The Birth Information and Tracing legislation, which comes into effect on Monday, will allow for greater access to personal information for people who were adopted, subject to illegal birth registration, boarded out, or born in a mother and baby home institution, and who are seeking to learn about their early life.
The legislation will provide a full and clear right of access to birth certificates, birth and early life information, and will see the establishment of a tracing service, as well as making available counselling and support services.
On Carmel Lawlor’s 68th birthday, she did not tell anyone that she was going to visit her birth mother’s grave for the first time.
It was first time that Ms Lawlor saw her mother, as there was a photo of her on her headstone.
“I stood at her grave and felt completely numb,” she said.
Ms Lawlor’s search for information about her birth mother began in 2016 when she applied for a PPS number. Her husband, Christy, had died six months prior.
The process of acquiring her PPS number led to doubts about the accuracy of her birth cert which she told her brother about.
“I couldn’t believe it when he said, ‘I think you’re adopted’.
“I was broken-hearted and felt the loss of my identity, my place in the family, the core of my being was gone,” she said.
Ms Lawlor said the fallout of the revelation was “dreadful” and that her brother learned soon after that he was also adopted.
She discovered that she had been “boarded out,” a common practice in the 50s which was similar to fostering or informal adoption.
“I’m seven weeks older than I thought,” she said.
“I was called Mary which is also my mam’s name and the name of my birth mother.
“My mam registered me as hers, even though I wasn’t.
“Everyone turned a blind eye in those days because they thought they were doing the right thing.”
The search for information, which can take years, requires a lot of waiting and patience, with some files containing just two lines while others can have up to 50 pages.
“People don’t understand what adopted people go through. You’re always wondering, ‘Will I get a phone call today, or tomorrow?’,” said Marguerite Penrose who spent the first three years of her life in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home in Dublin.
Ms Penrose’s search for answers was heavily disrupted due to the cyberattack on the HSE.
Margaret Comaskey, a social worker for Tusla, said there were months of not being able to do anything.
Ms Comaskey described the search as a “Pandora’s Box,” and after the introduction of GDPR, the search was even more difficult because only births, deaths and marriage certificates could be used for tracing.
Before this, social workers were able to search medical records, contact post offices, parish registers, and find people through PPS numbers.
“I’m 47 — but there are people who are quite old who don’t have five or six years to do this. I hope the system gets easier,” said Ms Penrose, who has since discovered that her birth mother has died.
Using information sourced by Tusla, Ms Penrose discovered that her father was a cadet in the Zambian Army Medical Corps and had been based in the Curragh army camp for some time.
She also discovered that she had two brothers and a sister.
“Sometimes I do feel torn. I’m trying to get to know my new family but I’m also very aware of the time I spend with people; that I make time for everyone. It’s emotionally trying, dividing yourself up, and soon I’ll be even more so with the African side of my family.”
In 2018, Tusla found irregularities in some records from the Sisters of Charity which ran St Patrick’s Guild, an agency that facilitated the placement of thousands of infants in Ireland and abroad.
In these cases, stemming back to the 1940s, when children were born, donations were given, births were illegally registered and children were given to couples seeking children.
Tusla sought out those affected to tell them the truth, with Chris Wallace being one of them.
Ms Wallace said that she was “sold” as a baby for a fee of £100.
She found out her mother’s name was Ena and described discovering the truth as “the devastation you would feel after a plane crash.”
“I was taken from Ena and sold by the nuns for their own financial gain while the State condoned this by their lack of action and their secrecy,” she said.
It is hoped that the new legislation will make tracing easier as it gives agencies like Tusla a legal basis for working with other agencies.
Tusla has said tracing journeys can be “traumatic,” and although they aim to make the search for information as smooth as possible, they said it can never guarantee that what you hope to find will be available in its files or the files of other agencies.