A hidden heritage
By Conall O Fátharta
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
"OUR whole social
history as a nation is in those files and some of it is not pretty but
it’s my heritage and it’s the heritage of 42,000 other people."
The words of Angela
Murphy, an adopted person, who like so many adopted people and natural
parents is deeply frustrated at what are felt to be woefully inadequate
tracing and reunion services.
Despite years of
lobbying on the issue, Minister for Children Barry Andrews deems what is
currently in place "an effective administration system" for
tracing and information for adopted people and natural parents.
information and reunion services are provided by adoption agencies, the
HSE and the Adoption Board, such services are not provided for in
current legislation, nor will they be in the new Adoption Bill 2009.
This is despite a
national public consultation process in 2003, under Mr Andrews’
predecessor Brian Lenihan, recommending tracing and reunion services on
a legislative footing.
This consultation led
to a controversial Adoption Bill which sunk without trace after the
government had suggested criminalising adopted people for tracing their
natural mother without consent.
Out of this process
came the Standardised Framework for the Provision of a National
Information and Tracing Service. These are essentially guidelines for
information and tracing providers.
However, as Mr Andrews
has acknowledged, they are being implemented on a "consensus"
basis and the Adoption Bill "does not make any specific provisions
in this regard".
Due to become law later
this year, the latest Adoption Bill, is primarily focused on ratifying
the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation and
consolidating previous adoption legislation. It avoids giving adopted
people and natural parents any legal rights relating to tracing and
Mr Andrews has said in
the Dáil that the reason there are no tracing and information rights
provided for in the new bill is that the issues are "complex, not
very easily resolved, and it is not easy to legislate for them".
The view is that it is
a legally difficult area to legislate for and also because of a Supreme
Court ruling – the I O’T v B and the Rotunda Girls’ Aid Society
– which held that the right to be told the identity of a natural
mother is not absolute and must be balanced against the natural
mother’s right to privacy.
The current system
allows for people to contact the adoption agency and trace the person
from information on the adoption file. People can also put their name on
the National Adoption Contact Preference Register (NACPR) and hope that
the person you are looking for has done the same.
Run by the Adoption
Board, the NACPR has been in place since 2005 but its success has been
However, guidelines are
just that, guidelines and without services being provided for in law,
adopted people and natural parents are left to depend on the goodwill of
nuns and social workers to help them with accessing information. Such
goodwill is not always felt to be forthcoming.
Angela Murphy is one of
the lucky adopted people who have managed to trace their natural
parents. However, this was not before she had to watch her five-year-old
son fight for his life while the adoption agency which held her file
refused to release crucial medical information requested by doctors
treating her son.
Angela’s son was in
for a routine one-day operation for adenoids in Temple Street Hospital
in 1999 when he suffered a severe allergic reaction to anaesthetic
causing much of his lower body to go rigid and seize up.
Needing both parents’
medical histories to treat what was a serious allergic reaction, Angela
quickly realised she had no knowledge of her medical history –
information most people take for granted.
"My husband got
all his information and could make calls to confirm certain things but,
of course, I couldn’t. I just sat there with a blank look on my face.
I didn’t know. I rang the adoption agency and told them about my son
and said I needed immediate information concerning my medical history.
"At this point his
life was on the line. I wasn’t looking for the name and address of
anybody, just my medical background. I was told my file was closed and
they couldn’t do anything. I was in the consultant’s office at the
time and he even spoke to them but they had less to do with him than
me," she recalls.
A frantic Angela, as
well as doctors, were stunned by the reaction. However, under
legislation, including the current Adoption Bill, adopted people and
natural parents have no right to copies of all material held in their
files. Natural mothers do not even have the right to read their own
believe one human being could do that to another human being. The
doctors couldn’t believe anybody could leave a child in that
situation. They told me they didn’t know if he would last the night. I
was in bits, I can’t tell you how agonising it was. All the agency
said was to write a letter and I would go on the waiting list. That was
the response," Angela recalls.
Doctors were forced to
take a muscle biopsy from both Angela and her other two children to get
to the root of the allergic reaction and her son made a full recovery.
However, the trauma of
the event made her realise just how little information she had about her
past and how it potentially could have damaged generations of her
When she eventually
traced her birth mother, she discovered the vital medical information
she needed that day in Temple Street hospital and which the agency
refused to release, was on the file.
"When I did the
trace, it turned out they had that information on file. Yet, my adoptive
mother was never told it at the time I was adopted. It could have killed
"Now, nothing has
changed in legislation since then so it could happen again to someone
else. The agencies regulate themselves. They do what they do because
Angela’s story is
just one example of how adopted people struggle to gain access to basic
information concerning their past.
Groups such as the
Adoption Rights Alliance and Adoption Loss – Natural Parents Network
talk of countless stories of agencies and social workers refusing to
implement the 2005 guidelines.
There are other stories
of religious agencies providing false or inaccurate information or
failing to put adopted people and natural parents in contact with each
other even though both parties have contacted the agency seeking a
In the case of Tressa
Reeves, the agency has refused to inform her son that he is adopted,
even though a legal adoption never took place, and that his natural
mother would like to meet him subject to his agreement.
Instead, the agency
spoke only to his "adoptive mother", who declared she had no
intention of telling him of his origins.
Despite the best will
in the world, without being placed on a statutory footing guidelines can
be ignored and agencies will essentially regulate themselves in terms of
tracing and information.
This system is the one
Mr Andrews deems "effective" and will be allowed to continue
under the new Adoption Bill when passed.
In practically every
other western democracy, such rights are provided for in legislation.
In Britain, the 1975
Children’s Act allowed for adopted people to receive unhindered access
to their original records and adoption files on turning 18.
The same rights were
extended to Northern Ireland in 1987. Belgium, Portugal, New Zealand and
Germany all offer similar rights.
To ascertain just how
"effective" search and reunion services are in this country, a
look at the NACPR is revealing.
Launched in 2005, the
register is designed to assist adopted people and their natural families
to make contact with each other, exchange information, or to state their
According to the
Adoption Board, some 5,916 adopted people and 2,628 relatives have to
date signed up to the NACPR. It made just 77 matches in 2008 with the
total number of matches since 2005 standing at 429.
To put that in context,
there have been some 42,000 people adopted in Ireland since the
introduction of legal adoption in 1952.
One adopted person Gráinne
Mason, searching for her natural mother since 2002 and now conducting
the trace herself after hitting numerous brick walls with the adoption
agency, sighed when the NACPR was cited as an effective a tool for
search and reunion.
"Look, I’ve been
on the register since 2005 when it was set up and where has it got me.
It only works if both sides are on it and can be matched. It can be
helpful I’m sure but it doesn’t work for everybody," she said.
decided to handle the trace outside of the agency, whose records are now
held by the HSE.
If the current system
– a non-statutory set of guidelines and a contact preference register,
is deemed effective by Mr Andrews, it was not deemed good enough by
Minister for State for Health Austin Currie as far back as 1997.
"I have had
detailed discussions on this matter with organisations representing
adopted persons, adoptive parents, birth mothers and adoption agencies,
and I have received a very clear message that the establishment of a
contact register on its own would not be sufficient to meet the needs of
of a comprehensive legal framework for access to birth records is a
priority of the Government," he said.
More than a decade on
adopted people, natural mothers and adoptive parents are saying the same
Yet Government seems
determined not to listen.
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