I think there is this whole fairy tale that an airplane delivers a baby to the couple and they are going to be happy forever now. It is like that baby drops into the airport and life just starts there. But that’s not true. Life has already happened. And a lot of people got hurt already. A lot of painful decisions have already been made.”
She adds that adopters and adoptees also need to challenge the narrative that transnational adoption is about salvation.
“Growing up, I was often confronted by people who said, ‘Aren’t you happy that you got adopted into this country instead of growing up in Korea?’ People had this whole idea that Korea was just a third world country and I had been saved. It’s the weirdest question, because I had absolutely no say in the matter, so I will never ever say ‘oh yes, I am so grateful that somebody saved me’.”
A better world?
Lene Myong is an adoption scholar at the University of Aarhus and member of Tænketanken Adoption (Think Tank Adoption). Lately, her research has focused on representations of transnational adoption in Danish newspaper reporting.
“Transnational adoption was never implemented top-down or introduced by Danish governments. It was, first and foremost, promoted by adopter activists who wanted to create a better world but also to meet a growing need for adoptable children in Denmark.”
According to Myong, ‘rescue narratives’ continue to inform dominant understandings of transnational adoption, but these narratives have also changed over the years.
“In newspaper reports of the 1960s, adoptions of Afro-German children were often framed as an act that ‘rescued’ children from a racist post-Nazi society, but when the Danish adoption agencies turned their attention to countries in the Global South, the rescue narratives changed. Adoption was seen as an opportunity to rescue children from poverty, a life lived in institutions and without a loving family. This understanding of adoption is still prevalent today.”
While adoptees such as Byung try and forge a new narrative about adoption, Myong says adoption critique and adoptee activism have a long history in Denmark, going back to at least the 1980s, when adoptees began to question the difficulty of accessing information about their history.
“In recent years, we have seen a growing political mobilization among transnational adoptees. The related questions of assimilation and racism have been central to this movement, as the majority of adoptees of colour have been raised in white families and in racial isolation from other minorities. Adoption has been seen as an act of anti-racism, but I think we need to consider adoption as the effect of racism”
Gullach wants transnational adoption to be restricted to follow the guidelines set by the UN’s convention of the right of the child. This means that it should only be a possibility as an absolute last resort and that the child would always have a right to know their origin and maintain contact with their original culture. Consequently, she has one piece of advice for Danes considering it.
“My advice to couples that want to adopt transnationally is that they should never adopt from a country where they can’t imagine getting married to one of the citizens, learning the language, could experience or imagine living in the country. If you can’t imagine those three things, then don’t adopt from this country. When you have chosen a country – learn the language, live there for a while – in short: educate yourself about what you are about to do.”
Byung says her trip to South Korea was an emotional eye-opener that reaffirmed her need to open up more dialogue about transnational adoption and the impact it has on children who start new lives in Denmark. She would also like to see adopters encourage their children to be proud of their heritage.
“I remember thinking that I shouldn’t ask too many questions about where I am from because I didn’t want to hurt my parents’ feelings. But fuck that. The parents are the grown-ups who chose to adopt a kid, and they should open all those conversations. It should not be taboo. Take pride in that baby’s heritage, in their roots and their culture. It might make the kid not feel so alone if the adopted parents own their kid’s culture too.”
She adds that a new narrative about transnational adoption needs to start with adoptees opening up the conversation.
“That’s how I see it. We can go out as adults and tell our truths around our experiences as adopted people in this country and insist we be listened to. Of course we should be listened to – we experienced it first hand. But the system isn’t actually taking it seriously. We are still looked at as the adopted children – we are always someone’s children. We need to break down the taboos. We’re grown-ups now. We need to say stuff even if it hurts people.” M