Status of Child Citizenship Act Amendment

Let’s not compromise on this:It seems: Adopted children deserve the same protections as non-adopted children. These protections include safety and legal status. Congress is considering two issues related to the safety and legal status of adopted children: citizenship and re-homing.

The US, for decades, did not automatically give citizenship to internationally adopted children. These children entered the US legally and transparently. But if the adoption agencies didn’t make the citizenship process clear, or the parents failed to follow through, some adoptees did not become US citizens.

An amendment to the Child Citizenship Act, providing citizenship to all internationally adoptees prior to 2000, is currently being discussed in Congress. It has not yet been introduced. Information is available here, at Gazillion Strong. None of the adoption advocacy groups–the National Council for Adoption, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, or the Congressional Coalition on Adoption–publicizes “citizenship for adoptees” as an active, important concern for them. Maybe it is. How would we know if we are just the public, not insiders, and there’s nothing on their websites?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) will apparently sponsor the citizenship amendment. I hope all sponsors believe that all international adoptees deserve citizenship because, by virtue of the legal process of being adopted to the US, they are part of an American family. 

Tragically, sometimes children don’t stay with their first adoptive family. Re-homing is a big safety and legal issue. Moving adopted children from one home to another with neither legal oversight nor counseling is disturbing. Some states have passed legislation about re-homing. Federal legislation has been introduced.

If adopted children need new families, protection and legal oversight must be provided. By the same token, all internationally adopted children deserve the protection and legal oversight of citizenship. As an adoptive parent, I believe that my children are entitled to all the rights and responsibilities of other families. That’s what adoption is supposed to mean.

The retroactive citizenship amendment should provide citizenship to all international adoptees whose parents failed to get citizenship for them. That would include adoptees who have committed crimes and, because they did not get naturalized as children, are subject to deportation. Therein lies some resistance to the amendment.

US citizenship should be provided to all international adoptees because they are the legal children of US citizens. Two governments (the sending country and the US) approved the adoptions. If adoption agencies failed to make clear the importance of citizenship, or if the parents failed to get them citizenship, it is not the fault of the adoptees. The end. That’s the bottom line to me.

I hope that all those advocating for the citizenship amendment–whether adoptees, members of Congress, adoptive parents, adoption agency groups, paid lobbyists–will not founder and provide retroactive citizenship only to those without criminal records. No one is condoning crime here. The adoptees who have been convicted have served their time in the US justice system. They have not gone unpunished. I know: they wouldn’t face deportation if they hadn’t broken the law. But here’s the thing. These adoptees should have the same rights as arrested/convicted children of members of Congress, or other members of US families. The adoptees do not deserve deportation. They are our legal children, our family. Adoption gave them that status.

As we now work hard to protect minor adopted children from illicit re-homing, we must also work hard for those whose parents did not get them citizenship when they were minors. Anyone who believes in the integrity of adoption and family must stand firm on citizenship for ALL international adoptees.

If not, Congress is saying that international adoptees are not (never were) genuine family members. That’s not my idea of being an American, or of being family.

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Interview With Korean Adoptee Soojung Jo, Author of “Ghost of Sangju”

“When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.”

Soojung Jo was three years old when she was adopted from Korea by a Kentucky family, and 37 years old when she learned the truth of her history and identity. Along the way she graduated from West Point and served in Korea. She became a mother to four children. And she has now written this powerful, evocative book. “Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation” is important for the adoption community. It’s bigger than that, though, because it’s a fascinating story, with powerful emotions, hard decisions, warmth, confusion, candor, love, discernment, and hope.

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More information is available at Gazillion Strong, including purchase information and Book Club questions. A new review by Mila Konomos at Lost Daughters is available here.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Soojung about “Ghost of Sangju,” about writing, and about adoption.

Soojung, what writers inspire you? What books are you reading now? 

I’m borderline obnoxious about my passion for reading! As a writer, I’ve been powerfully influenced by some particular books that I think everyone must read: John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn,” Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Also I love Hemingway’s voice, and I’m a shameless Stephen King junkie!

As for what I’m reading now, I always have a book on Audible, one or two on Kindle, and a hard copy in work. I’m listening to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith), just finished “Americanah” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and just started “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” (Christopher Scotton).

What was the writing process like for you? What motivated you to write, and to finish, your book?

There was this accumulation of all the experiences and my primal but unexpressed emotional responses to them: being taken from my Korean family and country at age 3, my Kentucky childhood, the West Point experience, returning to Korea in the Army, becoming a mother biologically and then through adoption. When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.

The writing process was evolutionary. Although I had this story fighting its way out of me, I forced myself to be patient and learn a little about writing a full-length book. I read “Bird By Bird” (Lamott), “On Writing Well” (Zinsser), “On Writing” (King). I read interviews with memoirists I admired: Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, Cheryl Strayed. I reflected on what elements made the most powerful memoirs work. All these pointed to the same themes: Write without inhibitions, and then edit ruthlessly. Truth is the goal; nothing less will do. These rules sound basic, but they are far from easy. Do you know how hard it is to make one sentence flow into the next? To remove half the flowery words you’ve crafted into something that felt like a masterpiece but reads like a legal document? Even this interview should probably be edited at least five times just to make it readable.

But the most difficult aspect of good writing is achieving truth. Being honest. Sifting through the difficult layers and offering the ugliest parts of yourself to the story. Everything has already been thought and said in this world, so why should anyone care what I have to say? The answer is this: the truth is always compelling. A true, open story from a real and vulnerable storyteller always resonates.

Absolutely. What’s your next/current writing project?

Actually, I’m not writing at the moment. This book seared its way out of me, and I think I’m recovering a bit from it. I would hope everyone could experience something so consuming yet cathartic in their lives as this book was for me.

I said in my review of your book that I took breaks while reading it, given the poignancy of your search for your Korean family. International adoption is at a volatile, critical juncture right now, in South Korea and around the world. How does “Ghost of Sangju” fit into the complexity?

You are right—international adoption is having a pivotal moment, and this is largely due to the fact that a critical mass of international adoptees have grown up and spoken our truths. We have voices and we won’t be ignored. We are varied, complex, and our experiences and opinions range across a full spectrum. Mine is only one story, but it’s a challenging one that needs to be told because it shatters many traditionally held views. I hope that, without having to over-explain these complexities, readers will experience them as I did through my writing.

If readers come away from this book with an expanded view of what is really happening in international adoption, and an appreciation for the complexity of having lived through international adoption, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

How have your family members reacted to the book, as well as to your search and reunion?

Maureen, I don’t really know. I know what they tell me, but I don’t believe their words really touch on their true reactions. In words, they show support and love. But I’m not the only one in this crazy life going through complex, dissonant emotions about this. I can only imagine how my parents have worried, have regretted, have feared, and have wished that my story had been as straightforward as the agency had promised them almost 40 years ago. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to what they’re going through, but it’s not easy.

No, it’s not. Adoption can be complicated  If you could change policies and practices in international adoption, what would you do?

This is such a difficult question. I have many adoptee friends who are activists, but honestly I am not cut out to talk policies and practices. I know many others who are. I know things need to change, because so many elements of my own story still happen today and that’s unacceptable. I can’t say with authority what should be changed in policy. That’s not what my voice contributes. Instead, my voice speaks of little known truths and buried secrets, and I hope to use this voice to change hearts. Maybe those changed hearts can contribute to changed policies and practices.

I hope that too. What have you learned about yourself, about life, in the process of writing the book? Not so much the factual information as the perspectives, awareness, priorities.

Maureen, I learned so much in writing this book. This was no intellectual exercise! The first few revisions, I stuck to a story that I thought was acceptable. It was a bland, diluted version of my truth and it was terrible. My early pre-readers, my counselors and cheerleaders, asked, “Soojung, this is beautiful, but it isn’t you. Where are YOU in this story?” They asked me this question gently and often enough that I began to wonder myself, where am I in this story? That’s when the real work began, the work of digging into the most real parts of myself, my life, and my emotions. I had to let go of so much fear of showing this awful, beautiful story in all its grittiness. I learned that I, too, am gritty. I’m raw. I have so much strength and weakness and they terrify me, but they are real and therefore they are worthy.

The bland version of my memoir was okay, people liked it well enough, but the real version was amazing and people have responded so deeply to it. Likewise, the bland, pleasing version of myself is okay, but the real version is so much better. Does this mean I’m capable of being this true in real life? No, but at least I know it’s possible. It’s aspirational.

What would you like readers to take away from reading “Ghost of Sangju”?

Although the story is rooted in international adoption, there are universal themes of family, identity, and parenthood that I think all readers can connect to. I want readers to gain an understanding of a life that most probably haven’t lived. I also want readers to appreciate and respect the complexities of being an adoptee, especially international and transracial. I want readers to learn, and to feel less alone.

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Many thanks to Soojung Jo for this conversation. Congratulations on the publication of “Ghost of Sangju.”

Ethiopia: If Adoptions Decline, What Happens to the Children?

What happens to the children when a country cuts back significantly on adoption?

Last week, the US State Department issued an update about adoption from Ethiopia, noting that several Ethiopian regions closed adoptions as of 2014, and will continue to do so. The number of adopted children is a tiny percentage of the children who are part of struggling families or dire circumstances. What happens to all those children?

Poverty may be the main reason that adoptions have occurred in Ethiopia.That is of course an oversimplification: for many reasons, children are unable to stay with the family into which they were born. Still, the average annual income in Ethiopia is around $450, or less than $40 a month, barely a dollar a day.

As a result of living constantly on an economic precipice, Ethiopian children are placed in orphanages because their parents can’t afford to feed them, or because one parent has died (or left) and the other cannot afford the child care needed to go to work. Some parents have untreated illnesses that cause them to fear for their children’s futures. Some children have illnesses for which treatment is (relatively) expensive or unavailable.

I recognize that adoption can be life-saving for some children. At the same time, I am hardly the first to point out that the amount of money for one Ethiopian adoption ($25,000-$40,000) could help many more children if it went toward programs that preserve and empower Ethiopian families. The economics are obvious. I also know it’s a hard sell. Donors are far more willing to contribute to families raising funds for one “orphan” adoption than they are for programs keeping children out of orphanages.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the many possibilities to improve outcomes for vulnerable children. As Ethiopia considers its child welfare policies, and as adoption agencies move out of the country, here are some of my hopes:

  • That the Ethiopian government will include adult adoptees and first/birth parents in their discussions and policies regarding adoption. Some 14,000 Ethiopian children were adopted to the United States between 1999-2013. Several thousand others have been adopted, such as those adopted before 1999 as well as those adopted to western and northern Europe, Canada, and Australia. My dream: Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora is one example of adoptees becoming active and empowered. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a conference held in Addis that invited adoptees and first/birth families to participate in molding the future of adoption in Ethiopia?
  • That organizations such as Ethiopia Reads, Roots Ethiopia, Weema, Clinic at a Time, AHope for Children, Connected In Hope, and others will be sustained and enhanced. One consequence of adoption has been the formation and sustenance by adoptive parents of many non-governmental organizations in Ethiopia. These organizations provide clean water, literacy, jobs, and health care, which means that families are less likely to place their children in orphanages. Please support them as much as possible.
  • That many more people will sponsor children and families, to keep children with their families and to alleviate enormous financial burdens for young people aging out of orphanages. One example (and the organizations above also have sponsorships): Encourage Africa. There are women now involved with Encourage Africa who were formerly living with their children in latrines, and, yes, that is as horrible as you might imagine. They had nowhere else to get a roof over their heads. Sponsorships change that. Other programs (there are many; the monthly costs are usually $25 to $50) include Mommas With A Mission and Mamush. My dream: Everyone who has adopted an Ethiopian child, or considered adoption, will spread the word about sponsorships, and become a sponsor if possible.
  • That there will be a transparent, uniform system of records’ maintenance, for both adopted persons and for first/birth families. When adoption agencies close or end programs, it’s often unclear where their records and files go. When adoptees search for information (and that could be years after adoption), they are often unable to get any records from the main source: the adoption agency. Further, adoptive families are supposed to send reports annually to the Ministry of Women’s, Children’s, and Youth’s Affairs in Ethiopia, until the child is 18. There is controversy about whether to send the reports, whether they are ever read, how they are filed and preserved, and whether the first families have access (or were promised access) to them. It would be wonderful to know that the reports were being preserved (perhaps even translated), and made available to Ethiopian families. My dreams: All Ethiopian families who yearn for information about the children they placed for adoption are able to receive that information. College and graduate students and/or professors in Ethiopia might consider this as a project for an Information Management class. 
  • That more families in Ethiopia and around the globe will participate in the work of Ethiopian Adoption Connection. EAC has already built a strong database and helped to reunite families. The site is available in English and Amharic, and they are expanding their possibilities.
  • That significant post-placement support programs may be created for Ethiopian birth/first families. Adoptive families have access to post-adoption resources, not nearly enough, some better than others. There are Facebook groups, therapists, support groups, adoption agency workshops, adoption conferences, international adoption clinics, and more. Ethiopian first/birth families too often have nothing in terms of post-placement support. Nothing. Some changes are happening, slowly. We adoptive parents need to demand more for the first families of all the children, especially as adoption agencies withdraw from Ethiopia.

This is a volatile time in adoption. We have tremendous opportunities to bring about meaningful change, as a community, for children who need families, and for the families who love them.

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Original artwork by Adanech Evans. Used with permission. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

 

Remembering Hana: May 12, 2011

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Rest in Peace. Rest in Power. Rest in Paradise. Hana Alemu, we are thinking of you today and honoring the life that ended much too soon.

It was four years ago today that she died outside her adoptive family home, from malnutrition and hypothermia, having suffered through so much.

Many people have kept her memory alive, and remember Hana as a source of inspiration to fight for the safety and well-being of all children.

Her cousin Haimanot helped raise Hana in Ethiopia before Hana came to the US. Haimanot has a potentially life-threatening medical condition for which she has received surgery, but will need more. You can read about her here, and you help by donating to or sharing the fundraising site here. Haimanot is working hard to survive and thrive. Any help you can give her would be wonderful.

Hana’s adoptive parents, Larry and Carri, remain in jail in Washington State, having been convicted in September 2013. Both filed appeals in fall 2013 to their murder convictions, and the process is moving slowly through the appellate courts.

Today, let’s think of Hana. May all children be loved and safe.

 

 

Being “Home,” Being Adopted, Being Lemn Sissay

In the journey to and from home, there are many intersections, places where 2 or more roads meet. When you are expecting a delivery to your home, what do they ask you?

“What’s the nearest intersection?”

The synonyms for intersection are circle, cloverleaf, crossing, crosswalk, interchange, junction, stop.

Let’s make that a poem:

Intersection

Circle, cloverleaf, crossing, crosswalk.

Interchange, junction.

Stop.

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©: Maureen McCauley Evans

Consider the intersections of the poet/writer/broadcaster/foster care alum/Ethiopian adoptee/British citizen/MBE Lemn Sissay. “His head is in London where he’s based, his heart is in Manchester where he is not, his soul is in Addis and his vibe is in New York where his mother lives,” according to his website.

Lemn Sissay has a new BBC radio broadcast, taped at the Ghion Hotel in Addis, called “Homecoming.” He speaks about the various crossings of his life, and brings in several people who have traveled on some of the same roads as he has. He interviews two Ethiopian adoptees, raised in Holland and now living in Ethiopia, (An intersection: my daughter and I met also with those two lovely people in Addis last August.) He talks about Prince Alemayehu, about whom I’ve written several times. Lemn cooks with his Ethiopian sister. He recites poems to his audience at the Ghion. You can hear the cloverleaf of language in the broadcast, where Amharic is spoken, though not by Lemn, who speaks English, though he is Ethiopian.

He shares this poem:

…When I found out I am Ethiopian, I come home, and I am asked how Ethiopian I am.

At the end of the day, you are home where you are accepted. No?

You make home where you are accepted, and, in making that home, you accept it.

Home is not one place.

“Home” can be complicated, whether we are connected to adoption or not. I’d argue that the roads to adoption and from adoption are especially complicated. Lemn writes that “home” is not one place. It’s certainly not just a house or hut or hospital room, because those can and do disappear, either physically or in our memories. Perhaps adoptees start in one place, and often travel through many places which others may call “home” but they don’t feel fully safe, fully comfortable, fully right–until they do, until they can claim it themselves, in a way that no one else can. Perhaps in a way that no one but an adopted person can understand fully.

The radio show is called by the BBC a “Comedy of the Week,” in (I suppose) the English major sense of “comedy:” not everyone dies, the situation of the protagonist goes from bad to good, there is a happy ending. (Is that how adoption goes? Sometimes. Not always.) You might not laugh out loud while you listen, though you’ll likely smile. You may sigh as well, thinking about the losses alluded to, the roads not travelled, the differences made by wrong turns, missed exits, sketchy directions.

Lemn Sissay writes that, at the end of the day, you are home where you are accepted. Another innovative thinker wrote that, “We are all just walking each other home.”

May we be kind to each other on our journeys, and may we stop to understand those whose lives intersect with ours along the way.

Part 1 of Lemn Sissay’s Homecoming broadcast is available here. Part 2 will be available May 12.

Orphan Hosting Programs: Giving Hope or Creating Trauma?

Programs which host orphans for a brief, fun visit to the US have been around for at least 15 years. They are one of those efforts that often seem wonderful, but are in fact much more complicated than they might appear initially. Among adoptive parents and adoptees, they evoke a volatile range of emotions. We all agree that children deserve safe, loving families. How we get them to (or keep them in) those families is full of controversy.

What are “Hosting Programs for Orphans”?

There are many of them. I think the earliest program to bring children from orphanages (in Kazakstan, I believe) to visit the US was Kidsave, started by two adoptive mothers in the late 90’s. Project 143 started in 2010, and has a format similar to other hosting programs. They have worked in China and Latvia, and have a new Ethiopia program this year. Children are selected on the basis of age and ability to benefit from the program. Age is a factor because the focus is often on children who are older, who have been in the orphanage a long time, and who are likely to age out of the orphanage without being adopted. Some of the children have special medical or other needs. Good behavior and academic success are listed as criteria in some programs. Host families in the US agree to have a child or children live with their family for four or six weeks (the length of time varies in different programs), and show the orphanage children what life is like in a family in the US. The host family also agrees to get medical and dental care for the children; the insurance is usually covered by the hosting program, not the family. The children must return to their country at the end of the hosting period.

The cost to the host family is in the range of $2.000 to $3,000.

The children may or may not be legally available for adoption. And here is where things are murky. While some host programs are seen as “cultural experiences” and some are to share Christian faith, their underlying purpose usually is to get the children adopted. Some hosting programs are run either directly or indirectly by adoption agencies. The host families are not supposed to talk about adoption with the children. The children are not supposed to know that they are being considered for adoption. The host families may pursue adoption after the hosting program, but are under no obligation to do so. Adoption costs are generally in the range of $25,000 to $40,000, and must be completed by an accredited adoption agency.

The main countries from which children visit are (or were) Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, China, Colombia, and Philippines. Other countries, such as Nicaragua and Ethiopia, have hosting programs as well.

Arguments For the Summer Hosting Programs

The hosting programs may be the children’s best (last) chance to be adopted and to have a permanent family. The adoptions that occur as a result of the hosting programs probably never would have otherwise occurred. According to Kidsave, for example, “We have found that during the summer, miracles happen, and many children are adopted by American families they meet during the Summer Miracles program. Since 1999, more than 1,700 children have participated in the program and over 80% of them have found permanent families as a result.”

The children who are adopted through hosting programs often advocate for the children left behind in the orphanages.

The host families who don’t adopt often become informal sponsors of the children they hosted, keeping in contact, providing financial assistance, and in other ways mentoring and helping the child (teen, young adult).

The strategy is similar to approaches used in the US foster care community to find families for children who are older and in danger of aging out of the system, often to very difficult situations. Getting the kids in front of families is a powerful way to promote the orphans as individuals deserving a family.

Regardless of whether they are adopted, the children learn some English, and they receive medical and dental care here in the US, some of which may have been unavailable in their country.

The hosting programs raise awareness of the needs of children in orphanages, and this can mean increased assistance and donations to the orphanages.

Hosting programs offer children the experience of being in a family, role models for healthy parenting, and hope. From a Christian perspective, via New Horizons for Children (the largest faith-based program, facilitating orphan hosting nationwide), “Receiving unconditional love and nurturing and being treated as a member of their host family who will usually maintain contact even after the child returns home to their orphanage. This gives them hope. Learning that they do have a Father, the same Father in Heaven that we all have…who loves us dearly and is always with us and lets them know they are never alone.”

Arguments Against the Summer Hosting Programs

The hosting programs increase the layers of trauma for children who visit and are then not chosen for adoption.

The children may bond with the family during the visit, and then never hear from them again, another trauma in a life of many traumas.

There is controversy about mission trips and orphanage tourism. The hosting programs are a “reverse mission trip,” where the children are brought here instead of the family going there. Some argue that orphanage tourism does more harm than good. Can we learn from that?

It is unclear how a brief, “summer camp” experience in the US is inherently better than no experience at all for an orphanage child. It is unethical, perhaps even cruel, to show a child a “Disneyland” view of life, and then send him back to poverty and hardship.

There is little or no research on outcomes for these children, either those who are adopted or those who are not. We need to know outcomes for children adopted after being hosted, especially given concerns about adoption disruptions and re-homing. We also need to know the impact of the programs on those who are not chosen for adoption: what are the ethical responsibilities to those children?

The hosting programs focus on bringing the children to the United States, rather than seeking out local families (in Ethiopia or other country of origin) to host the orphans. Why not work with families in-country who could show examples of strong parenting and economic security, instead of bringing the children around the globe?

The majority of the hosting programs are started and run by adoptive parents, with little or no involvement by adult adoptees. Some see this as an ongoing marginalization of adult adoptees, and the continuing use of white privilege.

There may be unintentional and unavoidable pressure on host families to adopt the orphans who visit. (Some of the programs take place at Christmas time, which for Christian families could be especially emotional.) The decision to adopt should not be impulsive or without significant preparation. Knowing what the child will return to in the home country may impel a decision that is not best for anyone.

It’s unlikely (though possible) that the children do not know they are being considered for adoption. This gives the prospective parents an ability to screen or “test drive” children, which has an uncomfortable ethical element in terms of international adoption practice.

If the program goes on for more than one season from an orphanage, and some children are adopted as a result, surely the next wave of children will be aware of the possibilities of the hosting program as an audition for adoption to the US.

The amount of money involved (about $3,000 for the hosting, potentially $25,000-$35,000 for adoption) could be better used for family preservation programs or other investments that either keep families together or prevent children from ending up in orphanages. That money would help many more children than the few who end up being adopted from these programs.

The children are not necessarily orphans at all. They may not even be eligible for adoption, something that might not be known until a family looks into adopting the child. Children who were thought to be orphans have later been found to have living family members, or to have been adopted under fraudulent circumstances. This has been true in recent years in many countries, and it is one of the reasons that international adoption has declined.

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Plane at LAX. © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

What’s the bottom line here? The argument that “Imperfect as it may be, this is at least one way that orphans find families” is the perhaps the strongest motivation for the hosting programs. But at what cost, and to whom?

I am going to continue thinking this through, and I hope you will also. So much is at stake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invitation to Share Information on Adoptees and Suicide

I reached out to Forefront, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization here in Washington state, about depression, trauma, and suicide in the adoption community. I asked if they might consider highlighting adoptees in some way on their website, to provide information for them and their families.

Today I was invited to be a guest author for their blog, as well as to offer other ideas of how I think they could bring awareness to this issue on their website.

I am honored to do so, and am very appreciative of Forefont’s response and their openness to receiving and providing this information.

I want to open this up to adult adoptees to share in the writing of the blog post and the provision of information. It may or may not have been my status as an adoptive parent that opened this door, but I would like to go through it with the voices and insights of adult adoptees. I know so many who have amazing professional credentials as therapists and researchers, who have hard-earned experience with depression and trauma, and who have had loved ones attempt or die by suicide. Please: send me an email at Maureen (at) LightOfDayStories.com and let me know if you would be willing to help shine more light on the role of suicide, and suicide prevention, in the adoption community.

First/birth parents are welcome also, of course, as are adoptive parents, siblings, spouses/partners, and others. We need many voices. Suicide affects all of us, and we must work together on prevention.

Here’s some information about Forefront. Please check out and support their website.

“Mission: Forefront advances innovative approaches to suicide prevention through policy change, professional training, campus and school-based interventions, media outreach, support for persons affected by suicide and program evaluation.

Vision: We envision Washington State as a community where there is no suicide. To achieve this goal: 1) the public needs education that suicide is preventable including how to help those affected by suicide; 2) individuals in crisis have to have rapid access to effective treatment for behavioral health disorders; 3) strategies need to be implemented that prioritize emotional wellness and suicide prevention readiness within healthcare systems, schools and campuses, and by employers; and 4) progressive state policies that support the aforementioned conditions must be enacted.

Goal: Reduce the suicide rate in Washington State by a minimum of twenty percent by 2020. Once successful, Forefront will broaden its outreach to other states where the rates of suicide in the U.S. are the highest.

At Forefront, we know most suicides are preventable and that the time to act is now.”

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Update on Ethiopian Adoptees’ Anthology

I’m thrilled to say that we have already gotten several thoughtful essays for the upcoming anthology Lions Roaring, Far From Home, which will focus on the experiences of Ethiopian adoptees from around the world. Please take a look at the Call for Submissions.

We are about half way through the time frame of the open call for writers; the deadline is June 15. So far we have heard from, among others, an 8-year-old adoptee, a 15-year-old adoptee, an adopted adult raised in Holland, and an adopted adult raised in France. We have essays on the way from adoptees in the US and Canada, including adoptees who are in their 40’s and 50’s. It’s exciting to see both the range of experiences as well as some common themes.

Please share the Call for Submissions with any and all Ethiopian adoptees. Please keep in mind that while this anthology is wonderful in itself, the funds from it will go toward the creation of a guest house in Addis as a welcoming, helpful gathering place for returning Ethiopian adoptees from around the globe.

Thank you! Amaseganallo!

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Photo taken near Awassa, Ethiopia. © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption

It’s a balancing act to discuss adoption as trauma. The idea of adoption as trauma is relatively new, and I understand that it’s disconcerting for many people. Separation from one’s mother as baby or child is traumatizing; we are hardwired to connect with our mothers. Adoptees often undergo additional separation from caregivers in a foster home or orphanage. Those losses can be traumatic as well, and the trauma can manifest over time or later in life. Depression is also disconcerting, to the 19 million Americans who struggle with it and to those who love the people who are struggling. Many adoptees struggle as children, as teens, and as adults with anxiety and depression. Talking about these medical conditions can be hard. Still, as anyone involved in adoption or in life knows, not talking about difficult, uncomfortable things rarely ends well.

It’s also a balancing act to encourage discussion about suicide without encouraging suicide. Same with remembering those who have died by suicide without inadvertently glamorizing suicide. High schools, for example, face this dilemma when a student has died by suicide, not wanting to trigger any sort of imitation, or “suicide cluster.”

Suicide is the third top cause of death among 10 to 14 year olds, and the second top cause among 15 to 24 year olds.

My post Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering has been shared on Facebook about 800 times since I published it last Monday. There have been several thousand views and visitors, and I have heard personally from many people. Clearly, it struck a chord, and we need to keep this conversation going, even if it is complicated and difficult to balance.

For anyone in crisis, call this number: 1-800-273-8255. You can call the number if you are considering suicide or if someone you know is. Available anytime, day or night. 24/7/365.

Two significant resources are the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Both have huge amounts of information, research, and more. I’ve reached out to both organizations above, asking if they would consider providing adoptee-specific information on their websites.  I’ve offered to draft material and network with them about this, and I hope I hear back soon. Please reach out to them as well.

Here are suggestions for talking with someone who may be suicidal. I share this because there are many resources available for this tough stuff.

Most suicide attempts are rooted in some sort of trauma and/or depression. Many people who have considered or died by suicide have also been diagnosed with depression and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. President Obama in February signed a suicide prevention law to make it easier for U.S. military veterans to access mental health resources. The law also provides funding to recruit and retain professionals to help veterans struggling with PTSD and other challenges.

Here’s an eye-opener: Former foster care children are almost twice as likely as US war veterans to suffer from PTSD. You can read more in this Casey Foundation report.

I’ve cited, several times, the American Academy of Pediatric’s report that adoptees are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as non-adopted people but it bears sharing again. Read the report here.

We can recognize that trauma is a part of adoption, without claiming that all adopted people are affected the same way. Many do just fine, handling challenges with resilience and strength. Many struggle, and those are the ones I want to recognize, acknowledge, and assist, if possible.

Here are some strategies and resources:

  • Learn about trauma in adoption. “Assume that all children who have been adopted or fostered have experienced trauma.” That is a central quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics guide for pediatricians, “Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope With Trauma.” Share this resource with your pediatrician.
  • Make suicide awareness a component of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Suicide awareness should be part of information provided to prospective parents about trauma, depression, and anxiety disorders, and their frequent appearance in adoptees.
  • Insist on speakers in pre- and post-adoption workshops who have struggled with depression and trauma. Agencies: Improve networking with adult adoptees and adoptees who are therapists, so that adoption agencies have several speakers to provide for families.
  • Understand why access to medical histories for adoptees is essential. Denial of that information (which could be lifesaving), in regard to mental illness and other medical conditions, is unconscionable. The American Adoption Congress has focused its legislative advocacy efforts on opening access to original birth certificates. Information is available here.
  • Advocate for adoption competency among therapists. Suggest that families also look for therapists trained in childhood trauma, as well as in adoption-related issues.
  • Advocate for strong post-adoption mental health services for everyone: the adoptee, the adoptive parents, and the first/birth parents.
  • Suggest, promote, and provide workshops with titles like “Depression Among Teenage Adoptees: What It Looks Like, What Can Help,” or “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption,” or “PTSD and Adoptees: The Realities and the Treatments,” and “Adult Adoptees Speak Out About Depression, Anxiety, and Suicide Prevention.”
  • Learn about the impact of bullying and cyberbullying on children and teens. According to the site stopbullying.gov, “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.”
  • Adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations: Provide current, substantial lists of resources to families about therapists, therapies, articles, podcasts, videos, and more related to adoption, depression, and suicide prevention.
  • Learn about psychotherapies that can benefit people struggling with depression and trauma. The National Institute of Mental Health has clear information: Psychotherapies. One therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is for chronically suicidal people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and is also used for substance dependence, PTSD, and depression.
  • Learn about the role of addiction in adoption, and how addiction and substance abuse intersect with trauma and depression. One resource is a YouTube video by Paul Sunderland, titled Adoption and Addiction.

Fill yourself and your loved ones with accurate information, with hope, and with attention to deep listening. Let go of shame and fear about mental illness, and encourage others to do so as well. All of us in the adoption community can work together in a powerful way to increase awareness of suicide, and to promote suicide prevention.

 

Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering

Just this morning, as I was getting ready to post this, I read on my Facebook feed about a 28-year-old Korean adoptee who died by suicide two days ago. I did not know her. She was the same age as my oldest son, and she had a daughter about the age of my granddaughter. May she rest in peace.

I am holding in my heart a 20-something-year-old adoptee, adopted with a biological sibling into a huge adoptive family (more than 25 kids). He is overwhelmed all the time these days, as a result of things he has done and has had done to him. He wants to go home, though he’s not sure any longer where “home” is. He is in great need of mental health services, and is intently resisting help. He is teetering on the edge of suicide.

Yes, I know most adoptees do well. But this one is struggling, and it appears to be the result of events after he was adopted. His adoptive family has abandoned him.

My two most shared blog posts (shared over 1000 times on Facebook) are “Does ‘Adoption’ Really Equal ‘Trauma’?” and “Fisseha Sol Samuel: Irreplaceably Marvelous.” Both deal with a hard side of life: trauma and suicide. The first post says, yes, adoption is trauma, and there is a spectrum of response to it. The second post was written last October following the suicide of an Ethiopian adoptee who had previously exhibited no symptoms of depression, and whose death was likely (we will never know for sure) the result of a sudden, triggering, traumatizing event in which he was overwhelmed and impulsive. Fisseha’s mother, Melissa Faye Green, has written several powerful posts as she sorts through her son’s death.

Here is an excerpt from my post about Fisseha:

“There is sobering research that says that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. It’s here in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not lightweight stuff, and even more startling in that the mean age of the 1000 participants was about 14. Out of the total group, which included adoptees and biological children, 56 had attempted suicide; 47 of those were adoptees.”

I am holding in my heart a 14-year-old Eastern European adoptee, who is too familiar with drugs and sex, who is loved deeply by her adoptive parents, who is in various therapies, who cuts herself and threatens suicide often. She can be a bubbly, sweet teen, and also a deeply frightened and frightening out-of-control mystery.

Yes, her struggle may not be the result of being adopted, but rather of what happened to her before she was adopted. She is struggling, and those who love her are deeply worried.

No one enjoys thinking of adoption as a trauma. No one likes to talk about suicide. And, I know: most adoptees–most people generally–don’t consider or die by suicide.

That said, let’s start thinking and talking about the link among adoption, trauma, and suicide. Let’s insist that suicide awareness be a part of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Let’s demand that anyone who claims “adoption competency” in their therapeutic practice is extremely knowledgeable about suicide. Let’s actively and shamelessly share resources to prevent suicide. Let’s request workshops like “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption” as a topic at adoption-related conferences. We need to stop whispering about suicide and adoption, and to speak about it with clarity and without fear.

I am holding in my heart a 16-year-old adoptee from India, beloved by her adoptive family, mentored by an adult Indian adoptee, raised in Minnesotan suburbs, who killed herself about a month ago.

Yes, she struggled, and also was offered and received help. She may be at peace now, though all those left behind are filled with sorrow and questions.

These 3 adoptees are among the reasons that we must talk about the role of trauma and suicide in adoption.

A few weeks ago, I was at the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. The main legislative advocacy effort of the AAC has historically been access to original birth certificates, a means of allowing adopted persons to know who they are, a basic human and civil right.

What is the connection between suicide and the AAC’s legislative efforts? Well, there may be a genetic component to the likelihood of suicide. Access to one’s medical and mental health history–too often denied to adopted persons–could be a matter of life and death. Knowing about a history of depression or other mental illnesses in one’s family could mean proactive treatment and interventions. It is yet another reason that closed records are unfair, untenable, and wrong.

Here are links to two medical journal articles:

Genetic and Familial Environmental Effects on Suicide – An Adoption Study of Siblings

Genetics of Suicide: An Overview

Many adoptees are adopted into families where the adoptive parents are well off financially, have attended college, and are in highly regarded professions.The adopted children go to excellent schools and often have wonderful opportunities. Still. Take a look at “Best, Brightest–And Saddest?”, in which Frank Bruni reflects on the “suicide contagion” among teens in Palo Alto and elsewhere who are under pressure to succeed academically in highly competitive situations. The article cites a CDC report that says 17 percent of American high school students considered suicide in 2012. Eight percent said they’d attempted it.

Suicide, of course, feeds on trauma and depression, and does not discriminate based on economics and education. While the “suicide cluster” among high schoolers in “epicenters of overachievement” is discussed in the New York Times’ article above, there has also been a similar tragedy–which has not made national press–among young people in Seattle. Three young men, ages 18, 18, and 20, who were students at the Seattle Interagency Academy (SIA), died by suicide, within a 4 month period in the last year. SIA works with at-risk youth, who have struggling families and who are often homeless or on probation. Listen to an excellent podcast with the SIA principal here.

Coincidentally, there was a string of 7 suicides by adolescents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota around the same time. No one is quite sure why this is happening, though bullying and grim prospects for the future seem to be significant.

I don’t know if any of these young people had spent time in foster care or were adopted. Certainly, though, their life paths echoed those of many young people whose families are struggling mightily, and those struggles are often the reasons that children land in foster care and/or adoption. Racism and micro-aggressions can significantly affect the mental health of transracial adoptees; I wrote about that reality here. Even adoptees placed as infants in same-race families can struggle with loss, grief, identity, and feelings of not belonging. It’s clear that many of these challenges manifest in adolescence.

This is all daunting tough stuff. I am seeking a balance: to acknowledge suicide prevention as a goal about which we can all speak in the adoption community, not over-reacting, being pro-active, and supporting each other. My next post on this subject will give some resources.

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Light Through Trees, Forest near Lake Langano, Ethiopia © Maureen McCauley Evans