My right to know

I know I’m opening up myself for some dissent here, as any mention of halting or slowing down adoptions from any country immediately brings defensive rejoinders, but I feel this is an important issue. I believe that the loss of the information and history of our famiiles of origin is a fundamental right that was taken away from adopted individuals (though I know many other adoptees share this position I recognize not every adoptee does).

In discussions about adoption, many people often make statements about “the rights of children to have a permanent, loving home.” Yet, rarely do I hear about another right that I believe all human beings – including children – are entitled to: that of knowing who they are and where they came from.

I have been attempting to find out information about my Korean parents for the past 9 years now, to no success. Often, people will tell me that my Korean mother may not want to be found and that I should respect that. But why are her rights privileged over mine?

When I was in the hospital recently and going through a series of tests, I had to go through interview after interview answering “I’m adopted” in response to my medical history. Although I understand that my Korean mother may have felt she had no choice – or perhaps someone else made that “choice” for her – not having any idea on my family history is not acceptable.

That is why I am alarmed to find out that in Vietnam, there has been a growing trend in children being “abandoned” when previously they were “relinquished.”

This is no minor distinction. The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam is estimating that 85% of the children being placed for adoption are classified as “abandoned” compared to 38-39% around 2000-2002. The vast majority of children adopted from Vietnam in the earlier time frames who were relinquished had at least one – and many had both – biological parents information on record.

So why the sudden growth of “abandoned” children in Vietnam? According to Ethica,

There is simply no societal reason in Vietnam for the practices to have so abruptly changed from pre-closure to post-closure. There are, of course, a few possibilities about why it is happening now. It could be happening at the direction of orphanages, at the provincial level (one agency reported that some provinces are making rules that only abandoned children can be placed), or in some cases, at the direction of agencies or overseas facilitators. It could be happening to make processing easier, or to avoid investigations. It could be happening because people haven’t thought about the long-term ramifications. There likely will be a mix of opinions about why this phenomenon is occurring. Equally likely is that there probably are several different reasons.  But one thing is certain—regardless of the reasons, there are two end results. First, children are losing their identities, an unacceptable ramification of this practice. And secondly, there is a very real risk that this behavior will affect the future of adoptions from Vietnam. 

Ethica, along with the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, has called for greater investigation into the background of these children classified as “abandoned” and of course, that is leading to delays in the adoption process. Adoptive parents are outraged. The U.S. government and Vietnam are attempting to re-negotiate an agreement and many adoptive parents are advocating that Ethica stop its investigations because of the chance it will hurt the negotiation.

I don’t understand why any adoptive parent wouldn’t want to know for certain that their child was legitimately and legally abandoned or relinquished before they went ahead with the adoption. Cambodia’s adoption program essentially ended for this reason; there was too much evidence that “abandoned” children were actually unethically or illegally placed for adoption.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the long wait time for international adoptions. I understand that the process to adopt is agonizingly slow. Two years is a long time to wait for an adoption. But this is not about the adoptive parents. This is not just about Vietnam. This is about what’s ethically just for the children involved.

This is also not about pushing people into opposite camps. It’s not shut down a country’s adoption program vs. adoptee’s rights to information. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

The desire for a faster adoption should not be the reason that eyes are closed. If even one child is found to be illegally adopted, that is enough reason that adoptive parents, agencies and Vietnam should slow down and do what’s right.

People want to say that it’s in the best interest of the child to be adopted and that causing a child to have to live in the orphanage longer than necessary is damaging. But what is damaging to me – a child who lived in two orphanages – is losing everything that tied me to my family in Korea. This isn’t in negation of or in place of  my adoptive family. This is in addition to. This is about my right to know where I came from and my history and the fact that everyone else’s needs were too selfish to consider my future needs as an adult without a family history.

Averting one’s eyes is more dangerous to the future of adoption – not just in Vietnam but in every country. It’s not about being pro- or anti-adoption this is about being ethical. Agencies and orphanages in Vietnam are lying to the U.S. Government about its practices. They are also undermining investigations by the U.S. Embassy into illegal and/or unethical adoptions.

I feel the same way about these developments in Vietnam as I do about Guatemala.

Why would anyone want to push forward with their adoption if there is a chance it is illegal or unethical?

Isn’t doing the moral thing more important than speed? Isn’t the protection of children’s rights the most important issue here?

I spent over two years living in an orphanage. If I were to find out today that I was delayed for 6-12 months because the orphanage and agency in Korea was double and triple-checking that I wasn’t kidnapped, trafficked or otherwise illegally procured for adoption, it would have been worth it.

For more about the controversy in Vietnam, check out Ethica’s positions:

Operation Identity:Cooperating to Protect the Identity of Vietnamese Orphans

Updates on Vietnam adoptions

U.S. State Department:

Vietnam Intercountry Adoption Concerns 1/28/08

Warning Concerning Adoptions in Vietnam

Other responses:

Borrowed Notes – Operation Identity

Land of the Not So Calm – Operation Identity and Vietnam Adoptions

Ethnically Incorrect Daughter – Operation Identity

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. Has anyone researched the monetary ramifications of adoption in Vietnam? In Korea, overseas adoption brings in over 20 million dollars for the government, not to mention that it does not have to house and feed children in an orphanage. While this does not bring in any financial gain for the family, it does relieve a tremendous burden from the government. In China, however, some mothers are paid for their children. I am wondering if Vietnam pulled the purse strings.

  2. “This is about what’s ethically just for the children involved.”
    Just wanted to say that again!! It needs to be said over and over and over again.
    “This is about what’s ethically just for the children involved.”

  3. The doctor experience always gets to me. To admit that I don’t know my own medical history to a doctor (usually a stranger, given how often doctors move from place to place) and that I was adopted always brings a flush of shame to my face. It’s ridiculous to me that I should be made to feel ashamed of being adopted.
    Anyway, thank you for bringing the subject back around to the kids.

  4. As you know we have a daughter from China where unfortunately abandonment is the only option (well, not the only one but fortunately her birthparents didn’t make that horrific decision) We have no information , not even her ‘real’ birthday~ I just filled out a form for preschool today where I was forced to write “don’t know” over and broke my heart that as her Mama I don’t know so I can only imagine how much it will hurt her not knowing : (
    When we began our Vietnam adoption we started with an agency that we left b/c they were making promises that sounded unethical. One of the things they asked me was if I had a preference of abandoned or relinquished? (ps..that was one of the many red flags I had about them) However, it did make me stop and think…part of me wanted relinquished for the sake of my child but the other part wanted abandoned b/c her sister didn’t get that choice and I would feel bad for Annslee. I know none of this makes much sense. Anyway, we are knee deep in the Vietnam process right now and it is kind of crazy. I want my daughter home, I want Annslee to have a sister and sure, I want it soon. However, I have to be able to look my children in the eyes and assure them that I did everything I could to insure that everything was done ethically…so I support anything being done to aid that in Vietnam.
    Wow, more than you asked for huh??

  5. “One of the things they asked me was if I had a preference of abandoned or relinquished? (ps..that was one of the many red flags I had about them)”
    Yikes! Good for you for recognizing that as a huge red flag!
    I think what you said at the end is so important. Since we do eventually grow up (I know it seems like forever – trust me, some days I can’t imagine my kids ever becoming adults) I hope adoptive parents think about how they would answer to their grown adult child’s questions.
    If I found out I was illegally adopted and my parents just closed their eyes in order to get me faster, it would be very difficult to understand how they could be that selfish.

  6. This adoptive parent could not agree with you more.
    It brings me to tears to know that the chances my sons will be able to find and connect to their birth family are slim.
    And anything that brings reality and enlightenment to the adoption process must be supported.
    I don’t know if I feel more shame being naive as we adopted or anger that the process is not as it was presented.
    I can live with the knowledge that I might have made different choices had I known more while remaining committed to my children’s lives.
    What I say to prospective adoptive parents that approach me has change a lot over the last 5 years. For one, I point them here.

  7. You are so painfully right. We’ve been logged into China since July/06 for baby #2, but since initiating that process, it’s become more and more apparent that we cannot ethically pursue that adoption. Our best bet at this point is to pull out and start over with a special needs China adoption, which could take us another two years to complete. This is breaking my heart, but I can’t imagine looking my adult child in the face and telling her we knew what we know now and still went ahead.

  8. One family that recently adopted another child from Vietnam wrote about the new procedures in detail:
    I think they agree with the intentions behind the further investigations, but were unhappy that much of the delay was due to paperwork sitting on someone’s desk.
    I think what you’re saying about adoptees having access to their family history is very important. More adoptive parents of abandoned children seem to be considering searching for birth parents now, rather than waiting until their children decide to search. This is a tricky decision, because I think search and reunion is something adoptees should have the lead on, but at the same time, if too much time passes, the trail can grow cold.

  9. I agree with you 100%. I plan to do a search next spring for the person who “found” my daughter, hoping they know her family. In China there are so few leads. I feel if I wait until she is an adult, it may be too late. You wouldn’t believe how many negative comments we get on the information we are currently seeking, leading up to our trip to China. I believe all adopted children deserve the truth, even if it is not pretty. Atleast it would be the truth.

  10. If adoptive parents are really concerned about how much time children will spend in orphanages, they should also be concerned about how many children will spend any amount of time there. (and, yes, I know that many are concerned about both) By ignoring red flags about unethical adoption practices in the home country, receiving countries are complicit in children ending up in orphanages even if they have family.

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