Conall Ó Fátharta.


Tressa Reeves’s decade-long battle to get the State to tell her son the truth about his birth

Despite protesting otherwise, the State knew about the practice of illegal adoption for years, with Tressa Reeves gathering evidence of her son’s illegal registration in 1997 and the authorities informed in 2001, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.

Tressa Reeves’s decade-long battle to get the State to tell her son the truth about his birth

“Incorrect birth registration has very significant implications for individuals, in terms of identity. The State’s responsibility, once it has evidence of such practices to a high level of certainty, is to inform the individuals concerned.”

That’s the view of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) as expressed just this month. It is, of course, the only sensible and logical view to hold on such matters.

However, it’s quite the shift for the department because Tressa Reeves, whose son was the victim of an illegal birth registration facilitated by St Patrick’s Guild, spent almost a decade asking the department and the Adoption Authority (AAI) to do just that — tell her son the truth about his birth.

For over 10 years, her calls were repeatedly ignored, even though her son had never been legally adopted.

This changed in November 2012 when the AAI contacted her son and he was finally told the truth that he was adopted illegally and that the people he thought were his natural parents were, in fact, not his real parents.

So what has changed in the DCYA? It now sees fit to say that people who have been the victims of illegal registrations deserve to be told. Apparently, it’s due to the fact that we now have evidence rather than suspicions about illegal birth registrations.

“While there have been suspicions about the practice of incorrect registrations for many years, it has been extremely difficult to uncover clear evidence of the practice because of the deliberate failure by those involved to keep records. The 126 cases announced by the minister on 29 May represent the first time this threshold of a high level of certainty has been reached,” said a DCYA statement.

This, of course, is not quite the full picture. The DCYA has known about the scale of this issue for years and had chosen to do nothing. In fact, it repeatedly said there was nothing to see on the records.

Not only was it being told about these cases by the regulatory body for adoption — the AAI — on multiple occasions and for years, Tressa’s case was first reported on by this newspaper in 2010. Indeed, Tressa herself has had evidence of her son’s illegal registration since 1997.

The former Adoption Board, now the AAI, knew about her case since 2001. In the years that followed, three former children’s ministers were informed of Tressa Reeves’ case.

No action was taken. No effort was made to tell her son the truth of identity. It wasn’t until Ms Reeves herself forced the hand of the AAI in 2012 that action was taken. Indeed, so overwhelming was the evidence, the General Registration Office, issued her with a correct birth cert for her son in 2009 — almost half a century after his birth. He now holds two birth certificates.

It’s worth examining whether or not Tressa’s case passes the “high level of certainty” in terms of the evidence the DCYA says it now has enough of to warrant someone bothering to look at the records.

In 1960, at the age of 20 and unmarried, she became pregnant following a relationship with an older man.

Given the stigma surrounding unmarried mothers and so-called “illegitimate” children at the time, Tressa’s mother made arrangements with nuns in their local convent in England and she was sent to Dublin to enable the birth to be hidden from neighbours and relatives and be placed for adoption.

When she arrived in Dublin, Tressa was told her child was to be adopted through an adoption agency called St Patrick’s Guild, then based in Middle Abbey Street in Dublin.

For the first while, she stayed in a private house in Howth along with some other unmarried pregnant girls. This house was run by Marie Norman, who also ran a nursing home called The Marie Clinic on the Howth Road in Clontarf in Dublin.

It was in this nursing home that Tressa gave birth to a baby boy on March 13, 1961. She called him André and baptised him herself, alone in her room.

Innocently, she thought that by giving him an exotic-sounding name, he would be easier to find when she came looking for him.

The morning after his birth André was taken away. She did not see him again for over 50 years.

Just days after his birth, she signed consent forms which, she was given to trust would allow for her son to be legally adopted with all proper safeguards that that would entail.

She was told to sign the documents and never contact her son again. These forms also contained an address in Dublin where she had never stayed.

These documents, Tressa presumed, were signed in order to carry out a legal adoption. However, as became clear many years later, this was not what happened.

In fact, her son was not going to be adopted but merely given by St Patrick’s Guild to a couple seeking a baby. This couple then took the boy and pretended it was their own child.

Her son wasn’t to learn that he had been illegally adopted until he was 52 years old.

Mrs Norman, who ran the nursing home, then allowed the birth to be registered in the names of this couple, enabling André to appear as the natural child of the “adoptive” parents.

It would be more than 30 years before Tressa would discover all of this.

Tressa first went back looking for the son she presumed had been adopted in June of 1977. She was met with silence.

On visiting St Patrick’s Guild, she was told by a nun that no file existed on her or her son and that she “must have imagined” she had given birth to a son. It would be a further 20 years before the agency finally admitted it had her file.

After hitting brick walls with the nuns in St Patrick’s Guild and with the midwife in the nursing home, a devastated Tressa resigned herself to putting her search on hold.

By this time she had married and went on to have four other children, all of whom were told about their older brother, who they hoped they would meet in the future.

Tressa next tried to contact St Patrick’s Guild by letter throughout 1995 and 1996 but received no reply. She finally received a response when she phoned then director of agency Sr Gabriel directly. The nun suggested her file might have been “lost in a fire”.

The following year, after St Patrick’s Guild had hit the headlines for giving adopted people false and misleading information about their natural parents, Tressa decided to try the agency yet again for information about her son.

It was at this point that new director Sr Francis Fahy finally admitted to Tressa, over the phone, that it indeed had a file on André and that he was adopted through the agency.

By June 1997, Tressa received her first letter from Sr Fahy at St Patrick’s Guild which stated that the family with which André was placed “appears to have taken him as their own and there was no formal adoption order made. The family had another child adopted in the same way”.

Sr Fahy eventually made contact with the “adoptive mother” who told her that neither of the two boys she had obtained through the agency had ever been told they were adopted and she was not about to tell them now.

The agency refused to tell André the truth about his identity, nor about the fact that his natural mother would like to meet with him, subject to his agreement.

Sr Fahy did mention attempts could be made to bypass the ‘adoptive’ mother but nothing was ever forthcoming on that front.

By this time Tressa had been in contact with the Adopted Peoples’ Association and the Natural Parent’s Network of Ireland.

Representing natural parents, the group advised her to seek André’s birth certificate from the General Register Office (GRO), as well as to seek out the original consent and surrender forms from St Patrick’s Guild, and which she should have been given copies of at the time.

When the GRO responded to Tressa, it was with the news that they did not have a birth certificate for her son André on the register.

Shocked by this revelation, and how it could have occurred, a letter from St Patrick’s Guild on November 22, 2001 shed light on the story.

In the letter, which also included the original surrender and consent forms Tressa signed, and which she should have been given at the time, Sr Fahy admitted the birth registration had been falsified and also that the agency was involved in placing numerous other children in the same way.

“As I explained to you previously, I do not know the reasons for the particular arrangement that was made in regard of André. In the course of my work here I have found that there were a number of babies for whom this arrangement was made,” Sr Fahy wrote.

“Generally speaking, in these cases, the birth of the child is registered under the name of the ‘adoptive parents’ and this was usually done from the Nursing Home.”

Later in the letter she admitted: “André was placed with a married couple in March 1961. His birth was registered by Mrs Norman from the nursing home in their names.”

Although St Patrick’s Guild admitted its involvement in such practices and the AAI’s awareness Tressa’s case since, the agency remained fully accredited. Indeed it was the very first agency accredited under the then new Adoption Act in 2010.

Following this letter, the then Adoption Board wrote to Tressa in December 2001 noting it “had no record of an adoption application or order having been made in respect of your son”.

The Adoption Board also then requested the consent and surrender forms Tressa had already received from St Patrick’s Guild and also advised her to take legal advice if she believed her son had been “directly registered”.

Throughout 2002, Tressa received correspondence from the Adoption Board informing her it was “actively pursuing” the matter with the agency.

However, in May 2002, the board wrote to inform her it had received and considered legal advice in relation to her case and apologised for delays in dealing with the matter.

On March 20, 2002, Tressa also received a letter from St Patrick’s Guild informing her it had sent the contents of her file to the Adoption Board “with the exception of the name and address of the adoptive mother”.

Despite this admission, the then chief executive of the Adoption Board John Collins assured Tressa by letter in 2004 that the Adoption Board was also given the name and address of Andre’s “adoptive parents” on the same date.

In July of 2003, Tressa took a legal case against St Patrick’s Guild, The Registrar General and Ireland and the Attorney General. Her senior counsel (SC) outlined she had an “arguable case” in seeking information relating to her son.

However, despite battling for five years, Tressa was eventually forced to withdraw her case. Her SC, while initially confident in 2003, put forward a far more pessimistic opinion in 2008.

In the five years she had battled her case, St Patrick’s Guild failed to file a defence of any kind.

On advice that she would lose her case and possibly her home if she had to pay costs, Tressa reluctantly withdrew the case.

However, Tressa never gave up on meeting her son. She kept asking for one simple kindness — simply that the AAI tell her son the truth about his parentage in the presence of an independent social worker who would merely observe and report back to her.

She did not ask for the AAI to reveal her son’s identity or location to her. Just that he know the truth, his truth.

This request was refused by the AAI until November 2012 when André received a phonecall telling him he was not who he thought he was and that his mother was looking for him.

Tressa and her son met for the first time in over 50 years in January 2013.

Given all of the above, it seems pretty clear that Tressa’s case more than fulfilled the “threshold of a high level of certainty” now cited by the DCYA the best part of 20 years ago. Yet no one in authority helped her. No one was willing to do the right thing.

Following Tressa’s case, the AAI committed to an audit of its records. The audit uncovered approximately 99 cases, while a further 20 were identified in the following years. This has subsequently risen to 131. The Irish Examiner understands that not all of these cases refer to St Patrick’s Guild.

In a report prepared for the DCYA in June 2011, the AAI said it considered carrying out a more comprehensive audit of the cases it uncovered, but because of the transfer of senior personnel and the “pressure on resources of the imminent establishment of the Adoption Authority no further action was taken”.

In June 2013, an AAI delegation told the DCYA again of there being “at least 120 [confirmed] cases” of illegal registrations found as the result of the 2010 audit.

However, it specifically named St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin as being “aware of several hundred illegal registrations”, stating that the agency “are not seeking the people involved” but were, rather, “waiting for people to contact them”.

However, the AAI went further, stating its belief that this could well be the tip of the iceberg and that there “may be thousands” more.

Clearly, the department has been put on notice about this issue and, indeed had been told about specific cases, for years and has chosen to do nothing.

No audit or investigation was announced. In fact, nothing happened.

Just five months after the June 2013 meeting, then children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil she “had no plans to initiate an audit of all [adoption] files”.

She also claimed that all adoptions “which the Irish State has been involved in since 1952 have been in line with this [Adoption Act 1952] and subsequent adoption legislation”.

This claim was repeated on two separate occasions by her successor, Charlie Flanagan. Both made the claim despite the fact that no State agency ever examined all the records.

When the Irish Examiner published this information in 2015, it asked the DCYA did it not think that the AAI’s belief that thousands of people in the country had their identities falsely registered — a criminal offence — warranted investigation?

The department declined to respond to the specific questions asked, but said a full audit of adoption records would be “of very limited benefit”.

“It is important to note that the only way information generally becomes available is when someone with knowledge about the event comes forward… There is little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements... Accordingly, an audit of all adoption records would be of very limited benefit in establishing the number of illegal registrations that took place,” said a statement.

Children’s minister Katherine Zappone has acknowledged the cases found by the AAI and says “a validation exercise is underway”. However, this could have and should have been done years ago. The AAI found and reported these cases to the DCYA as far back as 2010.

We now know that auditing the records does, in fact, yield a little bit of useful information. It found 126 cases of illegal registrations and as this newspaper revealed this week, a further 748 cases have raised “concerns”.

These cases contain evidence of names being changed, cash payments and other “irregularities”. And all of this relates to just one agency.

However, for Tressa, her fight still goes on. Along with her son, she will go to the High Court next month seeking justice for what happened to both her and her son.

Both lodged proceedings against St Patrick’s Guild, Ireland, the Attorney General and the AAI in 2014 seeking reversal of wilful or concerted wrongdoing and redress, including various declarations concerning the serious and sustained breaches of their constitutional and European human rights.

The defendants have filed full defences with complete denials of any wrongdoing and advance objections to any proceedings for “prejudice …due to the passage of time.”

The case is listed on July 3 in the High Court in Dublin where it is expected to run for almost two weeks.

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