Where do I come from? A plea for transparency in the adoption system
The Afstammingscentrum (research centre of filiation) offers assistance for everyone in Belgium who has questions about their own filiation and kinship – when the legal kinship does not match the genetic kinship. The centre develops and gathers expertise, raises awareness and formulates policy recommendations on these issues. In practice, the centre often has to deal with ethical questions about adoption. Experts, such as Sophie Withaeckx, researcher at the Centre for Gender and Diversity at Maastricht University, help with answering these questions.
For and by target groups
Adoptees, donor-conceived people and metis of the former Belgian colonies have argued for years for their right to know where they come from. In 2019, the Flemish government approved their proposal for a research centre of filiation. The Flemish government opened the centre in 2021, and has subsidised it ever since. “The Afstammingscentrum was meant to exist for and by the target groups, so our steering group exists of members of our target groups and experts on our working topics to ensure that the centre remains on the right track,” Joyce Bex, one of the programme counselors at the Afstammingscentrum, explains.
“The Afstammingscentrum exists to support people. Trying to find out where you come from is an intense and often lonely journey. We try to help our clients wherever we can. We can consult archives, contact authorities, do DNA-research, act as a mediator, and offer psychosocial support during this trajectory. More specifically, we can check for our clients how they were transferred from abroad, as long as this has been documented. But we have to keep in mind that a certain group of our clients don’t have (official) documentation about when and where they were born, which means there is nothing for us to trace in the archives. For these clients, we focus on DNA research in DNA databases,” Joyce elucidates.
It immediately became clear that the centre wasn’t set up in vain; from the first day onwards, the Afstammingscentrum received requests. “We currently have more than 500 files. On the one hand, this is good as it shows the need of knowledge about the own genetic kinship, but on the other hand, we are only with 3 programme counselors,” Joyce utters.
“The people who approach us come from all over the country, and even from abroad in case they are looking for kinship in Belgium, and are of all ages. Our largest target group is adoptees. For years, governments did not recognise that people have the right to have questions about their ancestry answered. The establishment of our centre feels like a recognition of this right by the Flemish government,” Joyce explains.
The Afstammingscentrum often encounters challenges in its support process, such as incomplete files and uncooperative services. “Obviously, these do not stop us, but it may be the case that, after we have examined all options, we reach a dead end. In such a case, time will tell if we are able to get access to certain information, such as access to the national register or future DNA-matches. This search can take years, so in those cases we focus on providing psychosocial support,” Joyce elucidates.
Nevertheless, there are also success stories. “Suppose a person has personal information on the people they are searching for, then we will search for their address and will contact them by letter. This gives the recipient, who is not always aware that they are searched for, the time to consider whether or not they want to reply. If we have not heard anything from them after a month, we will send a second letter, and a third letter after another month. We are of course bound by the privacy legislation, or GDPR, so after the third letter we stop contacting them. If the person does respond, we will set up a mediation meeting. It’s important that such meetings take place in a safe environment, as there are a lot of questions and emotions involved. Many people are so overwhelmed that they can’t say what they wanted to say. Therefore, we prepare a number of questions in advance, to discuss expectations, and what they want to know about each other,” Joyce says.
At about the same time as the Afstammingscentrum was established, the Flemish government set up an expert panel to conduct research into international adoption. The reason for this was suspicion of malpractice. “Our investigation showed that great misconducts take place in international adoption. The adoptions are usually not transparent, which means that a lot of information about the adopted child is missing, such as the names of the biological parents and the date or place of birth. As a panel, we therefore advised the Flemish government to temporarily suspend international adoption. We deemed this necessary in order to profoundly re-organise the system,” Sophie explains.
She elaborates on this and says that “adoption is seen as something beautiful and noble while our research shows that there has been systematic malpractice. Adoption is also a Eurocentric concept. It is based on the idea that we can provide a better environment in Western Europe and North America for children from Asia, Africa and South America.”
“The ‘success’ of adopted children is often measured by statistics. Adopted children might get good grades at school, have lots of friends, or are members of a sports club. But happiness or a feeling of completeness cannot be not measured. Sooner or later, adoptees will have questions, because they see that their skin colour differs from their parents, or because they feel that something in their background story is not quite right. In addition, until the arrival of the Afstammingscentrum, adoptees received no guidance in their search for their ancestry and often ran into the bureaucracy of the organisations that ought to help them. We should now focus mainly on helping those people who are looking for their birth family. That is why, as an expert panel, we advocated for temporarily suspending international adoption. We felt like that is the only option to make the current system more transparent,” Sophie elucidates.
Initially, the minister fully followed the panel’s recommendations. But this decision caused a stir among adoption agencies and prospective parents. “This is understandable, but we also regret that society has not yet changed its mentality the way we had envisaged,” Sophie says. “At the moment, people are still thinking very much from the point of view of parents who want to have children. The dominant narrative is that of 'I have the right to a child'. Referring to the convention of the child, The Afstammingscentrum starts from the fundamental right to knowledge about one's own filiation and kinship; people have the right to know where they come from,” Joyce continues. “Because this change of mentality has not yet occurred in society, the government decided to reverse the decision,” Sophie explains.
International adoption is decreasing as popular adopting countries begin to make provisions for their own children. As a result, there are few children left to be adopted. Hence, prospective parents start looking for other ways to have children. “Surrogacy is becoming popular in Belgium,” Sophie says, “while there is no legal framework for it. This does not mean that surrogacy is prohibited, but there is no legal protection for the prospective parents, for example if the surrogate mother decides to not give up the child after birth. There is a shared concern among experts that the children born through surrogacy will be the next group who will have questions about where they come from, as sperm and egg cell donors often remain anonymous.”
“This creates complex situations,” Joyce asserts. “In many transnational adoptions, it is clear to a child early on that it has been adopted because it often has a different skin colour than its adoptive parents. This is mostly not the case with surrogacy, donor-conceived people, family secrets, or in some cases domestic adoption. Our clients often tell us they only found out when they were older and well into their adulthood. Regardless, they have felt all along that something is not right, or someone in the family makes them question their ancestry. In many cases, the parents of our clients have already passed away and thus have erased useful information.”
Regardless of whether a child has been adopted from abroad, from the same country as the prospective parents, or via a surrogate mother, Sophie believes transparency is needed. “In an ideal world, adoption would be fair and straightforward, but unfortunately we are not living in an ideal world. Malpractices are systematically occurring because of a failing juridical framework and a backdrop of global inequalities. Many international adoptive parents think that the process goes by the book, but are not aware of systematic abuse. Even with domestic adoption, we cannot rely on children receiving all information they are entitled to. The government oversees the adoption process, but there is no overarching, independent watchdog. Transparency in all forms of adoption would be the first step towards a fairer adoption system.”
By: Eva Durlinger
Picture by: Joey Roberts
The Centre for Gender and Diversity (CGD) studies mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. They aim to use their research as a vector of change - to not only describe and explain social issues but engage stakeholders and intervene for the sake of social justice.
The Afstammingscentrum in Belgium acts as a point of contact and orientation for those who have questions about their ancestry. It covers informational questions as well as more specific, individual requests. If necessary, the Afstammingscentrum will refer people to other specialised services or appropriate assistance.