Leaders' Questions

One must feel for those people whose births were incorrectly registered or who were adopted illegally and have learned for the first time that their parents are not their birth parents on foot of the information which emerged yesterday about St. Patrick's Guild. The youngest person affected is 49 years old while the oldest is 72. The issues of incorrect registrations of children and of illegal adoptions are not news or something we learned about only yesterday. Indeed, over the past six to seven years, various legislative proposals have been considered to address this specific issue, and the issues of tracing rights and access to information have come before quite a number of Oireachtas health committees. I welcome the news that a specific review of this matter is to be carried out, which is important. I ask in a more urgent sense, however, what we are doing now for future generations of children whose rights are not being affirmed.

It has been accepted that we need to create a statutory basis to facilitate children who have been adopted to trace information concerning their true identities. The Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill was published in 2016 and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, introduced it in Seanad Éireann in May 2017. She spoke at length to the Seanad about the issues involved and paid tribute to Senator Bacik and former Senators Jillian van Turnhout and Averil Power as forerunners who advocated the introduction of the legislation. The legislation deals specifically with the issue identified yesterday and would, if enacted, provide adopted persons' birth parents and relatives with a statutory right to an information and tracing service. The Minister told the Seanad:

[T]he State now recognises that there were also children who were incorrectly registered as the children of people other than their birth parents. This could serve to remove any formal record linking a birth parent with his or her birth child. Persons who have discovered that they were incorrectly registered in this way have faced huge and sometimes insurmountable difficulties in obtaining accurate identity information.

The Minister said the provisions of the Bill dealt with this specific issue.

While there have been several drafts and iterations of the legislation, it has essentially stalled at this stage. There has been a commitment to enact legislation for six years, but for some reason a Bill which crucially provides a statutory basis on which people can access this information and their identities, health records and so on, has not emerged. Where is the legislation? Will the Taoiseach explain the lack of urgency in bringing it forward, the drift in progressing it and the reason for the delay?

We all agree that this is a very difficult issue which needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. We are opening another dark chapter of our history. These are events which took place 50 and 70 years ago when Ireland was a very different place. It seems like a foreign country to the one it is today. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge these matters and deal with them as best we can. We know that incorrect or illegal registrations are not new. The Deputy is correct in that regard. We know that it was a historical practice and one which was probably commonplace. Journalists have written about it in recent years and adoption rights campaigners have raised it publicly. We all know the tragic story of the wonderful Philomena Lee and her son, Michael Hess, whom she never got to meet. What is new is that we have clear documentary evidence because of the fact that St. Patrick's Guild transferred its records to Tusla, which has been going through them over the past year or so. Evidence has been hard to find because what was done in the past was concealed. It is often the case that there are no records or that records were falsified.

The citizens affected are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s and their birth parents and the parents who raised them will be in their 70s, 80s and 90s. In many cases, we are talking about very elderly people and some who may have passed away. Some may know their birth stories but many others will not and will be finding out in the next couple of weeks and months. They will be finding out at the age of 49, 50 and 60 that the people they thought for decades were their birth parents were, in fact, not. Parents who brought up children for 50, 60 and 70 years may now have to have that very difficult conversation with the children they brought up that they are not in fact their birth parents or even, indeed, their legal parents. There will be other family members involved. Sisters and brothers who believed they were blood relatives will find out that this was not the case. This is potentially a very traumatic situation for many people and I am very sorry for it. I hope we can deal with this, not just as a Government but as politicians, in a sensitive way because that is what is required.

Some will say that the past should be left in the past and that we will do more harm than good by disclosing this information. Some will say this is a dark chapter about which we should not have to read. We disagree. This information is now available and the only thing to do is disclose it to the people affected. Ultimately, it is their choice and their lives. They have a right to know about their identities and birth stories. I am reminded of the words of the American author Alex Haley who wrote:

In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage - to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning [...] and the most disquieting loneliness.

I am taken aback that the Taoiseach did not answer my very specific question about why there has been a delay in legislating for this matter. I did not want prepared soundbites or a prepared script. I asked for a specific answer. In 2010, the Adoption Authority of Ireland conducted an audit on this issue. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has commented negatively on our failure to legislate to facilitate access to information and tracing and to vindicate the right of children to know their identities.

I agree 100% with uncovering the past. I have no difficulty with that whatsoever. However, we have failed over the past number of years, by the Government's failure to bring forward the legislation and bring it through, to look after the rights of children born today. Children born today do not have an automatic right to a birth certificate, to their identity and to tracing health information that could be vital to their well-being. We need to deal urgently with the present and future generations as well as dealing with the past.

I just wanted to ask a basic question. Having gone through seven or eight drafts, the Bill was published in 2016. What issue is delaying it? Why the lack of urgency in bringing this Bill through?

My apologies for not answering that earlier. The primary purpose of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 is to provide an adopted person with a statutory right to apply for his or her birth certificate and information about his or her adoption order. A further aim of the Bill is to give adopted persons, birth parents and relatives a statutory right to an information and tracing service. People who have been subject to an incorrect registration will acquire the right to the same information and tracing service.

The Bill was published in 2016, has passed Second Stage in Seanad Éireann and is awaiting Committee Stage. The Bill has not stalled. The Minister is working on a number of amendments, which are now on Committee Stage. The Minister has met Opposition and Independent Members in the Seanad on many occasions to work through some of the complex issues that arise.

The Bill relates to significant personal rights and to identity and to privacy, and these need to be carefully balanced. The work is ongoing to do this. Enactment and commencement of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 remains a priority of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and the Government.

This morning, Irish society is once again faced with a scandalous mistreatment of citizens, particularly women and children, by the State as we stare face-on into the scandal, not of incorrect registrations but of fraudulent, deliberate mis-registration and illegal adoptions. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, confirmed what so many previous Governments had known for decades. She finally revealed that 126 babies were illegally adopted from St. Patrick's Guild between 1949 and 1969. These babies had their births falsely registered to their adopted parents. They are, as we speak, in the dark as to where they came from. At the weekend, we thought we had finally closed the door on the historic mistreatment of women at the hands of a conservative state and yet today that door is wide open again.

Swift action must now be taken to right what is another grave injustice. I acknowledge that the Minister has taken the initiative. However, it must be said that successive Governments have known of these scandals and yet they failed to name them and act, despite ample documentary evidence. Campaigners have been raising these issues with successive Governments since at least 2002. In fact, they raised the specific matter of St. Patrick's Guild in 2003 with the then Fianna Fáil children's Minister but no action was taken. Over the years, the Adoption Rights Alliance has raised the specific issue of illegal adoption with successive Ministers, with the joint Oireachtas committee and with the Adoption Authority of Ireland. In fact, the Adoption Rights Alliance, in dogged pursuit of answers and action, issued a paper which gave prominence to illegal adoption to each Minister at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs since 2011 and yet no significant action ever followed. It is only now, in 2018, that we are finally seeing some movement.

There are citizens who were illegally adopted but have absolutely no idea that they are adoptees. Many have lived for decades unaware of their identities and with no access to their records. This has practical consequences in terms of health care and hereditary conditions. They live under a closed secret system that stigmatises their very existence. Many will want to know who their birth parents are and now it might be too late. That is unforgivable.

I understand that the Taoiseach has proposed an investigation and I want to ask him specific questions regarding what is proposed with the aim, the scope, the resourcing and the terms of reference. Does the Taoiseach accept that these were illegal adoptions? Will the Government include all agencies, individuals and homes involved in adoption in the State? Will the Government include the estimated 2,000 babies who were illegally sent to the United States of America? Will the Government ensure that no affected person is left behind?

We use the terms "incorrect or illegal registrations" rather than "illegal adoptions" because technically these were not adoptions at all, but perhaps that is splitting hairs and not the most relevant point at this stage.

Deputy McDonald is correct that this is not something new. We have known that this practice existed in the past. We suspect that it was quite commonplace. Journalists, such as Conall Ó Fátharta in the Irish Examiner, have written about it for years. Civil society advocates, such as the Adoption Rights Alliance, have raised this issue with all parties in the House and at all-party committees for years, as the Deputy correctly said. Many of us will have been affected by the film, "Philomena", telling the story of Philomena Lee and, of course, her son, Michael Hess, whose grave she visited but who she never got to meet.

What is different now is that as a result of the transfer of records from St. Patrick's Guild to Tusla, we have clear documentary evidence because of this marker, "Adopted at birth". There is clear evidence in those records of over 100 people who were adopted in this way. That evidence exists and it is important that we deal with it.

Some people have suggested that after exiting a dark tunnel last Saturday, we have entered a new one with this latest story about incorrect registrations. I do not believe that is correct. I believe we are different country now. The past is a foreign country but we must acknowledge it and deal with those issues from the past. Even though it may be 50, 60 or 70 years ago, we still have responsibility to our fellow citizens to read that dark chapter.

What was done was wrong. What was done robbed children, our fellow citizens, of their identity. It was an historic wrong that we must face up to. On behalf of the Government, I am very sorry for it. We will never be reconciled with our past until we are truthful about it. Throughout her career, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, has been steadfast in her determination to force this country to acknowledge the truth about its history and I believe she has done us some real service here.

Our priority now, of course, is to inform those people affected. Social workers experienced in this area will be contacting the birth mothers where they are alive, the parents who brought our fellow citizens up who were involved in these illegal registrations and party to them will be contacted as well and given the opportunity to talk to the children they brought up, and the individuals who were illegally registered will, of course, be contacted as well. This will be done in a sensitive and private way. Nobody will get a knock on the door and suddenly have this information disclosed to their family. It will be done applying all of the best social work practice available.

What will now happen, on the Minister's initiative, is a targeted sampling analysis of the records from the other adoption societies to see whether there is a similar marker or evidence of these illegal registrations. If there is, it will be a requirement to go through over 100,000 records. This is potentially a mammoth task, but it will now be done.

What people want is not retribution. What they want is information about their identities. They have a right to know who they are. They have a right to know their birth story. They have a right to that information and we must give it to them.

The Taoiseach is quite correct that this is not about retribution but what those affected tell me is that they want, above all, honest and that is why language matters here. It matters that we do not try to minimise what happened. It matters that we do not try to pretend that it was an accident, that it was a clerical error.

It was deliberate, fraudulent and illegal and robbed the children, their mothers and natural families of rights so innate to any person that it hurts almost to think of what they lost. They were illegal adoptions. It is important to use that term because the campaigners tell us that is how they see it. Does the Taoiseach accept that what the Minister, Deputy Katharine Zappone, has revealed thus far is just the tip of the iceberg? Yesterday's revelations account for one agency. We estimate that there were 182 such agencies. While initially a sampling exercise might be necessary, a sampling exercise, in and of itself, will not cut it. Only a complete survey of all adoption files will get to the bottom of this scandal. Will the Taoiseach commit himself and his Government to it?

The Deputy is right. Language is very important. It is very important that we do not minimise this in any way in the language we use. It is also important that we be sensitive. In the coming weeks and months people are going to find out information about themselves and the people who they believe are their birth parents and it will be very difficult for everyone. Even the parents who brought up the children, who were involved in and party to the illegal registrations, will find it very difficult because they probably believed at the time that they were doing something right in bringing a child into their home, but we know now that it was not right. We need to share the information and the truth with those fellow citizens of ours who were illegally registered in this way, or illegally adopted, if the Deputy prefers to use that term. I have no difficulty in using it. What will happen now is that there will be an initial scoping and sampling exercise to look at the records of the other adoption societies. If it indicates, as I said in my previous response, that there is evidence of illegal registrations, we will engage in a full analysis of those records. If that is the case, it is potentially a mammoth task and the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, we need to be sensitive in our language and not assume all of these things. Let us act quickly, but let us always act on the basis of facts.

During the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment we heard hundreds of stories from women throughout the country, stories that in many cases that had never been told before. They shone a light on the lives of women in Ireland and the reality of people's lives. It was an unveiling of the wrongs done to women, as our colleague, Deputy Clare Daly, so eloquently put it yesterday in the Chamber. There was an attitude that prevailed for so long that others knew better. Thankfully, that attitude has slowly been demolished. Yesterday saw the latest revelations of another failure by the State and those who controlled our society. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, announced details of illegal adoptions where the birth details of children had been misclassified. The word "misclassified" is not appropriate as it sounds very innocuous. It is not what it is - an illegal adoption. It is high time we dealt with issues that have for too long been kept in the dark.

An initial examination by Tusla of the records of St. Patrick's Guild has identified 126 so-called incorrect registrations, more correctly called illegal adoptions. At least 79 people may be entirely unaware of the true circumstances surrounding their births. Who they are has been kept from them. Our identity is central to who we are and how we see ourselves in the world and how we are remembered. In the coming days people will be contacted and given news that will, in many cases, be shattering for those who believed they knew who they were. As the Taoiseach said, supports must be put in place for them. Tusla must be adequately resourced. The Taoiseach has said it must be done with the utmost sensitivity, but it is essential that Tusla be resourced to do it. I want the Taoiseach's assurance in that regard.

We need to identify, where possible, how many illegal adoptions happened and to respect the rights of those directly impacted on, those who had their births misclassified, and restore their information and identity to them. My colleague, Deputy Joan Burton, has been calling for a full audit of the records of adoption societies. We fully support her in that call. The Minister has said a sample of records will be taken, as the Taoiseach has just indicated, from each adoption society. We are talking about what may be needles in haystacks in adopting that approach. Only a very small number of the 150,000 records may be affected. It needs to be headed by an international expert and provided with the resources necessary to get to the bottom of the matter. The right to information must be provided for. Many adopted persons are still unable to access their own files.

I want to reiterate some of the questions that have not been answered fully. With reference to Deputy Micheal Martin's question about progressing the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, will the Taoiseach give us an assurance that it will move much more quickly? It was published in 2016. Will he commit to a full audit of all adoption records? Will he ensure wraparound supports will be put in place for those who will receive this earth-shattering news about who they are and fully resource Tusla to provide them?

On the audit of records, I answered that question, as did the Minister, Deputy Katharine Zappone. I have also answered the question about the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill. On giving an assurance about the passage of the Bill through the House, I can offer no such assurance as we do not have a majority in the Dáil or the Seanad. We are seeing other legislation being held up in the House, not by the Government but by Opposition Members. Two Bills have been delayed in recent weeks which, in turn, holds up the passage of other legislation. I appeal to Members, particularly Opposition Members, not to hold up legislation because they are not just holding up that legislation but all legislation. This is the Government that published the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, legislation that could have been published by any Government in the past ten, 20, 30 or 40 years. We have done it and the people can trust us to be the ones who will bring it to fruition. They can trust the Minister, Deputy Katharine Zappone, to do it and she will have the full support of Cabinet in doing so.

Tusla has notified the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and transferred scanned versions of the relevant records to it. It has also informed the Garda of the matter and provided it, at its request, with ten sample cases, although we need to bear in mind that the people who were operating the adoption agencies may be very elderly or deceased. Nonetheless, we think it is appropriate that the Garda should examine the records with a view to potential prosecutions. In the first instance, we want to ensure we identify the men and women who are at the centre of this matter and work to get the answers and explanations they want and need and given them the choice or opportunity to meet their birth parents, if they so wish, that is, if their birth parents are still alive and can be contacted. I am assured that Tusla is keenly aware of the sensitivities involved and will work through experienced information and tracing social workers to ensure the cases are progressed as sensitively and effectively as possible.

A number of actions are under way. A social worker has been assigned to each of the 126 individual cases. They are very much individual cases. They will provide counselling and support for the individuals involved throughout the process and be resourced in doing so. There will be no sudden telephone calls or unannounced visits to people's doors. The process of offering contact and supporting the people affected will be handled very carefully on a case by case basis and at the pace of the individual concerned, the pace he or she believes is appropriate, given his or her personal circumstances. It is a detailed and methodical process which will take some time, as it must start with identifying the locations of the individuals involved on the basis of information on files that are now decades, in fact, more than half a century old. Social workers will deliver sensitive information face to face in a supportive environment as far as posisble in a venue of the person's choice. No information will be delivered over the telephone or by cold calls to people's homes.

I thank the Taoiseach for the additional information he has given us and the fact that social workers have been assigned and that there will be no sudden telephone calls, which is really important. This will go on for quite some time and others will be identified as time passes. Will the Taoiseach give us a commitment that there will be ongoing and continuous funding and support? I acknowledge the work done by the Minister, Deputy Katharine Zappone. I was one of the people briefed by her and her officials during the passage of the Adoption (Amendment) Act to which we proposed an amendment on tracing and the provision of information. It is disingenuous to suggest that because the Government is in a minority, the legislation cannot be progressed more quickly. It has been in process for a long time. There has been a lot of consultation, both during the passage or the Act and on the current Bill. We need the Taoiseach to ensure the next Stage will progress quickly in the Seanad. I do not believe anybody in this House will obstruct its passage when it is brought before us. We, therefore, urge the Taoiseach to give us a more clear commitment on the passage of the Bill.

Perhaps the best way to progress the further passage of the Bill is for the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to meet with spokespeople in the coming days to see if we can resolve some of the issues. There are a number of quite complex technical issues and the Minister would be very willing to brief spokespeople on them. Tusla already operates an adoption information and tracing service and does it in various locations around the country. The Adoption Authority of Ireland also provides limited information and tracing services relating to the records it holds. We want to improve that and put it on a statutory basis but while we get this information, the information tracing service is available.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Zappone, for bringing this issue to light. What we are seeing here is yet another bombshell exposing the toxic relationship between church and State in this country and the human damage and hardship it has imposed and continues to impose on very significant numbers of people. In this case it is clear that this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg but 126 people have had their identities stolen and their welfare, particularly in terms of their health, compromised by not knowing their proper biological heritage.

I was particularly struck by this scandal as I was adopted via St. Patrick's Guild in the years affected. I do not know if I am one of the cases involved. I am probably not but I have questions about it, as do other members of both my adoptive and birth families. Thousands of people have very serious questions to ask about, or are living in ignorance of, their true heritage. They are going to have life-changing events visited upon them. In some cases, these life-changing experiences are very positive and I was lucky that my experience was just such a positive one. For others, though, it is very traumatic and scary and it turns one's life upside down. It is absolutely critical that, having now revealed this, we respond urgently but with sensitivity to the needs and demands of those who are affected.

The Adoption Rights Alliance and the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors are furious about this and they say this has been known for 20 years but that nothing done about it. People spoke about it while in Opposition but later came into Government and did absolutely nothing about it. When issues were raised during the introduction of the adoption Bill about illegal as against supposedly incorrect registrations, they were not properly dealt with, and credit is due to Deputy Clare Daly in this regard. Some of the people affected are still not certain if they will gain access to information about their adoption as a result of it not being registered properly as a legal adoption. There are thousands more in the US as well.

We need to engage with the alliances and with the people affected, we need to seek their advice and we need to act on things they have been demanding for 20 years. There are very serious questions over the responsibility of the Sisters of Charity for all of this. I have been getting emails on this in recent weeks and I would like reassurances over their continued role in the National Maternity Hospital.

As I have said in response to others, the Deputy is absolutely right in his second point. As Fergus Finlay said this morning, this does not come as a surprise because people have been aware of illegal registrations and illegal adoptions in Ireland for a very long time, perhaps longer than 20 years. The number of people who participated in it, often the receiving parents, must add up to tens of thousands of people and when a new child arrives in a family without the mother being pregnant there must have been widespread knowledge across society of the existence of this practice. It must, in fact, have been commonplace in the past. Journalists have written about it, the Adoption Rights Alliance and others have raised it and it has been raised in the Dáil and the Seanad. What is different now is that, because of the analysis of these records, there was a marker on the records indicating "adopted from birth", meaning it was possible to identify that a person had been falsely registered as a birth child of parents who were not their birth parents. It may be harder to find evidence of other cases because they were concealed and records may not exist or have been falsified but we have to do our best to find out as much as we can and give it to the people who have, and always have had, a right to know their birth story, their identity, where they came from and who their parents are, as well as information about their medical history and that of their family.

There are 13,000 or 14,000 people who have come through St. Patrick's Guild and who must be concerned and have a lot of questions. I can tell them that if they have an adoption order they are not affected by this and are not one of the 126 people to whom we referred. If they were born before 1946 or after 1969, they are also not affected. If, however, they were born between those two dates and do not have an adoption order, they may well be affected. Conversations will need to take place with family members in the weeks and months ahead and there is a possibility they may be contacted by Tusla.

The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has met with the Adoption Rights Alliance and is very willing to do so again. We are very determined to pass the legislation but we are focused on giving our fellow citizens, those who were affected by this, information about their true identities and that is going to be the priority in the period ahead. If this is only the tip of the iceberg and it is a mammoth task, so be it. We have a duty to our citizens to do right by them, and we will.

I welcome the commitments given by the Taoiseach. I was born in 1967 so I may be affected but I will have to check all this. In any event, the outcome for me has been positive but for huge numbers of other people that may not be the case and they have a right to know. We need a clear commitment that all obstacles will be removed to access to whatever information or files can be found. I understand there are issues around indemnity for St. Patrick's Guild when it was asked for its files and I believe that, incredibly, it asked for €50,000 in 2016 to facilitate the handover of files. Was it given indemnities? I certainly hope not. St. Patrick's Guild is physically beside St. Vincent's Hospital and I went there to meet my birth mother.

We need clear assurances that the Sisters of Charity will have no influence whatsoever in the clinical practice of the National Maternity Hospital but I believe there is still a row about the title deeds and about land ownership. That is a bit much. These people have been saying how much they cared about unborn life for the past number of weeks but they showed scant regard for born children and their welfare. They lied, covered up and acted criminally but they are still trying to milk the State for money and to retain ownership of certain assets.

The Deputy is over time.

We need clear assurances and action on these matters.

The new National Maternity Hospital will be paid for by the State and will be owned by the State. It will be paid for by the people and it will belong to the people. That is not the case for the current National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street so there will be a significant change for the better in that regard. I do not know about the issue of indemnity but we have all the records.

It is a good thing that in the past couple of years tens of thousands of records have been transferred from private bodies, charities and adoption agencies to public bodies. It is because of that transfer of records that we have been able to come up with this new information.

In terms of the next steps regarding the other adoption agencies, as I mentioned, there will be a targeted sampling exercise carried out in the first instance. That will take about four months and will be overseen by a quality assured independent reviewer. It will be headed up by Marion Reynolds, who is a former deputy director of social services in Northern Ireland and has expertise in this area. Once that targeted sampling exercise is done, if it is appropriate and right, we will then go on to carry out a full audit of all the records.