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Column: Barbara Sumner

Barbara Sumner.

I’ve spent most of my adult life searching for my biological family. I’ve encountered endless roadblocks. The majority of them from officialdom. During the search and now as I start a campaign to free all adoption files, I am often asked – what do you want?
But as an adopted person I know that often what people are really asking is –  what more do you want?
This one question is at the heart of adoption.
It is filled to the brim with the idea that your mother gave you away and these kind people came along and saved you.
And the only response to this framing is one of gratitude. Anything less is disloyal to your adopting parents and the society that rescued you.
Gratitude is something adopted people know well. It’s not the gratitude of memes and self-improvement. It’s the gratitude a serf must pay to a master. It’s why we love it when our pets do our bidding, when they roll-over and beg on command.
Because in adoption gratitude is best friends with acquiescence, submission and deference. The attitude of gratitude is implicit in the social contract of closed, secret or stranger adoption.
All because without adoption you would be illegitimate. Because without adopting parents you would carry the shame of your mother’s sexual activity. Because without adoption you would be an orphan.
All because your mother gave you away.
But seriously, are we still expected to believe this narrative? That for around 50 years over 100,000 New Zealand women gave their babies away. As though a contagion overcame the country, causing women to abandon their mothering. To throw away their unwanted children. To bury the evidence of their shame in the deepest bureaucratic well.
Ask any mother. The very idea is ludicrous.
Ask any mother who ‘gave’ up her child and you’ll hear harrowing stories. Not of unwanted children placed in loving homes. But of their babies abducted, often taken straight from their arms. Or slipped out under cover of darkness. Or removed directly from their wombs and disappeared. You’ll hear stories of forged paperwork. Of no legal representation. Of being shamed and belittled into submission.
But we cling to that word ‘give’.
That way we don’t have to deal with the dark truths hiding in our recent history. The Anglican and Catholic Church and the Salvation Army waged war on women and their sexuality. Aided and abetted by the government.
Today, over 60 years since the implementation of the Adoption Act 1955, our government is still waging that war.
They are still holding the files of the women who had their children taken. They are still telling those women they have no rights. That shame and silence is their only option.
They are still holding the files of the people abducted in the name of morality. They are still telling them they are second-class citizens without right or recourse to their own information.
The irony is that our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has an out-of-wedlock daughter.  Had she been born in, say, 1960, that child would have been uplifted straight from her arms. And placed with a married couple.
I am beginning to think that rather than irony it is profound hypocrisy. Our prime minister is enjoying life with her baby. Meanwhile, thousands of people live on in pain. The Adoption Act 1955 remains as law. So much for compassion and kindness.
So, what more do I want?
I want dignity for my mother. The callous and cruel treatment she suffered would make your hair curl. And then they stole her baby.
I want my files. I want the truth about my birth.
I want to know what or who the state is protecting me from?
I want to know what or who is being protected from me?
I want what you, the non-adopted person has. For the asking (and the payment of a small fee) Archives NZ will send you everything they have on you.
Under the amusing title Personal Identity, Archives NZ adds that access to many is restricted under the Adoption Act 1955.’
But of course, some of my files have been accessed. They are in the hands of office workers and social workers at the Ministry for Vulnerable Children.
I must appease and sweet talk whoever answers their phones. I must smile as I’m given wrong information or sent off on another wild goose chase. I must remain calm as I’m disrespected and belittled for daring to ask for my information. And every time I must remember not to offend anyone, to adopt the right attitude of gratitude. To always be nice (and never be angry) in the hope someone will take pity and slip me a morsel of information. A name here, a date there.

So ask me again what more do I want? I dare you.

And a few comments from other adopted people:

“I would like (all of us) to have equal rights to our/my original unadulterated birth certificate.”

“I/we need to be able to access citizenship to the appropriate countries of our/my kin/heritage.”

“I want recognition from our government that adoption, closed stranger (& maybe other scenarios) weren’t ideal (jeez, aren’t I generous).”

“I want recompense for a life half-lived. For the time in anguished searching and no access to appropriate counseling. For my parallel life, in a crazy wilderness of non-familial closeness.”

“I want adopting parents (even today) to to know that adoption is not a substitute for having a biological child or a replacement for a lost child.

I want adopting parents to educate themselves on what adoption means for the people grafted onto their family tree.

“I want the end of adoption. I want it replaced with enduring guardianship.”

“I want people to know I am not the problem, that adoption is the problem.”

“I am sick of living inside a world of fantasy and fiction.”

Thanks to Gillian Moynihan for contributing ideas.

ref. What more do you want? –

MIL Analysis+Reportage – EveningReport.NZ