Our Stories, Our Selves
PACC has been greatly enriched through collaboration with adult adoptees and fosters, and we wish to share their perspectives on how centering firsthand experience transforms the dialogue we have as professionals around permanency.
JaeRan Kim was PACC’s founding program coordinator, and is a professor, scholar, speaker and writer, including her blog Harlow’s Monkey. She is a creator of PACC’s sessions on Adult Adoptees and Transracial Adoptee Identity Formation
"The Disability Rights Movement coined the term, ‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us.’ For too long, adoption has been practiced as an intervention for children without thoughtfully and longitudinally engaging with adoptees themselves. Professionals have created programs and practices without including adoptee and foster youth voices. This is because historically, adoption professionals, social workers, psychologists, and adoptive parents practiced with a short-term framework - childhood. Having adults with lived experience as former fosterees and adoptees is imperative if we truly care about people with adoption and foster care histories. If the whole point of adoption as an intervention is to improve the outcomes for children, then what adoptees and fosterees have to say about their experiences is critical. If adults with foster and adoption experiences are not at the center of our conversations, practices, and research then we are not truly focusing on the best interests of the child. At its heart, adoption is not just a legal and residential intervention, but a relational intervention. Adult adoptees and former foster alumni have a wealth of information to share and need to be centered in all of our conversations about foster care and adoption.”
Lisa Dickson, a tireless advocate, at her blog Sunshine Girl on a Rainy Day.
The Side by Side Project by Glenn Morey and Julie Morey where adult Korean adoptees share their stories.
Angela Tucker is the founder of The Adopted Life, and is a filmmaker, podcaster, mentor, and educator. She is a creator and facilitator for PACC’s sessions on Adult Adoptees and Transracial Adoptee Identity Formation that features her as the subject of the documentary Closure
"There is great risk in keeping adoptee voices at the margins. Adoptees are, in my opinion, the experts on the adoption experience. However, older research and laws function to treat adoptees as children no matter their age: having to request permission from a judge, for example, to receive a copy of one’s own birth certificate. General societal views also treat adoptees as children by deferring to the adoptive parents for information. It's why using the term 'adoptee' is a transformational change for professionals. We are, still, more commonly referred to as an 'adopted child.'
When professionals center adoptees, they may be more apt to hear the dual realities adoptees are forced to live within. When professionals ensure that the space is inclusive, welcoming and judgment free, they may also begin to learn what it’s like to be wedged between the great pain of one set of parents, and the great joy of the other set of parents. One youth adoptee said to me; “I love all of my mothers. Just like how parents can love more than one child. Neither love can be measured.” The dynamic conversation that followed revealed the youth's struggle with feelings of split loyalty and their desire for a more open adoption relationship with their biological parents. When professionals have access to dialogue like this they are better able to understand the impacts of permanency on us adoptees - whether that's permanency with our biological families, kinship families, foster families or adoptive families."
Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self by David Brodzinsky
"Narrative Burden" by Robert Ballard
Andrea Brubaker, MSW, LISW is a MNADOPT HELP Program Specialist and PACC alumni. She is a creator and facilitator of PACC’s sessions on Grief and Loss, Trauma, and Adult Adoptees
“Many hold the perspective that adoption is simple - a child was abandoned, or a birth parent made the ‘right choice’ for the child when placing them. How many movies, books, and stories center this narrative? This narrative often centers and glorifies the institutions of adoption and foster care while simultaneously relying on tropes and stereotypes of people who are in this situation. Adoptee and fosteree voices must be recognized not only so society can better understand, but so those who are intended to be reflected in those stories can have a more nuanced, full, and accurate reflection of many stories and experiences of this community.
As a professional in the adoption and foster community, it is important to challenge these notions, provide psychoeducation and information, to listen, and to help move families to a different understanding of their child’s needs, their own needs, and the dynamic nuances of their family system.
The complexities of adoption, foster care, and kinship care are vast. There are many perspectives that dominate, and most often it is not the perspective of the foster child or adopted person. When we highlight the voices of foster and adopted children, youth, and adults, as PACC works to do, we shift the narrative. When we welcome the nuance, the complexity…the truth of the lifelong impact of adoption and foster care on those who have experienced it, we can more effectively make change and improve adoption and foster care for current and future generations. This is why it is imperative that professionals working across permanency listen to adoptee and fosteree voices. The narrative is incomplete and inaccurate without them.”
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk
Cameron Lee Small, MS, LPCC is the founder of Therapy Redeemed, and is an adoption reform activist and PACC Alumni. He is a guest contributor for PACC’s session on Adult Adoptees
“It hit me during my reunion trip to Korea, at night, in a taxi cab. Two friends and I crammed into the backseat. There was a lull in our conversation and I glanced out the window, in awe, driving through Seoul’s busy streets. Colorful city lights and neon words displayed on buildings, the Korean language mesmerizing. I started wondering about what it would have been like to grow up here, with my mom. That’s when the grief hit me. Nearly thirty years of it. In a way I’d never felt before. Crashing back onto its home shore as if it was saving up from the moment I left. I actually tried to hold it in, but under a tidal wave like that I just had to endure it, and stay with my body while it was sobbing and convulsing. My friends didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either. Many adoptive parents can relate with my friends’ experience that night. Confused and scared and sincerely wondering how to help. And maybe some adoptees can relate with my experience? Confused and scared and wondering if there was something wrong with me. Because there’s a shortage of examples when it comes to centering adoptee voices in the dialogue and practice of adoption. And so our emotional processes in real-time can seem foreign and unacceptable, because the message about adoption all our lives has been skewed toward gratitude about our adoption, with little room to imagine anything else.
I was a son before I was adopted. My life didn’t start with my adoptive parents. I wish someone would have been able to help me process that earlier on in my life. This spotlight is just one stunning example of folks joining together to re-mantle that traditional adopter-centered narrative. When I think about centering the adoptee voice/perspective, I see a community where it would be the norm for us to refer to adoptees, formally and informally, when considering their mental health and any other adoption-related experience. Adoptees are not a monolith, and because we continue to be grossly underrepresented in public and private discourse on adoption, we need to hear from more. For example, how many books written by adoptee(s) were you required to read during your training? Or, how many were even published and available? The good news, to me, is that’s changing! I so appreciate PACC for their willingness to push us further, inviting us, challenging us to dig deep for and with those we serve and embrace the breadth and depth of the adoptee experience, that we might not be left in the dark when those adoptees under our care begin their exploration, their grieving process, their search, their identity-in-the-making, their taking ownership of their stories in ways they need us to know, see, carry and celebrate. The more we normalize centering the adoptee voice, the more common it will be for adoptive parents to be equipped to support those under their care. And the more adoptees will feel safe and inspired to begin seeing their journey in new ways. Healing within it and living beyond it toward deeper meaning and satisfaction, at any age and stage. Those are the conversations I’m going after as a person, a mental health professional, and an adult adoptee. Thanks for allowing me to be in that work together with you.”
Elliott Odendahl, MSW, LICSW is a therapist at Sankalpa Therapy & Wellness Center and PACC alumni. She is a guest contributor for PACC’s session on Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Practice
“As a therapist I have the privilege and honor of being able to create intentional space to promote healing. Healing work involving children, people of color, and other disenfranchised individuals, including adoptees, requires the need to consider power, privilege and agency—who has access and who does not—while also working to tip the scales. Agency can come in the form of opportunities to speak your truth and have your voice heard as well as feeling in control of your own narrative. Feeling a lack of agency can have a profound negative effect on self-esteem, identity and worth.
Often, within the foster adopt community the perspectives of helping professionals and parents are centered which effectively mutes the voices of the most vulnerable, and robs the foster youth and adoptees of the opportunity to control their own narratives. When this happens, we communicate with our actions that the stories, thoughts, experiences, feelings and needs of foster youth and adoptees are insignificant.
Alternatively, when we center the voices of foster youth and adoptees, we are acknowledging and creating space for agency. From agency, a greater understanding of the authentic self and personal need can grow. From this, it becomes possible for an individual to not only feel, but believe in their power and their ability to meet their own unique needs. In a sense, they become the narrator and not just an observer in their own story.”
The Adoptees On Podcast with host Haley Radke
Transracial Parenting in Foster Care and Adoption, Strengthening Your Bi-Cultural Family (a guidebook for parents)from the Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association
Misty Coonce, MSW, LISW is Program Director at Ampersand Families and PACC alumni. She has collaborated on curriculum for PACC’s session on Permanency and Child Welfare Practice in Minnesota
"Although 30 years have passed since I was in foster care with my 3 older sisters, I still hold some vivid memories of the most impactful moments. I was in foster care from the age of 3-7, so I know that some of these memories are based on stories and pictures shared by my siblings, my mother, and my foster parents, and some are my own memories stored in my mind and my body.
I remember the fear and uneasiness of the first night in my foster home, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed with different smells and strangers responsible for me instead of my mom. I remember having to get up really early to drive to preschool because my foster home was 25 minutes away from our home. It was so dark and the drive felt painfully long. I remember some of the supervised visits we had with our mom, and her pointing out that we were 'being watched through the wall.' I remember going to a respite foster home for several days when my foster parents needed time to travel for their daughter’s wedding. It was hard to find a respite home for all four of us, so we had to split up between two homes. Although I knew our foster parents cared deeply for us, I was scared that we might not go back as planned, which could mean I wouldn’t live with all of my sisters. I remember the name of the social worker involved in our family’s case, because my mom talked about how much she didn’t trust her. And so many more hard, complex, emotionally charged childhood memories like this.
As a professional working in the field of child welfare and permanency, my memories from personal experience in the system are a reminder to me of the power we hold in the lives of families and children. There are many parallels between the power held by a child welfare worker and the power held by a parent, including:
- The decisions we make might shape the trajectory of a person’s life, their ability to trust others and to feel safe in community.
- The things we say, and most importantly - the way we make a child or teen (or birth parent or relative) feel - might be remembered by them decades later. It might be stored in their body and mind for decades to come.
The significance of this power is not lost on me. Because of this power that we hold, it is imperative that we center the voices of fosters and adoptees - whether they are 7 years old, 38 years old, or 85 years old – to remember the long-term, significant impact of our involvement on their lives."
Sandy White Hawk is founder and director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute (FNRI), Elder in Residence at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center in Minneapolis, MN and researcher, activist, and PACC alumni. She is a guest contributor for PACC’s session on Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Practice that features her as the subject of the documentary Blood Memory
"Most adoptees live in emotional isolation. They live their lives not looking like anyone, without the ‘genetic juice’ like biological families have. When gathered with extended family, no one says to an adoptee 'you laugh just like your Aunt' or 'you walk just like your Uncle.' We struggle without familial reference, and likely without adequate language for the feelings of negotiating an emotionally isolated life.
When these feelings are not expressed, as they sit in the mind and spirit of the adoptee, too often negativity sets in. We have found in our research that suicide is very high in Native American adoptee placements. Love is not enough to navigate through these confusing emotions. That is why it is so very important to tell fosters and adoptees that they are having a normal response to an abnormal situation. We need to validate their voices and feelings, and to help caregivers understand what the adoptee or foster has to negotiate the rest of their life.
It is encouraging and very important to hear the lived experiences of adoptees and foster voices. As adoptees and former fostered individuals are involved in developing advocacy, education and policy development -training for adoptive and foster parents will be more fostered/adoptee centric -hopefully finding ways to lessen the emotional isolation. Eventually we will be LEADING the training and policy development in adoption and permanency."