'Keep all administration regarding intercountry adoption files in one central place'

14 September 2023

'What to others appears to be purely administrative paperwork, for adoptees often represents the only potential, tangible link with the first period of their lives, the people from whom they were born, their origins, an important part of who they are, a part of their identity', writes Ae Ra Van Geel. She calls, among other things, for better monitoring and retention of the administration. At Flemish level, it is expected that a decision will be made in September on the list of countries from which Flanders will adopt in the future.

Work is currently underway in Flanders on a new decree on intercountry adoption, as well as on screenings of all countries of origin from which Flanders is currently moving and adopting children, such as Portugal.

Much has been said and written in recent years about what should be important in the policy on transnational adoption, including by myself. The adoption field, that collection of forces, powers, individuals and often conflicting interests, is extremely complex. This field includes parents and their children; people with an unwanted and unfulfilled desire to have children; people who want to do 'good'; adopters; adoption services; governments in both sending and receiving countries; people who had to give up their child due to socio-economic circumstances, for example.
In response to recent current events in Flanders and the Netherlands, I would like to draw attention to a number of considerations that I believe are important in decision-making and policy-making regarding transnational adoption.

This is how I think of the recurring 'interests of the child'. This empty and meaningless phrase has been used to legitimize, condone and frame distance, forced displacement and adoption for decades. However, it has been known for just as long that the interests of the child are merely an excuse for other, less noble-sounding interests such as economic gain or fulfilling a desire to have children in the global North. This was recently demonstrated once again in an article that De Morgen published, based on written documents from the early 1970s.. The image of children as a commodity to be monetized emerges from this. In this way, money was made from deceased children and money was saved by exchanging children. Prospective adopters were also scammed because they were charged non-existent fees. The Belgian ambassador already mentioned such a lack of competence among the adoption services involved at the time. However, thorough investigation was not found necessary.

Whose interests did this serve?

Although governments in receiving countries pretend to use adoption as a child protection measure, they continue to fail to guarantee the rights of both the current generation of adopted children and those of adult adoptees. The care needs of children growing up and staying in Flanders are also not met far too often and for far too long.

Korean adoptees from all over the world have done their own research in their spare time to uncover fraudulent patterns that bring them closer to the truth of their own surrender and adoption stories. The current governments of the countries that brought them here for adoption are failing to provide support and are thus letting them down again. The information on which De Morgen based its recent article also came to light through individual research by fellow adoptee Yung Fierens. The practices described above are confirmed by findings currently coming to light in South Korea before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), solely due to the commitment and hard work of adoptees themselves.

At the federal level, the illegal adoption resolution was unanimously voted on in Belgium about a year ago. Competent ministers Quickenborne and Lahbib show little or no interest. Minister Lahbib even denied several times in parliament the existence of the documents that pointed to abuses decades ago. Consequently, nothing has happened yet and the question remains whether it will ever lead to concrete policy formulation. The cautious hope that was palpable among adoptees at the time is now only another shattered illusion.

Lest you think that these are excrescences of a distant past and that now everything is 'different and better': kidnapped Congolese children who were fraudulently made suitable for adoption by making them orphans on paper, arrived here less than 10 years ago. And there are now also many young teenagers who have already stopped searching for who they are at the Flemish adoption service that brought them here: there is no or incorrect information available about, for example, their parents, name, date and place of birth, background information about their adoption and the like.

During the current screenings, the Flemish government assesses that countries of origin about which there are doubts, and which have been closed several times in the past for adoption to Flanders due to irregularities and abuses, such as Kazakhstan, can nevertheless remain open for adoption. Until further notice.

Again, for the sake of who?

Complete, correct and accessible parentage information, the right to know your parents and the right to retain and restore identity are provided for in international treaties and seem to me to be in the interests of the adopted person, that is, of the child whose interests people talk about so much. These rights are also high on the priority list of (adult) adoptees, but (too) low for the rest of the adoption sector, so other interests may play a major role in this.

For example, earlier this month, fellow adoptee Stephanie Dong Hee Kim revealed that meters of adoption files and personal information in the Netherlands were destroyed by the Central Authority there. She discovered this after years of searching, in her own time and at her own expense of course, or guess what, visiting all kinds of agencies to collect all existing data surrounding her adoption in the Netherlands.

The retention period for these files in the Netherlands was for a long time fixed at a paltry 5 years. A lot of information about adoptions has also been lost in Flanders. Let us hope that when determining this retention period for the future, Flanders will listen to the people on whom this has a direct impact: (adult) adoptees and their descendants. What to others seems like purely administrative paperwork, for adoptees often represents the only potential, tangible link with the first period of their lives, the people from whom they were born, their origins, an important part of who they are, a part of their identity. This is also part of their story for the descendants of adoptees.

It would benefit adoptees if all papers and administration about them in Belgium were kept in a central location by the government. It prevents an adoptee from literally paying the price again if he wants to collect and view his file, in the form of multiple days of leave, expensive train tickets or several refills of fuel.

Adoption services in Flanders and Wallonia appear to want to keep the files of adoptees in-house, despite the existence of, for example, the Ancestry Center.

I'm repeating myself, but for whose sake?

Unlike the case in the Netherlands, public broadcasting and other media in Flanders remain deafeningly silent about the above-mentioned fraud and abuses. Would the reactions have been different if it concerned (originally) Flemish children who were kidnapped, mistreated, abused, trafficked and died?

Suppose your child were kidnapped or transferred from institutional accommodation to another continent without your knowledge and/or consent and 5 years later it turns out to be leading a materially more prosperous life with, say, very wealthy Chinese. Would you consider this criminal or accept it in the interests of the child under the name of adoption? By the way, the vast majority of adoptees are not orphans. And those whose parents have died may have had and still have close relatives who would have wanted to take care of them.

In the interests of the child would be a fraud-free system that does not use an economic profit model, kept running by often careless and unlawful, legal and final separation of parents and children. Such a system would at least provide contact between children and their parents and ensure access to correct and complete parentage information. However, the governments of all receiving countries that have meanwhile conducted research into transnational adoption admitted that such a watertight system without the risk of abuse is not feasible.

In my opinion, the current screenings of the countries of origin and the new decree on intercountry adoption must irrevocably take this into account; this should never be negotiable.

Various reports, newspaper articles and correspondence from the 1970s and 1980s show that the critical concerns and questions were the same as those we still ask today. Equally identical is the situation that no government has yet taken the trouble to act on the valuable knowledge that has been built up in recent decades. In 60 years' time, people will look at media from this period and wonder, again and still, how in 'God's name' (you can take that literally in many cases) it was possible that the definitive, legal and transnational moving young children, despite all the knowledge that has been available for so long?

Is the Flemish government the first government in the world to take responsibility for this? If no guarantees can be given, then the only appropriate option is to close a country as a so-called adoption 'channel', in the interests of the child.

Ae Ra Van Geel was born in South Korea and moved to Belgium for adoption after 4 months. She studied Applied Psychology and Social and Cultural Anthropology. After 11 years of working in youth care, she now coaches and guides adoptees and their environment with the psychosocial difficulties they encounter.