Adjournment Debate. - Adoption Contact Register.

Thank you, Sir, for letting me raise the need for an adoption contact register. It is unacceptable that an adoption society such as St. Patrick's Guild has deliberately misled people by giving grossly inaccurate information, both to adopted persons and to birth mothers, with regard to the background to their adoption. It is almost beyond belief that an adoption society deliberately set out to tell adopted persons the wrong names, wrong dates of birth and the wrong ages of the birth mothers. That behaviour must be totally condemned by Members of this House.

It is an extraordinary indictment of the lack of humanity shown to persons with a genuine need for information about their background that they were subjected to such conduct. I say that as someone who is well aware of the good work our adoption agencies have done over the years and the great deal of care many agencies, including this agency, have shown over the years with regard to adoption placements and ensuring families with whom children were placed were suitable.

It is simply unacceptable that the events which have now come into the public arena occurred. I ask the Minister to ensure that the behaviour of this adoption society is rectified and to seek assurances from that society that it maintains accurate records that can be utilised in circumstances where both adopted persons and birth mothers are trying to establish contact with each other.

The events that have been reported in our newspapers have yet again highlighted the need for a national contact register to be provided for by way of legislation. For some 20 years I have been talking about the need for such a register. That need was highlighted in 1984 when the adoption review group reported and set out clearly in a definitive report on the adoption process. I find it difficult to understand why it is taking so long to produce necessary legislation. There seems to be a bureaucratic logjam in addressing this issue. I am not saying that in criticism of the present Minister. It is a logjam that appears to have been within the relevant Government Departments, certainly since the review group reported.

I want to nail the suggestion that this is a hugely complex issue. It is an issue that has been properly and adequately addressed in a variety of other countries with the degree of insight and sensitivity necessary to ensure that birth mothers can make contact with adopted children where adopted children wish for such contact and to ensure that adopted children can trace their birth mothers and, indeed, their natural fathers where the information is available and where the natural parents wish for such contact. I urge the Minister to proceed hastily with bringing the necessary legislation before the House.

I listened with a great deal of unease and unhappiness to a broadcast on RTE today with the former registrar of the Adoption Board. He seemed to regard it as an acceptable practice that in years gone by mothers gave the Adoption Board false names in signing agreements to place children for adoption. I am well aware of the pressures mothers were under in the 1950s and 1960s to give up children for adoption. It seems this former registrar suggested that the board had no duty to ensure that the names they were being given were accurate and had no duty to maintain proper records. The 1952 Adoption Act required the maintenance of proper records. Will the Minister of State at the Department of Health correspond with or make contact with the Adoption Board to ascertain whether, in the view of the current board, full and accurate records are maintained on adoption procedures implemented in the years from 1979 back to 1952.

It is universally accepted that denial of access to information about one's origins is denial of a basic human right. That right is enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and our own constitutional review group has recommended that Article 41 of the Constitution should be amended to make it abundantly clear that Ireland unequivocally subscribes to that view.

It is regrettable that I should have to seek the time of the House this evening to draw attention to the lack of action in providing arrangements for adopted persons and their birth parents to get information about each other. It is regrettable because this is an issue that has now been in the public domain for a long time. The sad cases publicised during the past week have revealed the extent of the obstacles and misleading information confronting persons trying to make contact with each other. These were not the first of such cases. There have been many others. They keep surfacing in the media with continuing regularity. These cases coming to public attention reveal considerable human unhappiness and heartbreak, and the Minister must now introduce measures to deal with this. We must have action at official level. We need to introduce a sensitive, properly supervised, professionally staffed system to help persons seeking information or making contact. We must have a contact system for those who were in the past placed in adoption, in long-term foster care or who were reared in institutional care. Such a system would give access to the original birth registration, to background information and to advisory and supportive arrangements. I hope the court case does not have to hold up all action. I hope it will be possible for the Minister to give some broad details so that interested persons will be assured of his intention to tackle the issue.

I fully realise this is not an easy matter to resolve, and there will be conflicting situations arising in relation to adopted persons and the persons who placed them in circumstances of confidentiality. However, we have to face up to the situation. We live now in a different social climate than that of over 40 years ago when adoption was first introduced. The original remit was quite clear. Adoption societies were established to place children for adoption and to conceal their origins. It is very difficult for some of these societies now to lift the aura of secrecy when they have no guidelines from the State which established the system. The current revelations are deeply disturbing and action must be taken to move on to a new era and a new approach that respects the rights of both adoptees and birth parents.

I welcome this opportunity to make a statement with regard to the important area of post-adoption contact, and I thank my colleagues, Deputies Shatter and Fitzgerald for raising the matter this evening.

Deputies will be aware there have been enormous changes in the whole area of adoption in recent years. There are three changes that I would particularly like to highlight. First, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of adoptions. Second, attitudes towards adoption have changed. Up to recent times adoption was seen as the perfect solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy, and a culture of secrecy surrounded both. Today, we live in a more enlightened age where the stigma attaching itself to unmarried mothers and their children has been removed. Third, we have a generation of well informed adult adoptees seeking access to information about their past. It is incumbent on us to address the problems that arise due to excessive secrecy and over-protectiveness in the past. However, we should bear in mind that people in other times acted in accordance with other mores, and we should not attempt to judge them with the benefit of hindsight.

The many demands for access to birth information have led to the situation where all adoption societies currently provide tracing for all parties to an adoption. Deputies will be aware that adoptees seeking to trace their birth parents usually contact the adoption agency which arranged the adoption. Where circumstances permit, an adoption agency will do what it can to facilitate contact between adopted persons and birth relatives by mutual voluntary consent, provided it is satisfied, through counselling, that both parties are fully cognisant of the considerations and implications involved in such a step. The volume of requests to societies in recent years is an indication of the strength of feeling and strong desire for information by the parties concerned.

It is important to point out that the issue of an adoption contact register cannot be dealt with in isolation and it has to be considered in the overall context of the right of access to birth records by adopted persons. Internationally, debate has come to concentrate on this latter issue and it is seen as particularly important by adopted persons in helping them to complete their own sense of identity. I have had detailed discussions on this matter with organisations representing adopted persons, adoptive parents, birth mothers and adoption agencies, and I have received a very clear message that the establishment of a contact register on its own would not be sufficient to meet the needs of adopted persons.

The establishment of a comprehensive legal framework for access to birth records is a priority of the Government. It is my intention that the necessary enabling legislation will be brought forward as quickly as possible. A number of legal and constitutional issues remain to be resolved. However, a case which is due before the Supreme Court within the next few weeks by way of case stated from the Circuit Court may help to clarify these matters. The case relates to persons who were informally adopted before the introduction of legal adoption. However, it raises three issues which relate to access to birth records generally. In brief these are: (i) Whether a child has a legal or constitutional right to know the identity of his or her natural parents? (ii) Whether the natural mother has an absolute constitutional or legal right to have preserved the confidentiality guaranteed her at the time she placed the child for adoption? (iii) If the child has a constitutional or legal right to the information sought and the natural mother has a constitutional or legal right to insert that the information should not be disclosed, what are the correct criteria to determine which should be applied in the circumstances of the case?

I hope the supreme Court will provide clarification of these constitutional and legal issues so that the way can be cleared for the introduction of legislation in this very sensitive area of human relationships.