It’s Time For An Adoptee Awareness Month

Because National Adoption Awareness Month has never been about adoptees

I’m an adoptee who is one of the organizers leading the way toward making October an International Month of Adoptee Awareness. We adoptees are a diverse group and our opinions about adoption ethics and reform vary widely, but central to our cause is the idea that adoptees — those very children adoption is supposed to benefit — are not given a seat at the table when it comes to discussing theories and practices that shape adoption and fostering. We are demanding change. We are demanding to be heard.

This is our mission statement: “International Month of Adoptee Awareness is dedicated to amplifying adoptee voices, better understanding adoptee-specific challenges and risks, and promoting a realistic, adoptee-centered perspective on adoption.”

Adoption is often touted as an unqualified good. There is already a month devoted to recognizing it — National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) —in November. According to the Dave Thomas Foundation’s website, the month is “a special time to celebrate families that have grown through adoption and raise awareness of the more than 125,000 children waiting in foster care in the United States.” In the U.S.A., presidents since Bill Clinton have endorsed NAAM. Adoption, it turns out, is a rare issue that receives bipartisan support.

Although adoption can be a good thing, it is not always so. Adoptees often suffer at the hands of their adoptive families. Some are even murdered by them. Pro-adoption advocates will often reply to these stories by noting how rare these cases are, but look: Lou Gehrig’s disease is also rare, and yet, people still work to find a cure for it. Besides, even just one death of a child at the hands of adoptive parents is one too many. As an adoptee who recognizes the sheer randomness of my own placement, I know I could have ended up in an abusive home just as easily as I ended up in a loving one. That fact alone makes me want to fight for those adoptees who do not fare so well in the adoption lottery.

The fact that adoptees suffer and even die as a result of adoption prompted the group “Adoptees Connect” to declare this October 30th to be the first “Adoptee Remembrance Day,” honoring those adoptees who have lost their lives at the hands of their adoptive families, as well as those adoptees who have taken their own lives. Did you know that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-adopted peers? Even in situations where a child is placed with a family who provides a loving and supportive home, adoptees can and do suffer. It is time more attention is paid to this fact so we can find ways to prevent such atrocities.

Despite the “better life narrative” that the adoption industry pushes, research has consistently shown that infant adoptions can have deleterious effects on the developing nervous systems of children. The stress of premature separation from the only source of safety a baby has ever known is considered an adverse childhood experience — a traumatic event — that can cause psychological damage extending well into adulthood. This might explain why adoptees are overrepresented in mental healthcare treatment settings, are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression, and are at greater risk to have addiction problems.

The traumatic elements of adoption are further amplified in transracial, transcultural, and international adoption. Adoptees who are transplanted from their countries of origins — a process that almost always involves moving darker children to predominately white areas of the world — suffer tremendously, including being more prone to eating disorders and dermatologic conditions. The international adoption market is notoriously scandalous and many adoptees grow up never being able to locate any of their original family. This does not even broach the subject of transracial adoptions within the U.S. and the racism endemic to these practices, as this story highlights particularly well.

More importantly than all the research, experiments, and publications seeking to legitimate the fact that there are traumatic aspects to adoption, there are adoptees — many of us — speaking out. We are in online support and education groups. We are demanding access to our birth certificates and vital health information. We are organizing events and hosting roundtable discussions. We are creating safe spaces for one another. And we are tired of being silenced and sidelined when it comes to discussing adoption in all its complexity.

Awareness campaigns are typically meant to bolster public understanding about an issue or to lessen stigma surrounding something. Mental Health Awareness Month, in May, for example, aims to do just that — by highlighting just how many people deal with mental illness, people who are otherwise ashamed of their struggles might feel more comfortable to share and seek help.

NAAM attempts to raise awareness about and promote adoption. However, most people are well-aware that adoptive families exist, and adoption is far from stigmatized. Quite the contrary: adoption is overwhelmingly seen as a positive thing. Adoption is praised by just about everyone, including high profile celebrities and supreme court nominees. You would think adoption had no negative sides to it, unless you began listening to those whom adoption supposedly benefits most — the adoptees.

To be sure, many adoptees are perfectly happy in their adoptive families and have no complaints about being adopted. As I have written about extensively, I grew up in perhaps one of the most ideal adoptive families a child could hope for, and yet I have major problems with the for-profit infant adoption industry in the U.S. and I want more attention paid to the mental health problems that are so prevalent among adoptees. Many of my fellow adoptees — whether they grew up in loving or abusive adoptive homes — feel similarly, and that is why we are raising awareness.

NAAM was developed to raise awareness about the supposedly beautiful ways families can be created through adoption. What NAAM consistently fails to recognize, however, is that for an adoptive family to be created, another family must be destroyed. NAAM fails to recognize that before adoption, there is loss.

This loss is not erased because an adoptee loves their adoptive family immensely. It is not erased just because the birth parents really and truly believed they were giving their child a better life. And this loss is most certainly not erased just because there are people in the world who desperately want to be parents but are unable to do so biologically.

International Month of Adoptee Awareness seeks to honor this loss and recognize the pain so many adoptees carry. We have no agenda, aside from truly centering adoptee voices, allowing adoptees to share their stories without being silenced, and to raise awareness about adoption from the adoptee’s perspective. This means some of us will have decidedly positive stories to tell about our adoptive families. But many of us won’t. All of us will be listened to and respected. To ignore us when we say adoption has hurt us would be to contradict everything adoption purportedly aims to accomplish.

We are the children you thought you were saving and we will be heard.

If you want to learn more about adoptee experiences, check out these great resources. Join our cause if you want to help promote Adoptee Awareness (you can message me or look for “ Adoptee Awareness Month Campaign” on Facebook). Adoptees will be centered in this effort, so if you are not an adoptee, but still want to cheer us on and lift us up, then pass the mic to us already.

Constant collisions between the personal and political. Professor. Adoptee. Advocate. Activist. I write about dogs a lot. michelemerritt.com

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