Adoptee Voices Report: Aitheantas

We are going to move into the third session of our meeting with representatives of Aitheantas and I welcome Ms Maree Ryan-O’Brien and Mr. Rody O’Brien. The purpose of this session of the meeting is to engage in respect of the recently published report Adoptee Voices which was based on survey results carried out by Aitheantas on adoptee identity rights.

Before I call on Ms Ryan-O’Brien I will need to read through the parliamentary privilege piece. As all witnesses are appearing before the committee virtually, I need to point out that there is uncertainty if parliamentary privilege will apply to their evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if they are directed by me to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

Our witnesses will have three minutes speaking time and there will then be questions and answers with the members of the committee. Just before I ask our witnesses to give their opening statement, I advise that there is now a session in progress in the Seanad and in the Dáil so some members will be dipping in and out of the meeting. I ask that our witnesses be aware that we will all be paying attention and we can watch back on the contributions. We appreciate both of our witnesses being with us today. I call now on Ms Ryan-O’Brien for her opening statement.

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

I thank the Chairman and all the members of the committee for their kind invitation to discuss our groundbreaking Adoptee Voices report. I would also like to thank the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, for his and his Department’s work. While we might not agree with all aspects of this Bill, or indeed on terminology, we have found the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, willing to engage and to listen.

Our Adoptee Voices report is based on three surveys we conducted to illustrate the intergenerational impacts of the polices of forced and coercive adoption and how adoption has real life, ongoing, consequences for both adoptees and their families. We are very strongly of the view that existing agencies are no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced by a new agency on the grounds of constitutional principles of fair procedures and centralisation. Many of these concerns are largely practical ones and health concerns for both themselves and their families are a significant issue. Adoptees may often be unaware that they have a full or half sibling who was also placed for adoption. This is information that is rarely directly disclosed but rather discovered through file cross-referencing or commercial DNA testing.

Our recommendations on terminology in the Adoptee Voices report was that research on this area should not be specific to one university but rather stakeholder-led. Our concern with regard to terminology being academic-led is that it gives a proprietorial interest in an issue in which the acedemics are not direct stakeholders. Given the historically privileged lens this issue has been viewed through, we feel that this approach is simply repeating the mistakes of the past. Individual preferences as regards terminology are a deeply personal issue and this is generally reflective of a number of factors. While there should always be scope within a personal context to respect preferred terms, the majority of respondents in our survey preferred the term "birth mother". The terms "first", "natural" and "real" were not terms generally favoured. Each of these terms are subjective and have a reverse implication as regards our adoptive families, as in: real-unreal, natural-unnatural, first-second. Terms used in legislation must be exact, not subjective, emotive, open to interpretation or contradictory.

The theme of our report is having courage to face up to the past and the social harm that adoption has caused and to change it. This courage needs to be coupled with the political will to transform, significantly, a deeply flawed construct that continues to impact negatively on the lives of adoptees and their children.

We would like to thank the committee staff for their assistance and the committee for the opportunity to discuss our report. We have also outlined in our report concerns as regards the birth information and tracing Bill 2021 and we welcome any questions the committee may have.

I thank Ms Ryan-O'Brien. I call Senator Seery Kearney to speak first now.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and I thank our witnesses for coming in to the committee. I congratulate our witnesses on an exceptional piece of research and a very comprehensive report. I have three questions which I will try to keep as brief as possible. The first concerns language which Ms Ryan-O'Brien spoke about in her opening statement. I ask her to elaborate upon, specifically, the use of the term "birth mother".

I note that Aitheantas sees legislation in this area as transformative and as affording an opportunity for restorative justice. I ask our guests to elaborate on that.

The second point is that Aitheantas holds a strong position regarding the need for a new agency. Its views in that regard are compelling. Perhaps our guests will take the opportunity to elaborate on them.

Finally, the legislation in this area is about a balancing of rights. First and foremost is the unequivocal right to birth information of an adoptee or the person seeking that information. A balancing of rights in the context of privacy also lies at the heart of the legislation. I ask our guests elaborate on their views in that regard as well, please.

Deputy Patrick Costello took the Chair.

The witnesses may respond if they wish.

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

More than 468 respondents participated in our primary research. On terminology, the clear preference from the 200 people who replied to this question regarding preferred terms was for "birth mother" or "birth father", followed by "mother" or "father" and then an amalgamation of terms, such as "birth mother" or "biological father". It will be appreciated that the issue around terms is sensitive. Looking at this issue from an adoptee advocate perspective, the reason that the term "birth mother" is used is that for every other term there is an opposite that impacts negatively on our families, our adoptive families, who are recognised as our families in legislation.

The difficulty in this regard lies with balancing needs adequately. I refer to the needs of birth parents and everyone else. A point that came through strongly related to the stigma and shame. Marginalisation also came across very clearly in respect of the feelings of adoptees. We must understand how language feeds into that and how questioning the reality and naturalness of someone's family can impact negatively on adoptees. I doubt if any members have been told that their father or mother is not their real mother or father, but it is not a pleasant position to be put in. I do not think we should be continuing this practice in proposed legislation.

Turning to the term "natural", there is nothing progressive about it. This term has been used in correspondence from the Adoption Board dating back to the 1980s. Therefore, when we are looking at a transformative Bill that we hope will allow adoptees access to long-needed information, we also hope that it will look more constructively at the use of terms and the impact they have in this context. We must understand and realise that adoptees and birth parents are all victims of this system and, consequently, we must have terms that are respectful of both.

Moving to the issue of the agency, perhaps Mr. O'Brien could answer that point more successfully, but there are issues concerning trust. We felt that this would become a barrier to participation in respect of adoptees interacting with a new agency. The model used when adoptees were spoken to regarding files was alarming and concerning. This seemed to be a model of interaction rather than an isolated incident. Given all these circumstances, we felt that it would be best to incorporate all the different facets of this one issue into one agency. That would make far more sense than having it distributed on a piecemeal basis, as it is now. Mr. O'Brien may wish to take the question regarding the balancing of rights.

Does Mr. O'Brien wish to comment briefly? I am conscious that I need to move on to some of the other members.

Mr. Rody O'Brien

Senator Seery Kearney asked several questions. Would the Senator like me to address the agency aspect or which issue would she like me to comment on?

My final question was on the balancing of rights.

Mr. Rody O'Brien

I thank the Senator for that clarification. The balancing of rights is the elephant in the room when it comes to getting the legislation on adoption right and the information on tracing in that regard. Most members of the committee will probably, with all the various representations made, be aware of the seminal case heard in the Supreme Court, namely, that of I.O'T v. B. That was the case which identified the right to identity for adoptees and people generally. It is an unenumerated personal right in the Constitution under Article 40.3.1°. Since then, the privacy of the birth mother has also been an issue and is also an unenumerated right under the same article.

The difficulty in the context of legislation has been to balance those rights. Our contention and that of all adoptees is that the privacy of birth mothers has been given priority as a right over and above the constitutional right of identity. That right is not only recognised in Ireland but it is also recognised under the European Convention on Human Rights and there is a great deal of case law on this matter. Looking at this in stark terms, for legislators, it is a question of moving the balance in favour of adoptees. If we think of this issue in the context of adoptees and their families, who in many cases do not have access to health information or do not even know their identity in terms of where they come from, this is something that legislators should consider thoroughly and seriously.

It is a practical issue when we think about questions such as "Who am I?" and "Where do I come from?". I remember that I gave a lecture many years ago in University College Dublin to approximately 250 nurses. We spoke about this idea of freedom of information and accessing information in that regard. A case was taken by an adoptee's daughter in a situation where her father had been born in the Rotunda Hospital. He was in his 80s and in poor health. He wanted to know who his mother was. He sought that information from the Rotunda Hospital and it refused to release the information based on the right to privacy of the birth mother. She was long dead at that time. The court still maintained the aspect of privacy in that case. The poor man went to his grave not knowing who he was or the identity of his birth mother. When I mentioned that case in the lecture, I remember all 250 or so students gasping at the concept of not knowing who you are. That is what lies at the heart of this issue. I refer to the political will of legislators to look at rebalancing rights in this regard and to give priority to the right to identity-----

I apologise for interrupting, but we are under time pressure and I must move on to some of the other Senators because they are due to speak in the Seanad. I call Senator McGreehan.

I thank the Vice Chairman. The witnesses are welcome. I congratulate them on the report. It is an incredible body of work. There were almost 500 respondents, which is almost the same, if not equal, to the number of respondents involved in the report of the commission of investigation. A great deal of hard and decent work went into this report and I thank the witnesses for that.

I have two questions that follow on from those put by Senator Seery Kearney. Will the witnesses elaborate on the general data protection regulation, GDPR, issues outlined in the report? What can be done for adoptees to restore some faith in the agencies? I refer to those that have mistreated people. It is well accepted that there has been mistreatment of people who have used the services. There is a serious lack of trust as a result. What actions can be taken now to restore some faith in that regard for adoptees and for mothers to enable them to trust the system? What can be done to ensure that when they are going to get their records and their birth certificates that they feel they are in a safe place, as opposed to being criminalised by those on the opposite side of the table?

If amalgamation and a new agency are to happen, it will not be for the next few months. The legislation is a priority. My goal would be for a new agency as well. I agree with the witnesses on that. I do not believe that we are going to get it in the next few months, however. What can we do for Aitheantas in the meantime to restore people's faith?

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

I will take the second part first and Mr. O'Brien will take the question on GDPR, if that is okay.

We touched on the issues around best practice as regards international best practice in the first recommendation in the report. One of the points from which we need to start, and I know this diverges somewhat from a social work model, is that we need to have engagement with people who are outside the remit of the commission. Members might be able to get from the report a very clear sense of the frustration that is felt not just by people who were outside the remit of the commission but people who were in the remit but were unable to participate. I recall that one respondent in particular said, "I thought [that] when ... [my] home ... was included that I could go ... [and give evidence] to them”, but that just did not happen. Of all of the respondents to the survey, in which we asked questions about the commission, only 5% were able to take part in the commission's work, even though 50% were eligible to do so. That is a rather stark percentage of people who could not engage on an issue by which they were directly affected.

We need to have pathways to participation for people who did not come not within the remit of the commission and who could not be included. We will begin to see this in a more holistic approach whereby we understand that it is the case that not every home was included under the commission's remit and not every adoptee came through a home. We need people to see the matter in a holistic way - as part of a larger issue. That would be the first step.

The second step is that there needs to be an immediate review of social work practices within Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. What we came across in the context of our research was across the board, with every agency, from people who interacted with us who were adopted. There was a stark contrast with regard to people who were, say, the children of adoptees; there did not seem to be as much invasiveness, as I would describe it, for them when it came to accessing information. If we were to look at it as a learning process, not just for society at large as to what the experiences of adoptees are but also with regard to the social work model and how that can be improved, there is a great deal that can be learned from this and much of the research we carried out can be of benefit. We really need to see that being taken on board and there must be an acknowledgment of where there have been shortcomings. Obviously, our long-term gain, which I hope will not be too long arriving, would come in the form of a new agency. I will let Mr. O'Brien take over as regards the GDPR aspect.

Mr. Rody O'Brien

I will come in on two points as regards the GDPR and I will then look at the issue of the agency if the Vice Chairman has time to facilitate that. Up until now, the GDPR and data protection have been used as a restriction to getting information on a person's identity. We are restricted in that and, therefore, they are restricted in the context of their constitutional right to identity. The GDPR is basically being used as an excuse in that regard. It is kind of an à la carte interpretation of the GDPR from what I can see, particularly in the context of the proposed legislation, a matter to which we refer to in our report as well.

Adoptees have the right, under Article 15 of the GDPR, to access information of which they are the subject. That is one particular aspect, but I would also like to highlight an important part of the GDPR that is really significant. Article 49 of the GDPR involves a derogation in specific circumstances. This allows an organisation and, therefore, in this instance, the State, when legislators are legislating for access to information in the proposed new Bill, the right to information to be refused. In our view, that represents a way around any restrictions that are put up as obstacles and the issue of privacy rights of other parties. It is really down to what we perceive as the political will to give priority to the right of identity to adoptees, which have always taken second place to the rights of privacy of the birth mother. It is then really a matter of political will as to how the Government wants to proceed.

That is the position on the GDPR. I am conscious of time. I am happy to elaborate on any of the other issues if the committee wishes me to do so. There is also an aspect to Senator McGreehan's question on the agency. I can address that now briefly if there is time to do so.

Mr. O'Brien might respond very briefly. It would be good to get an answer but I am conscious that others are waiting to speak. I am too soft.

Mr. Rody O'Brien

That is no problem at all. I am willing to elaborate later if anyone wants to ask me about it.

Senator McGreehan asked about the significant issue of restoring faith or trust. There is a legal problem. Many members will understand this from experience. Senator Seery Kearney, who is a barrister, would know about this particularly well. There is an issue with regard to the constitutional rights of fair procedure, especially where a case has been judged previously, in the context of getting a fair hearing. The idea of bias in a case is an aspect of constitutional justice. If somebody has already sat on a decision to give a person information or decided to withhold information that person's identity, there is a constitutional issue as regards allowing them to revisit the matter. Allowing agencies to revisit issues in respect of which they have already sat, gives rise to issues of either actual bias or perception of bias. The latter can open up major issues going forward. Apart from the trust issue and the legalities of judicial review, everything will end up being judicially reviewed all over the place. It is, therefore, a very unsatisfactory purpose. There is a really strong case for a new agency on the basis of the legal and constitutional issues involved. That is a very brief response on that issue. I am happy to come back if anyone has a question about that.

I will move on to Senator Ruane. I apologise for rushing Mr. O'Brien. There is a queue of other people waiting to ask questions.

One of my questions regarding the inclusivity of stakeholders was answered in response Senator McGreehan's questions. I will move on to my second question, which relates to whether the witnesses feel there are enough provisions for oversight and review of the eventual legislation, once it is enacted.

My final question is with regard to the recommendation in the Government's plan to fund scholarships and direct them towards those who are underprivileged. Could the witnesses speak to that a little? Do they feel there is a need for all victims of the institutions to be included in such measures in terms of investing in scholarships and education?

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

I will take the first part, and Mr. O'Brien can handle the legal aspect. As regards scholarships, we feel very strongly that when provision is being made for scholarships or educational supports, these really need to be delivered to the communities that have suffered as a result of these systems. When one reads a report from the children of adoptees, it is very clear how this has impacted on them. It indicates that this trauma dissipates and ripples through generations. Previous speakers spoke about intergenerational poverty. There is no quantifiable research as yet on how this has impacted in an intergenerational sense, but we are certainly getting a view of how this has affected the children of adoptees. This cohort is largely ignored. If it is recommended there will be scholarships, then they will need to be specifically delivered to the communities who need them. The Senator spoke about the wider communities in the context of institutional abuse and the institutions at large. Certainly, these scholarships need to go to the communities. Very often, the underprivileged and those who have come through institutions and mother and baby homes are the same communities that this trauma has rippled through and affected. We need to have those educational supports.

We also need to make the point that both adoptees and survivors should be empowered to be educated on the subject at university. We call on any universities, colleges etc., which have this as an area of study, to provide scholarships to these communities to enable adoptees and survivors to be educators about their own history. It is clear from the report that the larger societal context of this as an issue is understood. We understand the significance of it and we appreciate our own role as custodians of our own history. We need to be able to be empowered doing that as opposed to being muted or, again, treated as objects of study.

I will let Mr. O’Brien take over on the second part, which is oversight. However, we have made a call in the report for a review of legislation. We feel it is important to have oversight as regards the legislation, because of what happened with the previous Act in 1952, which was largely left in abeyance. Apart from amendments, it has never been substantively changed. We, therefore, need a review built into the birth information and tracing Bill 2021, so that there will be a review of legislation, in either two or three years, to see what has worked and what has not, and to amend the legislation accordingly.

Mr. Rody O'Brien

Ms Ryan-O’Brien has covered the point. A review period is not in the current Bill. Senator Ruane made a good point from a-----

(Interruptions).

Mr. Rody O'Brien

There have been a few events in the last few years to bring up information tracing as an issue. There were ten or 20 years when nothing happened at all. It is an important point. The Judicial Council Act 2019, of which many members will be aware, has a review period of three years for the new personal injury guidelines. These are the new guidelines which will replace the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB. Going forward, a good way of legislating is to have review periods, so that the legislation can be reviewed and is not left in abeyance. It would also probably make the work of the members easier. They can revisit something on a periodic basis, rather having to start anew. I would, therefore, echo Senator Ruane’s point, which is a good one. A review period could be put into the current Bill, as it is not currently there.

I thank Mr. O’Brien and move on to Deputy Cairns.

I thank witnesses for appearing before the committee again today. I commend them and everyone involved in the Adoptee Voices report. When I received the report in July, I put several of the clear and qualified recommendations to the Minister. I received a reply which suggested that the birth information and tracing legislation in its current form would address the issues. However, we know from the witnesses’ submissions, as well as from other submissions, that it will not. I wonder whether the Minister replied directly to witnesses on the contents of the report. If so, are they satisfied with the response? Can I also ask them about recommendation 4, for a full investigation into all homes, agencies and institutions involved in historic domestic adoption to include practices within the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, and Tusla - Child and Family Agency? If there is time, could the witnesses outline the importance of such an investigation for adopted people?

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

On terminology, I use the term “adoptee”. I do not use the term “adopted people" or "adopted person”, because adoption is a legal and a social construct. It is not the language of disability. Rather, it is legal language like, for instance, "adoptee", "arrestee", "divorcee", or "attendee". It is a personal preference.

As regards the recommendations to the Minister, we booked the Minister regarding our report. Like every applicant, I am never satisfied with responses. I feel that there is always more to be done and there is more to be given. As regards the requirements for an investigation, which we touched on earlier, there is a huge amount that has not been dealt with. There is a sense that the work has now been done, so we are now in a consultation process for-----

(Interruptions).

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

We need to be aware that thousands of people who have been directly affected by this issue have had no voice or input into this at all. They are now being railroaded forward into different projects on different issues with no input whatsoever. This is a moral wrong. It is no better than what happened in the past if we allow this to continue. We have made that clear.

As regards an investigation, we need to look at that and we need to bring in the-----

(Interruptions).

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

This would include Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The reason we make those points is quite simply that when one reads through the report, one sees examples of people's difficult experiences with these agencies. We feel that needs to be investigated further.

Did Mr. O'Brien want to reply to any of these questions?

Mr. Rody O'Brien

Ms Ryan-O'Brien has covered them.

Thank you. I will move on to Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

I would like to thank our guest speakers here today. I, too, want to compliment them on the report. I say “Well done” to everyone involved. It is critical that we read the report and that we listen to what people are saying. That is what we need to do. It was vital to hear about the shame and stigma felt by the adoptees. It is so important that we know we listen to people. In my own area of Carlow-Kilkenny, people have contacted me who have found it difficult. We have to mindful of that. The Department has established in information management unit, but I have suggested that we ought to look at a liaison officer, maybe through a local authority or the HSE. Do the witnesses think that it would be beneficial to have a local person or office, where adopted people could go in order to access information, or to have support in tracing their records?

The other issue relates to the barriers to how information is provided, for example, in the cases of people who may have literacy difficulties or maybe someone who has an intellectual disability. I asked the Minister last week to consider this, because adopted people and their families may feel left out because of how the information is provided. Maybe one of the witnesses could come back to me on that. I was going to ask about GDPR but I got the answer to that. There was a concern about the term “mother who gave birth” in the legislation, although I know that area has been addressed now. I would like to get some answers to those questions.

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

As regards the HSE or the local authorities, it is important that there be awareness around this particular issue. One of the first steps we took as a group was that we liaised with local county councils through our supporting motions. We secured unanimous support of 20 county councils for supporting motions for open access for adoptees for their own information. In so doing, we created awareness in local authorities around this area. I feel that there would be a lot of support and willingness on behalf of some of these local authorities to educate and support people who are looking for information. The most practical way forward would be what we recommended, namely, an agency to centralise all of these issues. We touched on that with regard to the information units within the Minister’s Department. We felt that it made far more sense to house all of that information in one agency, rather than having it on a piecemeal basis in different Departments. There should be the same standard of access for all people who wants to access information, whether they are an adoptee or a families. Everyone should have the same standard of access, as opposed to there being a differentiation in that regard. Overall, the best way to achieve that, so as to support survivors, adoptees and birth parents, is to have a centralisation of all of these issues within one agency. Then, from that, we should have specific outreaches, in order that people could liaise with the agency on somebody's behalf if there are mobility issues, access issues, or literacy issues. We have also asked that people who have literacy issues, which the Deputy touched on, might be permitted to make video submissions or video requests, as opposed to having to write them.

That is something we could look at in a more humanist approach to an improved social work model within a new agency. It has proved to be very onerous and it causes a lot of stress, certainly for elderly survivors who are trying to access information. It was something they were not able to do and they then had to ask somebody to help them, which they were quite distressed about because they had to tell somebody about the background or tell their story. We need to look at it on a practical level and also be very aware of the demographic, the age and the profile of people who are looking for information and to build on that.

I feel there is a willingness in the Minister's Department to listen to all of these points. We will certainly be bringing it up repeatedly until we get some positive response.

I thank the witnesses for the great presentation and the report, which is most helpful. I am conscious of the findings and the language, and we had a good look at the language issue, particularly the language of "birth mother". Do either of the witnesses want to comment on the issue that, in the heads of Bill, it is "birth parent" that is used - the gender-neutral term - and "birth mother" is just used in the interpretation section? Do they feel that is an adequate reflection of the findings they made in the respondent survey?

We have already covered the issue of the balance of rights between the privacy right and the information right. I entirely agree with the witnesses' comments about the need to re-prioritise and to ensure we are now giving recognition to the right of somebody to know his or her identity, in other words, the information right. For far too long, we have allowed privacy rights to trump information rights, and that has to change. As I said, it is something we have covered already.

A key finding is about the lack of trust and that, as was said, adoptees do not trust agencies or social workers. How can we ensure the legislation will be drafted in such a way as to create a sufficient system that will address the issue of trust and will restore the trust of adoptees? I know that is a big question but it is a very pressing issue for us.

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

It was clear from the findings of the report that the preferred term was "birth parent", "birth mother" or "birth father". I suppose, for the sake of brevity, it makes sense that "birth parent" was used. Personally, I use "birth mother" and "biological father". I know the third preference in our survey was for an amalgam of both,"birth mother and biological father". The second preference was "biological mother and biological father". As a general term, "birth parent" would probably sit easily.

On the far more complex issue of trust, it is quite difficult to restore trust in a system that is inherently flawed and has continually denied access to information. I know we have spoken about this issue over recent years when the Deputy was a Member of the Seanad, debating previous Bills and so on. It is the case there is no trust with regard to Tusla and there is no trust with regard to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, and that is very clear. There were 468 respondents to the main survey, the identity rights for adoptees survey. Two of those could have been positive where there were different circumstances, but the vast majority were negative. Again, there is the issue of adoptees being spoken to over files, or having files on the table in front of them while they were spoken over. It is much more like an interrogation technique than a supportive technique.

If we are talking about restoring trust, that would be a very difficult ask because it is clear it is gone. I really do not know how we would restore trust in it except by being open and accepting the difficulties it has caused, the pain and upset it has caused the people who have been on the receiving end of this, the stigmatisation it has caused, the marginalisation they have felt as a result of it and the strain it has put on people's mental health. That should be very clear. When people are telling us in the report they felt criminalised having an interaction with the agencies they are meant to be supported by, I really do not see how there is a comeback from that.

If we are to frame what I believe the Minister hopes is transformative legislation, the only way we can do this successfully is in a new agency with a clean start, a tabula rasa, which we were given when we were adopted in that we were wiped clean, we had no past. The same approach needs to be taken with regard to an agency. We need a fresh start. We need a clean break from the past. We cannot keep repeating the same issues because we see now how this impacts, how this hurts, how this goes through generations, and we need at some stage for this to stop. It needs to stop. To do that, we need to move away from agencies with which there are massive issues, such as legal issues and issues in regard to the end users, who at this stage do not trust them.

As Vice Chairman, I am in the unenviable position that most of the questions I was going to ask have already been asked. One question I would like to ask is in regard to engagement with the Minister, whether he has been supportive and what more we as a committee can do to support that. I will put that question out there. I will then come round to other members. If they have further questions, they can raise their hand either virtually or with an enthusiastic wave at the camera.

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

Please do wave. We do not agree with the Minister on everything but we are certainly glad he is listening. Even though I would not agree with the use of the term "natural mother", I very much appreciate the fact the Minister has taken on board the fact birth mothers had an issue with that, which is clearly an indication he is willing to listen. This is so important. As the committee will understand, it is not always a given. It makes trying to influence legislation and actually have something that delivers for everybody much easier.

That said, we are dealing with a situation where the effects of this issue have become compounded over generations. It has become an intergenerational issue with regard to adoptees and their children. Health concerns are massive with regard to how this impacts not on just adoptees ourselves but on our children with regard to health supports. We have made a very clear list of recommendations and we need to start at No. 1 and work our way through that.

The first recommendation was that we need to look at how we bring in people who were not included within the remit of the commission. There are massive acknowledged issues with regard to the commission, the way it was conducted, the way everything transpired, the report itself, the way the witnesses were treated and the way data were stored, but there are still thousands of people who are directly affected who have had no pathway to inclusion at all - nothing. How do we bridge that gap? How do we bring people on board? If we want to do that, if we want to look at it very constructively, if we want to look at how we might be able to do that, we need to sit down within that construct of a model of participation and look at issues like terminology.

I am fully aware of the issues regarding birth parents and the sensitivity around that. Adoptees and birth mothers are all victims.

We are both victims. It is like two sides of the same coin. We need to have a level of understanding. I am very optimistic about the need for engagement and understanding of everybody else's perspective in order that we can work towards something that is inclusive and look at a new terminology on it instead of rehashing what has gone before. Mr. O'Brien might be able to cover the more nuanced parts as regards legislation and what we might be able to do.

Mr. Rody O'Brien

I will be brief because I know the Vice Chairman is conscious of time. I reiterate what Ms Ryan-O'Brien has said. I commend the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. He has been very accessible and available to discuss this and has been very open to all sides. He is very genuine and has a very strong sense of decency about how he is approaching legislation. We appreciate this. It is a great opportunity for everybody to try, once and for all if there is the political will that we discussed earlier, to prioritise the adoptee and to give adoptees their identity rights as provided for in the Constitution. This will provide an opportunity to move forward. It is all very positive and if we can continue to engage we can come to a solution and move it forward.

As we have a few minutes I want to go back to the report. One of the recommendations is on the apology. Many people felt left out of the apology. I am not degrading the sincerity of the apology but people felt left out of it because they had not been included in the commission's report. How should the State apologise in the correct way to everybody who has been a victim of this? Ms Ryan-O'Brien said in her contribution that both adoptees and mothers are victims in this story. How does the State apologise for this?

The report speaks about language, terminology and attitudes. How can the State educate the next generations on the othering terms I have come to learn about with regard to adoptees, unconscious bias and misunderstanding of the entire horrible history we have in this country? How do we re-educate our population and make us a mature population with regard to our entire adoptive story, for a want of a better description, in this country? It is very important that we stop othering and be mature in our language, how we engage and in our attitudes.

Ms Maree Ryan-O'Brien

With regard to the apology, it was quite significant that every respondent to the context survey felt the Taoiseach's apology was insufficient. They felt it did not sufficiently address it as an issue and it was not cognisant of the fact that a significant portion of people were unable to participate due to the limited remit. This was not that Government's issue as the Taoiseach was not in government when the commission was set up. The recommendation we make is that it needs to be revisited, that it needs to be done in a broader sense and that it needs to be more inclusive. Doing what happened created an artificial stratification of the issue. There were people within the remit and people not within the remit and there were also people who were illegally adopted. All of these people have suffered. Birth parents have suffered, adoptees have suffered and survivors have suffered. This needs to be addressed as one holistic issue. I hope the participation model, what shape it could take and how it should be delivered would be discussed and that there would be input from everybody. The only way we can move towards healing is if we can address these shortcomings and if people feel as if they are being heard and can move on from it. Very much at the core of restorative justice is identifying the harm and repairing it. The harm has not been repaired. The harm has been compounded, ignored and muted.

With regard to the language, we use the example in the report of a sentence said by the former Minister, Katherine Zappone. I was not singling her out in any way. It was simply one that stuck in my mind at that time. She spoke about protecting a small cohort of potentially vulnerable birth parents. Within this was the inference that adoptees were a threat. We need to look at how language has damaged and marginalised. Even if we go back through transcripts of debates in the past, it is very clear that adoptees were presented as a threat and as people who would impinge upon the privacy of another person.

There is also the language around words like "real", "unreal", "natural", "first" and so on. This further contributes to marginalisation from an adoptee's perspective. This is why I feel the language around this needs to be further developed and explored outside of what it is at present into more inclusive terms that are mindful of everybody's position and feelings and are respectful of them. The shame and stigma felt by adoptees, and the feelings and depth of feelings as regards marginalisation, being ignored, being overlooked and not quite fitting in, have not been in any way addressed or identified. They seem to be largely misunderstood or not understood at all. One respondent described it as being a square peg in a round hole. People are looking for mirroring or a biological connection that is not there. Being mindful of all of these issues and the extensive recommendations we have made in the report, we need to take all of them on board and have a model of participation that brings all of these diverse opinions on board. This is very clearly outlined by Dr. Marder in our report. Having a more holistic, broader, accurate and inclusive view of what happened in the past will allow us to move towards the future.

I thank Ms Ryan-O'Brien. I will draw the session to a close. I propose that we publish all opening statements to the Oireachtas website. Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee today. We look forward to ongoing engagement on all of the issues raised in the survey and by the witnesses today. There is much work to be done in this area and we look forward to ongoing engagement in general.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.48 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 October 2021.