Clodagh Finn: Report shows testimonies of survivors still not taken seriously

Aged 19, Clodagh Finn sat down to write a letter to find out about her birth at St Patrick’s mother and baby home. She didn't know that her mother was living around the corner
Clodagh Finn: Report shows testimonies of survivors still not taken seriously

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman could make birth certs available immediately by inserting a single-paragraph amendment to the Civil Registration Act. Picture: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

When, aged 19, I sat down to write a letter to find out about my beginnings at St Patrick’s mother and baby home, I could not have known the woman who gave birth to me there was living around the corner.

I remember looking out the window of my bedsit, searching for the right words. Essentially, I just wanted to let my birth mother know that I was okay and I truly hoped she was too. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I could simply have walked for five minutes and delivered the message in person.

Every day, the two of us stood at the same bus stop, although I can’t quite say if I ever saw her there.

Seven years passed before I got an answer, but I did get one, unlike tens of thousands of adopted children in Ireland who, for years, have been looking for scraps of information about who they are.

I know many of them and, last week, we texted each other as the findings of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation were released. 

I felt as if I had been run over by a juggernaut, although the collective outrage about what was in the report and – more importantly – what was left out, has been a salve.

However, in all of the commentary, one point has been somewhat overlooked. This is not in the past. It is in the lived, everyday present of those affected; the estimated 60,000 mothers and 70,000 children who are still alive today.

Some 549 of them – 304 mothers and 229 children – gave testimony to the commission’s confidential committee. What is very clear now is that their testimony was not considered evidence and, in some cases, was not even recorded accurately.

In the last week, we have heard so much about the disturbing shortcomings of the report and its methodology that it seems reasonable to seek a mechanism to ask questions of the commission itself.

I would like to ask just one: Why, when more than half of your €23m budget was unspent, did you not send hard copies of the report to survivors?

Why was that basic act of common courtesy not extended to the 549 people who took part in an excoriating process? Without an explanation, it looks like bad manners, contempt or arrogance on the part of the commission – or perhaps a mixture of all three.

Perhaps the Government could use the unspent budget to record, in full, the testimonies of all the women and children affected by adoption in the 20th century. 

Some 182 institutions, individuals and agencies were involved in adoption, informal ‘adoption’ and other forced family separation, according to the Clann Project.

But then, I have low expectations. My experience and the experience of other adopted friends has taught me to say little and expect less. For years, our stories were shared with trusted friends or kept within the pages of letters hidden in kitchen drawers.

There were happy moments too, but they were due to the bravery and generosity of individuals rather than any enlightened policy on the part of Church or State.

One year, for example, I got a grandmother for Christmas. She popped in the letterbox, so to speak, signing a card to say that she had just heard of my existence – 27 years after the fact – and wanted to welcome me to the world. That took grace and courage and, in my own journey, the people directly affected showed a large degree of both.

There are many stories like that, but very many more where people had to resort to spitting into a DNA tube in a desperate attempt to trace the families so routinely rent apart at birth.

Right up to 2019, the Government approach seemed bent on keeping adopted children from the women who gave birth to them, as if they were on opposite sides of some convenient line drawn in the sand.

The last attorney general, Séamus Woulfe, advised that it would be unconstitutional to allow adopted children unrestricted access to their own birth data. At least that has changed, but Roderic O’Gorman, the children's minister, could make birth certs available immediately by inserting a single-paragraph amendment to the Civil Registration Act.

Human rights lawyer Dr Maeve O’Rourke made that point on Prime Time last week. When it was put to the minister, he mentioned GDPR, the AG (the Attorney General) and the DPC (Data Protection Commission). Alphabet soup. At least he seemed committed to putting access to information at the heart of his tracing legislation.

This is good news because one of the enduring myths of adoption is that mothers were "promised" that their children would not contact them. In fact, it was more common for mothers to be forced to promise that they wouldn’t seek out their children.

In some cases, they were told adoptive parents would send a picture of their baby at six months. Several adopted friends have said their parents willingly sent a picture to mother and baby homes to be passed on, but it did not necessarily make its way to the natural mother.

It is an illustration of one of the many acts of casual cruelty that birth mothers were sent a picture all right, but not always of their own baby. It’s not clear if baby pictures were inadvertently mixed up or if mothers were wilfully misled in case they tried to find their own baby.

In the scheme of things, that might not constitute an actionable wrong, but it is an example of the web of secrets and lies that has rocked so many lives.

The recent report doesn’t really address any of them. It is not a dark chapter of our history; merely a few harrowing pages that repeat the errors of the past by failing to consider survivors’ testimony as real evidence.

And we have heard only a fraction of that testimony. It is time to listen to all of the 60,000 mothers and 70,000 children affected by adoption.

At least now there is interest. When Conall Ó Fátharta wrote about illegal and forced adoptions in this newspaper in 2008, he said it didn’t even cause a ripple. In 2016, I wrote a piece highlighting that adopted children in Ireland still had no right to a birth cert. Few batted an eyelid.

“Are you still on about that?” asked one.

Now, a petition calling for birth certs for adoptees has been signed by more than 24,000 people. I find that astonishing – and heartening. 

None of it would have happened without the relentless work done by survivors, adoptees, advocates and lawyers who have campaigned selflessly for years.

They have got us this far. And they have emboldened so many more to speak out, including me. It’s time now to hear those voices so that the wrongs of the past and the pain of the present do not ricochet down to the next generation.

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