General Scheme of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2021: Discussion

I welcome our witnesses who are addressing the committee virtually via Microsoft Teams. From Tusla, I welcome Mr. Bernard Gloster, CEO, Mr. Cormac Quinlan, director of transformation and policy, and Ms Siobhan Mugan, national manager for adoption. I welcome Mr. Conor O'Mahony, special rapporteur for child protection. From the Adoption Authority of Ireland, I welcome Ms Orlaith Traynor, chairperson, and Ms Patricia Carey, chief executive officer. The purpose of our meeting is to engage with the witnesses on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the birth information and tracing Bill. The purpose of the proposed legislation is to enshrine in law the importance of individuals knowing their origins.

Before I invite the witnesses to deliver their opening statements, I must advise them about parliamentary privilege when addressing a parliamentary committee. As all the witnesses are appearing before the committee virtually, I need to point out that there is uncertainty about whether parliamentary privilege will apply to their evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if I direct witnesses to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I will call Mr. Gloster, then Mr. O'Mahony, and finally Ms Traynor. This will be followed by a questions and answers session with members. A speaking rota was circulated to members in advance of the meeting. Members have five minutes for questions and answers. I ask people to be mindful of that. Mr. Gloster is very welcome. I invite him to deliver his opening statement.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it today. I am pleased to join other stakeholders in this session, Ms. Orlaith Traynor, chairperson of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, and Mr. Conor O'Mahony, special rapporteur. I am joined by my colleagues, Ms. Siobhan Mugan and Mr. Cormac Quinlan, who are the two most senior staff involved in the management of the adoption services provided by the Child and Family Agency.

The pre-legislative scrutiny by this committee of the general scheme of the birth information and tracing Bill 2021 is an important stage of the intended provision in law for an adequate response to rights and needs of many. The Child and Family Agency, Tusla, as the statutory provider of adoption assessment, placement and tracing services, welcomes the opportunity to place on record our observations on the general scheme. I make clear that Tusla welcomes the proposed legislation, which finally addresses the right to identity.

Tusla has, through its predecessor structures, the HSE and health boards, and also significant changes in the landscape of former adoption societies, become a key custodian of substantial amounts of information, access to which has been the subject of extensive debate for several years. I am acutely aware of the expressed hurt and distress of many in that debate, most notably adopted people, those with a false, illegal or incorrect birth registration and many who were nursed out, boarded out or placed in pre-adoptive foster care. They and others who were born in or resided in certain institutions listed in the general scheme have in many cases sought access to their identity and birth or early life information in what can be best described as a weak legal framework.

In recent years, Tusla was the main State agency which had to represent that complex legal position, resulting in many people not having access to their identity and all that flows from that. Notwithstanding the findings of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters on this particular aspect, namely, that any State agency would have been in the same position, I recognise that many people were hurt and had a sense of being let down by the State in their search for answers to the most basic questions. I offer a sincere apology to any person who attributes that hurt to their dealings with Tusla. Whether limited by law or any other circumstance, it would never be our wish that any person would be left with such disappointment in his or her dealings with the agency.

Given the limited legislative framework within which Tusla has had to function to date, we are pleased that the Minister has brought clarity in the form of this proposed new legislation.

I want to set out the response of Tusla to the general scheme. I will do so in nine observations, recognising that as the legislation advances we will have ongoing engagements with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability Integration and Youth on detailed operational aspects of the various provisions. Our response, therefore, could be described as "high level" at this time. First, the scheme is welcome in many aspects but specifically for dealing with the core issue of access to birth identity and significant personal information.

Second, the contact preference register makes good provision for the appropriate separation of the issues of information and contact, with good additional provisions for counselling supports. It would be a useful consideration in the view of Tusla to extend the provision of counselling to all people searching for their identity or early-life information and who may identify such a need for themselves. Such a need might arise, for example, on receiving that information or details regarding any expressed wish on the contact preference register that is passed on to them. While supports are generally provided for under head 36, this would be more beneficial if included in the statutory duty.

Our third observation is that the applicability of the provisions to people under 18 may suggest a particular need to focus on supports and the duty of care to those young people as they access some information.

Four, the statutory authority proposed to be conferred on Tusla for tracing, including if deemed necessary by the Minister in the public interest, demonstrates the core value of the tracing service, which has been evidenced many times over the years by Tusla but not always understood in the public domain. Tusla envisages that strong working protocols will be required with the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, as both are authorised to provide a tracing service. The complexities attaching to both the AAI and Tusla holding information together, with both providing a tracing service, must not be underestimated.

Five, the enabling of Tusla or the AAI to request information from other persons or bodies, as set out in head 13, is clear. However, again, strong and robust sharing protocols are viewed to be necessary in light of the challenges of recent years for all agencies on the complex subject matter of sharing information. This legislation will provide for GDPR-compliant protocols and remove doubt.

Six, the clarification of further use of the database of the mother and baby home commission, as set out in head 35, is welcome and will remove several of the current limitations and uncertainties.

Seven, the clarifications of restrictions of rights and obligations under the provisions of GDPR and as set out in head 40 of the general scheme are helpful given the notable perceived conflict to date.

Eight, it is important that all people to whom these provisions relate understand the very variable nature of the records that are currently held. The quantity, quality and accuracy of some records is a concern and the agency is mindful of the potential disappointment or error that may arise in some cases because of this.

Nine, Tusla recommends that a Department-led process including the Tusla and the AAI be now undertaken to scope out the various types and complexities of demand that may arise on enactment of the proposed legislation. This scoping will need to result in careful consideration of the resource dependencies and working arrangements necessary to ensure timely access to rights for all as set out. We are, as an agency, conscious of the demand in information and tracing to date and the challenges still faced despite increased resource provision. While ultimately the provisions proposed will likely lead to some levelling off in demand or associated input required, the expertise in information management and counselling and social work will still need some consideration.

Tusla holds some 70,000 records prior to the receipt of the mother and baby homes commission database. These records include adoption, boarded-out, placed-at-nurse and other arrangements that were made for infants by many entities over the decades. Adoptions in Ireland since 1953 numbered 44,862 up to 2019. It was in the early period of the 1960s that recorded adoptions were in the hundreds. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the annual number of adoptions was consistently above 1,000. The number steadily decreased to 79 in 2019. The context of that 79 is vastly different for that of earlier decades, with 51 involving adoption by a step-parent, 21 involving a conversion from long-term foster care, one being associated with an extended family arrangement, and six infants placed for adoption. For the majority of that 79, access to identity will not be an issue, but this Bill is significant for the small number for whom it might be in the future. It is, however, likely that this Bill will be active and utilised for many years to come as many among the 44,862 adoptees and others exercise their right to identity. This is a very positive step in legislative reform.

It is the function of Tusla to support the people who will have an interest in this legislation at whatever time in the future that might arise. I am happy to commit, on behalf of the agency, to playing our part by ensuring the intentions of the Government in this Bill and the Oireachtas, if the Bill is passed into law, are fully honoured. I am happy to offer any further assistance to the committee as may be required.

I thank Mr. Gloster for his presentation. We will move on to Dr. O'Mahony.

Dr. Conor O'Mahony

Good afternoon. I thank the members for the invitation to speak today. I warmly welcome the Bill. It is long overdue and has been a long time coming. I am conscious that it is not the first version of it. I previously addressed this committee in 2015 regarding an earlier version, which never made its way across the line to become an Act of the Oireachtas. I very much hope the process will result in a successful outcome on this occasion. Ireland is currently an outlier in not making provision for adopted people to access their birth information records. It is one of only two countries in the European Union that does not make provision in this regard. Our obligations under international human rights law are clear in that every person, including every child, has a right to identity. Our international human rights obligations compel us to enact laws to address the gap that currently exists in the legal provision in this area.

For all these reasons I welcome the fact that the Bill makes provision to allow for access to birth certificates and other early-life information. I welcome the provisions on the contact preference register and the legal basis for information-sharing, which has been mentioned several times already, and also the provisions on rectifying the register where there is evidence of incorrect or illegal registrations. I welcome the register of acknowledged identity, which would allow people to continue to use an identity they have used all their lives unaware that the original registration had been illegal or incorrect.

The core of the Bill is generally strong, which I warmly welcome. At the periphery of the Bill, there are some issues that might benefit from some further consideration. The main issue I would like to raise concerns where the records would be maintained. The Bill takes the approach of keeping all the records where they currently are. That is perhaps not the best approach in the sense that it leads to fragmentation of records, both physically and between different agencies and bodies. There is a risk, when it comes to providing a tracing service, that this approach creates logistical difficulties, notwithstanding that the Bill makes provision for information-sharing. We may encounter logistical issues in providing a tracing service that has to access and cross-reference records across several locations and agencies. A lot of difficulty is caused for adopted persons by lengthy delays in accessing a tracing service. This does not seem likely to be helped by the fragmentation of the records. It is likely that there would be a more efficient service if the records were centralised within a single agency and, ideally, if they were digitised to allow for maximum searchability. I acknowledge the latter would involve a very significant project but it would be the most efficient way of dealing with searches. I acknowledge there is some very specialist knowledge in respect of particular archives. There are staff members who care for certain archives who have special knowledge of their nuances.

If it were deemed necessary for some staff to migrate with the records, as it were, perhaps that should be considered.

I will briefly mention an issue relating to head 2 where it deals with incorrect birth registration. That is linked to head 29, which allows for rectification of the register. That deals with cases where the identity of the parent is incorrect in the birth registration. It does not deal with situations where the date of birth is incorrect. There is evidence that is one of the things that was done in some cases historically. In order to impede efforts at tracing, incorrect dates of birth were entered in the register. Ideally, development heads would include that within their scope so that issue could be rectified, as well as situations in which the identity of the parents is incorrect.

The Bill currently addresses provision for information meetings and counselling supports, as were mentioned earlier, only in respect of adopted persons whose birth parents had registered a preference for no contact. As has already been mentioned, there is scope to consider whether it would be worth looking at extending that provision, whether on an optional or compulsory basis. There is room for discussion there. It seems as if there are no good reasons why supports which are made available in the category of cases where a preference for no contact is stated would not be made available in cases where a contact preference or no preference is stated.

The issue of a minimum age for access to records will be applicable to future adoptions. The minimum age before someone can seek to access records is proposed to be 16. International human rights law is very clear in providing that the right to identity is not a right which crystalises upon entry to adulthood. The right to identity is a right of children as children. For that reason, setting a minimum age of 16 is inconsistent with international human rights law in that respect. We should, of course, acknowledge that parents have a role in guiding children's right to identity with other rights while they are still children. I have made recommendations elsewhere in respect of Government services and donor-assisted human reproduction to the effect that records should be available to parents on behalf of children up to the age of 12 and directly to the child from the age of 12 on. I repeat that recommendation in respect of access to adoption records in this Bill.

There is a discrete issue in head 13, which deals with requests for information made by the Adoption Authority of Ireland or Tusla and our direction to provide information to them. There is no enforcement mechanism in that head. There is a gap there. If an adoption society did not comply with a request for information under head 13, there is no way of enforcing that request. That would ideally be addressed.

Those are the issues I would like to highlight and I am happy to discuss them all further as the meeting progresses.

Ms Orlaith Traynor

The Adoption Authority of Ireland welcomes the opportunity to give input to this historic Bill. For the first time in Ireland’s history, critical information, including original birth certificates and important medical information, will be made available to adult adoptees. The authority believes this draft legislation is a thoughtful rebalancing of rights to identity and provision of supports to all those, including birth mothers, who will be affected by the legislation. The authority is of the view that the Bill reflects the obligations imposed on the State under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the Data Protection Act 2018. Moreover, it meets the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. In this regard, Article 8 of the convention has been construed as requiring the contracting states to protect the right of a person to information concerning their identity and origins.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by Ireland on 21 December 1992 without reservation and, as such, is binding on the State, albeit not on the domestic courts. While the Bill envisages the provision of identity information to adult adoptees, the principles enunciated in the convention on this issue provided a useful framework for drafting legislation in this area. Of particular relevance to the discussion are Articles 7 and 8, headed "name and nationality" and "preservation of identity", respectively. Article 7 provides:

1. The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.

2. States Parties shall ensure the implementation of these rights in accordance with their national law and their obligations under the relevant international instruments in this field, in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.

Article 8 is in the following terms:

1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name, and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.

2. Where a child is legally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.

The right to know one’s parents expressed in Article 7.1 has been construed by the relevant international law agencies as enshrining a right of the child to knowledge of origins. Thus, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in comments regarding the United Kingdom's compliance with the UN Convention, made the following recommendation:

In light of articles 3 [best interests of the child] and 7 of the Convention, the Committee recommends that the State party take all necessary measures to allow all children, irrespective of the circumstances of their birth, and adopted children to obtain information on the identity of their parents, to the extent possible.

A similar view of the extent of the obligations imposed on contracting states by Article 7 has been expressed in the academic commentary. Mr. Alistair McDonald, for example, observed that in order to preserve the identity of a child, the child must have full knowledge of each of the components of his or her identity, including his or her birth parents. He also stated that the adopted child's right under Article 7(1) as far as possible to know and be cared for by his or her parents will encompass the child's birth parents as well as his or her adoptive parents.

With regard to the national adoption contact preference register, the authority has significant experience in operating this register for the past 16 years. We welcome the fact that all data of 13,800-plus registered parties will be retained and that the authority will oversee the new register as outlined in the Bill.

With regard to timeframes, we have concerns related to the short window of three months and believe it will take a minimum of six to 12 months to advertise in Ireland and beyond, to communicate and disseminate the key messages and the changes the legislation will bring. It is critical that as many people as possible are reached in order to encourage huge participation in this historical scheme.

The authority notes that it will require significant additional resources in the area of records and information management, archivist resources, administration and social work in order to provide an excellent and timely service from day one of enactment of the legislation. The authority is aware that very large numbers of persons will wish to apply for their birth certificates, early life and medical information in addition to those who may wish to register and be supported in a no-contact preference. There will be a grave impact on the provision of timely services if resources are not put in place in advance of enactment. Due to limited resources and challenges in recruiting social workers, the authority currently has a two-year-plus waiting list for services.

What will the definition of "early life information" encompass? Is this only information up to the time a baby was placed with adoptive parents? Information may subsequently have been placed on file when the adopted person was under 16. Should this be included as early life information? Should birth mothers be encouraged to provide information on the adult adoptees’ birth fathers and can a section be added to the new registration form to facilitate this, even in the event that birth mothers are registering a no-contact preference?

The area around the release of medical information will require careful and considered operational procedures as medical information is personal sensitive data. Release of medical information to a nominated medical practitioner may, in fact, result in an adopted or fostered person knowing that the information relates to the birth mother in situations where, for example, he or she is an only child or only has male siblings. If medical information is subsequently added to the register, how is this information to be shared with the relevant party? We are pleased that crucial medical information should and will be given to adult adoptees. However, the authority notes that it will require careful consideration and the authority will require expert medical advice.

Regarding a nominated medical practitioner, there will need to be guidelines on how this process would work. How, for example, would the authority verify the credentials of the nominated medical practitioner and any GDPR issues associated with sharing sensitive medical data with a registered GP or other medical person as nominated?

Clarity will be required on who exactly is responsible for the release of adoptee birth certificates. In most cases, the adoption files held by the authority contain copies of original birth certificates. The proposed legislation also suggests that Tusla could fulfil this role. Given that the authority usually provides Tusla with a copy of the certificate, it would seem counter-intuitive to expect Tusla to provide this service as it would have to approach the authority on behalf of the adoptee, thereby prolonging the process.

We would ask that if there is correspondence on the adoption file, unrelated to the register yet clearly confirming a "No contact" preference, this no contact can be considered as part of the release of a birth certificate. In some instances, birth mothers have written, themselves or via a solicitor, to strongly indicate no contact. This information will be on the adoption file but not on the national adoption contact preference register, NACPR.

Will the adult adoptee have a choice, which we believe is important, to request face-to-face support when receiving information? We note that the onus is on the service provider to share sensitive information in a way that is in the best interest of the service user. Some adult adoptees may not wish to meet a social worker and could, we believe, meet another staff member in the authority.

Regarding the release of information for those aged under 18, we would ask that particular attention and thought is given to 16- to 18-year-olds. Regarding the release of information to applicants aged 16 to 17 years, will this take place in an information session or will the procedure be the same as for those aged over 18? It is not assumed that they will require or seek additional supports in receiving information. In instances where they do, however, we believe this should be available and provided in a child-centred and informal manner. The authority intends to work with the Ombudsman for Children's office to develop appropriate child-focused approaches to this cohort.

Regarding counselling for birth parents, will counselling be made available to birth parents who register a no contact preference? Will the same service be given to those who are registering for contact or who are trying to decide what is the best option for them?

We believe the Bill should also strongly reference birth fathers and allow them to register no contact should they so wish, and also allow birth fathers to avail of support services. Can adopted people register a no contact preference? Can other people register no contact, for example, adoptive parents where the adopted person is deceased, relatives of birth mother or birth father or other parties who do not want to be approached when the birth mother or birth father is deceased? Can foster parents register no contact? Will a no contact preference continue indefinitely? Is a contact preference too restrictive? Is there a failure to take into consideration that those who lodged one might want to change their minds after a period of time?

The authority wishes to raise a number of questions with respect to the no contact preference. Are there any circumstances where a no contact preference can be overruled, for example, if an adoptee or a relative is ill and up-to-date medical information is urgently required? Can a system be put in place whereby the authority can return to the person who has lodged the no contact preference and inquire whether he or she wishes to retain or revoke the no contact preference?

Regarding the procedures for registering no contact, what is acceptable if a person is unwilling or unable to provide photo identification and complete the register? Could another person register on behalf of that person? Could another party, such as a solicitor or family member, register a no contact preference on behalf of, for example, a birth mother? This is important to give choice and supports to those coming forward to place details on the register.

Can birth parents apply to get their children’s birth and adoption records? Could this be included in the proposed legislation? The authority believes that consideration needs to be given on the implications of releasing personal information, for example, a person named as the birth father on record, which later proves to be incorrect. Releasing this information, which has not been confirmed with the birth mother, may have implications for the person concerned and, if he is deceased, for his family.

We would ask that careful thought is given to the implications of releasing other information not confirmed by the birth mother, for example, the true relationship with the birth father not noted at the time. Some women did not speak in the past of the fact that their children were conceived through incest or rape. Again, the authority believes a range of supports should be made available for those who wish to receive them, including counselling, advocacy and other required supports.

With regard to the media campaign, the authority would welcome receiving the media publicity pack from Tusla regarding extensive preparations, which were already made in 2016, to avoid duplication of the huge work and the consultations that took place at that time. The authority has a positive and collaborative working relationship with Tusla and will continue to engage with it on all matters related to the Bill.

The authority intends to publish the key messages of the legislation not only in Ireland but throughout the world, acknowledging the Irish adoption diaspora who are living around the world, in particular in the UK, the USA, Australia, Canada and beyond. We would urge the Oireachtas to consider – as took place in 2005, when the NACPR was launched – that each household in Ireland would receive a copy of the key provisions of the legislation and plain English information on how to register and-or access information or supports they may require.

We look forward to collaborating with colleagues in Tusla and also to hearing from support groups and other adoption service providers on how best to communicate the critical information in the new Bill and how to implement its key provisions in a timely, professional and considered manner for all.

I thank the committee very much for taking time to listen to the authority's perspective. We would be happy to answer any questions members might have

I thank Ms Traynor very much. I remind members to stick to the item agenda scheduled for today when they are asking their questions. Senator Seery Kearney is swapping with Deputy Dillon. Can Senator Seery Kearney confirm her location for us, please?

I thank the Chairman. I am in Leinster House. I thank all the witnesses for their very considered submissions. They are very valuable and I really appreciate their points. My first question is around the three-month window. I hear that we need to ensure that everyone is aware of their opportunity to register their "Contact" or "No contact" preference, whichever that would be. I very respectfully hear Ms Traynor when she says that period must be longer. I am, however, naturally nervous about the fact that the heads of the Bill as they currently stand have a stay on adoptees and people having a right to their own information until that period has elapsed. I would, therefore, see this as a rolling opportunity to register and perhaps suggest that we need a longer campaign. I would value Ms Traynor's thoughts in that regard.

With regard to Tusla, has the data processing impact assessment on the mother and baby homes database been published? I am curious to know that. As Mr. Gloster referenced it and as it is being strengthened within this Bill, I am curious to know where we are at this moment.

My thoughts also go to the cohort that was particularly referenced by Mr. O'Mahony, that is, those people whose information about themselves, which they think they know about, is false, including their date of birth. I refer to the St. Patrick's Guild group. As time moves on, however, more and more people are finding that similar experience for themselves. They do not know whether they are with the St. Patrick's Guild group or not but they certainly have the same experience of all their information being false. In that regard, what are the thoughts around perhaps having an opportunity for additional relatives to register their knowledge? When such people are contacted and have had the experience of being contacted by Tusla, sometimes the information they have been given is incorrect and has later been proven to be so by DNA. I will stop there and come back in again later if I may.

We will start with Mr. Gloster, followed by Mr. O'Mahony and Ms Traynor.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

If I took the Senator up correctly, I think the question most relevant to Tusla was about the data protection impact assessment on the mother and baby homes commission database. When we received the database at the close of the year, when that emergency legislation was brought through the Oireachtas, we did extensive work with the information that was available to us and produced a data protection impact assessment report, which we made widely available. We did it on the basis of saying it was iterative and that anybody could comment on it as we progressed, and this would remain the case until such a time as this legislation emerged. This legislation will cause us to revisit that data protection impact assessment in a different way, and hopefully, in a much more significant way in terms of the process of information being released to people as intended in this Act.

We are processing requests relating to our paper records and the mother and baby homes commission database. I am sure it will be to no one's surprise that the combination of the receipt of the database and the conclusion of the commission increased significantly the volume of queries and various requests that we received, be those under freedom of information, FOI, requests, subject access requests or requests for tracing services. The numbers in quarter 1 of this year were significant.

Has the existence of the data protection impact assessment, DPIA, changed the practice of redaction?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I will ask Ms Mugan, as the manager of the service, to deal with the detail of that question. The legal position on access to information has not fundamentally altered because of the existence of the DPIA, but perhaps Ms Mugan might address the issue briefly.

Ms Siobhan Mugan

It would not necessarily change the process of redaction because the Data Protection Act still applies to the database. As the committee may be aware, the issue with the database is that only those who are processing FOI requests or subject data access requests can access the information that is held on the database. None of the staff working within the tracing service can access it because the legislation in that regard is not sufficient to allow us to use it. We have a standard operating procedure on foot of the DPIA, in which respect we are working with our data protection colleagues in order to maximise the amount of information that we are providing. We are constantly reviewing the procedure to ensure that there is joint working between the data protection privacy officers and social workers so that we can supply as much information as we are legally able and authorised to give.

Since the Senator's time has expired, I might ask Dr. O'Mahony and Ms Traynor to respond to some of the points she raised at the end.

I am in Leinster House. I thank the witnesses for their contributions.

I wish to ask Mr. Gloster a question. He mentioned how he almost felt that Tusla's capacity had been overwhelmed by the work it had to do in respect of adoptees. Do Tusla and the Adoption Authority believe that they have the capacity to work under this Bill? Some of the adoptees I have met feel traumatised by what has happened in recent years and do not have trust in Tusla. They feel too traumatised to go back to it. In light of Dr. O'Mahony's comments, what is Mr. Gloster's opinion on the idea of bringing all of this under a new agency, one that would have a clean slate?

It is fantastic that, with the proposed Bill, we are starting afresh in terms of giving people back their stories, but what work has each organisation done to restore faith in them or improve their systems, including upskilling social workers to deal with trauma? Much of what has happened is traumatising for adoptees and families. What steps will be taken and what extra resources will the witnesses request, in which respect we would support them, to upskill everyone to be able to provide these new answers and give the adoptees their truth in the best possible way?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

There were a number of questions there, so I will make the most effective use of the Senator's time.

I share that view with my colleagues. The Department will need to lead a process, with the Adoption Authority and Tusla, to scope out not just the resources required to give effect to what is intended in the legislation, but the resources to do so in a timely way that does not result in lengthy waiting periods. At the end of the first quarter of this year, we had approximately 800 people waiting for an information and tracing service. In terms of response times, they will wait somewhere between 13 and 23 or 24 months. Separately, we have had approximately 432 information requests this year under FOI or subject access requests, all of which have to be responded to within a statutory timeframe.

On the flip side, we have increased the number of information personnel. At the start of this year, we increased the number of tracing personnel in terms of social work staff who are approved to work in the service. The service has grown exponentially. Today, we have approximately 116 whole-time equivalent staff as well as a number of vacancies that are being filled through various processes. Quite a deal of work has been done. The actual number of staff is 135, equating to approximately 116 whole-time equivalents.

On the suggestion of just one agency, let me be clear. Regardless of whichever agency has dealt with a matter to date, the same legal complexities have prevailed. This view is not shared by everyone, but it is an important point to make.

As to one agency holding all of the information or conducting all tracing in future, we are a State organisation and whether that happens is fundamentally a decision for the Government. If the Government decides it is best to do that work in one place, then that is what is best and in the interests of the people. If the Government decides that, pragmatically speaking, the expertise of the authority and the agency combined is the best place to start from, we would support that view and carry out our functions fully in line with what they were intended to be.

I am in Leinster House. I thank everyone who has made a submission to this process. It has been informative for us, and certainly me.

I did not expect to be called so soon, as I did not realise that there were so many members missing, but I will start with the many questions that were raised by the Adoption Authority in its opening statement. Does Ms Traynor believe that there are still many questions on resourcing, timeframes and so on that have not been adequately answered in the authority's interactions with the Department on this legislation? I do not want to misinterpret her but it seems that, from her questioning at this meeting, the import is that there are still many unanswered questions in respect of this legislation. Am I right in assuming that or am I reading too much into it from Ms Traynor's submission? She can be as frank as she likes.

Ms Orlaith Traynor

There are many questions, but we have had good interactions with and assurances from the Department that it will support us. It was only as we were writing this paper and thinking about these questions in depth that these matters were raised. We are about to start meeting the Department on a weekly basis regarding the implementation. I hope that we will be able to thrash these issues out at those meetings and that the meetings will help us to see a way forward.

In its submission, the Adoption Authority wrote:

Can birth parents apply to get their children’s birth and adoption records? Could this be included in proposed legislation? The Authority believes that consideration needs to be given on the implications of releasing personal information, for example, a person named as birth father on record which later proves to be incorrect.

What is informing that point? What exactly is Ms Traynor saying there? What is her concern, in plain language?

Ms Orlaith Traynor

We are just saying birth parents may wish to find out what has happened to their children and what their situation is. If it was included that they could have access as well, they would be able to do that. It is similar with regard to birth fathers.

Is there a statistically significant number of examples - and I suppose one is statistically significant in this case - of a person being named as birth father on a record that proves to be incorrect. How many such scenarios has Ms Traynor encountered? How many does she envisage encountering in the future?

Ms Orlaith Traynor

It comes up occasionally but I will pass this to Ms Carey to see if she has more in-depth knowledge on the statistics.

Ms Patricia Carey

We have instances of just less than 10% where a birth mother has given the name of a birth father that was not correct. This may have been on advisement or she may have had difficulty in naming the birth father. Ms Traynor mentioned that in cases of incest or rape there is a difficulty. In terms of statistics, of the 14,000 people registered on the national contact adoption register, approximately 140 birth parents have registered for no contact. We have more than 900 adoptees who have registered for no contact. There are instances where birth parents wish to have information on their children who do not wish to have contact with them. Quite often we talk of birth parents who want no contact but there is an equally large cohort of adopted adults who have indicated that. We are acutely aware of recognising both adult adoptees and birth parents who wish to register for no contact. Historically, in the 1950s, 1960s and up to the 1970s, there were cases where incorrect information was on the adoption file, deliberately or inadvertently.

Mr. O'Mahony made a point on adoption records being dispersed and fragmented between agencies and geographical locations. How would the legislation deal sufficiently with that? What is the solution to that?

Mr. Conor O'Mahony

It could be envisaged under the Bill in its current form that some records would be in the possession of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, some in the possession of Tusla and some in the possession of adoption societies, and there could be many such societies. There could be records in quite a number of geographic locations and under the auspices of different organisations. The process of tracing often involves cross-referencing different records and files, such as an adoption order the adoption authority has with paperwork held by an adoption society or by Tusla that was formerly with an adoption society. There may be further cross-referencing necessary with the General Register Office.

If one was designing a service like this from scratch to be the most efficient service one could provide, one would not design it like that. One would not set it up with multiple actors and many locations. One would try to put things in one location as much as possible to take out the unnecessary links in the chain. The only interest is how we can make it more efficient to avoid the delays we have already heard about. Nobody wants to see adopted persons waiting for two years to get a response to a tracing request. If this is to be a fresh start, as Senator McGahon said earlier, the opportunity is to bring these records together and make the process easier for everyone.

I confirm I am in Leinster House. I acknowledge Mr. Gloster offered a sincere apology to any person who may have been hurt in dealings with Tusla. That is welcome. An awful lot of people who have contacted my office and those of many other Oireachtas Members will welcome that.

I will touch on something that is mentioned in the opening statements but has not been the subject of any questions, which is counselling. All the witnesses mentioned the need for counselling going forward. This should be optional but available to everybody, irrespective of whether they are of a no-contact preference. Mr. Gloster mentioned that the quantity, quality and accuracy of some of the records is a concern and Tusla is mindful of potential disappointment. It could be heartbreaking for people if they do not get accurate information or are disappointed with the information they get. Does Mr. Gloster see counselling as a way of supporting people in that process and of helping people irrespective of no-contact preference? How does he see this service delivered and who will deliver it?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The observation I was making was that the provision across the heads of Bill as drafted makes it a statutory obligation for Tusla to provide counselling support for people in respect of interaction with the contact preference register. Later on, it makes it a possibility to provide it to all other people, particularly those seeking or receiving access to their birth identity or early life information. We are saying that, based on the needs each person might identify for him or herself, we or some other organisation should have a statutory duty to provide it if requested.

The second point I attempted to allude to was the potential need for a slightly different consideration for people between the ages of 16 and 18. They are in different circumstances. Mr. O'Mahony referenced people from 12 up. I do not disagree with that but there is a duty of care requirement for children receiving specific types of information.

The piece about the quality of the record was slightly different. Counselling is helpful in that situation as much as any but counselling should be provided for all who require it. If time allows and members want us go into more detail on the quantity-quality issue we were debating, my colleagues can do that. We are concerned about expectation. When people hear Tusla has 70,000 records, some will have the perception that Tusla has 70,00 comprehensive details with all the records, details, information and clarification. It might be much less than that. Depending on where and what part of history they came from and how they were compiled, there could be accuracy issues. For example, an accuracy issue arose, evidenced in the RTÉ Investigates programme "Who Am I?", regarding two people being connected to each other who were subsequently found not to be related. That is perhaps an extreme example but that is the danger with inaccurate and historical records.

On the capacity of Tusla, if this legislation provided counselling for everybody affected by this issue, would the agency at the moment have the capacity to provide that service?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I ask my colleague, Mr. Quinlan, to address that because there are different ways that can be provided for. The short answer today is "No" but there is a lot of potential there so maybe Mr. Quinlan can address it.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

At the moment, our service provides support, guidance and advice. Our social work team is skilled and expert in that. Counselling is a more specific skill set and we would have to expand the service to include that. In the provisions, the availability of counselling, certainly for birth parents, is following their no-contact preference. It is important that, as part of the public awareness campaign, we have access to counselling for birth parents. As early as possible would be ideal to allow birth parents to consider their choice and make a more informed choice following counselling.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

During the work on illegal birth registrations done by Ms Mugan's team for the scoping report that was published some time ago, we dealt with some 150 people and the team set up a very specific support service, including counselling with Barnardos. Tusla funded the counselling but it was provided from other expertise within the State. All the feedback shows that it was a very good option. Something like that could be expanded across the country to provide it for everyone who identifies a need for it.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee today. I have three questions. First, do the witnesses think people should be able to access information about their siblings? Second, should rights for mothers and relatives of the deceased be included? In the current legislation they have no entitlement; only adopted people do. Third, the Bill states that adopted people applying for birth certificates whose natural parents have registered a no-contact preference must attend an information session before the birth certificate will be released. The session includes things like parents' privacy rights and respecting their contact preferences. It is a compulsory session. Some adopted people have said that if respecting privacy has to be explained to them there is an insinuation that they do not understand it. Is the session necessary? Should it be compulsory or open to all and framed as a service for adopted people and not a measure to ensure they understand the concept of privacy?

I am assuming the Deputy's questions are for all three witnesses.

They are for whoever wants to answer them. I ask the witnesses to start with the first two questions about people being able to access information about their siblings and mothers and relatives of the deceased. At the moment there is just a provision for adopted people.

Ms Orlaith Traynor

We mentioned in our opening statement that we feel siblings should be included, as should relatives of the deceased. Does Ms Carey have anything further to say on that?

Ms Patricia Carey

I agree with Ms Traynor about information on siblings and relatives. As regards the information session, there are some question marks over it, particularly about its function and necessity. Some members have mentioned that people should be offered support, guidance and counselling if they wish but it may be that people want to have a meeting with someone who may not be providing them with information. For example, touching on the notion of the file, there might be an archive specialist or somebody who is excellent in advocacy and support. The definitions around who will provide that information must be scoped out in more detail. It may not necessarily have to be provided by a social worker but there may be a requirement for a wider cohort of people who wish to have a meeting to explain fully what is or is not in the file.

Mr. Conor O'Mahony

I also welcome the suggestion of allowing for tracing on a wider basis and not just limiting it to adopted persons. On the information meeting and the counselling, what struck me was that there are two separate heads in the Bill on this issue. One relates to the information meeting, which is for adopted persons, and the other is about counselling supports, which are offered to the birth parents. In both situations, the Bill only makes those provisions in cases where there is a no-contact preference. I would like to view all of this as a supportive measure. Deputy Cairns suggested that we are trying to warn adopted people in some way about the need to respect the privacy rights of the parents. I do not like to look at it in that way. I like to see this as a supportive measure. If it is to be a supportive measure, the Bill as it stands only offers it in one circumstance, which makes it look more like a warning. I do not think that is what we want to achieve. If we are going to have it as a supportive measure I would rather see it offered to both adopted persons and the birth parents in all cases. That raises a knock-on question. For birth parents it is an option or right to access counselling services but not an obligation, whereas the Bill makes it a condition of access to birth information to attend the information meeting. That right could be replicated across both cohorts or we could make the meeting an option for all. My main concern is that this should be seen as a supportive measure and not some form of warning exercise.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

My colleagues have comprehensively covered the range of possibilities and I do not necessarily disagree with any of them. The description of the information session as a supportive route for people is important and I take Mr. O'Mahony's point on that. The intention of the information session, if I understood it correctly, is about not assuming that everybody getting information is in a homogenous group and would receive it in the same way. A no-contact preference might be difficult for some people to hear and the purpose of the information session is to ensure that information is delivered properly. Mr. O'Mahony's observations are instructive in that regard.

I thank all the witnesses for their contributions. Deputy Cairns covered some of my questions. After working on this in the previous term it is good to see where the conversation has gotten. Senator Higgins and I, and a few others, have been part of this conversation since 2016 and there was a time when we did not think we would even get to this point. We were blankly being told "No", that the balance could not be found and so on. It is a good sign that we have moved the conversation along to this point.

I take Deputy Cairns's point about the information meeting. I had to pull myself back originally. I am not an adopted person so I cannot speak from that point of view but as someone working on this issue, the meeting felt like something that would be better than where we are. Sometimes we need to go back and ask what that compulsory meeting means for people and whether they really need to have it. The general feedback I get from adopted people is that they do not want to be framed constantly as a burden, as something to be frightened of or something that can show up on people's doorsteps. It is about battling some of those myths. If we could find a way of doing that which is more supportive than this compulsory obligation on adopted persons to attend a meeting, that would be preferable.

The AAI and Tusla will play an important role in this. Has there been much discussion around the mechanisms or relationships needed to ensure that other stakeholders, aside from the main agencies managing this, will not attempt to conceal or destroy any records that are not currently held within the agencies during the gathering process? Given the amount of information that is going to come in about adopted people - whether they were boarded out, health information and so on - how will the AAI and Tusla ensure they get full access to all of it?

My second question relates to illegal birth registrations and adoptions outside of Ireland, and those people being afforded the same rights. What are the provisions for extraterritorial jurisdiction in this area?

We will start with Mr. Gloster, followed by Ms Traynor and then by Mr. O'Mahony if he would like to add anything.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

We can offer the greatest contribution on the records that are held outside the AAI and Tusla by pre-existing societies that still hold records and so on. As the most experienced person on our side with tracing, sourcing and gathering of information to date is Ms Mugan, I ask her to address that. The other question is probably more relevant to my colleagues.

Ms Siobhan Mugan

On records held outside the agency, in recent months we have noted an increase in persons coming forward offering us records. We are actively working with those groups to secure those records where we legally can. If we are aware of records that are in people's custody, we have reported it to the Adoption Authority of Ireland or to the Department. Many people are coming forward saying they would like to hand records over to us. This is mainly on foot of the data protection legislation whereby they are now subject to processing subject access requests, SARs, and perhaps are not equipped to do that. They are mindful of this and hand it over to us. There have been one or two reports to us that records have been destroyed. We recommend, at all times, that they are reported to An Garda Síochána, and we would report that as well, were we given any information to that effect.

We are aware there is a lot of information with congregations and in the hands of people who may be relatives of GPs or in private nursing homes and who still have those records. While I am sure the AAI can speak to this, I am aware that following the last legislation's enactment, the authority has recently done a detailed scoping exercise to identify where those records are. The Adoption Rights Alliance has done something similar in that regard.

Ms Orlaith Traynor

With regard to Senator Ruane's first question about children sent abroad and illegal birth registration, because they were not actual adoptions, the authority does not have any input in those cases. I will hand over to Ms Carey with regard to the records because she is very knowledgeable about that.

Ms Patricia Carey

On a positive note, at the end of this year, the authority will take custody of two further adoption societies that are closing. In 2019, we took custody of the largest and oldest adoption society, Cúnamh, formerly the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society of Ireland, CPRSI. There are some 13,000 records from those sources. Along with our colleagues in Tusla, we regularly receive records from private nursing homes and retired doctors. We are keen that this should be part of the information media campaign. Any person who holds records, no matter how insignificant he or she might think them, which could include baby photographs or memorabilia from mother and baby homes, should hand it to the adoption authority or to Tusla. We have done significant work with the National Archives of Ireland over the past five years in order to become a centre of excellence in conservation and preservation. We are in the middle of a digitisation of all our files and records. They will be accessible and readable in the event that we transfer data to the Child and Family Agency, in order that files will not have to be handled, particularly the older and more sensitive files.

We continue to work with people. To answer the question on children who were sent abroad for adoption, as the Chairperson said, when we become aware of any form of illegal action, it is reported to An Garda Síochána. We have worked with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth by notifying it of any concerns we have in respect of historical actions, such as when children were taken outside the State.

Does Mr. O'Mahony wish to add anything in relation to this?

Mr. Conor O'Mahony

I will comment very briefly. On the question of records being handed over, that is very welcome and it is good to see that. Our preference is that we would not be dependent on organisations voluntarily making that decision. There is provision in the Bill that would make it an offence to destroy records. If we are concerned that records may be destroyed, once they are destroyed, prosecuting someone after the event is too late at that stage. If we are concerned about the safekeeping of records in private hands, the better approach would be to bring all those records into the hands of State agencies and to do that proactively rather than sitting back and waiting for them to be handed over.

On the extraterritorial issue, obviously there are limits as to what the law can do in that regard. The Oireachtas can only go so far in terms of legislating for what people can access. If there are records held outside the jurisdiction, one would be getting into interactions with the legal systems of other states and, if anything, it becomes a lot more complicated.

Can Senator Keogan confirm her location?

I am in Leinster House. I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Many of my questions have already been discussed and answered. Do the witnesses know the number of people who are currently on temporary certificates and who do not have birth certificates? I refer to people who may be in receipt of social welfare or Government support and do not have a birth certificate at this time.

Is that Senator Keogan's only question?

Does Mr. Gloster have that information?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I can defer to Ms Mugan but I am not sure of the extent to which that can be answered accurately.

Ms Siobhan Mugan

In relation to an actual birth certificate, adopted persons have an adoptive birth certificate. It is the original birth certificate, with their original birth information, to which they would like to have access. We have noted that in the area of those who were boarded out, in particular, they may not have had a birth certificate issued and were reliant on a baptismal certificate. That is why it is important that this legislation refers to them as well. Baptismal certificates did not contain the information of their original birth family, their natural family, on them. Therefore, it is important that they are given that availability to access the records to get the information in order to get a birth certificate. Many of them were not registered.

What happens to those who have neither a birth certificate nor a baptismal certificate?

Ms Siobhan Mugan

Generally, they do have baptismal certificate. If they are made aware that they were boarded out, and if we have the boarded out records, they can apply to us for the information. At present, if we are legally able to give it to them, we will give it to them. They can then go to the register and, perhaps, register their births - it would be years later - if they had the information. Hopefully, this legislation will address this major gap for that cohort of individuals.

Can Deputy Murnane O'Connor confirm her location?

I am in Leinster House. I also wish to thank everyone today. It has been very informative. Many of my questions have also been asked already. One of the biggest concerns I have is about the information request and the lack of any enforcement mechanisms. Information is of critical importance and is crucial. I would like that to be looked at.

As for people who wish to receive counselling, that is welcome but we also spoke about other required supports. Perhaps that can be looked at and we could find out what is available, because it is important that all supports are in place. We spoke about resources today. I note Ms Traynor stated "Due to limited resources and challenges in recruiting social workers, the authority currently has a two-year-plus waiting list for services." That is a matter of significant concern because while we all welcome this Bill and have been waiting for it for a long time, it must happen in a way that is right. When it does, the services have to be there and they must be delivered. That is one of the most crucial things I will take away from today.

I refer to enforcement and ensuring that people can access their information. I welcome the apology that Mr. Gloster gave on that today. How can this be remedied and how can we see change occurring here?

People have been hurt. We cannot ever let that happen again. All of us have worked with different people and survivors over the past few months, especially on the commission's report into the mother and baby homes. I feel that this hurt cannot ever happen again. I ask that we remedy this, and that we are never in that position again.

It is great to see everyone here working together, but I also have a concern about communication. Everybody working together, including Tusla, the support groups and the adoption services, means that communication will be critical. It is about everybody working together to make sure that we get the Bill right, and that includes us as Deputies and Senators. We may need to have more information sessions for people. Do we need to look at what we can do to ensure the Bill we deliver is right and that the services required are delivered? That is one of the biggest issues today. I thank all the witnesses for coming. It was very informative. I had other questions, but most of them have been answered. The witnesses can answer whichever question is relevant to them.

I see Ms Carey is looking to come in on some of those responses. I will bring her in first, and then Mr. Gloster.

Ms Patricia Carey

On resources and supports, obviously we want to be upfront and honest that there is a shortage of social workers. Mr. Gloster has spoken about this in the past. It is not just in adoption services; it is right across the board. A range of supports could be put in place that do not have to be focused solely on social work provision. Many adopted adults are happy to meet with an advocate or another professional. We can put in a range of resource supports, both through the Adoption Authority of Ireland and Tusla. We must offer people choice in the types of support and the way they receive such support, counselling and guidance. It may not be that all persons wish to receive counselling. They may wish to have an information meeting with an archivist specialist or with an advocate, as I said earlier.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I thank the Deputy. Dr. O'Mahony made observations on the enforcement question. The Deputy's view on supports other than counselling is a very good lens through which to look at this. Counselling is not for everybody, or it is not for everybody at that point in time. For other people it is often practical assistance to connect them with other personal or health-related social services. It must be very broad. This is why the skill set, as referred to by Ms Carey, which is beyond but not exclusive to social work, would help both the social work and would help people with regard to time.

On the issue of the apology, one of the things I want to say is that the debate about the law and what the law did or did not allow around people's access to identity has long since been aired. I do not believe there is anything more I can say other than as a State agency we were obliged, and are obliged, to operate within the law. Notwithstanding this, the frustration, pain, hurt and anger people have described around not being able to get their basic identity is their experience. Inasmuch as we are the people who had to be party to that decision or deliver it, or be at the provision end of that, this is why the range of the apology is important. This is why it goes far beyond the story of the mother and baby homes commission piece, because that is not the total story of adoption either. I want it to be much broader than that and to talk about people's own sense of their experience of having had to engage with both sets of State agencies that were the main drivers of the management of records for the past couple of years. I would not want to qualify it beyond that because it could do a disservice to them.

On the question of how "we cannot ever let that happen again", it is one of the greatest phrases if one looks at every inquiry into personal and social services in Ireland or every health-related inquiry when things have turned out to be not good, totally unsatisfactory, or have gone completely wrong. We produce inquiries that are helpful and instructive but our response as human beings is that this cannot happen again. Access to information is in whatever is the final version of the Act to come out of the Bill we are discussing today. This is how that will "never happen again".

Would Dr. O' Mahony care to add anything on those questions?

Dr. Conor O'Mahony

The enforcement issue was considered with head 13, which is just one stage of the process where Tusla or the Adoption Authority of Ireland make a request to a third party for information needed to assist in the process of tracing. In one sense it is not one of the well-known provisions of the Bill, but at the same time in the course of a particular tracing process, it could be an important part of that process. Where a third party has information that is needed to allow the trace to proceed and does not comply with the request to provide that information, the process could end up going into a roadblock as a result of that. Given that particular heads say the third party is obliged to comply with a reasonable request, if we want to make that stick then we need to have some mechanism to enforce it in the event there is not compliance.

Senator Seery Kearney had some questions that we did not get to put to Ms Traynor and Dr. O'Mahony. Perhaps she would like to come in now with those.

I thank the Chair. There is a period where there is an opportunity to register a non-contact preference, which is set as three months. I noted in one of the submissions a desire that this would be for much longer. My fear, however, is that the period we establish is a period for which there would be a stay on the right to access information. I would welcome a comment on the effects of lengthening that period.

We talked about the records being in one place and that it would be better if they were under one roof. I understand that in setting out the heads, a conscious choice was made to first provide the right of access and then over the course of time gather the information separate to that, with a right of access as quickly as possible. It was considered that this was the best way to discharge the enormous obligation and entitlement for access to personal information. Perhaps Ms Mugan could answer my question on this. How long would it take to gather everything in one place? What sort of a trade-off would we have to make on that?

My third question is on counselling. Mr. Gloster referred to the counselling by Barnardos, which has been a success, and most certainly I have heard that. I have also heard, however, from people who have had the experience of finding out that everything about their identity was incorrect and that they were obliged to go to the Barnardos service. It is called "family counselling". In light of the fact that these are people who have discovered, perhaps late in life, that the family they thought they had was not their family, from what is written and documented, they found this terribly insensitive. Perhaps we need to apply this going forward and we need specialists who do not use the words "family" in their title. Perhaps we need a bespoke counselling service that deals with attachment and trauma, the consequences of the person's attachment, and what happens when the person finds that his or her lifelong attachment has been the subject of misinformation, at its kindest.

Ms Patricia Carey

I will address the issue of the three-month window. We have to balance trying to get the information out to as many people as possible. As the Chair mentioned, we must communicate with the diaspora of the adopted around the world. The last time there was a national communication was in 2005, which was for the national adoption contact preference register. At the time every household in Ireland received an information leaflet about the register. We would ask for that again. We would also ask for an international campaign through our embassies via the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It is important as it gives people an opportunity, not only if they wish to register "no contact", but also if they wish to register. Many birth parents have moved around the world, maybe for reasons of trauma from being in Ireland, as have adult adoptees. We ask that consideration would be given, in terms of balance, that that window would be slightly longer than three months. I think 12 weeks is a huge ask, in terms of the resources and the pressures.

The other question asked was about gathering all the files into one place. The Adoption Authority of Ireland, as the statutory holder of every legal adoption file in Ireland, and the Child and Family Agency both hold a significant number of agency files. As I said earlier, we have worked with the National Archives of Ireland for the last five years in terms of developing ourselves as a place of deposit and that the files would be held at National Archives of Ireland standards. Into the future, there are plans for a national adoption and memorial archive. At the moment, however, the files are split between the Child and Family Agency and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. By the end of the year, all of the formal adoption society files will be either with the Child and Family Agency or with ourselves.

I call Dr. O’Mahony.

Dr. Conor O'Mahony

On the medium term, I am sensitive to the issues expressed by colleagues about the logistical challenges they face and respect their position. At the same time, we have to try to remember the background and context of all of this, in terms of how long it is taken to get to this point. In some cases, the clock is ticking for people who want to access information. Very long lead-in times sometimes make me nervous, if we think about the legislative process and about how long it will take to get from pre-legislative scrutiny, through to the actual enactment and signing into law of this Bill and then through to commencement of the Bill. We must not forget that there can often be a delay between something being signed by the President and then commenced by the relevant Minister. The clock starts ticking again on a lead-in time period.

What occurs to me in my experience is that I started my legal career working on issues around special educational needs, SEN, law. I wrote my PhD on the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. It was enacted 17 years ago and has still not been commenced by the relevant Minister. This partially happened because that Act was enacted with a long lead-in time. Then, things on the ground changed and it never came into effect. Long lead-in times, therefore, make me nervous, because of that particular experience with that legislation. If a little bit more time than three months is needed, I would defer to my colleagues' view on how long they might need. However, I would urge the importance of avoiding going too far with that. I would also emphasise that the gap between enactment and commencement may afford a window of time during which preparatory work can be done to get everything in place, so that they can make the best use of the time following commencement.

I call Mr. Gloster.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I will defer to Ms Mugan on some of the specifics on the point Senator Seery Kearney raised. However, I absolutely hear the concern about the three months and what can be done on this. I equally share the concern on how long it goes. Whatever the provision is, if the provision is three months, there has to be some extendable provision beyond that, for people who are not captured within the three months or who are not identifiable. That may be one way to look at that. To be fair to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, as the responsible body for the register, I would defer to its insight into that. Three months is short in many ways.

On the information in one place, I do not dispute that. I firmly believe in the nature of the records we have. This could be said about any part of Ireland’s statutory health and personal social service systems. If one were to gather all of the records to try to cohort them in one place with one entity, the time it would take would distract from the need for the right of access first. It is right of access first. After that, it is the issue of location and best practice location.

I hear the point about the terminology that can surround personal social services, including counselling. I have not yet encountered a terminology challenge, when it comes to the State talking about the provision of services. No matter how well-intended anyone's contribution is in that, words mean things. They can mean different things to different people. Sometimes it is hard to get that right, but it is a fair observation. Maybe Ms Mugan will conclude the answer on that part.

Ms Siobhan Mugan

I was not aware that the words “family counselling” were being used. Barnardos Ireland provides two commissioned services for us. One of those was recently set up in 2019. It is for adopted children and their parents. It looks at all those issues around identity, culture, background, and any other past traumas that children who are adopted today may have suffered. Our second service is for adults. It was initially set up for the incorrect birth registration. I expanded it this year to include the boarded-out cohort. Certainly, they have been seeking that specific specialised counselling service. As I said, I am not aware of the words “family counselling”. As Mr. Gloster said, words and terminology are so important in this arena. It is, of course, never our intention to upset anybody. I will take it up and I will investigate it. I will ensure that is rectified, if that is the case.

I thank Ms Mugan. This is not to impugn the quality of the counselling. My own experience with Barnardos Ireland, and working with services like that, is superb. I thank Ms Mugan for the sensitivity that is needed.

I think we have dealt with everybody's questions. Is there anything the witnesses feel that they want to add? Perhaps they did not get the opportunity to come back in on a question. Would Ms Traynor like to come in?

Ms Orlaith Traynor

From abroad-----

(Interruptions).

Ms Orlaith Traynor

We asked the Department that this be included in its legislation, because many of the children who were adopted from abroad are now at the age where they want to know about their origins. I think the Department is amenable. While we do not have any records in relation to them, we feel that they should be offered similar counselling and that the Adoption Authority of Ireland, as the central authority, could issue a letter of introduction to the central authority where they wish to find their information. I do not think that they should be excluded from this legislation. I think they should be included, even if it is only in a small way.

I thank Ms Traynor. Is there anything anybody else would like to add before we conclude?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I have nothing further to add, Chair.

Dr. Conor O'Mahony

I have nothing further, thank you.

I extend a sincere thanks to you all for appearing today by video-link. We look forward to ongoing engagement with witnesses on this and on related matters. For people who have tuned in and are interested in this topic, this is the first of our public engagements. We imagine that there will be other public meetings on this matter. The public submission process is still open as we extended the deadline. That process is open for anyone who would like to submit a written submission until 1 p.m. on 23 June 2021.

Again, a sincere thank you to you all. We need agreement to publish the opening statements to the Oireachtas website. Is that agreed? Agreed. Senator Seery-Kearney, would you like to come in?

I spotted in the chat that Senator Keogan had asked a very legitimate question on whether the cyberattack has had any impact on all of this?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I think that question is for us. First, the cyberattack absolutely crippled the Child and Family Agency and its capacity to function in any normal way. I have commented widely on that in the public domain. We are in a recovery phase at the moment. Seven out of nine parts of the country have email back. We are working hard with the HSE to restore the other two. Access to our databases is variable. Some of them were damaged in the attack and have to be rebuilt from the back-up. The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation database, which we received at the end of last year, was not hosted on the HSE platform. It is hosted on our own Tusla-built domain. It is there and it is safe. However, the devices we would normally use to access even our own systems are going through a process of being what is called "green-certified".

That will make sure that none of them is contaminated by a virus. Other parts of the adoption service are hosted through the HSE system. We have much assurance about the protection of those but, ironically, access is an issue. I suspect that we will experience disruption for some weeks.

I thank Mr. Gloster for the hard work put into that.

I thank Mr. Gloster and our witnesses.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 June 2021.