Knowing identity a basic human right denied to apopted

Photo: Photo Chris Bellew /Copyright Fennell Photography

To say a forced adoption policy was not pursued here is laughable, says Conall Ó Fátharta

IT’S somewhat ironic that, almost a year to the day since Enda Kenny apologised on behalf of the State to the women incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries, we see President Michael D Higgins broach another barely hidden scandal — the removal of tens of thousands of children from their mothers through forced and often illegal adoptions.

It tells you a lot about so-called modern, progressive Ireland that it has taken until 2014 for someone in high office to call for open adoption records and the provision of the most basic of identity rights to adopted people. The right to an identity is a fundamental human right denied to thousands of adopted people here. Adopted people and natural parents have no right to copies of all material held in their files. Natural mothers do not even have the right to read their own adoption files.

Such rights are taken for granted in other countries. For example, the right to birth records has existed in Scotland since 1930, England and Wales since 1976, the North since 1987, and New Zealand since 1991.

When the much vaunted “world-class piece of legislation” that was the Adoption Act 2010 was enacted, it was solely concerned with facilitating inter-country adoption. It contained nothing to assist adopted people and natural parents. They were told that their rights would have to wait and would be dealt with in a separate piece of legislation. More than three years later, they are still waiting. It has been “a priority” for every government since 1997, so what’s another year? The official line trotted out ad nauseam by every children’s minister since the mid-90s is that there are complex constitutional barriers to legislation arising from a 1998 Supreme Court ruling.

This found that the natural mother’s constitutional right to privacy had to be balanced against the child’s constitutional right to identity. Both domestically and internationally, the judgment was criticised by legal experts for its assumption that natural parents who had given up a child for adoption would not wish to be contacted by their now-adult child, and that all natural mothers were presumed to have wished their identities to have remained a secret.

The presumption that all mothers were guaranteed confidentiality by the State when they were giving up their child for adoption is often trotted out by politicians. No evidence of such a guarantee has ever been provided by the State or any adoption agency.

The current plans for tracing and information legislation do not go remotely near far enough. The reality is that, by offering full tracing rights and fully open adoption records, the State would open itself up to another inquiry, another State apology, and yet more compensation to women who have suffered unspeakable loss.

In the Dáil in recent months, Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald nailed her colours firmly to the mast. Every adoption carried out by the State since 1952 was done in line with the legislation of the day. She also swatted away any comparisons with Australia’s forced adoption history, pointing out that the state apology offered there was due to government policies at the time in that country.

The Adoption Rights Alliance is aware of numerous documented cases where formal adoption orders were granted without the consent of the mother, where documents were falsified and where the parents of the children were married. Illegal adoptions and the falsification of records were not only facilitated by religious agencies but also by people in the medical profession.

To say that the State did not pursue a forced adoption policy is also laughable. Australia offered its apology on the back of an investigation which found that adoption rates among unmarried mothers tipping 60% in the late 1960s. By contrast, in Ireland, the corresponding figure for 1967 was 97%. Adoption rates for unmarried women did not fall below 60% at any point between 1962 and 1974.

Was the State pushing a forced adoption policy? One quote from Paddy Cooney, then justice minister, at the first Irish Adoption Workers’ Conference in 1974 should remove all doubt: “I think we are all agreed that the consensus opinion in our society is to the effect that adoption is better for the illegitimate baby than to be cared for by its mother.”

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