New foundation focuses on helping Korean American adoptees and families find out where they fit in

9 September 2020

According to the National Institutes of Health, in 2013, five doctors conducted a study at the University of Minnesota on the suicide rate of adopted children versus non-adopted children. The study showed that adoptees were almost four times more likely to commit suicide.

And the number of suicides by adopted Korean children is four times the national average, says Manchester resident Moses Farrow, a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in Glastonbury.

Farrow, a Korean American who was adopted in 1980 at the age of 2, recently joined the Gide Foundation as leader of its mental health task force. The Gide Foundation is a nonprofit organization started in May that focuses on adoptee education and the mental health of Korean American adoptees. Gide’s founders are Derek Fisher of Durham, North Carolina, and Jodi Gill of Oregon City, Oregon

The Gide’s first project is a mental health guide for people who will reunite with their birth families. For future mental health projects, Farrow will lead the mental health task force.

Farrow received his master’s degree in human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut with a concentration in marriage and family therapy.

“For the last 20 … years, I’ve been working with children and families,” he said, including intensive outpatient programs with adolescents, with the Yale Child Studies Center and with Lutheran Adoption Services; post-adoption counseling, and working up to being a specialist in adoption therapy primarily focusing on families and adoptees from high school age to adulthood.

“I’ve been more outspoken and really moved into a role of being an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention and child abuse prevention,” he said.

There are currently about 125,000 Korean American adoptees, most from South Korea, Farrow said.

According to 2013 statistics, Farrow said, out of every 100,000 Korean adoptees, 54 commit suicide, compared to the United States average of 13.7 out of 100,000.

“For all adoptees, the common denominator is to be relinquished from our birth families,” he said. “Whether its during infancy, sometimes right after birth, sometimes a few months, early childhood, that relinquishment from your blood relatives, from your culture, your native identity, is traumatic.”

Farrow said the trauma of being stripped away from the birth family just after birth causes a pre-verbal memory in the body, something the child may not necessarily be consciously aware of.

“It manifests as various issues like depression,” he said. “Common diagnoses are bipolar, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, depression, addiction. Throughout life, we struggle with our attachments, building relationships, figuring out who we are.”

He said it can become a primary preoccupation trying to figure out what life means to them.

“Until we can really get the kind of help we need, it really is a major thing that interferes with surviving through life and actually living life,” he said.

“For many of us, we talk about this journey,” he said. “We’ve put it in terms of coming out of the adoptee fog. What that means is our ability to understand and start connecting the dots in terms of the reality of adoption.

“A number of very powerful narratives that help support the practices and process of adoption are being examined more closely these days,” Farrow said.

One of which is citizenship, he said, as adoptees aren’t immediately given U.S. citizenship upon adoption.

He said that the group Adoptees for Justice, another international adoptee advocacy group, has been fighting for more than 13 years with Congress to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act, giving citizenship to adoptees to prevent deportation of adopted children who may have been given up by their adoptive families or for other reasons.

“The government has been deporting us back to our countries, severing ties in families,” he said.

He said systemic racism against Asian Americans, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, during the President Donald Trump administration has exacerbated things and only heightens the trauma.

“Many of us feel like we are invisible,” he said. “Lives are not really ours, but to be controlled by other people.”

One of the problems with adoption and mental illness, he said, is the bonding process between adoptees and the adoptive family.

“It’s mostly one-sided in terms of adoptive families going through a very expensive … process,” he said. “They are given a number of questions and things to think about; the kind of child they want to adopt. They’ve gone through their life struggles. They’ve embarked on their adoption path in a very conscious and deliberate way. They go through that process and they come to a point where they’ve claimed a child.

“In the meanwhile, the adopted child has no idea what is going on. A lot of times after the adoption is finalized, the ideal fantasy of the forever family that is fed to them ends up being squashed by the reality that the bonding process is a two-way street. The adoptees who grow up in orphanages or have early adverse childhood experiences really struggle with this.”

Farrow said a number of families he works with never fully bond or attach with their adopted child, or see the child as part of the family and will, during conflict, threaten to send the child back to their home country.

“This is only exacerbating the traumatized loss we’ve already experienced,” he said.

Part of the solution is for Korean American adoptees to understand that they are their own community, Farrow said.

“We are our own culture, even within the Korean American community, we’re a subculture,” he said, but the social and political realities of being an adoptee makes them feel like outsiders.

“Where do we fit in?” he asked. “Where do we belong?”

Another problem is that the culture in Korea has stigmatized many adoptees before they are adopted, especially against single mothers.

“There’s a huge stigma for out-of-marriage pregnancies,” Farrow said. “Birth mothers that want to keep their baby but are shunned by their families, or in a divorce situation, or rape, domestic violence issues; all of that is part of the very powerful social stigma. It’s important to conform to the social norms based on the established Korean culture. The financial hardship to raise a child as a single parent without the support of family or a society … it becomes much more difficult.”

He said symptoms that adopted infants and toddlers will show as a result of the mistreatment they received before being adopted can include colic, displays of malnourishment, survivalism habits like being on high alert or self-protective, lack of being affectionate, and recoiling from physical touch.

“You can see these things as infants and toddlers,” he said. “By pre-K, kindergarten, that’s when you start seeing issues at school. It’s often masked and misdiagnosed as symptoms of ADHD or mood swings. When we shut down or freeze up, it can be seen as socially withdrawn, anxious, depressed. All of this happens throughout the early years.”

Farrow said helping families with these problems is what the Gide Foundation is about, helping adoptees with their own adoption experiences.

“We have to do something about this,” he said. “We have to support our adoptees.”

One of the biggest problems he currently sees as a therapist is internalized racism by white families that adopt a Korean child.

“What that means is these adoptive parents are given these narratives that say now this is your child,” he said. “You can raise them in your family. It seems like a harmless statement. You can raise them as one of your own children.”

He described this as an “ongoing controversy” and that what happens is the adopted child is severed from their identity.

“It’s acculturation, white washing,” he said. “We’re going to assimilate you into becoming American, but we never really feel American. We never feel accepted, even in the Asian American, Korean American community.”

He said that Korean culture is learned not through experience for adopted children, but academically.

“This creates several things within us,” he said. “There’s a huge gap in our identity as Korean Americans. We grew up understanding we are part of a white family in white communities. We grew up with the understanding that we’re white. As we grow up, we start formulating our own identity and we start coming out of this fog and we realize we’re actually not white and we are confronted with society.”

He said that they are told they’re not white, but Korean, but they don’t speak Korean; they grow up with American food and music, causing a debilitating conflict of their racial and cultural identity.

“Families who say ‘We don’t see color. We see you as our child.’ The intention isn’t meant to be racist,” he said. “But the underlying thing is, if you don’t see us, then you’re not really validating that we are who we are. We’ve come from where we come from. We have a beginning that isn’t a part of your family, but it needs to be recognized.”

He said adoptive families need to recognize that they aren’t just adopting a child, but also the culture and their cultural identities, where they’re coming from.

The problems become more compounded when the child reaches junior high and high school age, he said, the years children start forming their identity.

“It’s one of those transitional stages in life where you’re going through creating your own identity,” he said. “You start to think more critically. You’re in social circles in school; in a way bombarded in activities and programs that help you explore your interests that help you with your identity formation.”

He said that children begin asking who they are, what’s important to them, what they want to do in life, and what kind of person they want to be.

“That’s the normal American development,” he said. “That’s the expected way to grow up, but unless we pay attention to this early life trauma and emotional aftershock from it, we don’t necessarily conform to this normal sense of development. We’re still trying to catch up and figure out who we are.”

Farrow recommends that prospective adoptive parents dig in and take a long look at themselves, build self-awareness, and evaluate their own mental and emotional health.

“One thing that is not paid attention to enough is the family origin of the adoptive parents, their life experiences, their past traumas,” he said. “At some point, we all experience some form of emotional trauma.”

He said that now, during the pandemic, is a really good time to look at our own health and engage in self-care through mental health therapy, increasing your own awareness and address issues, barriers, biases, prejudices, attitudes, and value systems.

He said to also take ownership of the adoption process.

“It’s important that you read books, engage in your own journey of discovery,” he said. “Lead with childlike curiosity. Ask questions. Approach it with wonderment, creating that safe space for all of that kind of exploration to happen. It’s something that is really important having those pieces together of having self-awareness and creating safe spaces to answer the hard things about being an adoptive parent.

“Dig deeper,” he said. “It’s not just books. It’s not just music. It’s not just culture camps and classes. It’s not just the food aspect. Fully embracing the culture. Something I’m finding all too often is doing the surface level, doing the basics. But for me, it’s not getting beyond the surface. Let’s get beyond the surface, the underlying social construct. Let’s dig further into our own personal biases and attitudes towards racism. Let’s look into white privilege and micro-aggressions. Things that lay deeper than what’s on the surface. We don’t like going there because if it’s our own pain points or we’re too afraid of what might happen, we don’t go beyond our comfort zones. But it’s unrealistic. We have to dig deeper especially if you’re adopting a child from another country.”

He said that families need to realign their identity from a white family to a transcultural family.

“It’s really important to respect their native culture and where the child is coming from,” he said. He encouraged prospective adoptive families to reach out to and speak with adult adoptees and to listen to their experiences.

“(We) are wanting to be seen and heard and want to share our stories,” he said. “Conquer your fear of things that are foreign to you. Address that fear and open yourself up to hearing us out, understanding that there is no one singular adoption experience.

“There are those of us who are emerging and want to address our dramatic loss and doing the work on ourselves and getting the help and support so we can build our own emotional literacy around this,” he said. “It’s really important to build those bridges and hear us out with the intent to simply listen and acknowledge what we’ve been through. There are adoptees today that are thinking about ending their lives. The only time to act is now.”