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A hidden heritage

By Conall O Fátharta

Irish Examiner, 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.

Although tracing, 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 information.

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 somewhat limited.

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 adoption files.

"I couldn’t 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 family.

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 me.

"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 they can."

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 reunion.

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 contact preferences.

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.

Gráinne eventually 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 adopted persons.

"The establishment 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 thing.

Yet Government seems determined not to listen.

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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