Incorrect Birth Registrations: Statements

I have pleasure in calling on the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to let Members know what she has in mind.

I thank the Members for the opportunity to address this very important subject. Senators will be aware of my announcement in regard to evidence of incorrect birth registrations. These come from the records of a former adoption society, St. Patrick’s Guild, SPG. Tusla has identified 126 individuals in 13,500 records whose births were incorrectly registered between 1946 and 1969.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement in Seanad Éireann, which will give me the chance to brief Members in more detail on the issue. Senators have always acknowledged that the issue of identity is highly sensitive, with very personal and far-reaching implications. That has been explored in this House in debates that we have had on Second Stage of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016. We have women and men who will find out that those they always knew as their parents are not their birth parents. We have women who gave birth and were under the impression that they were giving their babies up for adoption, and the "registered" parents raised these children as their own. We know that babies were registered to parents who were not their birth parents. There is no adoption order and so no record with the Adoption Authority of Ireland.

The practice of registering a child with false details is, and was at the time in question, an offence. While there has been widespread commentary and discussion about the practice of incorrect registrations for many years, it has been extremely difficult to uncover clear evidence because of the deliberate failure by those involved to keep the records.

On 25 May 2016, the records of St. Patrick’s Guild transferred to Tusla - the Child and Family Agency. Since then, Tusla has established a dedicated information and tracing service for relevant persons adopted or boarded out through St. Patrick's Guild. It has completed a request for tender and awarded a contract to scan the entire SPG holding. It has also catalogued the records, which is an ongoing process.

It was during the course of that work, and in particular the scanning of the records, that the issue of incorrect birth registrations was identified. There was clear evidence of this practice recorded on index cards created and maintained by St. Patrick's Guild.

On foot of this discovery, Tusla informed An Garda Síochána, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and my Department. Tusla validated the information against Adoption Authority of Ireland and General Register Office, GRO, records. This resulted in the identification of 126 cases where a birth had been incorrectly registered.

I moved immediately to inform the Cabinet, and to announce that a process has been put in place by Tusla to deal with these cases. This is being led by experienced information and tracing social workers. As this information is life-changing, the State has a responsibility to reach a high level of certainty. This threshold has now been reached in the case of the 126 SPG files, and I have acted accordingly.

I am extremely conscious that people who have reached middle age and older will have their lives turned upside down. Of the 126 cases, 79 may be entirely unaware of the true circumstances of their birth as they have never had contact with St. Patrick’s Guild or with Tusla. A further 31 have had contact and therefore may know or suspect. The relatives of 14 people who were incorrectly registered have been in contact at some point, but we do not know if these relatives told the person who was the subject of the incorrect registration. Two people were legally adopted but had been the subject of an incorrect registration initially.

In addition to these 126 cases, Tusla continues to examine a further 16 cases where, at this point in time, there is not enough evidence to determine whether an incorrect registration took place. If such evidence emerges, those cases will be added to those currently being addressed.

I would like to remind Senators that these numbers will change as Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland continue to examine various records.

For the purposes of clarity, I would like to emphasise that our current information is that a person is not affected by this issue if he or she has an adoption order or if he or she was born before 1946 or after 1969. If a person was born between 1946 and 1969 and was placed by St. Patrick’s Guild and does not have an adoption order, he or she may be affected.

For the individuals concerned, in addition to possible psychological issues of identity, there are also potentially serious issues relating to the correction of birth records and inheritance.

As Minister responsible for both Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland, let me be clear that we are not out to destroy, split or upset families. We are here to provide information and support. I stand over my assessment that, as Minister, I had a responsibility, once there was clear evidence of incorrect birth registrations, to attempt to share that information with the persons whose information it is.

Tusla is leading on this process. Each of the 126 cases has been allocated a social worker. As an immediate step, Tusla has put in place a helpline, which started yesterday. It operates from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, Monday to Friday. It has also put significant information on its website. Between the opening of the helpline yesterday afternoon and lunchtime today, Tusla responded to 85 calls. Some of the calls lasted up to an hour.

It is important to remember that we have limited information. Each file and each record is different in terms of what is in them. Most of the records are more than 50 years old.

Tusla's first task is to identify the individuals affected and their current addresses. The process will be measured and sensitive and will proceed at the pace of the individual concerned. There will be no sudden phone calls or unannounced visits to people's doors. Tusla is offering contact with and support for those affected. This will be handled very carefully and will take account of the people's requirements. I assure the House I am confident, having had a number of detailed briefings and meetings, that it will be a very humane and sensitive process. It will take some time. The process will be respectful if those who have been illegally registered choose not to engage. That is their right.

In view of what has been found in the St. Patrick's Guild records, we need to know whether there may be similar evidence of incorrect registrations in other adoption societies. I have asked an independent reviewer to oversee a targeted sampling process of relevant records held by Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland in the first instance. Marion Reynolds is a former deputy director of social services in Northern Ireland. I am asking her to report to me within four months of the work commencing. There are 150,000 records at issue, 100,000 of which are currently in the custody of Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. I hope to be in a position to finalise the terms of reference for the sampling exercise and to publish them within the coming days. However, we must first judge the likely incidence of cases that can actually be identified and the scale of them through this sampling exercise. Then we will be able to judge the next steps that may be required.

The mother and baby homes commission is required to examine the interaction of mother and baby homes with other institutions, organisations and individuals involved in the entry and exit of children from these institutions. This allows for an examination of the practices and policies within adoption societies. It is reasonable to anticipate that this examination will provide an insight into institutional practices and any potential irregularities involved. The commission has stated that it is very conscious of the issue of illegality or irregularity in the adoption process. It has committed to investigating any such cases it comes across in its analysis of the records of the mother and baby homes. Tusla has shared the SPG files with the commission to assist it in its work.

Senators will be aware that the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 passed Second Stage here. I assure my colleagues in the Seanad that the Bill remains a priority for me. As we are all well aware following our Second Stage debate, the Bill seeks to balance competing rights to identity and privacy. Getting the balance right is proving challenging, particularly as it relates to our Constitution. I am conscious of Senators' interest in this important issue and their desire - and mine - to move things forward as the Bill places the information and tracing service on a statutory footing for the first time. The Bill is of relevance to persons who have been subject to incorrect registration as well as to adopted persons. My intention is that, with the House's support, the Bill will be enacted by the end of the year. My office has today emailed Senators and Deputies who have been engaged with this legislation asking them to meet me in order to progress enactment as soon as possible.

I spoke yesterday about the women and men at the centre of this: the people who were lied to about who they were and who now, in their 70s, 60s, 50s or 40s, may not get the answers and explanations they want and need or the choice or opportunity to meet their birth parents. Those responsible were generally private adoption societies and private individuals who knowingly concealed the truth. The State had safeguards in place, including legislation enacted in 1952 to regulate adoption in the interests of children and their birth parents. However, as I stated yesterday and wish to reiterate today, it is a matter of profound regret to me that these safeguards were circumvented by certain individuals. I have expressed my sorrow to those who lost their true identities and to the birth mothers who placed their children in good faith, thinking they would be legally adopted. My responsibility as Minister is now to oversee a sensitive, humane process which seeks to give them finally the information withheld from them all these years. I very much look forward to Senators' contributions to the debate.