Teenager Jackie Foley was told to sign a consent form under a fictitious name in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home. Her son was adopted and given a bogus name. Nearly half a century later, her treatment at the hands of State agencies has been as cold-hearted as that of the nuns, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.
JACKIE Foley was just 16 years old in 1974 when she signed a consent form in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home form to have her son adopted. She didn’t sign her own name.
Instead, under instruction from a nun, and in the presence of a solicitor and her mother, she was forced to write a different name — Micheline Power* — a woman who does not exist.
As a result, all of the documentation that followed in the wake of this act was deliberately falsified.
In the furore surrounding the recent discovery of 126 cases of illegal birth registrations among St Patrick’s Guild’s records, the line pushed by the State is that all illegal registrations involved a birth being recorded in the names of the “adoptive” parents.
As a result, no adoption order was made and the couple would pass the child off as if born to them.
However, in the case of Jackie’s son, the birth was not registered in the name of his adoptive parents.
She had requested he be called Dermot Foley*.
Instead, he was given a bogus name and his birth was illegally registered as John Power*, born to Micheline Power, neither of whom exist. Both invented. Both ghosts.
An adoption order, issued by the State’s regulatory body, the Adoption Board, was contracted on the basis of these false identities.
Documents seen by the Irish Examiner reveal, and indeed name, individual nuns who worked at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home and the affiliated Sacred Heart Adoption Society (SHAS) who were party to this.
It is clear from these records that the documentation required by the Adoption Board was falsified. It is unclear why this was done.
Jackie’s son is now 44. If he was to access his original birth certificate, he will spend years searching for his mother under the wrong name. He will be looking for Micheline Power — a woman who does not exist.
But the historic treatment of Jackie replays in the present. Almost half a century later, the attitude of certain State agencies — the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI), and Tusla — to her case is as cold-hearted as the nuns who forced her as a 16-year-old to sign away both her and her son’s identities.
Instead of offering support or offering assistance, emails between staff members show the attitude of Tusla to be one of institutional self-preservation.
Just last year, staff handling Jackie’s case were instructed in emails not to refer to situations like hers as “illegal” but instead as “possible illegal registrations”. Reference is made to having to “hold our powder” because “that stuff is FOI’able... and it could be used against us if someone takes a case”.
Staff are told that the AAI are the only ones that can make a determination as to the legality or illegality of any adoption.
Remarkably, a principal social worker with the AAI wrote to Tusla in February 2017 stating categorically that in the case of Jackie’s son, “the adoption is a legal adoption”.
Given that the entire tranche of legal documents used to secure the adoption relies on the false name of a woman and child, and that the AAI has known that fact for over a decade, this is an astonishing position for an employee of the State’s regulatory body to take.
The DCYA said in May that discoveries by Tusla in the St Patrick’s Guild records represent “the first time this threshold of a high level of certainty has been reached” in terms of evidence relating to illegal registrations.
However, Jackie’s case is one of the most egregious examples of an illegal registration resulting in an unlawful adoption. It is fully documented and the AAI’s predecessor, the Adoption Board, was notified as early as 2005.
Neither agency reported the case to the gardaí, not in 2005 when first notified, and at no point since. As a result, Jackie herself reported the details of what happened to the gardaí earlier this year.
Ten years later, Jackie’s case was forced onto the AAI and Tusla’s radar when she sought access to her records in 2015. Again, no one in either agency reported the matter to gardaí.
In fact, Tusla would not even release to Jackie the first name of her son — despite the fact that it was aware that the nuns had already provided her with that detail.
The details of this case — what happened in the past, and the State’s response in the present — begs the question: Has the attitude of official Ireland to women who were forced to give their children up for adoption changed over the past half century?
Instead of seeking to right a wrong, to privilege and protect the human rights of the individual citizen, the primary concern of the State agencies involved has been to insulate themselves from blame, to never admit liability, to delay access to records and information, and all in case a victim attempts to take legal action.
Where women like Jackie were once ignored, now they are feared.
Jackie was just 15 in 1974 when she fell pregnant. Little more than a child herself, she had no idea that she was pregnant or what it entailed.
Unsurprisingly, her family was not happy and it was quickly decided that the pregnancy would be concealed and an adoption arranged. Her aunt was the central figure in making sure Jackie was taken to Bessborough and her son put up for adoption.
“I got pregnant. I knew very little about the whole mechanics of it. I had an idea but I didn’t know all of it and how you could end up, very fast, being pregnant. I didn’t know I was pregnant.
“I didn’t feel anything different or strange but I was obviously getting bigger and my mother said to me one day, early in May, she said: ‘Are you pregnant?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know.’ She became quite distraught but I begged her not to tell my father.
“The next thing was there was a phonecall made and my aunt was brought on the scene and I then was brought to a doctor in a very small street in Cork where I was put through an extreme examination confirming that I was pregnant.
No one explained to Jackie where she was going or what was going to happen to her and her unborn child.
Under the cover of darkness, she was driven up that long, winding drive that leads to the front door of the imposing building that housed the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home.
It hasn’t changed much since Jackie was there as a frightened teenager.
“I arrived outside the door. There are a few steps up. I was 15 years of age. A nun opened the door. There was a room to the left and a room to the right and, to the best of my memory, I was brought into the room on the right.
“I was told to stand in there while my aunt spoke to the nun in the hall. I crouched in behind the door because I didn’t know where I was or what was happening. I am not religious but I did pray. I was absolutely terrified. You know how you can shake from fear? Well, that was going on inside of me. My breath was shaking.
“I was afraid to look around and I had nearly a dowager’s hump rolling on myself because I was so afraid. I just didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I just remember praying that whatever was going to happen that it would be soon. I didn’t know when I was due, nothing like that.”
From that point on, she was alone. When Jackie emerged, her aunt was gone. A nun took her to another room where a group of other women was sleeping. She was given the house name “Joan”* and told not to speak to anyone or mix with anyone.
However, Jackie was asked for her correct name and address. Given what was to happen later, the fact that a note was taken of her true identity meant the unlawful nature of her son’s adoption could be uncovered years later.
Jackie was only in Bessborough for five days but she remembers it in almost minute-by-minute detail.
She went into labour in the early hours of the second night of her stay. Her son was born the following day.
She never saw her baby’s face. She tried, but was physically restrained.
Kindness was in short supply. She begged to be told the sex of her child and, in hushed tones, one nun let it slip to her that she had had a baby boy.
Two days later, Jackie was instructed to put on the same clothes she had arrived in, and was sent home. Her son stayed in Bessborough for just six hours.
The records reveal his fate after birth: “Foster care 6 hours after delivery, awaiting adoption.”
Another states: “Baby — Sent to Mrs Green on same day of delivery.”
Jackie has been searching for her son ever since.
Jackie was brought back to Bessborough some five months later to sign a consent form to allow her son to be adopted.
This is where things begin to take a more sinister and illegal turn.
In short, Jackie was told to sign a false name on the consent form — and all of the paperwork, including her son’s birth certificate, was subsequently falsified in this name.
It remains unclear as to why a bogus identity was constructed in the paperwork. Was this a service — one which effectively obliterated Jackie’s identity and that of her son from official memory — one offered by the nuns as an extra layer of secrecy?
The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary declined to answer questions on Jackie’s case but said it rejected “any suggestion of impropriety by any of our sisters, some of whom are still alive, in regard to adoptions in Bessborough in 1974 or at any other time”.
The order said that it was dealing directly with the Mother and Baby Homes Commission “on all related matters” and urged anyone with information about mother and baby homes to pass it on to the commission “immediately”.
Jackie’s memory is crystal clear. Although members of her family were present when she signed the consent form, the instruction to sign the name Micheline Power instead of her own name did not come from them.
Rather, it came from those working on behalf of the SHAS at Bessborough. Jackie had never heard the name. Her mother had to spell it out for her as she signed it on the consent form.
The Irish Examiner has seen this consent form and it is clearly signed in a false name. It is also dated in May — just four days after the birth of her son. However, Jackie’s admission records show she was not present in Bessborough on that date.
In fact, she did not sign the consent form until the following October. The witness to the signing of this bogus name was a nun from Bessborough.
As for the consent being free and informed, Jackie points out that no one explained anything to her. She was so frightened, her overriding memory is trying to stop herself from visibly shaking.
"I was terrified. I remember my behind twitching and sticking my knees together to stop my ass twitching. And that was it. I was put into the car and brought home. I don’t remember anyone saying to me: You’re signing a baby away. You are never going to see your baby again. Nobody ever explained anything to me.”
The Supreme Court judgment in G v An Bord Uchtála is a key ruling on what constitutes a valid consent. It states that “a consent motivated by fear, stress or anxiety...does not constitute a valid consent”.
A record from September 1974 entitled “Particulars Concerning Child” is signed by a named nun of the Sacred Heart Convent, Blackrock, Cork.
Known as a Form 2 document, along with the consent form, it is a link in the chain of paperwork to be furnished by an adoption society to the Adoption Board to contract a legal adoption order. It is supposed to detail the correct names of both the natural mother and her child. However, in Jackie’s case, it is made out in the false names.
The furnishing of false information to the Adoption Board was a criminal offence under Section 43 of the Adoption Act 1953, punishable on conviction by one year in prison or a fine not exceeding £100, or both.
Remarkably, the entire falsification of the documents is fully detailed in the original records which Jackie has obtained over the years.
A contemporaneous handwritten note taken from her records shows an instruction to falsify the birth register in a false name — a criminal offence. It simply states: “Please register Baby John Power.”
Another document from 1974, outlining details of Jackie’s labour, contains the following entry: “I wasn’t given any information re this baby — Mothers name was changed -? reason.”
The handwritten document confirms both Jackie’s and her son’s names were registered in different names, and it is signed by a named nun.
A medical record from St Finbarr’s Hospital Departmental of Haemotology also contain results for Jackie’s bloods in the false name.
An internal tracing document prepared by staff in Bessborough in 1994, upon a request for information from Jackie’s son, also clearly acknowledges that names were changed in the records.
The document states that a named nun is “looking after this” but asterisked at the bottom of the page is: “Reg & baptized (sic) in wrong name — NB not Power. I wrote details out for Sr.”
The records reveal that Jackie’s son’s baptism certificate was also falsified. This certificate came from the Church of the Descent of the Holy Ghost [now Spirit] in Dennehy’s Cross in Cork City in June 1974.
The endpoint for this paper trail is the falsified birth certificate — an illegal birth registration. The informant listed on the birth certificate is a named nun of the Sacred Heart Hospital at Bessborough.
It is unclear why all of this was done. However, it is clear from another record that Jackie’s family had paid money to the nuns to give to Jackie’s son on more than one occasion. A handwritten, undated document released to Jackie shows that one of her relatives went to Bessborough “on more than one occasion” and that this person “wanted to leave him [Jackie’s son] money”.
The birth cert was, in fact, issued in Cork. However, the above suggests that money was paid by Jackie’s family to the nuns on more than one occasion since 1974 with the instruction for it to be sent to her son.
Jackie didn’t set foot in Bessborough for another 30 years, when she visited the agency in person in 2004, looking to start tracing her son. By then, Jackie had married and had further children. Her son had previously made an inquiry about finding her in 1994.
She received a call back from a nun, who told her no boy was born in Bessborough on the date of birth she had supplied for her son, or indeed on any day that week.
A short time after visiting Bessborough, Jackie received another call to tell her that a nun from the agency — Sr Sarto — had been to visit her home town and was trying to contact her. She eventually received a call from the nun.
Jackie describes the meeting as not a cordial one, but that she was told she could write to her son through the agency. So, she sent a letter and received a “lovely” response from her son. She sent another letter but heard nothing back.
Jackie had issued an instruction to the agency, enclosed with this first letter to her son. It was to request that it not give her son any information about her because she wanted to do that herself. She also gave permission for him to write letters to her through SHAS.
Material released to Jackie many years later show her son signed a typed document prepared by the SHAS which stated: “I understand that Sr Sarto has been instructed by my birth mother not to give me any information.”
By this point, Jackie decided that she would find her son herself. She didn’t need or want any help from the nuns.
In 2005, she had obtained her son’s birth certificate after contacting the Eastern Health Board. There, in black and white, on an official State document, the fraud was revealed.
Armed with this evidence, she called the Adoption Board in 2005 and informed them of her son’s unlawful adoption. She was told it would look into it.
However, the regulatory body never reported the illegal birth registration. No one was held accountable. SHAS continued to be an accredited adoption agency for another seven years until it voluntarily decided to close and transfer its records to the HSE in 2011.
And there it lay. Jackie was left waiting, like countless other women. Like Tressa Reeves, whose case was settled in the High Court in July, Jackie received no help.
She had had to drag every piece of information she could from the nuns. Now she had to do it from the State body that held the SHAS records — Tusla.
By 2015, it was well aware of Jackie’s case. It had not gone unnoticed and, clearly, Tusla was concerned about the contents of her file.
Months passed with no progress. Jackie was told her file contained anomalies. She got some records, but not her antenatal records.
After another phone call telling her how busy they were, Jackie had had enough.
Shortly after the call, Jackie received another 56 pages in the post. Unwilling to go away, she got what was hers.
However, frustrated by the lack of progress in arranging a meeting with her son, Jackie stopped engaging with Tusla. Tired of pleasantries and social workers whispering to her about the “elephant in the room” — the issue of false names, she had had enough.
However, privately, Tusla and the AAI had quite a lot to say about Jackie.
Jackie’s case had initially been flagged in August 2015 by a Tusla FOI officer who wrote to a senior social worker about her concerns about the case.
“The significance of this is evident in the fact that the child’s birth registration form is recorded under the fictitious (sic) names, and worryingly, the adoption documents including consent to adoption were filed with the Adoption Authority under the false names.
“I should think that this renders the adoption illegal. I trust you will report this information along to the Commission of Investigation [into Mother and Baby Homes] or whomever you feel is the appropriate body,” states the email.
Tusla sought and received records from the AAI relating to Jackie’s son’s adoption, in August 2015. The letter sent by the AAI to Tusla confirms that the false name Jackie was instructed to sign on the consent is also that on the adoption order.
Emails between Tusla’s national manager for adoption, Siobhán Mugan, and other Tusla staff, show Jackie’s case was still being discussed and recorded on a register of illegal and suspected illegal adoptions over a year later.
On September 19, 2016, a principal social worker emailed Ms Mugan under the subject title: “illegal adoptions”, stating that a case had come to her attention “that might imply an illegal adoption”.
“I know that you asked to be made aware of all such cases. Can you let me know what you would like me to send you in the way of information,” states the email.
Ms Mugan forwarded the email to another staff member, asking her to “get the details of this for our register”.
This staff member then emailed the principal social worker: “Could you please complete the attached register. If there are any further details, please add them to the notes part of the register.”
Curiously, Tusla has always denied it kept a register of illegal adoptions. In May 2017, the Irish Examiner asked Tusla if it held a register or database where adoption cases that raised concerns are noted. It stated: “No, there is no database or register held.”
The Irish Examiner asked Tusla a series of questions on the above register — including why its existence has been denied.
It stated that it “does not hold a register of suspected illegal/irregular adoptions” but that, in mid to late 2016, it did “consider tracking anomalies/issues of concern” as they were notified to the national manager for adoption to ensure procedures were being followed.
“This was trialled for a short period but was discontinued. Tusla does not have a legal basis to collate this information. Tusla’s only formal basis for processing this data is for the purposes of providing an information and tracing service to applicants,” said a statement.
Tusla also indicated it would no longer be making “any further comment on the issue of incorrect registrations of birth”.
Just one day after noting Jackie’s case in its register, the attitude of Tusla to releasing information to natural mothers desperately seeking information was also laid bare. Its policy was to be even more restrictive than the religious orders that once held the files.
On September 20, 2016, the FOI officer dealing with Jackie’s case emailed a senior social worker, questioning the Tusla policy not to release first names of natural mothers or children to those tracing. This information was non- identifying and was routinely released by the religious orders. Indeed, Jackie had already been given her son’s name by the nuns.
Given that Jackie already had these details, the FOI officer said it seemed “pedantic (and cruel) to censor this detail especially since she has already been given it previously”.
Two days later, the senior social worker responded. It was blunt and to the point. This information was to be redacted.
“I was in Brunel again yesterday where this direction was reiterated, we are not to confirm info. That applicant may already have relating to identifying information like name etc...,” states the email.
By February 2017, direct instructions were coming from senior management to staff members dealing with Jackie’s case, instructing them to stop referring to her case as an illegal adoption but to instead reference it as a possible illegal registration.
One email to the FOI officer from the senior social worker states that she has been told “to ask you to refer to this matter and all such matters as possible illegal registrations for recording purposes”.
The following day, February 21, 2017, the FOI officer responded, stating that the “preference for the use of the terms ‘illegal registrations’ vs illegal adoptions, noted”.
In a later response, the FOI officer refers to the choice of language requested as “political correctness”.
However, the response from the principal social worker reveals that Tusla’s concern was that of protecting itself against any potential legal action.
“I think the concern is in fairness that stuff is FOI’able...and it could be used against us if someone takes a case... the AAI [Adoption Authority of Ireland] are only ones to determine if registration is illegal or not so we hold our powder, that’s the thinking anyway so...,” states the email.
Remarkably, on the very same day, the principal social worker at the AAI emailed Tusla and insisted that Jackie’s case was not an example of an illegal registration, nor was her son’s adoption illegal.
The email confirms that the mother was “falsely” named “on the original papers, but the adoption is a legal adoption and not an illegal registration”.
The AAI also confirmed that Jackie had told the AAI’s predecessor, the Adoption Board, of her case as far back as 2005, “confirming the use of a false name at the time”. It would appear that neither the Adoption Board nor the AAI reported the matter as a criminal offence in the intervening period.
In a statement, Tusla said it does not comment on individual cases but if issues of concern arise in the processing of adoption information and tracing requests, they report them to the necessary authority — the AAI, a child protection team/retrospective abuse teams or An Garda Síochána.
Tusla also said that national manager for adoption Ms Mugan asked staff to use appropriate language in relation to cases of concern.
“In relation to cases where there may be a possible incorrect birth registration, we have consistently referred to these situations as possible incorrect birth registrations, as no adoption took place and therefore they should not be referred to as an ‘illegal adoption’.
“The use of appropriate language also assists in ensuring consistency and clarity for staff while communicating with members of the public on these sensitive matters,” said a statement.
The Irish Examiner asked the AAI a series of questions, including if the opinion expressed to Tusla by its principal social worker was the formal legal opinion of the authority.
It said it could not comment on individual cases but that “in this case that no request for a formal review by the board or complaint has been received by the authority from the individual in question”.
“Where a specific request for a review or complaint is made to the board and where there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate irregular or illegal adoption practices, including meeting with and talking to the complainant, the board, having considered the matter, will refer the complaint to the gardaí or other third party, as it has done in other cases,” said a statement.
So despite Jackie having contacted the Adoption Board in 2005 and the AAI itself providing records to Tusla confirming what happened in Jackie’s case in 2015, the attitude of the regulatory body seems to be that it is up to the victim to ensure it carries out an investigation into irregularities.
Informing it via a direct phone call wasn’t enough — she should have ensured the Board of the AAI was directly informed.
The onus is on the victim and not the regulatory body to ensure something is done.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has stated on the record that where it has proof of an illegal birth registration, the State has a duty to “inform the individuals concerned”.
The State has been aware of what happened to Jackie’s son since 2005.
When can he expect a knock on his door?
* These names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved