Jeltje Simons 
Article Title
Thoughts About the Biological Parents of Internationally Adopted Children  
Posted Date

Before I adopted I had some ideas about birth families and the children available for adoption and it all appeared quite straight forwards. In the case of adoption every legal tie with the birth family is cut, the child becomes your own as would have been the case by birth, and you live happily ever after.. . The reality is of course a little more complicated.

If it was possible in the past to adopt a 'healthy' young baby from a foreign country, this is no longer the case. Even if all rules are followed swiftly, adopting a child under a year is a rarity now and most adoptions are of older children. I do not necessarily think of 7 or 10 year olds, older children in adoption are children over the age of 2 or 3.

And these children often come with a range of genetic issues and consequences of neglect and institutionalization. If the genes were healthy to start with, the child might get damaged by stress and lifestyle of the birth mother (alcohol, drugs consumption), neglect and abuse in the hands of birth parents or orphanages/ institutions. So adoption has changed a lot in the last few decades and often with the increased age come the increased problems, as the children are exposed much longer to the circumstances that are detrimental to their development.

In the past decade there also has been a huge shift in opinion about what is a good practice when it comes to birth parent contact. From adopting very young infants and telling them nothing if they were of similar race, to fully open adoptions where birth parents and adopters have each other's contact details and can be in touch whenever they wish. These are the trends, so some people seek contact with the birth parents before their children are of age when they can decide. Also when it comes to inter-country adoptions, TV programs that show great reunions are not helping people to see the full picture. These programs are just a snapshot of a long process of loss and pain that lasts years; and the reunion moment, though full of emotion and excitement, is not the final outcome for most.

Most inter-country adoptions are fully closed, and that's it. That is also one of the reasons some people choose inter-country adoption over domestic: it gives them a piece of mind not to have to deal with all sorts of contact issues, direct (meeting the birth parents once or more times a year) or indirect (writing to and receiving letters from the birth family). However, the truth of the matter is, even if you have adopted a Chinese girl for whom the chances that the birth family will ever be found are extremely low, the presence of the birth mother is real still, even if you have never met her, if you do not have information about her existence: she is important to your child and so to you.

After my children came home I was surprised how much I was thinking of their birth mothers. And to be honest, I still do think about that woman who is always in the background. Looking at the facial features of my new child and wondering if he was looking like her. For the birth mother he is still the baby frozen in time; for me - the child she will never really know. I feel sadness thinking of the consequences of the fact caused by her walking away. Maybe the act in itself made her life easier at the time, maybe she still thinks of him and wonders how he is doing, maybe he is a lost memory.

For my child the consequences of his abandonment have been huge. The neglect he suffered; his trauma, his difficulty attaching, his inability to really care about people, animals, belongings; his social problems, his learning challenges are all the direct result of never having a mother to love him, to sooth him, to protect him, to attach to him and care for him.

My both children were home by their 6th birthday, one lived his whole life in an orphanage, the other one lived 3 years with the birth parents and was then removed out of their care: a common story of mental illness, drugs, domestic violence.

I think of the birth mother when it's my child's birthday, and whenever he asks questions, or tells me he misses her and wants to live with her. And I know he feels something is missing inside and tries to fill this with a fantasy.

It is good to talk about the birth family in the age appropriate way when the child asks questions. But it is difficult to find a balance between being honest and allowing the child to make sense of it all. Do not forget that once you tell the child a detail you cannot take it back, so share information very carefully. Do not burden the child with information they cannot make sense of or talk about things that will make them worry greatly. Sometimes children cannot live with their birth parents because the parents are very poor and do not have money to buy food. Do not say that his birth parents are very poor and have no money to buy food. What can the child think? That they will die because they have no food? Blame you because you have enough and why do you not sent money to the birth parents? Especially if children still think that money comes out of a machine in the wall on demand.

My child tells me his birth parents live in a small white house with flowers behind the windows. He is going to live there too, and that will happen soon. Then all sort of details follow about how the house looks inside. I ask him how he knows this all, he says because it is so. I tell him that he was never in the house of his birth parents, that his mother did not bring him to the house from hospital. He looks for a few seconds at me and then agrees with me that this was very sad indeed.

He asked me why she did not take him home and I told him that I think that she probably had loads of problems that made it very difficult to care for a baby. This answer he accepted for now and he moved on and asked what was for supper.

This is the fact, he was never in their house because the birth mother walked away. I do not know too many details, but if I knew I would not share them with him. She is the only one with the responsibility to tell him the why's if he meets her one day in the future. Some questions are likely to stay unanswered, that is the other side of adoption. Later, much later, we may have a talk about what the reasons can be to walk away - in general. But for him to really understand, he needs to understand society, social problems, mental illness, adoption, and many more issues that develop over time.

My children started asking for details and no longer accepting an answer like "You were adopted because your birth parents could not take care of you" when they were just over 7 and home just over a year. "Why? Why could she not care for me?" My youngest said: "Caring for a baby is easy, all you need is milk". So that was a good moment to talk about the needs of babies and how to care for a baby.

Over time he asked questions more forcefully, and questions that were above his level of understanding the answer. He knows nothing about economic problems, discrimination, poverty, the consequences of being desperately poor, the position of woman in many cultures, family planning, cultural habits, addictions or problems adults struggle with. Yet he comes up with irrational conclusions with the little bit of information he has. And I can't give an answer like "Your parents were desperately poor and could not buy milk for you": I do not know that; they might be poor but it is possible they used the little money they did have on alcohol or cigarettes or who knows what else.

"She did not love me" is a comment that begs for the answer: "Yes, of course she loved you very much". But it is also a dodgy answer as you just do not know. You love a child so much that you abandon them, or you put them in the second place because you love drugs more? It does not make sense. A better answer is: "I think she must have loved you, how can anyone not love such a fantastic boy you are." I often say: "I do not know why" or "We can talk about this when you are older." I do not feel obligated to answer every question he has about his birth family. In fact it would be very damaging for him to know all at this stage.

My oldest asks sometimes a question but he appears generally not very interested. He knows certain things, he remembers others. He has never shared the wish to meet his birth family. He will seldom talk about it, saying: "I do not want to talk about it". As he has autism, he processes things in his own way, which is alright too.

Who are the birth parents and how do our children get in institutions?

The birth parents often have undiagnosed psychiatric problems and learning disabilities or addictions, often self medicated and undiagnosed. Their illnesses cause them to neglect the child; their addiction makes the substances more important for them than the child; their low intellect prevents them from making the right decisions and parent effectively; their mental illness may force them to do and believe into the most weird things. Those birth parents neglect/abuse their offspring intentionally or unwittingly and are barely able to look after themselves, as the underlying reasons for their behavior often have a genetic element; the birth parents may themselves be somewhere on the autistic spectrum or have mental illness like schizophrenia. They struggle with empathy, are egocentric, have problems with communication. A combination of the above causes is often at play and passed genetically to their children.

Do we as adopters feel different towards this group of birth parents compared to the ones who have abandoned their offspring? I always feel that abandonment appears to have a romantic undertone, the baby gets placed in a basket and the mother waits behind a tree until the baby is found by a loving new mother. This is not the reality, abandonment leads too often to infanticide because of hyperthermia, starvation, wild animals, overheating etc. The act of abandonment is huge: some people can do it, others would never conceder it whatever the circumstances, as community and family pressures are all at work as is the mental state of the birth parents at the time of abandonment.

Both groups of birth parents are often victims of poverty, poor education, discrimination, unemployment, local customs and believes and were poorly parented themselves. It is not uncommon for birth families to be involved in criminal activities. Many other members of the extended family may also have difficulties to function in society. Certain patterns are prone to repeat itself generation after generation. In many cases it is a vicious circle that is very difficult to break. Social services first look for extended family to take a child and, if that's not possible, the child ends up in foster care or an institution, which leads to adoption for some.

Most children in institutions have birth parents who live under the poverty line. Yet poverty itself is not necessarily the cause people neglect their offspring or abandon them. After all there are millions of people living far under the poverty line who do not harm their children nor abandon them. A combination of unfavorable circumstances is at work, and as a result, those children are marked for life by the dreadful experiences of their early years. And often more than one child gets this treatment in the family: in all likelihood your adopted child has siblings; a Chinese girl is often a girl number two or three; your Russian child is likely to have siblings in care or still living with the birth family.

Another reason why children are abandoned and end up in orphanages is because of their disabilities. In some societies disabled children are still not accepted and hidden away, left to die, actively killed or put in institutions. There are shocking examples of documentaries that look into this problem in China and Eastern Europe.

Gender preference is sometimes a reason to not accept a baby, we all know about China and India where a boy is a strong preference.

It is important not to talk negatively about the birth parents even if they have messed up big time, because if you do that, you are indirectly being negative about the adopted child, as they are the product of the birth parents. Children do not understand the complications surrounding their adoption, and they should not know many details until their brain is mature enough to process. There is a lot to say for letting children grow up as care free as possible, so by the time they hear more details they are strong enough to deal with them.

Do not talk overly positive either, as this leads to fantasies and confusion: if they were this nice family why is the child not living there? Try to be neutral, do not come to conclusions and leave some questions open. Of course the child needs to know he is adopted, but you want to prevent the child from worrying about the birth family their whole youth.

The internet and social media

In some cases birth parents are just a few mouse clicks away. And in coming years more and more people in developing countries will also have access to the internet. As human nature is to be nosy, most adopters have searched the names of 'their' birth parents. In most cases this does not lead to anything, but for some it will. I know that sites like Facebook can 'connect' you to strangers with a click of a mouse. It is however a bad idea to 'become friends' with the birth parents over the Internet for the following reasons:

  • You have no idea how far they are in the process of grieving and acceptance, how stable they are mentally.
  • You do not know if the adoption is a secret, who else in the family reads the messages and has access to this account.
  • It is impulsive, you click 'friends' and you have no idea what problems you are causing to the birth family or to your own family.
  • Your children may be able to click away: leaving a laptop on standby is an easy mistake and they might just open the messages and gain contact outside your knowledge at a moment in time when it is way too early to be beneficial to the child. Do not forget that children are often more computer literate than most of us - parents. Computer utilities can promise you all sorts of parental controls, but they do not necessary guarantee safety.
  • It is even a question if it is wise to tell children their birth surnames before they reach maturity. As this makes searching the internet super simple. There is of course the language barrier, but that is no guarantee that contact cannot be established.

Contact needs to be carefully planned and prepared, and the internet has no place in this process. The question arises if it is ethically right to establish contact before the child has reached maturity to decide if they even want any contact with their birth families. Or, is it OK to contact them because we have already made so many decisions in the child's life that it is now our right. Decisions like the adoption; taking away the child's language and culture, which is unavoidable; taking the child to live in a different country, etc. I think we have to thread very carefully here, and being impulsive, nosy, impatient has no place here.

Letting a 9 -10 year old decide if they want contact is not fair on the child, their brains are simply not mature enough to decide or oversee the eventual consequences. There are other issues as well. Compared to a few decades ago, traveling to far away destinations is no longer complicated, and even people in underdeveloped areas have often mobile phones and possibilities to reach out. Do not forget also that children themselves are well aware by the secondary school age how to search the internet, and many are allowed to have Facebook and other social media accounts. It is only natural that children are curious about their roots and most will search their birth name, parents' names if known, place where they were born, etc. Even if you do not allow internet access at home, they might have a 'helpful' friend with a smart phone who can do a search when you turn your back away.

I am sure in the next 10 years even more people will be able to search the internet. And the last thing you want is your teen making contact with their birth family behind your back and sharing whatever information they fancy. Unsupervised contact in whatever form needs to be prevented as it can bring emotional upheaval to your teenaged adoptee and possibly be unsafe for your family. It might not necessary be the birth family itself that bothers you; they might have friends who have friends who turn up at your door one day. The information gets shared, which you wished never would be.

Searching for information on the Internet potentially unlocks numerous questions:

  • Whose right is it to contact the birth family? Is this exclusive the right of the adoptee? They did not have control over adoption related events in their lives, is it their right to decide if they want contact with their birth family?
  • Is it our obligation to support the birth family financially? It is not unheard of that they ask for money? So have you even considered what to do then?
  • How can we prevent the adoptee from feeling the burden of financial support to the birth family later in life?
  • How can we be sure that we are not causing psychological harm to the birth family by contacting them unexpectedly?
  • How do we know that they want the contact? Or will we be able to communicate with them? We do not understand their culture, their first language, their mannerisms, their way of communicating. People who agree to anything with a smile on their face jump to mind.

Because you can contact the birth family over the Internet does not mean you should even try. When you adopt a child through inter-country adoption you get some basic information about the birth parents and reasons leading up to adoption. This differs from country to country. Sometimes the only information you might know is the place where the child was found, other times you might actually get detailed information about the child's birth family and circumstances leading up to the moment the child was removed by social services or the moment the parents voluntarily gave up the child. Whatever the information was given, it is only a tiny bit and not always objective or true. There are language barriers and cultural differences that play a part in the decision which information is thought to be important for the prospective adopter. Some information might never be known, even by authorities.

It is important to gather as much information as possible for the future of the adopted child. Do this by asking questions in the orphanage, by collecting information about what happened in the country of origin around the child's birth, make pictures, create memories for the child. If there is a good reason to have contact with the birth family, always use a mediator who speaks the local language, never share contact details and do not promise things like 'we come to visit you soon'. The contact should be between the adults, not between the children and their birth parents. It should be discreet so the birth family feels free to say no. If they agree, it is sometimes possible to let the birth family know the child is adopted now, is cared for and loved.

You have to realize that even under the best circumstances a meaningful contact with birth parents can be tricky, they might be angry, afraid, mentally ill, having problems we don't even understand. Use your own judgment, but if you decide to go ahead, respect the birth parents, their privacy, their grief and sorrow. For them adoption may mean loss, pain, failure, repentance.

Most children adopted at an older age know from day one they are adopted, but that does not mean that they also understand it. My 6 year old thought that every child lives initially in a children's home, and he did not know he had birth parents. He had learned songs about a mother but had no idea what a mother was and he still, being now 9 years old, struggles with this concept greatly.

Taking the child back to the country of origin is in many cases not a good plan unless the adoptees have reached adulthood and want this themselves, then you might want to be their support.

The reality is that most adoptees come from very troubled backgrounds and the impact of seeing the misery and desperation in real life might have a huge psychological impact on a child who is trying to fit in with friends and their 'new culture'. Children find it difficult to understand that they are separate individuals from their parents. For example, if parents are divorced and the mother says bad things about the father to the child, she indirectly says bad things about the child, as he's 50% of the father.

We do not say negative things about the birth parents, but when we show them how unsuccessful and desperate the situation with their birth parents is, how are they going to feel about themselves? Probably as being pretty negative and useless as well. Would they understand that they do not have to follow in their parents footsteps, that they now are adopted and have every opportunity to be successful? Or would the thought of the misery of their birth parents disable them in trying to make the best of their abilities?

Taking a child back to the orphanage is not a good idea and is likely to be another traumatizing event. The smells, the sounds, the visual impact all can trigger unconscious memories. We all know such moments when you are in this place, and you smell a familiar smell, and before you realize it, you are that 5 year old sitting in your grandfather's big chair in the lounge by your grandparents.

The thing is that you open the Pandora's box: it appears to be a small act, it's nice for the staff to see how well our child is doing, how nice for the child to see the staff again, maybe meet some friends, etc. But it can have far reaching consequences and trigger all sorts of mental health issues. If you feel you want to do something, send a picture of the child to the orphanage instead.

Every situation is unique and there might be circumstances where you decide there is a need to introduce the birth parents to the child. I advise you to carefully discuss this with a professional who has knowledge of the inter-country adoptions and your child's psychological profile. There may be some recommendations to follow, and some scenarios to consider.

Meet at a neutral place, not at the birth parents house, have a safe translator/mediator there and have it decided beforehand how long the meeting will be. It is really tricky as you will have no control over the birth parents emotions or actions. And you have no idea how it will impact your child if the birth mother, for example, starts crying or hold your child tightly for a long period. Never leave the child alone with the birth family members. Meet only one or two members of the birth family.

I hope you realize that the birth parent's contact is very complicated, it is very easy to misjudge something and bring in devastating emotions and stress into the adopted child's life: a lot of adopted children are sensitive to mental health problems later in life anyway already. It is wise to very carefully consider what you expose your child to. Creating a situation where you are no longer in control, as in visiting the orphanage, the birth parents, might not be beneficial for your child's mental health.

Contact is complex and whatever you do or decide when it comes to the birth family, consider and reconsider very carefully. It needs to be in your child's best interest, not something you follow up with because "it is the wish" of your 7 year old.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys now age 9 and 14. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday. Both children have significant special needs.

Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK.

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