'Reform intercountry adoption: when will the government dare to look into its own pockets?'

11 January 2022

'Can you quickly reform a system that has turned out to be rotten for decades,' asks Renate Van Geel on the eve of the hearings on the theme that will be organized in the Flemish parliament this week. 'Why do the adoptees themselves and the parents from the sending countries have so little to say?'

At the beginning of December, the new decision framework for intercountry adoption, intended to strengthen ties with the sending countries, was approved by the Flemish government. This framework can provide a slightly hopeful starting point for the reform of intercountry adoption. Everything will depend on how this policy framework is further specified and implemented. The success of this policy framework can only be measured by its effects at the micro level, namely in the opportunities it brings for children and their families in the sending countries, in respecting their rights and whether they perceive this reform as an added value. Something to which intercountry adoption has contributed nothing in the past 60 years.

Hearing days are still scheduled for January in the Committee on Welfare, Public Health and Family. So-called stakeholders (and stakeholders?) can share their experience and vision with the committee members. Each group could invite those involved to do so. Although we have read and heard rumbling statements in recent months about the interest of the child and the interest of the adoptee, I note that there are exactly two adoptees who are given speaking space. Adoption services, adoptive parents and candidate adopters do get, as is 'good' custom, a podium in the form of several people to defend their 'interests'. They even looked across the border to give a Dutch adoptive mother the floor.

Intercountry adoption reform: when will the government dare to look into its own pockets?

It would be interesting to ask the young respondents from that study again about their experience in 10 to 20 years' time. What irks me even more, if anything, is the fact that no parent (originally) has even been nominated and there is therefore no one to represent them in an important political forum where input is given on the future of intercountry adoption in Flanders.

Parents and families of origin are difficult to reach (you don't have to explain that to these intercountry adoptees) and shame and guilt usually severely hinder these people from speaking up. But was there any attempt at all, for example through the numerous parent-parent support organizations that abound in the sending countries? Moreover, Flemish or Dutch parents who have lost their child to adoption can also provide a valuable insight into their experience, so that lessons can be learned from their experiences. How can policy pretend to say something meaningful about adoption if parents (originally) are systematically ignored?

No matter how 'correct' and complete on paper and laws can seem so watertight, the deeply tragic experience of parents who were not allowed to be parents is miles away from this. It is of course comfortable for us as a society not to pay too much attention to this group, let alone involve them or tailor our policy to them. It is a side of the story that we do not know and sometimes would rather not know because there is so much loss, pain, sadness and lack. Although adoption starts with them, we rarely hear about it. We have little knowledge of and feel for the process that precedes relinquishment and the lifelong aftermath of losing a child to adoption. Anyone who takes the trouble to delve into this will find that afterwards it is impossible to speak in terms of 'voluntary'

Of course, parents, also in Flanders, may be (temporarily) less able to provide their child with the necessary care. The definitive relocation of their child and the legal severing of all ties is a lifelong and far too drastic 'solution' that contributes nothing structurally to the sending countries. The best interests of the child depend first and foremost on that of its parents. If we as Flanders nevertheless decide to continue to spend millions of euros on this, the focus of policy should be on how families can stay together as much as possible, not on how children can be made 'correctly' adoptable.

In hollow phrases, folders and information, parents of origin are now sporadically given a place, all the less in deeds and policy. If these parents are not represented when the decision-making framework for sending countries is further developed and if their interests and needs are not mainly kept in mind, any resulting reform will lack credibility.

Meanwhile in Flanders?

The decision framework does not say anything about possible reforms in Flanders, for example with regard to recognition of adoption fraud, remedial measures, thorough preparation for candidate adopters, aftercare for adoptees and investigation into accountability for malpractice that happened under the supervision and responsibility of Flemish services and actors.

Let me start with this last one. It is all too easy to only look at what should happen differently in the sending countries, especially since adoption has so far been at the request of the receiving countries. The expert panel also called for an additional and in-depth investigation into the possible question of guilt and the resulting liability.

The question arises whether you can reform a system that has turned out to be rotten for decades between the proverbial soup and chips. Certainly if this is done without investigation or screening of the services and individuals involved, both in Flanders and in the sending countries, with whom the cooperation is still ongoing until further notice. Doesn't a reform become a mere style exercise in which the same people can simply take a different seat?

The statements of adoption services about whether or not the expert panel has been heard, and the steel-hard denial by the Welfare Committee of the adoption abuses, at the very least raise questions about their reliability. An external audit into the distribution and spending of subsidies (more than a million for 23 children per year) could be a good start.

And when will the government dare to look into its own pockets? Why does there appear to be no enthusiasm at all to conduct an investigation into responsibilities and liability, and who might be protected by this? Let us not forget that this includes children who were moved for payment through lies, kidnapping or wrongful death in order to fulfill a wish to have children here. In a fiction series we would find this too horrible for words...

There is currently a lot of talk about aftercare, but little said. That didn't exist when my generation was young and it still has (far too) little of it. The Adoption Center is expected to serve parents, adoptees, adoptive parents and candidate adopters with their offer. Due to complexity and conflicts of loyalty, it is very difficult for many adoptees to turn to a service that, in their view, also cooperates in new adoptions. Moreover, it also seems to me to be a difficult spreading position for the service itself to work in. Here too it would be interesting to see how subsidies can be distributed among the various target groups.

Adult adoptees all over the world increasingly come out of the shadows and talk about their experience, their fears, pain, sadness, loss and mourning. They are overrepresented in suicide and addiction figures (4x more likely to attempt suicide), in psychiatric care but also, for example, in prisons. The lack of qualitative (!), trauma and adoption-sensitive assistance with regard to giving up, being given up and being adopted is still shocking. Adoptees who have to change counselors 4 to 7 times before they end up with someone who is knowledgeable are no exception. Questions and complaints (about relationships, work, fears, depressive complaints, physical complaints, ...) that an adoptee knocks on, are often not recognized within regular care as a possible consequence of being given up and adopted. There are large, black holes within the psychosocial training in Flanders, therapy training, medical training, teacher training,... and consequently within the care sector itself about the impact of this.

With regard to the young(er) generation, care and support for the adoptive parents is no superfluous luxury. When children find it difficult to adapt to the unusual situation in which they are expected to take root and function in a strange environment, this is often labeled as an attachment disorder. The responsibility for failing to attach supposedly secure is thus placed on the child in question, his feelings of grief and post-traumatic stress are often not taken into account. The children who internalize are not talked about at all because it does not bother anyone but themselves. Although adoptive parents are sometimes given (limited) theoretical knowledge about trauma and attachment, in practice it appears to be very vulnerable and not obvious to be able to attune to the needs and requirements of their adopted children. The adoptive parents' own (very understandable) needs and desires often arise, their own pain and hurts sometimes cause the attunement to become clouded and the disappointment (and potential rejection) grows when people notice that their adopted child, despite all the love and good care that offered, but seems difficult to ground.

In addition to psychological support, many other matters, which are currently receiving less attention, fall under aftercare in my view. It also concerns, among other things: sensitizing adoptive parents about life as a child and person of color in a white society so that the environment can deal with this recognizing and consciously. Color blindness is a (harmful) illusion; get to know adoptive parents food, language, culture,...from sending countries so that they can bring this into the life of their adopted child; get recognition (without yes but); have freely accessible information on how to start searching for your family; have freely accessible information about DNA, DNA databases and kinship research services in both sending and receiving countries;

A form of financial compensation is also related to aftercare and remedial measures. Therapy, searching, DNA testing, traveling to your country of origin, visiting your family (if you're lucky),... are extremely expensive and therefore often impossible for adoptees. Expenses in the context of an adoption procedure are partially tax deductible for adoptive parents. This tax reduction can go up to more than 6000 euros per procedure. It would be a start to give every adoptee free access to such a (care) budget so that DNA testing, quests, roots trips, psychological support and the like become more feasible and affordable. There's nothing more sour than finding your family after 30 years and never being able to meet them because of financial obstacles.

Finally, the question remains who is really being served by maintaining such a money-consuming and fraud-sensitive system. There is no doubt that it contains too many system errors. The question is whether reform will lead to the necessary changes that will remove the so-called errors from the system. In the very exceptional cases where a decision is made to proceed with intercountry adoption, are there no other options to help children and their families than an irreversible, international, unauthorized relocation?

Renate Van Geel was born in South Korea and adopted to Belgium 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 in the psycho-social difficulties they encounter. She is affiliated with Adoptee & Foster Care (AFC). She and a fellow adoptee from India blog about everyday life as an adoptee: Between India and Korea - Adopted: From Survival to Living