OPINION | It’s time to address the trauma of adoption

Contributed By Mila Konomos and Rebecca Seung-Bickley

Another November has passed us by. For those not already aware, November is designated as National Adoption Awareness Month, or as adoptees like myself prefer to call it, National Adoptee Awareness Month (NAAM). I do not think it is coincidence that the month designated for the observation of Thanksgiving–the holiday created by colonizers to teach the colonized to express gratitude for the colonizer–was chosen to also host NAAM.

As Adoptees, we are oftentimes raised to believe in a doctrine of gratitude. We are taught to be grateful that we were “saved” by our White American parents. This narrative fits nicely within the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving. 

However, the truth that people do not like to hear–just like the tragic story behind what happened on this land when the settlers massacred the indigenous people already living here–is that adoption is not a fairy tale. Adoption is trauma.

Adoption as an institutionalized practice began as a tool of invasion and colonization. It began here on this land when Europeans brought settler colonialism with them. As part of their colonizing efforts, the settlers forcibly separated indigenous children from their families and tribes and sent them to re-education camps euphemistically called “boarding schools.” Some indigenous children were also sent to live with White European families. The sole purpose of this was to erase their indigenous origins in order to “Westernize,” i.e., colonize indigenous communities through their children.

Modern adoption is essentially an extension of these same practices. There are two hundred thousand Korean adoptees worldwide, half of which reside in America. This is no coincidence. The first Korean children adopted to America were spoils of a proxy war between Russia/China and America/Europe in what is known to most as the Korean War. 

The subsequent export of thousands of Korean children to primarily America and Europe was a direct result of the intersection of the Korean War, White Saviorism, and Korean stigmatization of mixed race children and unwed mothers. This intersection capitalized on the White supremacy and American exceptionalism that propelled modern American imperialism, colonialism, and globalization. 

Korea had thousands of children it viewed as blemishes upon society. America saw yet another resource to convert and colonize for the benefit of the expansion of its empire. This scenario repeated itself during the American War in Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese children were airlifted out of Vietnam (Operation Babylift) with no verification of their family status, and subsequently adopted into White American families.

In the decades since, transracial, transnational adoption has become akin to a codified American tradition. Adoptive parents receive tax cuts as incentives to adopt. Some airlines even offer discounted airfares to adoptive parents when traveling to procure their adopted children. Churches preach adoption from the pulpit as though it is the gospel of Jesus himself, and fundraisers can garner upwards of fifty to sixty thousand dollars per child. The dominant narrative presents adoption as an altruistic and charitable act that bestows near sainthood upon those who choose to take on the noble deed.

Yet there is little acknowledgement of how this lauded American tradition has resulted in the traumatic separation of thousands of children from their families, many of whom are not orphans. There are estimates that 80% of children in orphanages are not true orphans. Rather they have living family members who can and want to care for them, but may have turned to an orphanage due to extreme duress or poverty. 

I am one of those Adoptees who was never a true orphan. I have been in reunion with my Korean mother and Korean father for over a decade. Furthermore, upon reuniting, I learned that neither one of them wanted to relinquish me for adoption. Despite what some may think, reuniting with a family with whom you did not grow up, with whom you do not share the same language, history, or culture does not magically repair all that has been broken. In many ways, it deepens the pain and slices open new wounds. 

The dominant narrative also neglects the fact that for some adoptees this traumatic separation from our families and origins is only the first trauma of many. Unfortunately, there are adoptees who were placed into U.S. families, yet for whom U.S. citizenship was never secured. Subsequently, decades later, they find themselves being deported to countries they never knew. In these tragic cases, the traditional narrative of a “better life” has become a nightmarish lie. 

These narratives of “forever families” and “better lives” are colonialist deceptions. The perpetuation of this rhetoric fails to acknowledge the complexities adoptees face, or to recognize the Adoptees for whom adoption itself has failed. Adoption and this country have failed Adoptees Without Citizenship. Adoptive parents who promised Adoptees permanent homes have failed them. The adoption agencies that neglected to secure their citizenship failed them. And America has continued to fail Adoptees by its negligence and lack of urgency to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act.

Yet, America still has a chance to rectify this failure. Congress can move to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act, which would provide citizenship retroactively to all adoptees who should have received citizenship when they were adopted by U.S citizens. It would also finish what Congress began when it passed the Child Citizenship Act (CCA) in 2000. The CCA ensured that all minors at the time of its passage and all future intercountry adoptees would be automatically granted citizenship. That some adult adoptees were left behind has been a cruel oversight. It is time to close this omissive loophole, so that we can bring our loved ones out of hiding, that they may return to their homes and families undaunted by fear of deportation from the only home they have ever known.

Mila Konomos, or Empress Han (@the_empress_han), is the author of this piece. She is a reunited transracial adoptee, poet, and artist. Her first adapted poetry album set to launch in 2021 explores the intersection of transracial/transnational adoption, identity, and race in the broader sociopolitical systems of imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy. She lives in Atlanta, GA with her partner of 17 years and their two hilarious children.

Rebecca Seung-Bickley is a Korean transracial adoptee, member of Adoptees for Justice, and advocate for adoption reform and citizenship for all adoptees. She is also the Communications Director for the ACLU of Alabama. She co-wrote and edited this piece.

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