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Phuket: An Australian couple’s journey to adopt a Thai orphan

Phuket: An Australian couple’s journey to adopt a Thai orphan

PHUKET: When Phuket couple Donna Stephens and husband Andrew de Bruin first brought their newly adopted Thai son Ikki home for Christmas in 2010, life was never going to be the same again.

By Claire Connell

Friday 2 May 2014, 11:47AM

The Australian couple had waited more than three years to adopt a Thai orphan as a sibling for their son Finn, then 10, after finally being matched for an inter-country adoption through Thailand’s Department of Welfare.

After a failed IVF attempt in Bangkok to have another child, the couple decided to adopt from a Thai orphanage.

“We had room, and I thought, why am I going through all this stress [of IVF]. We didn’t do it lightly. We had the application for a year before we put it in; it was a big thing to do it,” Donna explains.

They submitted the first paperwork to the department in July 2007. It took around nine months to collate all the documents required and they had to be translated into Thai as well. Once they were approved to adopt, the next step was the biggest waiting game – waiting to be matched with a child.

“That’s about 70 per cent of the time. The board only meet once a month in Bangkok. You try and ring the adoption agency but there’s very few people in the office, the case workers are often not there, and they are doing a lot of other jobs too. It’s quite emotional. I was ringing up every few weeks, and for a year we were told we were near the top.

“We almost pulled out in July 2010. We had been waiting so long, and Finn was getting older, and so were we. Our lives were changing, and we didn’t believe that it would ever happen. We couldn’t keep on going like this.”

Then, after they got back from a holiday in Europe, they recieved a phone call from their caseworker they will never forget.

“We got a call saying we had been matched. We couldn’t believe it,” Donna says.

It was during this call that they were told about a young boy named Songkran, who lived in Nakhon Sri Thammarat in an orphanage, and who had been abandoned as a two day old baby.

“She gave us his name and said he was very lovely and very sweet. I went up to Bangkok to get the photo [of him], because for some reason it was difficult to send.”

Donna also wanted to ask about why they were given a boy, when they had selected the “girl” option three years earlier. It wasn’t a big deal, but Donna wondered how they ended up with a boy. To officially apply again for a girl would have meant starting the whole process again.

“When I saw his photo, I thought, ‘Oh, what am I going to do? Swap him?’ When I saw his little face, I was in tears, and I thought, ‘I can’t do that. I’ll just have to adopt another one,’” Donna says with a laugh.

After experiencing such joy at knowing Ikki would soon be part of their family, they were hit with another hiccup. They were told the adoption could not go ahead because the paperwork wasn’t complete.

“There was an issue with his identity. The paperwork showed he didn’t have a Thai ID card as yet. She [the case worker] rang us at 10pm and told us we can’t have him. Of course, that just made us want him even more. That was a night of crying and tears – there were a lot of emotions.”

Fortunately, that situation was resolved, and the family visited the orphanage in September and November in 2010, before finally getting to take Ikki home for his first Phuket Christmas.

“On our first visit, we walked in and the orphanage was quite minimalistic. We saw him holding hands with the carer, and they were taking him to hospital because he had an asthma attack. So we watched him go. He looked so tiny there, in his raggy clothes.”

Donna says Ikki was initially “very quiet, nervous, and kept back a lot”.

“I thought, ‘Does he even like us?’ We waited for him to come to us; they don’t get many foreign visitors.”

When they took Ikki outside, he was fascinated with everything, including the car, having hardly been outside the orphanage.

Donna recalls when the family went back to visit him before Christmas, Ikki was getting his haircut.

He was in the chair, “screaming and crying”, as the scissors went through his hair. Donna ran over and yelled “stop!”.

“I grabbed him and he cuddled me,” she said, explaining that that was when she first felt really connected with her son.

“By Christmas, the board still hadn’t met, and the final paperwork wasn’t completed. But we had been matched and it was all approved, so we were allowed to take him home.”

Packing the car to head back to Phuket, Ikki was given to the family with his bottle and some formula, and that was about it.

“It felt a bit weird. He sat in the car and he was very quiet. He was really well behaved, then the next day he was more lively. It didn’t take him long at all really. He was happy and bonded quickly.”

The de Bruins met with the board in January with Ikki, then had three more home visits in Phuket.

It was a bit of an adjustment for Finn, who at age 10 had to get used to having an 18-month-old Thai brother around. But things were made more normal by the fact Finn speaks fluent Thai, and has plenty of Thai friends.

“Ikki idolises Finn as his big brother, and Finn does look out for him – but they annoy each other too,” Donna says with a smile.

Initially, the couple were expecting some reactions, or at least curiosity, due to the obvious situation of having a Thai son who didn’t look like them. But Donna says the whole integration process was rather straightforward, probably made easier by the fact that they lived in Thailand.

Two sets of the de Bruins’ friends have adopted Thai children, and there are other children in Ikki’s year group who are adopted. There are of course many luk kreung (half Thai, half foreigner) kids around, and Ikki speaks both English and Thai – nothing out of the ordinary for Phuket.

Perhaps more surprising was that when they first visited Australia, “nobody seemed to bat an eyelid”, Donna says.

“They mightn’t have the same physical traits, but they have other ones. While he might not have blonde hair or blue eyes, there are other things that make him part of the family.”

There have been many funny moments. One time when Ikki was at the doctor being treated for asthma, Donna found herself explaining to the doctor about her own childhood asthma, which drew a strange look.

Another time, Ikki was momentarily lost in a shopping mall, and the guard had a smile on his face when he returned an upset Ikki to his very relieved non-Thai mother.

She says there was a bit of guilt associated with the experience, because while they were at the orphanage they also bonded with the other children there.

However, they later found out that many of the other children had also gone to new homes, including Ikki’s best friend in the orphanage, who was adopted to a foreign family overseas. Both children will soon meet up again in Phuket.

Since adopting Ikki, Donna has met many other people in similar situations, and joined online support groups. It’s been great to share stories, she says (on a side note, not long after the family were finally given Ikki in December 2010, there was a temporary moratorium on adopting because the backlog was so high).

As for whether they would adopt again, Donna was initially keen to. While the waiting was tough, it was still a positive experience, and the family ended up with a delightful new addition to the family.

However Donna and Andrew have decided that based on a range of factors, including their ages, they probably won’t be adopting again.

“It’s not just our ages, the whole process is quite a big undertaking.”

The de Bruins initially planned to rename Ikki. His first Thai name was Songkran, which the orphanage named him (he was born on April 10) and his nickname was Ikkyusan, named after a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk. The de Bruins called him “Ikki” from day one, and by the time they thought about changing his name it was too late – Ikki had stuck.

There aren’t any secrets in the de Bruin household. Ikki knows where he came from, and the family have visited the orphanage since, so Ikki can see where he spent the early days of his life.

While the family haven’t formally sat down with Ikki and explained everything, Donna says, “He seems to know. He talks about it, and it comes up in conversation.”

“At the start, it was more about what we were giving to him, but now it’s about what he gives to us. He’s just like any other little kid. He’s loving, caring, and we are lucky to have him.”



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