TRESSA Reeves never asked for anything for herself. All she ever wanted was for her son to be told the truth of who he was, writes.
It was a selfless act of a woman and a mother. A woman and mother ignored year after year by every State agency she asked to help her.
The Adoption Board had known about her case since 2001. Three ministers for children were aware of her case.
She had the proof of what happened to her son. She had one simple request: Could someone please tell her son the truth.
For over 10 years, her calls were repeatedly ignored, even though her son had never been legally adopted.
She was not asking that the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) reveal her son’s identity or location to her but, merely, be told the truth about his parentage in the presence of an independent social worker who would observe and report back to her.
She fought tooth and nail for it. She even had to fight for something as simple as a correct birth certificate for her son. Denied to her in 1961 through the actions of others, his birth was correctly registered for the first time on October 14, 2009. He now has two birth certificates in two names.
In December 2012, the AAI contacted her son and he was finally told the truth that he was adopted illegally. And, further, the people he thought were his natural parents were, in fact, not his real parents.
He was 52 years old.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs now says: “The State’s responsibility, once it has evidence of such practices to a high level of certainty, is to inform the individuals concerned.
It has finally caught up. It speaks about the issue of illegal birth registrations as if they were only discovered in May.
Tressa and her son were not given such a kind attitude. Nobody in authority wanted to put them together, no doubt because they feared being taken to court. The fact she had evidence to a “high level of certainty” didn’t matter to those who could help her.
Tressa has blazed a trail for women who have lost their children to forced and illegal adoptions. Like most people who are brave enough to take on the State for something very simple — the truth — she had to suffer for her bravery.
I first met Tressa Reeves in early 2010 at her home in Penzance in the UK. I was interviewing her for a piece that would appear in the Irish Examiner that April.
Tressa had already been searching for her son for years and hoped some media attention might help her find him.
The birth certificate she had obtained for her son just months earlier was on the wall — it gave her untold determination to right the wrong that had been done to both her and him.
Little did she know then, but telling her story began a process which ultimately concluded in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs finally speaking out about the activities of St Patrick’s Guild, only in May just past.
Tressa had evidence of her son’s illegal registration since 1997 but her battle began in 1961 when, 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 agency called St Patrick’s Guild, then based in Middle Abbey St.
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 Rd in Clontarf.
It was in this nursing home that Tressa gave birth to a 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 until 2013.
Just days after his birth, she signed consent forms she was given trusting they 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.
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 he was their own child. Her son wasn’t to learn that he had been illegally adopted until he was aged 52.
Mrs Norman, who ran the nursing home, then allowed the birth to be registered in the names of the 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 looking for her son in June 1977. It was at this point that she started to face brick walls. She has slowly but surely chipped away at those walls ever since.
Upon 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 meeting with more silence from the midwife in the nursing home where she gave birth, Tressa put her search on hold and carried on with her life.
She married and had four other children. They were all told about their brother and that they would someday get to meet him.
Tressa’s first major breakthrough came in June 1997 when she got a letter from the then director at St Patrick’s Guild,
the agency Sr Francis Fahy, at St Patrick’s Guild stating 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 at that stage.
By now, Tressa had been in contact with the Adopted People’s Association and the Natural Parents Network of Ireland who 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, 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 the 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 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 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.
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,” wrote Sr Fahy.
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 Adoption Authority of Ireland was aware of Tressa’s case, the agency remained fully accredited until its closure in 2014. In fact, St Patrick’s 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 had 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 board was also given the name and address of Andre’s “adoptive parents” on the same date.
In July 2003, Tressa took a legal case against St Patrick’s Guild, the registrar general, Ireland, and the attorney general. Despite battling for five years, Tressa was eventually forced to withdraw her case. Her senior counsel, while initially confident in 2003, put forward a more pessimistic opinion in 2008. Afraid of losing her home to potential costs, she had to withdraw.
But she did not give up. The Irish Examiner published her story in April 2010, generating huge publicity.
The AAI committed to the first-ever audit of its records that same year on foot of her case. It 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 Department of Children and Youth Affairs 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 again told the department of there being “at least 120 [confirmed] cases” of illegal registrations found as the result of the 2010 audit.
It specifically named St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin as being “aware of several hundred illegal registrations”, stating that the agency is “not seeking the people involved” but were, rather “waiting for people to contact them”.
The AAI went further, stating its belief that this could well be the tip of the iceberg and that there “may be thousands” more. Yet nothing happened. No inquiry was launched.
In December 2012, the AAI informed André the truth about his identity and that his mother was looking for him. Tressa and her son met for the first time in over 50 years in January 2013.
An inquiry should have been launched then. But nothing happened. Numerous ministers said there were no plans to audit adoption records and that all adoptions contracted by the State have been in line with the law. The department repeatedly said an audit would be of little benefit anyway.
But Tressa, and others like her, knew different. They knew for years. There may be thousands more like Tressa coming before the courts in the months and years to come.