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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Vol. 258 No. 7

Incorrect Birth Registrations: Statements (Resumed)

I wish to give one minute of my time to Senator Norris.

It is with great horror and distress that we are here once again to discuss another shameful chapter in our nation's history. This chapter involves women and their children and how they were treated. This just goes further to demonstrate the esteem in which unmarried mothers and their children were held in this country. Let me be clear when I say that they were held in very low esteem and were treated shabbily by everyone with whom they came into contact. These children were just commodities to be exchanged and sold and the women were just vessels, facing forced pregnancies and made to give birth in shame and in horrific circumstances. The Minister made reference to these birth mothers placing their children in good faith with adoption agencies in the hope they would be adopted. From people to whom I have spoken, and from the testimonies of women who were in these mother and baby homes, often there was no consent. They left the building for an hour or two, came back and their babies were gone, traded for money, sent to America, given to God knows who. They did not find out what happened to their babies. These babies, who are now in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, do not know where they came from. Women have been treated appallingly. I am afraid this scandal will probably stretch far further than 126 people.

I have evidence of one particular illegal adoption that I want to put on the record of the House. It does not relate to St. Patrick's Guild but rather to a mother and baby home located at 7 Cabra Park. The lady in question is Susan Corr. Susan-----

I ask Senator Clifford-Lee not to mention any names in the House.

I will not mention any further names, but Susan asked me to raise this in the Chamber.

It is not appropriate to name people who are not Members in the House.

I just want to demonstrate that illegal adoptions took place in other institutions. Susan was born at 7 Cabra Park. Individuals within that institution arranged for her to be taken from there and given to a very nice family. The parents of that family were registered as her birth parents and to this day she does not know where she came from or the circumstances of her birth family. She does not have access to her own identity or her medical records, which has very deep repercussions for her daughter, her husband and their family unit.

I am afraid this issue stretches far further than St. Patrick's Guild. I think we will be here again to discuss other institutions. I appreciate that the Minister has asked an independent reviewer to oversee a sampling exercise and will come back to us in that regard and I appreciate that the process has been given strict time limits, but people need to know. There are people out there who do not know. As the Minister pointed out, this has very wide-ranging implications for inheritance, medical records and such matters. I appeal to her to put every resource available into supporting these families because this has absolutely devastating consequences for them, their wider families and their communities.

Senators Clifford-Lee and Colm Burke have each offered Senator David Norris a minute, so he has two minutes.

I thank Senators Clifford-Lee and Colm Burke for their generosity.

This situation has been known about for some time, particularly due to the excellent investigative reporting of the Irish Examiner newspaper. We have known this was in the offing but no one did anything about it. For this reason, I compliment the Minister on going into action and actually doing something in respect of this matter.

It is a devastating situation when people were registered dishonestly as the birth children of parents who were, in fact, adopting them. It creates a devastating situation for the child because he or she does not know his or her identity. That strikes at the very core of the human being. There are also other practical matters, such as the question of medical records, hereditary diseases and genetic disorders. In the past, people may have provided incorrect information. They may have said that their mother or father had six heart attacks or an egregious disposition to cancer, but the information was wrong. These are criminal acts. Dishonestly forging birth certificates in the knowledge that these children were not the birth children of the parents is, I believe, a criminal matter.

I heard of a tragic situation on the wireless. A woman was told that her daughter had died, but she was actually given to another family and the adoptive parents registered her as their birth child. The mother discovered this but the daughter does not believe her and is angry with her. She thinks the mother callously gave her away. It is a harrowing case.

These were the very people who were in the "No" camp in the recent referendum. There are a kaleidoscope of issues in Irish society. It is harrowing and dreadful. I sincerely hope this is the last of these ghastly scandals that we will have to confront. At least we are cleaning out the Augean stables. Once again, I compliment the Minister on taking on this onerous job.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate her. We are lucky to have her leading this particular portfolio at this time. Earlier, I told the House I was reared in an institution all of my life, which many described as a clearing house for children. A number of people, including ushers and people working in catering, stopped me when I left the Seanad earlier to talk about my story. It is interesting that it resonates right across the Houses. I count my blessings that I was a lucky one.

When people leave care, they always say that one day they will tell their story and will be believed. It is very important and empowering to be believed. I am very happy that I am standing in Seanad Éireann, having been through many loops and survived many a battle. I am now playing some sort of role in the democracy of which we can be so proud. That is a personal achievement for me. Not everyone is totally destroyed by the process of institutional care. As I said earlier, it is important to say that many people have had good experiences.

The Minister referred to balancing rights. I am not convinced about balancing rights any more. The more I think about this, the more I feel that in regard to the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill we have to start talking about absolute rights for adoptees. People who have been adopted have an absolute right to know their forename, surname, the time and date of their birth, the place where they were born and the forename and surname of their birth mothers and fathers, which is not always possible. More applicable than that is the date and place of baptisms or other ceremonies. People need to have that information because they talk about their heritage, background and tradition. They need to know the name of the body which arranged their adoptions. That is all included in the Bill.

I appeared in a "Prime Time" documentary on this very subject some years ago. The next day, as I walked through Dún Laoghaire, I was stopped by an air hostess who told me I did not know her but she knew me because I was a local county councillor. Her husband was with her and she started to cry. She told me that three times a week she went to an institution in Temple Hill in Blackrock and brought children on flights to Boston. She said they thought they were playing dollies with lovely little babies. She brought three babies at a time to Boston and was met by the nuns in a van at the concourse in the airport in Boston and off they went. The air hostess thought they were doing a really good day's work. I told her to do me a favour and go to her nearest Garda station to talk about it because it is an important link to somebody. We know the approximate dates. People sent children from institutions to America. I lived with children with whom I played in the morning but who were gone in the afternoon. Nice people came and took them away. Maybe they were nice.

Only yesterday, I spoke to a very distressed man who came to my home. His mother went away and left him in care. She arrived back three years later having married a successful businessman to collect what they thought was their little boy. They were told at the door to go away, that the child had been adopted and given a chance and that there was no need to come back. The child never left the institution and was behind the door. People received capitation fees to run such institutions. At one stage, there were 100 children receiving State support in the institution to which I refer.

We know of the induction and proselytising of children who were adopted. We know children were sent to unionist families, particularly Protestant ones, in Northern Ireland. I came from a Protestant background and tradition. Children were farmed out to Northern Ireland and Britain. It is a sad, sad history, but we need to go on. I congratulate the Minister. We are very lucky to have her at the helm at this time. I ask her to keep the House informed about this important work on a regular basis and wish her well.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House and for the work she has done. This is a very complicated matter and we need to be upfront and truthful with people. I do not believe that this issue is confined to adoption societies. I know of at least two cases where hospitals were involved. It was a very simple procedure. If Ms X went to have a baby and was advised beforehand that Ms Y was going to adopt her baby, she was advised to check in under the name of Ms Y. The registration and all other documentation was done within hospital. I know of cases where people who adopted children understood that everything was done above board and were not in the loop in respect of what was being done in an illegal manner. I stand open to correction, but I understand that even today the identification process in maternity hospitals is still not foolproof. There is nothing preventing what occurred 20, 25 or 30 years ago from happening today.

The Minister may be surprised by what I am saying and I will speak to her after the debate about where I am coming from. I dealt in a legal capacity for four days in the High Court with a particular case where this issue arose. The same happened in other places around the country, including Dublin. It was quite common in cases where pregnant people did not want to keep their babies and were aware of people who might be interested in adopting.

All the authorities turned a blind eye to it. Even people in medical and nursing professions were aware of it. This problem is not confined to the adoption societies. It is a broader matter we need to consider. We can go back over hospital records and in particular where people were admitted to hospitals from care facilities such as the Bessborough home in Cork, where young pregnant girls were looked after and admitted to hospital for the delivery of the child. What was the process thereafter? We need to look at those records as well. It is a bigger picture but we are not just talking about adoption societies so we must take that into account.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Yet again we find ourselves in a discussion involving the deep, damaging culture of secrecy that has permeated in Ireland for so many years. There was, in some cases, a culture of criminal obfuscation. We know the damage done at the time by all these acts lingers because those who are affected are still with us. They have continued to face major obstacles as they try to seek justice or even information in respect of their own lives and origins.

I recognise the Minister's response and we are speaking about 126 cases today. We all know there are many more cases. I join Senator Norris in praising Mr. Conall Ó Fátharta, the journalist at the Irish Examiner who has written clearly about this for years. We know that in 2013, people from the Adoption Authority of Ireland met representatives of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and flagged concerns about illegal adoptions from St. Patrick's Guild and other institutions, such as St. Rita's nursing home. We know it was mentioned and I recognise it was before the Minister's time in office. We need to listen to concerns as they arise and have an assumption of action. I recognise that this is a sampling and there still has not been an audit; this is only to see if we will have an audit. How quickly will that sampling take place and will we deliver an audit? An audit will be required so will it be delivered on the Minister's watch?

We know illegal adoption has taken place and, as the Minister correctly states, it was a crime at the time. Will there be criminal proceedings and what criminal inquiry or actions will be taken? The criminal acts have come to light but along with them is a set of other measures and policies. We heard just a sample of stories about forced adoption and adoption under duress, as well as obfuscation of information. All of that package of deceit must be addressed. Will there be an inquiry into adoption practices and the architecture of containment and, in some cases, exploitation and secrecy that has surrounded this practice in Ireland? We need to do this as well as addressing the immediate issue of sampling and audit.

People spoke about balancing of rights and we have had that discussion. There is now a question of trust and who we trust. Do we trust these adoption agencies, or others, who tell us women did not want to be contacted, for example? There is a question of assumptions around consent. We are constantly hearing stories about a lack of consent, duress and deceit. We will discuss this in the information and tracing Bill but perhaps we should not assume that people have given consent and did not want to be contacted, although we should certainly allow people to opt out of being contacted when appropriate. We should not make assumptions. There will be questions but we cannot take any more blanket assumptions or declarations from agencies. We need to listen to and trust women. It is the message that Ireland has been sending and we must listen to it. When individuals come forward we can discuss the balancing of rights and appropriate processes. That will be important.

I give some recognition today of Ms Kathy McMahon of the Voice of Irish First Mothers group, one of those who highlighted the matter of forced adoption but who, sadly, passed away without receiving the justice that she sought. There are also groups like the Adoption Rights Alliance. These are real people coming forward with their testimony and their voices. They can no longer be placed in the margins of any process and their testimony must be at the centre of this. We must ensure they are allowed to drive forward and set the terms of the process. I thank the Minister for coming here and I know we will have a more detailed discussion. I acknowledge that we have started something we discussed in the adoption Bill, a process of review with respect to open adoption in Ireland. We need to address the culture of secrecy from the past and I hope we can change that culture of secrecy in future. I am sure we will have a chance to debate that as well.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House as I appreciate it is a busy time for her. As has been said, I would appreciate it if she could come back on a fairly regular basis to report to us on this matter. I acknowledge and thank Senator Boyhan for sharing his personal experience with us. It was very powerful and I acknowledge what he brings to the House with his own experience.

Once again investigative journalists and campaign groups like the Voice of Irish First Mothers and the Adoption Rights Alliance have helped to highlight the issue. Much of the initial concern surrounding the records was raised many years ago in committees of the Oireachtas and correspondence to Ministers and other Members of this and the other House. A full investigation is now needed and a sampling exercise will not do. The investigation must ensure that no affected person is left behind. This is an all-island and international matter. I spoke on the Order of Business earlier about the trauma of being deprived of one's identity. We need guarantees that all institutions will be included in any review, as the revelations so far only relate to one such institution.

I thank the Minister as I know she is approaching this from a very sincere perspective. We need to get this right and ensure nobody is left behind.

I welcome the Minister to the House and commend her on her work. I also commend Tusla on identifying clear evidence of these illegal registrations, which took place from 1946 to 1969. It forwarded the information to An Garda Síochána. The Department was previously dismissive of any investigation, stating it would be "of limited benefit and would yield little useful information". It is extremely concerning that the Minister's predecessors were so quick to fob off substantiated claims made in 2001, as well as extensive claims made by the Adoption Rights Alliance seven years ago. I wonder why no action was taken until the current Minister, Deputy Zappone, began to investigate this.

The Adoption Authority of Ireland delegation told representatives of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in June 2013 there were "at least 120 confirmed cases of illegal registrations made by St. Patrick's" so why has it taken five years for us to verify this? Why was it not taken seriously or seen as a priority for the Department? I welcome that the Minister has requested an independent investigation that would examine records of non-governmental agencies and other possible illegal registrations. Will the investigation look into why the Department failed in its duty to fully investigate 17-year-old claims?

Every person has a right to know his or her background and should have the freedom to access records if he or she so chooses. We know many people were adopted from St. Patrick's Guild and they faced great difficulties in accessing information from the adoption society. In many cases, they were frustrated and let down. It is worth reiterating the comment of the Minister that it has been extremely difficult to uncover clear evidence because of the deliberate failure by those involved to keep records.

The Adoption Rights Alliance has also noted the lack of information forthcoming from St. Patrick's Guild.

I wish the independent investigation well. Does the Minister accept that these adoptions were illegal? Will all agencies, individuals and homes involved in adoption in this State be included within the investigation? Will the estimated 2,000 babies who were illegally sent to the United States be included? Senator Victor Boyhan painted an emotional and tragic picture for us in that respect, and I thank him for doing so.

Saturday was a momentous day for mná na hÉireann, but it was unfortunately followed quickly by sadness due to the confirmation in the last two days that at least 126 individuals have been affected by this scandal. I have met Kathy from First Mothers. She was so anxious that mothers be linked to their stolen babies. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

I am a bit unclear about a few things. What role does An Garda Síochána have now? I am aware that an inquiry has been called for, but I would like to see criminal prosecutions, if that is possible, because what happened was illegal. It might have been part of a hidden culture, but it was illegal. I imagine that many of the people involved in the selling or procuring of these babies may well be deceased, but some of them were attached to institutions. They were not just individuals but went under the name of either a religious institution or a home of some description. Can An Garda Síochána issue criminal proceedings? An inquiry may take a long time and there may be very few people left who were involved directly. Perhaps we should look at investigating the institutions.

Why are the dates, 1946 to 1969, so clearly indicated? Why does the issue not arise before or after these dates? Do these dates apply only to St. Patrick's Guild? Will we find that dates before and after those indicated will apply to other homes or institutions?

Some 150,000 individuals are involved in this, and Tusla has custody of 100,000 case files. Are the other 50,000 going to be found and put into the custody of Tusla as well? The people who will be contacted and sensitively informed about this face a devastating, painful journey. Their lives will never be the same again.

I will do my best to answer the questions raised. I acknowledge the very heartfelt and profound contributions made by Members of this House. I have heard some things in a way I have not heard before, which often happens in the Seanad, and I want to acknowledge that. That is true especially in the way Senators tell their own stories or the stories of others. We know - not just because of what happened at the weekend - that substantial changes in our country happen because people are willing to share their stories. It forms such a significant part of impelling the change. Even the telling of the story is part of that change. I thank the Senators for that.

A couple of Members asked about An Garda Síochána. It has approximately ten of the cases, which is what it asked for. It is going through those cases. The cases are very difficult and complicated because the events in question happened over 50 years ago when there were different ways of recording the information. We know that people were trying to conceal as well as reveal. An Garda Síochána is going through it, and it will then go through the processes it goes through in every case it investigates, in terms of looking for the evidence and making the decision as to whether or not certain cases will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. That has already begun, as is right and proper.

The terms of reference for the investigation are almost finalised. We had a final conversation with our independent reviewer a while ago, so the terms of reference will be released as soon as they are ready, which will certainly be before the end of this week. The shape of the review investigation will include targeted sampling of the societies the State has records of, which makes up the 100,000. The State does not currently have the other 50,000 in its possession. That is not to say that we could not ultimately try to find some of them, but they are in attics, hospitals or nursing homes. They could be anywhere. I am not saying that they cannot be found, but I am acknowledging that they are not in the possession of the State at the moment. If they were they would be included in the sampling.

How was the figure of 150,000 reached?

The Senator has asked a good question. It is an estimation based on nursing homes in particular places, as I understand it, but I can get further information on that. The main point is that they are not in the possession of the State at the moment.

Many Senators have mentioned people within civil society and journalists. I have met Conall Ó Fátharta and made sure he was informed about the announcement we were going to make. I acknowledged the contribution of the Adoption Rights Alliance and have met with it. They are key actors in this, along with other individuals who are telling their stories. We need to listen to the perspectives they have and the truth they bring to this matter. I assure the Members that I am doing that.

I note Senator Colm Burke's points about particular hospitals and cases. If anyone has any information about anything that he or she wants to share with the Department, please do. I appreciate some of the commentary about Tusla. It has stepped up to the plate very quickly on this issue; it was the agency that discovered the evidence we are speaking about, and then went through a very forensic process to establish it as hard evidence which has brought us to where we are now. It has found resources from within the resources it has been provided with to do that work. My primary responsibility now is to ensure that those who have been identified have the resources, and they will be supported in terms of the sharing of the information if and when we find them.

I am aware that people have called for a fuller audit. Of course I am aware of that, and that is very important. I am not at all against that. However, I do believe the most appropriate first steps are to look at a sampling of the different records we do have with a well-defined methodology which will be seen when the terms of reference are published. Every record that is investigated has to be scanned. There is a large amount of administrative work that has to be done, although we do believe it can be done within a four-month period.

Targeted sampling gives an initial sense of the situation. If there is any formulation of words or phrases used, or an indication of the way the file was developed by similar people over a period of time, we will then be able to say that we have evidence of an incorrect registration. If that appears in the targeted sampling it would of course be reasonable to make a decision to continue to go through all of the other cases. Is it reasonable to go through them all?

If we do not have that, it is something we will have to debate and consider. It will require considerable time and work. I have seen one of the files and it will also require judgment by experienced people. I am not ruling it out; I am just trying to indicate why we decided on the methodology of sampling. We wanted to see whether we should examine forensically every page in the society in question and spend our time and resources doing that, at least initially. It was individuals who did this and maybe people in other societies would not have considered doing it. As Senators have said, though, it happened in a culture in which we had a very different understanding of women giving birth from our current understanding. Thank goodness for that.

In answer to Senator Clifford-Lee, I did not mean to imply that all birth mothers gave their consent. Many did, however, and they expected their children to be properly placed and registered. Even the fact they felt they had to do that is remarkable in the circumstances. The commission of investigation into mother and baby homes is putting together the social history module, a study of the time when the mother and baby homes operated, and we will learn a great deal from that when it is finally published. It will help us interpret the records and the evidence around adoption, and maybe other settings in which mothers and children were left. The years from 1946 to 1969 is the period for which we have index cards. It does not mean it did not happen in St. Patrick's Guild before or after that.

I am aware of the strength of views on the information and tracing Bill and the struggles we have had. I want to get this right. I have some very strong personal views on how we could fashion the Bill but, so far, it has involved trying to balance privacy with the right to identity. Senator Boyhan knows that very few rights are absolute. The question is whether there is a better to way to achieve a balance than what we have come up with so far. We have to do it in the context of our Constitution and that has been stopping us until now. Every option we have provided to the Attorney General has been declared unconstitutional. If Members want me, as Minister, to bring forward something that is unconstitutional the Bill will ultimately fall. We cannot enact something perceived as unconstitutional by the Attorney General. They are the parameters in which we work and it is what happened to the Bill a number of years ago. The legislation is, however, a key priority for me.

I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive response to the issues.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 June 2018.