Searching in Adoption: Where to Begin?

Adoption happens because a child’s first family is unable to care safely or appropriately for him or her. That first family is always present nonetheless, whether in genetics, hair texture, race, physical memory, or a silent occasional moment of wondering on birthdays.

Some adoptees grieve the loss of their first families deeply, and search meticulously and intensely. Some suppress their curiosity, in deference to adoptive parents, or to fear of what they might learn. Some accept the information they have and don’t spend much time or energy on it. Some mourn in silence, feeling guilty and confused. Some do an idle search on Facebook and happily find siblings in a single click of the laptop. Some are contacted by their original parents, or by the child they placed, out of the blue.

Birth/first parents often share many of these emotions: grief, fear, curiosity, guilt, confusion, contentment, happiness, and more.

The adoptees and first parents in these scenarios could be about any age, and anywhere in the world.

The decision to search can be gradual or sudden, well-planned or haphazard. The results can be all over the map, just like the emotions that prompted the search. Having someone along for support can be critical: a (nonjudgmental, compassionate) friend, spouse, partner, sibling, therapist, mentor.

Where to begin a search? Here is an offering:

Basic Adoption Search Resources

It’s a document I created containing both US and international search resources. It’s not all-inclusive, definitive, or guaranteed. I’ve had many people ask me privately about search resources, and so put this list together.  If it is useful to you, wonderful.

As I say at the end of the document:

May you find what you are looking for, and may it bring you peace.

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Australian Adoptee Finds Way Back to India Via Google Earth

Oh my. I wrote recently about the power of maps, and how they can help adoptees and others fill in missing pieces of their pasts. (See Mapping Adoption Journeys: The Cartography of Healing.) Now here is an adoptee’s journey, via Google Earth. This story could resonate especially with anyone adopted at an older age, including those who might have been abandoned or even trafficked, from places around the globe. Astonishing potential here to find one’s way home, however one defines that.

A little boy in 1986 fell asleep on a train in Berhanpur, India, woke up 1500 kilometers away in Calcutta, and ended up being adopted to Australia. His adoptive mom always kept a map of India on his wall while he was growing up.

Now a 32-year-old adult, Saroo Munshi Khan (adopted name Brierley) used his memories as a 5-year-old plus Google Earth imagery–and found his way back to his hometown of Khandwa, India. It took hours and hours of staring at the computer screen, going through the “photographs” stored in his brain, seeing if any clicked with what appeared on Google Earth.

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In 2012, he traveled back to India, and rather quickly reunited with his mother and siblings.

I have chills. It’s an astonishing connection of a child’s memories, technology, and hope.

Here is Saroo’s story, which includes a great video of Saroo explaining his journey: A long way home with help from Google Earth. 

Saroo has also written a book, A Long Way Home. You can connect with him here on Facebook.

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The world of adoption is changing in revolutionary ways. Adoptees and their first families  can reconnect by unexpected methods. The poet/songwriter/singer Kate Wolf wrote that “sometimes the strongest love hangs by such a slender thread.” Yet, look at how tenacious that slender thread can be.

The Power of Plays, and Adoptees: “How To Be A Korean Woman”

I am a big believer in the arts, and the power and value of the arts. I’ve written on my “Upcoming” page about the performance of the play “How To Be A Korean Woman,” written and performed by (actor, dancer, playwright, Korean adoptee) Sun-Mee Chomet.

I first saw “How To Be a Korean Woman” last spring, when Sun-Mee performed it in St. Paul at Dreamland Arts Theater. It was brilliant and powerful. This time, she’s performing it September 19-22 and 24 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and tickets are nearly sold out. This in itself is glorious: about 1000 seats have sold in 3 weeks.

What makes this more significant is a controversy going on in the Minnesota theater community now. In October, the Ordway Theater in St. Paul is planning to revive the musical “Miss Saigon,” and there have been many conversations and concerns about the play’s stereotypes, over-sexualization of Asian women, romanticization of human trafficking, and overall disrespect to Asian-Americans, according to Sheila Regan, in an article titled “We should all boycott the Ordway’s revival of racist musical, Miss Saigon.”  Mu Performing Arts artistic director Randy Reyes provides more elaboration in this article, titled “Miss Saigon returning, stereotypes and all.

Why does all this matter? Well, at least in part because the Guthrie was skeptical about interest in a play like Sun-Mee’s, in her type of Asian-American theater and in adoption issues.

The Guthrie is now overwhelmed with the number of folks buying tickets.

If you want to buy tickets, do so now, because the performances are all sure to sell out. Information on the show and the Guthrie theater is available here.
You will have the pleasure of seeing a thoughtful, captivating, powerful play. You will also send a message to the Guthrie, the Twin Cities, and elsewhere that “How To Be A Korean Woman” is “the sort of theater people are hungry for: complexity, three-dimensionality, free of insulting stereotypes, and a truly compelling story that speaks to the dynamism of what is the 21st century Asian American experience.”
I will be attending the play on Sunday, September 22, and participating in the Talk-Back afterwards. Sun-Mee will be at the Talk-Back as well.  I can’t wait.
Sun-Mee Chomet, in "How To Be A Korean Woman"

Sun-Mee Chomet, in “How To Be A Korean Woman”

Adoptive Parents: It’s 2013. Do You Know Where Your Kids Are…Searching?

Long ago, the biggest issue facing many adoptive parents was how to tell their children they are adopted, and to help them process and understand that.That’s certainly still important. Parents have to be aware of developmental stages, of children’s questions and silences, and of how to share information appropriately.

The Very Big And Common Questions are these: Why was I adopted? Where is my birth mother now? Do I have brothers or sisters?

When sharing information with their children, adoptive parents, of children from the US or from anywhere in the world, can no longer rely solely on what was given to them by the adoption agency at the time of placement. That information may or may not be accurate, may or may not have been translated accurately, may or may not be complete, may or may not be outdated quickly.

It all becomes startlingly irrelevant in the face of the Internet: the gaping maw; the dark labyrinth; the source of information, rumors, unchecked lies. And perhaps your children’s main activity.

While lawmakers across this country continue to deny adopted adults their basic civil/human rights–access to their own birth certificates–plenty of people are searching and reuniting with their first families.

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Adoptive parents should be with their children on the journey to search for first family. In the case of international adoptees, traveling to the country of origin is hardly the only way to learn one’s story. Parents should be offering to assist, letting their child guide them, but being responsible, aware parents. This is most important during pre-teens and teenage years, when kids are knowledgeable about Internet use, wondering about their past, and struggling to figure out their identity. Some kids won’t want to search; some won’t be ready.  And some will be searching on their own.

A few realities:

*  As an adoptive parent, you have some control over what your child does on the Internet. Short of denying access at all, you will likely not have complete control. And if you deny access at home, your clever child can easily access the Internet in the library or at a friend’s house or on a friend’s phone. So learn and monitor and talk about it.  A lot.

*  Your child could easily be contacted by members of his or her birth family. This is an increasingly common occurrence.  Your child may well have Internet-agile siblings in other parts of the country or world.

*  Secrecy in adoption has never really helped anyone.  We don’t need a new spin on this of adopted children (teenagers, young adults) secretly searching and lying about it. We need parents who partner with and support their children on this complex journey.

*  Surprises are also not usually a goal in an adoptive search, though they are often an element. They make reunions even more complicated. The decision to search should be done thoughtfully, transparently, and patiently–and with loved ones helping out.

*  Once people find each other, which can happen quickly, that’s nowhere near an end.  It’s an enormous, complicated beginning. No one should be alone for that either, especially a young person.

There are approximately a zillion resources available for searching. Facebook, Google, and Tumblr are the most obvious, and probably the most common. Here are some other sites.

An excellent starting point is PACT: An Adoption Alliance. Here is their terrific list of resources for search and reunion.

An overview of search and reunion issues is on adoption.com.

International Soundex Reunion Registry This is a mutual consent registry–both parties have to register for a connection to be made. If the birth parent has registered here, it’s possible to make a quick connection.

Another source is the American Adoption Congress. They have extensive information about adoption reform, including facilitating reunification with birth family. AAC has state reps who can help navigate the state laws that control access to birth records (the laws vary for every state).

There’s a group called Adoptees in Search that’s based in Colorado; much of the info is about Colorado, but their site has additional information.

This site G’s Adoption Registry has information about “Search Angels,” folks who volunteer their time and skills to assist people searching for birth relatives. They usually work for free. Some are astonishingly knowledgeable and helpful; it can be a mixed bag.

Parents can and should look into some of the DNA services. If you or your child take a basic DNA test, the data can be included in a huge database, and it is possible to connect with (previously unknown) relatives. Of course, there are a lot of considerations in doing this. I wrote this blog post recently that gives further information and resources.

And if you think the power of Facebook in America is a big deal, have you looked at social media around the globe? Heard of VK? According to Wikipedia:

VK (Originally VKontakte, Russian: ВКонтакте, literally “in contact”) is the biggest social network service in Europe, it is available in several languages but popular particularly among Russian-speaking users around the world, especially in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Belarus, and Israel. Like other social networks, VK allows users to message contacts publicly or privately, create groups, public pages and events, share and tag images, audio and video, and play browser-based games.

As of December 2012, VK has at least 195 million accounts. VK is…the second most visited website in Russia. In December 2012 VK had an average of 43 million daily users.

I know of adoptive parents of Russian-born children who have searched and located birth family members via VK. I know of adoptees who have been contacted by siblings, some known about previously, some not. Translation services abound on the Internet, so it’s possible to easily send messages even without knowing another language.

I’d guess that the VK model will become more prevalent in other hemispheres as well.

It’s a small world. Live in it with eyes wide open. Be with your children on their journey.

Burning and Building Bridges: A Korean Adoptee Returns to Korea

A powerful story from the New York Times about a writer, activist, adoptee: read it here.

South Korea is widely regarded as the country that began international adoptions, in the late 1950’s. There are now hundreds of thousands of adult Korean adoptees, all around the globe.  The voices, writing, and activism of Korean adult adoptees are particularly significant, given their numbers and ages, and are the face of the future for other countries involved in international adoption. 

Jane Jeong Trenka a adopted from South Korea as a baby in 1972, and raised in Minnesota. She struggled with racism growing up, as well as a hefty amount of mis-information about the realities of her origins and reasons for adoption. In the mid-90’s, she traveled to Korea, reunited with her birth mother, and learned many truths. Over the next several years, she wrote two memoirs, connected with other Korean adoptees, and moved permanently to Korea.

Jane Jeong Trenka http://www.minnpost.com/sites/default/files/asset/9/92c7ij/92c7ij.jpg

She is widely credited with being a pivotal force behind recent legislation to reduce the number of adoptions from Korea by providing increased protections for single mothers to keep and raise their children, and by promoting more adoptions within Korea. Jane is currently the president of TRACK, Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea. Here’s a part of TRACK’s Mission Statement:

TRACK is an organization advocating full knowledge of past and present Korean adoption practices to protect the human rights of adult adoptees, children, and families. We belief that birth families and adoptees need rights, recognition, and reconciliation with society in order to fully contribute to a strong Korean society.

Now 41, Jane has learned to speak Korean. Her birth mother passed away in 2000. The New York Times article quotes her as saying South Korea is her “unrequited love,” and Jane is living out that complexity now in her country of origin, speaking out, insisting on transparency and accountability. She’s controversial, insightful, effective. And along with other adoptees, she’s making huge changes, not just in South Korea, but in the world of adoption.

Far Away, Always in My Heart

This post is written by my daughter Aselefech Evans. Thank you.

I assumed that once I (re)met my biological family in 2011, I would feel more complete and sure of whom I was becoming.  Some hard questions were answered. And a lot of new ones are on my mind now.

I was 6 years old in 1994 when my twin sister and I arrived in the US from Ethiopia. We had memories, and family, parents, siblings, cousins. For years, I had this soft image of my mother, a kind, loving and giving individual who would just about give up anything in the world for her children to be happy and safe.  That was the love that kept me strong. That was the love that allowed me to embrace my (first) (Ethiopian) family when I returned in 2011.

See, the thing was that distance never changed how much I love her.  Although her face slowly started to disappear as I lost my native language, that tender feeling in my heart for her was always alive and burning. No one could ever tell me that I was not loved nor well taken care of before I came to the US.  Because you see, my past says otherwise.  I came from a poor family, but we all were rich in the sense of culture, unity, and love.

Embracing my mother upon arrival in Ethiopia, and looking into her tired eyes, I saw years of pain, emptiness, regret, and much heart ache.  Although in that moment she was happy to see me, the sadness really never left her eyes.   In front of me I saw a strong and resilient woman, one who had grown very weary of her circumstances but yet was still hopeful.  It’s quite profound that hope and faith during times of destitution and despair are what give certain people purpose and meaning.

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So where do we go from here? I really don’t know. We can’t change the past. I’m trying to figure out the future, without a common language but with lots of love.

Hangouts, Insights, and Possibilities

Many thanks to the insightful, thoughtful Angela Tucker and Aselefech Evans for their time and conversation at last night’s Google + Hangout.

What we talked about: growing up in diverse/non-diverse places as transracial adoptees; thinking about first families; deciding when/how/why to search; how searching affects parents, siblings, others; how we fit in (or don’t) with the culture to which we were born.

Wonderful discussion of the weight and power of the words “mom” and “birth mom” and “first mom.”

Affirmation of the incredible value of conversations among adopted adults and adoptive parents. We need to keep doing this. Birth parents/first parents were there with us in words/mind/heart/spirit. They have a place at the table, no doubt–just need to keep working on getting them there.

Great stuff.

What needs work: My use and understanding of the Hangout process. We were not able to record this, and had some glitches in the live streaming. I spent a few hours last night after the Hangout reviewing what went well and how next time is going to be a seamless web of audio and video heaven.

Next steps: More Hangouts.  While it will never be possible to schedule them at a globally mutually convenient time, the next ones will be live-streamed and recorded.

Topics: So many possibilities, and I welcome more. Whose search is it anyway? Can international adoptees really reclaim their culture? What is “fair” in adoption? What does it mean to be comfortable in one’s skin? Is fraud really new in adoption, or are we just more aware of it now–and how do we reduce/eliminate it? How to deal with differing perspectives on search in the same family, or differing amounts of available information about birth families. What issues arise for adoptees working at adoption agencies? How can we work together to ensure that all adoptees have their original birth certificates?

So let’s keep talking.

Angela Tucker and Aselefech Evans On Transracial Adoption, Search, and Reunion

Angela Tucker, featured in the new documentary Closure, and Aselefech Evans will talk about transracial adoption, search, and reunion on Tuesday, June 4 at 7 p.m. PDT. You can watch their conversation live on Google+ Hangouts On Air here, or later on a YouTube page I’ll link to after the conversation.

Angela was adopted as a baby from Chattanooga, TN, and grew up in Bellingham, Washington.  Aselefech was 6 years old when she and her twin sister arrived from Ethiopia to join their US family in Maryland. Both Angela and Aselefech have searched for and reunited with their birth families. Each now in their 20’s, Angela and Aselefech will talk about race, hair, identity, loss, grief, and love, hosted by yours truly, Maureen McCauley Evans.

Update, Previews, and Teasers

It’s good to be back.  In the last few weeks, I’ve gone from Seattle to Vancouver and back, and then from Washington State to Maryland to New York City to Maryland to Washington State.

Update:

During these 3 weeks: One of my daughters ran her first 5k, and finished in the top 20. My other daughter made the honor roll for her college semester, and was asked to be a teaching assistant this fall in the psychology department. One of my sons received the certification for sanitation at the Culinary School he’s attending. My other son closed on several real estate/rental contracts.

I attended my granddaughter’s dance recital in Maryland.  She has since had two tee ball games, Field Day in kindergarten, and her piano recital.

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In New York City, I saw the play “The Call,” about a white married couple considering adopting a child from Africa. I also attended the annual conference of the Joint Council on International Children Services. I presented a session on “Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents: Ethics, Economics, and Responsibilities,” as well as a lightning talk (20 PowerPoint slides in 5 minutes) on The Art of Adoption, featuring poems, paintings, and plays by adoptees.

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And each Friday, whatever time zone I was in, I skyped with my dad in Massachusetts. He’s in amazing physical health for an 83 year old.  He lives in the Harbor unit of an assisted living facility, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He’s delightful to talk with, often asks if any of my kids are getting married. No word on that yet, Dad.

I’ve had lots to reflect on in terms of family, adoption, being in the moment, the futility of art-directing others people’s lives, and more.

Previews and Teasers

Tomorrow night (Tuesday June 4), 7 pm pdt/10pm edt: Angela Tucker (of Closure) and Aselefech Evans via Google + Hangout. The conversation will be about transracial adoption (US and Ethiopia), hair, race, diversity, search: how perception and understanding of adoption changes over time for adoptees, how our definition of “family” can be so complex.

In the next week or so, I will be posting my JCICS workshop information about Standards of Practice for Adoptive Parents.  (Teaser: The basics are citizenship, DNA testing, and role models/mentors who are adult adoptees.  The more controversial: Insisting on equitable pre-adopt and post-adopt services for birth families.)

I’m thrilled to be soon getting an advance review copy of The Declassified Adoptee‘s soon-to-be-published book. It’s going to be wonderful, powerful, provocative, insightful. A tremendous benefit to the adoption community.

Washington State has also provided two items of fodder recently for writing and commenting. For one, a less than adequate “compromise” bill on access to OBC’s. The second item is still not having a trial for Hana Alemu, more than two years after she was found dead in her adoptive parents’ back yard. A hearing is scheduled this week.

So.  There’s lots going on. Lots to write about, think about, reflect on. It’s good for us to be here.

Save the Date: Angela and Aselefech Talk Together!

On Saturday, June 1, at 10am pdt (1pm edt), I will be hosting an on-line live discussion with Angela Tucker and Aselefech Evans.

Angela’s story is featured in the new, highly-acclaimed documentary Closure, about her adoption as an African-American baby from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to white parents in Bellingham, Washington, and her search and reunion as a young adult with her birth family.

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Aselefech is an Ethiopian adoptee, who arrived in the US in 1994 at age 6 with her twin sister. She has also searched and reunited with her birth family in Ethiopia, as well as in Seattle. She has presented workshops and webinars about her story, about transracial adoption, about hair care, and more. Full disclosure: Aselefech is also my daughter. She was recently invited to be a columnist for the soon-to-be-launched magazine of Land of Gazillion Adoptees.

Aselefech with her brother (reunited in 2009) and her daughter. Photo: December 2012

Aselefech with her brother (reunited in 2009) and her daughter. Photo: December 2012

As transracial adoptees, they have much in common. As a US infant adoptee and as an older child international adoptee, they have different experiences. Both are wonderful, thoughtful, amazing young women, and their stories are compelling.

I’ll post more details later about how to watch and participate. Meanwhile, please save the date!