Joel John Robert’s recent attempt to gain full disclosure from the Social Welfare Department returned hundreds of pages with vast amounts redacted
For half a century, Hong Kong-born adoptee Joel John Roberts spent his entire life not knowing the identity of his parents.
But as others rehomed by charities such as Po Leung Kuk or orphanages such as Fanling Babies Home have shared their experiences, Roberts, who was abandoned at 15 days oldbegan his own “journey of discovery”.
Roberts was one of many children born in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s adopted by western families and taken to countries such as the UK, Canada and the United States. Roberts was adopted by an American family and moved to the US aged two and a half.
Documentation from this period is often hard to come by and his recent attempt to gain full disclosure from the Social Welfare Department about his early life was met with blanks. It sent him hundreds of pages with vast amounts redacted.
“People would ask me if I was interested in finding my birth family and I said no because I just never thought about it. But as I got older, I [realised] I didn’t know anything about the first few years of my life or my birth parents,” said Roberts. “I don’t know anyone who has had the same experience.”
The problem stems from the context of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance for adoption which protects parents and adoptees from having their personal information released.
“I am 55 years old and I think I should have the right to know my history,” Roberts said. “If I am 15 years old, maybe not, but when you are an adult, they shouldn’t [withhold] the information.”
I think I should have the right to know my history
Despite the redactions, some precious details were yielded. Roberts’ original name was Frank Brown, or Pak Fat-lan in Chinese, according to the nanny assigned to care for him on his parents’ behalf.
It suggested the name was given by a western father, and it was this name that was reported to police when he was abandoned.
The Eurasian ethnicity filtered into media notices, government, and adoption agency filings.
Adding to the curiosity of his original name, Roberts took a DNA test because he was not satisfied with official documents describing him as Eurasian when he did not have any features to back that up. The results said he was 97 per cent Asian.
He also managed to track down an article from a Chinese-language newspaper from the 60s that published the name of his mother, but not his father.
Officials have been found to be inconsistent with redacting adult adoptee reports. As late as 2014, individuals could get full SWD documents without redaction, according to Winnie Siu Davies, who has assisted in previous cases where full unredacted documents were provided and birth parents were traced.
The Post covered the case of Mandy Horst in 2014 who used unredacted SWD documents to track down her mother via YouTube.
The inconsistencies added to Robert’s frustration and plea to have the documents unredacted.
Rebecca Holdaway, who helps returning adoptees from the UK and US, said early separations made it difficult to trace parents.
“Paperwork can be thin on the ground, making it difficult to prove roots to the authorities and make essential connections,” she said, adding that government officials and departments “don’t like to cooperate or its not in their interest to follow up [cases].”
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The privacy ordinance was implemented in Hong Kong in 1996, but made “more stringent” in 2012, Holdaway said. “Accessing old birth details and hospital records is difficult. There is a fine line between what right an adoptee has to: birth time, birth details, and medical records.”
Asked whether it would relax the rules, the SWD said Roberts was not the owner of all of the data disclosed in the documents which it controlled.
Since 2006, the department has given birth parents the choice of revealing their identity to their adopted children, but no retroactive mechanism could be created to address historical issues faced by adult adoptees.
The United States and the UK created an open adoption disclosure process where both adoptees and parents have a veto and consent rights to communication and the right to know, whereas Australia was on the other end of the spectrum with a “closed adoption” practice and the biological parent’s names are never revealed, said Holdaway.