Before a month celebrating adoption, a day to recognize adoptees’ trauma

For many adoptees, the day is a chance to reclaim their adoption narrative from religious groups that often portray it as a spiritual win-win.

Facilitator Ellie Rosen, left, takes a photo of an Adoptees Connect group in Providence, Rhode Island. Photo by Ellie Rosen

(RNS) — As Adoption Awareness Month kicks off this November, social media sites will be plastered with posts from grinning Christian couples celebrating the joys of adoption.

But many adult adoptees say that too often, Adoption Awareness Month gets to only part of the experience of adoption.

“I personally became exhausted every November,” said Pamela Karanova, a 48-year-old adoptee living in Lexington, Kentucky. Karanova says the positive frame that religious groups assign to adoption as a God-honoring ‘win-win’ can overshadow the voices of those who struggled as adoptees.

Haley Radke, 39, agrees. “All month long, it’s ‘adoption is amazing! You should be adopting! Donate to this fundraiser to help me adopt!’ Where,” she asked, “are the fundraisers to keep families intact?”

A group of adoptees who felt tired of being sidelined have designated October 30 Adoptee Remembrance Day, dedicated it to recognizing the complexity of adoption. Karanova, who acted on the idea two years ago, said the intent is to hit the airwaves before the glossy, overly spiritualized adoption narrative starts in November.   

A social media post for Adoptee Remembrance Day on Oct. 30. Image courtesy of Pamela Karanova

A social media post for Adoptee Remembrance Day on Oct. 30. Image courtesy of Pamela Karanova

“The primary voice I always heard about adoption growing up was a really Christian narrative with a nice, happy storyline,” Tatyana Russell-Chipp, 25, told Religion News Service. “I really believe Adoptee Remembrance Day is a key day for adoptees to get our voice back.”

A 2013 study conducted in Minnesota found that adoptees were four times as likely to report a suicide attempt than non-adoptees. A year earlier, a study of more than 18,000 adopted Swedish children found that 4.5% of adoptees struggled with drug abuse, compared to 2.9% of the wider population.

On Adoptee Remembrance Day, adoptees and advocates craft poems, articles, posts and podcasts that reckon with adoptee suicide, crimes against adoptees by adoptive parents and the loss that happens when adoptees are relinquished by their birth parents.

Adoptee Remembrance Day was born out of Adoptee’s Connect, a nonprofit Karanova founded almost five years ago.

Pamela Karanova. Photo courtesy of Karanova

Pamela Karanova. Photo courtesy of Karanova

“In the last decade I have connected with adoptees all over the world,” she told RNS. “Every single one has been brokenhearted and hurt by adoption in different ways.” Even those with “loving wonderful adoptive families,” she said, “have had pain, grief and loss associated with their adoption experience.”

The remembrance day is slowly gaining traction as adoptees around the globe commemorate it in person and on social media. Earlier this year, it was mentioned in a TedTalk at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and a Facebook page dedicated to the day has almost 2,000 follows. Adoptee Remembrance Day merch features the day’s yellow broken heart logo.

At noon Eastern on Oct. 30, participants are encouraged to pause for four minutes of silence for adoptees who have taken their own lives and are invited to light a candle of remembrance at 9 p.m.

Russell-Chipp told RNS she hopes Adoptee Remembrance Day can spur more truthful conversations about adoption. Raised in a Pentecostal tradition, she no longer identifies as a Christian, in large part because of how her faith community treated adoption.

“I’ve learned I don’t have space in the church to say that adoption is trauma, because it’s spiritualized and not accepted for me to have a voice that says anything other than, ‘This is awesome and God is good.’”

Tatyana Russell-Chipp. Photo by Rebecca Luffman

Tatyana Russell-Chipp. Photo by Rebecca Luffman

Russell-Chipp was adopted from Russia by a Canadian couple in 1998 at 9 months old. For most of her life, her adoption story was used as an evangelizing tool. “I felt like I had to hope people would see God, or see a redemption story of some sort through my story of adoption,” she said.

About two years ago, while working in ministry at a House of Prayer church in New Brunswick, Russell-Chipp began to examine the trauma she experienced as an adoptee. As the redemption story around her adoption began to unravel, she left her faith and her ministry entirely.

“The stories are too entangled for me to separate them right now,” she told RNS. “Might I return to some kind of faith at some point? Maybe, but I’m indifferent. These two things are so toxically intertwined.”

Haley Radke records a podcast. Photo by Julia Brown Photography

Haley Radke records a podcast. Photo by Julia Brown Photography

Radke, creator of the podcast Adoptees On, said the church favors a one-sided view of adoption. Adopted by Lutherans in Alberta, Canada, Radke first began unpacking her adoption story when she started her podcast six years ago. 

In 2017, when Radke asked the North American Baptist church she’d attended for 15 years to host a local Adoptee Connect group, she met resistance. The pastors brought printed copies of Radke’s Facebook posts about adoption to meetings with her, rattling off pointed questions.

“It was like I was being vetted just to use a room in the church,” she said. Eventually the church declined, she said, saying they were concerned that hosting the group would seem like an endorsement. 

Eight adoptees pose with an Adoptees Connect sign with the Adoptees Connect - Lexington, Kentucky group. Photo courtesy of Pamela Karanova

Eight adoptees pose with an Adoptees Connect sign with the Adoptees Connect – Lexington, Kentucky group. Photo courtesy of Pamela Karanova

The pastors apologized to Radke two years later, but, she said, “I can’t even step foot in the building. The people that I gave so much of my life and time and tithings to absolutely turned their back on me and said adoptive parents are more important than adults who need support through reunion and searching and other issues that we go through.”

Radke hopes that Adoptee Awareness Day will allow adoptees to have the kind of hard conversations her faith community avoided.

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Cameron Lee Small, 41, said that facing the grief about his adoption has allowed him to embrace a broader, more authentic version of God. A mental health counselor and a nondenominational Christian, Lee Small was adopted as a 3-year-old from Korea by a white family in Wisconsin. He’s learned to see mourning parts of his adoption story as an expression of his humanity, rather than ingratitude.

“If we just tell adoptees to be thankful for what they gained through adoption, we miss honoring what we’ve lost through adoption,” he told RNS. “To discount our birth families, our communities, cultures and legacies we were part of before we were adopted is to discount the aspect of God’s heart for community and fellowship and his Kingdom on Earth.”

Cameron Lee Small speaks about adoption at Camp Choson in 2019. Photo courtesy of Lee Small

Cameron Lee Small speaks about adoption at Camp Choson in 2019. Photo courtesy of Lee Small

Karanova says that as faith communities rev up for Adoption Awareness Month and World Orphans Day on Nov. 14, they should consider observing Adoptee Remembrance Day, too.

“Have the willingness to listen to adopted people and to learn from them,” said Karanova. “There is another side to the coin than what churches or religious organizations or adoption agencies have portrayed.”

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