When You Find Out the Adoption “Story” is Untrue

Dawn Davenport


What’s a parent to do when you find out that the story you were told about why your child was placed for adoption is not exactly the truth, maybe not even close to the truth. Should this matter to us? How then, do we handle talking about adoption with our kids?

Tips for helping adopted children navigate their story

Over the years, I’ve heard from adoptive parents who have found the following changes to the adoption narrative:

  • We were told that our daughter’s birth mother in Ethiopia was dead and that our baby was found abandoned in a field. We hired a searcher, and it turns out her birth mother is alive and well, and not even all that poor by Ethiopian standards.
  • Before the adoption, our son’s birth mother told the adoption agency that she was raped. After we’ve gotten to know her, we strongly believe that she was (and is) a prostitute, and the birth father was one of her “customers.” We don’t know for sure.
  • We adopted our child from Guatemala, believing her birthmother was unmarried and desperately poor and wanted her baby to be adopted so she could have a better life. When we found the birth mother several years later, she said that her aunt basically kidnapped the baby to be given away for adoption without her permission. We now don’t know what to believe or what to tell our daughter.

We all have a narrative that we believe about why our children came to us through adoption.  This story is told to us by the birth parents or the adoption agency, or we piece it together from the documents and what our kids tell us.  In many ways, this story forms the backbone of our adoption. What happens when we find out that the story is untrue, or only partly true? Should this matter to us? What do we tell our child?

Unknowns in Adoption

All children come to adoption from tragedy — be it poverty, illness, lack of family support, rape, or abuse.  We know it is a tragedy when a child cannot be raised by his birth family, but we may not know what the tragedy was. The story of the tragedy we were told may not be the truth, or at least not the full truth. Documents may not be available; people with information may not share for any number of reasons; adoption agencies may not have the information; and sadly, adoption workers may not tell all the information they have.

two women talking with one woman in shadow

The story of the tragedy we were told may not be the truth, or at least not the full truth.

And what exactly is “the truth” anyway? My grandmother used to say there are three sides to any story: yours, mine, and the truth. Stories shift both with time and who is doing the telling. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t telling the truth; it means they are telling the truth as they see it from their perspective at this point in time.

What Do We Tell Our Kids

I believe that children have a right to their story — all of it. Parents must share what they know and what they don’t know. If the story has changed, the children should be told.

But what if the story is especially difficult? What if the story is not “appropriate” for children? What if it involves rape, drugs, prison, kidnapping? Parents must lay the groundwork by talking about their adoption, starting when the children are very young. Parents can then add details as the child ages. The goal is for the child to know all the details by adolescents.

Has your child’s adoption story changed? How have you handled this new information? How has the new information affected you or your child?

Image credit: Daniela Hartmann; Sheng P.

19/06/2019 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 12 Comments

12 Responses to When You Find Out the Adoption “Story” is Untrue

  1. [When they were young we decided to work primarily off of what they remembered because that was their reality. ] Well said!! Yes, a changing narrative does mess with your identity. That’s one of the issues that both the adopted person and adoptive parents have to deal with. It changes both of their identities.

  2. Carolyn, don’t most of us assume that the vast majority of kids adopted from China have at least one living parent? What do you mean that you have to wonder about a 10 year old. How old is she now and has anyone in her family been involved in her care since she came to the orphanage? (I know you probably don’t know the answer to that last question.)

  3. Avatar Carolyn says:

    Since Michael had a SN that is also viewed as “unlucky” or “Kiss of the devil”, we were fairly certain he is a bonafide orphan…. and by using his Chinese name on Chinese google, I found the article about the Western Charity that did his cleft repair (but we didn’t know he was in a foster home for 3 years and returned to the orphanage at age 7….)

    Now there is a girl from his orphanage who is a talented musician, healthy and came into the SWI at age 10. I have to wonder about her as I am mentoring her American parents to be.

  4. Avatar Katherine says:

    in response to the second story, just because someone is a prostitute doesn’t mean they weren’t raped. Prostitutes are much more likely to be the victim of all kinds of violent crimes than the general population.

  5. Katherine, good point!

  6. Avatar Christie says:

    I never really believed or disbelieved the story I got when when adopted. I just accepted it until I got information that either proved or disproved it. However, to be told after the birth (a story that she still sticks with until this day) that the birth dad isn’t the father…well. We told the birth father that we consider him the father and that is all the counts. At the time we did offer to pay for a paternity test, but he wasn’t interested in it. It doesn’t really effect our adoption. Especially as he is a foster kid himself and doesn’t have a lot of family history anyway.

  7. Avatar Carolyn says:

    IDK about the “vast majority”. If the child is healthy, came into care at an older age and is listed with “has no memory of family”, that would be a red flag to me. I know trauma can affect memory, but…. Now the ones who have special needs might have living parents, but remember, medical care in China is very spendy and has to be prepaid. Overquota children are often seized by the family planning office….. in other words, these bio parents aren’t trying to deceive an unsuspecting American family into an education and inheritance rights and return to China to support the bio family.

    My concern in this case is the girl was supposedly found as a newborn and raised for 10 years until the finder could no longer afford to keep her and sent her to the orphanage for a better life. She is a talented musician AND she supposedly still has contact with the woman who sent her to the orphanage. She will age out by the end of the year (turn 14). Is there something more to the story? Has a burden been placed on this child to come to the US like an exchange student and then return????

  8. Avatar Judy says:

    First, our children were older when we adopted them and their stories did not line up with what we were told. Then a few of the families who adopted their siblings found us and we traded paperwork. We tried to figure out the truth, but when their birth mother and her cousin (who is raising another sibling) entered the picture recently we found we were still wrong. My children are now adults. When they were young we decided to work primarily off of what they remembered because that was their reality. The hardest part was finding out the siblings they thought had the same dad and were ‘full’ siblings were not and their nationality mix was different than they were told. Not a huge deal, but it does mess with your identity.

  9. Judy, how did you find out “the truth”? Did you share this new info with your kids?

  10. Avatar Judy says:

    Our children were adopted out of foster care in the US and the ‘story’ we were given did not match with reality either. Both scenarios were negative, but we too were trying to explain things to our children based on information that was not true.

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