If the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 is passed as it stands, it will reinforce the existing system, and it will penalise and further stigmatise a group of people who have already been deeply hurt by Ireland’s closed, secret, forced adoption system, write Claire McGettrick and Susan Lohan.
THE reporting this week, by Tusla, of 126 illegal adoptions conducted by St Patrick’s Guild Adoption Society (SPG) comes as no surprise to Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA).
Over the past 16 years, we have met countless individuals who were subject to illegal adoptions in various guises. ARA and all of those affected by Ireland’s closed, secret, forced adoption system have ploughed a lonely furrow until recent years, and we are astonished at the expressions of shock and disbelief amongst commentators in recent days. This newspaper’s Conall Ó Fátharta has also walked a lonely road when it comes to adoption in Ireland. As Anne Enright put it, he “keeps breaking” the story!
And, to be clear, the SPG illegal adoption story would never have come to light were it not for Conall Ó Fátharta, who has done significant service to the State through his investigative journalism on this and related issues.
Ireland needs to grasp the nettle and deal with historical abuses at a systemic level once and for all. A transitional justice approach — comprised of justice, reparation, truth-telling, and a guarantee of non-repetition — is essential to finally understanding these aspects of our nation’s past.
In this specific context, a transitional justice model must include an investigative process that prioritises survivor access to information as its primary goal, with an inquiry targeting illegal adoptions, and a thorough examination of our closed, secret forced adoption system as a whole.
We estimate that there may be as many as 10,000-15,000 illegal adoptions, and while the Government’s proposed targeted sampling exercise is an acceptable short-term measure, nothing less than a complete audit of all adoption files will suffice in order to ensure that illegally adopted people who are unaware of their status learn of their adoptions.
Minister Zappone must also immediately put in place a statutory mechanism whereby all adoption record holders (whether legal or illegal) are required to transfer their records to the Adoption Authority of Ireland. A list compiled by ARA and Justice for Magdalenes Research contains 182 institutions, agencies and individuals that were involved with unmarried mothers and their children since the formation of the State.
This list includes 57 private homes or individual facilitators, and the location of the records associated with these institutions and individuals remains unknown.
Preservation of all records is essential so they can be made available to the people affected. And the related administrative archives should be opened to academics for research purposes, thereby enabling a better understanding of the system as it operated in the past.
The revelations about illegal adoptions at SPG have brought a renewed but confused focus to the issue of adoption information legislation. Confused because the proposed Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, 2016 will not resolve the situation of people who have been illegally adopted. Calls have now been made to fast-track the bill. However, the legislation as proposed is deeply stigmatising and offensive to adopted people and natural parents.
Section 41 of the bill stipulates that adopted people wishing to obtain their birth certificates must first sign an undertaking not to contact their natural mothers. This provision is not only profoundly insulting, it also begs the question of how the Government plans to ensure compliance with the requirement.
What punishment is appropriate for the crime of contacting your own mother? Should these penalties also apply to descendants of the diaspora who arrive on the doorsteps of their long-lost relatives? Neither Minister Zappone nor her officials have been able to explain the penalties that may apply for breaching an undertaking; adopted people are expected to sign the documents blindly.
The bill also alleges that there may be “compelling reasons” why an adopted person should not be provided with their information, including the possibility that the release of such information “is likely to endanger the life of a person”. Substitute the phrase “adopted person” with any other marginalised group and consider how that sounds:
- “The provision of information to a person with a disability is likely to endanger the life of a person”?
- “The provision of information to an LGBT person is likely to endanger the life of a person”?
Furthermore, the bill proposes that information given to adopted people should be provided in the form of a written statement compiled by Tusla. Why should adult adopted people not obtain a full and un-redacted copy of all their records?
The State argues that the signed undertaking not to contact a natural parent is necessary because a natural mother’s right to privacy must be balanced against the adopted person’s right to their identity. In this context, the State points to the assurances of confidentiality given to natural mothers at the time of placing their children for adoption.
In our experience, natural mothers sought privacy from a stigmatising society that judged them harshly, but not from their own children. And, they were forced to swear that they would never attempt to contact their children, in the face of intimidation and in the absence of any real alternative. The State is conflating privacy and secrecy to its own ends.
It is often wrongly assumed that access to records means that adopted people are automatically seeking contact with their natural mothers. Information and contact are entirely separate issues, and adopted people are not demanding a statutory right to a relationship.
In our experience, some adopted people do not want contact with their natural mothers at all, while others will wait after obtaining their birth certificates before attempting to contact their natural mothers and/or family members. There is no one-size-fits-all paradigm that adopted people conform to.
In recent years, commentators have alluded to the possibility of adopted people turning up on their natural mother’s doorsteps. It is worth pointing out that in 1975, adopted people in England and Wales were given the right to access their birth records, and in the debates surrounding the Children Act 1975, some predicted disastrous consequences in the wake of the legislation. Newspaper headlines proclaimed, ‘MUMS IN FEAR OF KNOCK AT THE DOOR’.
At the time, John Triseliotis said that adopted people were viewed as “potentially vindictive ‘second-class’ citizens”. After the legislation was enacted, Triseliotis conducted an empirical analysis of the impact of the UK Adoption Act 1975 and found that the “calamities anticipated” never came to pass.
Ireland will follow suit. Indeed, for many years, in the absence of statutory rights, Irish adopted people have been obtaining their birth certificates through the slow process of navigating the civil registration records. In many cases, they have reunited with their natural mothers and family members, in others they have not. The sun has not fallen out of the sky.
If the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 is passed as it stands, it will reinforce the existing system, and it will penalise and further stigmatise a group of people who have already been deeply hurt by Ireland’s closed, secret, forced adoption system. Ireland’s adopted adults and children are citizens too. They deserve to be treated as such, with equal Constitutional and Human Rights, in particular the right to an identity.
Commentators proclaim that by passing the recent referendum on the Eighth Amendment our society has said goodbye to ‘Old Ireland’. For adopted people and natural parents, Old Ireland still exists.
Claire McGettrick and Susan Lohan are co-founders of Adoption Rights Alliance