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Why the secrecy on adoptions?

Irish Times, Sat, Apr 17, 2010

Tens of thousands of adopted Irish people are denied access to information about themselves under legislation enacted more than 50 years ago. Now they fear that the Government is about to shelve the issue again, writes JAMIE SMYTH , Social Affairs Correspondent

WHO AM I and where am I from? These are the basic questions that Gráinne Mason, a 43-year-old mother of two living in Co Wicklow, has asked herself almost every day over the past decade.Mason is one of more than 42,000 people adopted in the Republic since 1952 who has no legal right to obtain her own birth certificate or to gain access to other personal and medical information contained in her adoption file.

"You don't feel whole. Unless you are adopted you can't really explain what it is like not knowing who you are. I am not ashamed of myself. I did not sign up to be someone else's secret. I just want acknowledgement, for my birth mother to tell me 'yes, I had you, you exist'," says Mason, who began searching for her birth mother in 2002, a few years after the death of her adoptive mother. "We are the only people blocked from using the Freedom of Information Act to get basic facts about who we are. And when I approached the HSE to help me trace, I quickly became aware that they weren't acting in my interest but in the interest of my natural mother. It is like hitting your head off a brick wall."

As she speaks, Mason is clutching a thick folder of documents, the product of several years of research into her past.

Since 1975, all adopted children in Britain have had the right to their birth certificates and the identifying information in their adoption files. This provides them with the facts they need to trace their biological mother: their birth name, mother's name and a last known address. But successive Irish governments have refused to legislate to give adopted people the right to information that could help them to trace their biological parents.

Due to staff shortages, adopted people face delays of up to two and half years to get an appointment with a social worker at an adoption agency or the HSE to begin a trace. Birth certificates are generally only handed out by agencies if a natural mother gives her consent.  

The Minister for Children, Barry Andrews, told the Dáil last month that he would propose a separate Bill to deal with the issue because it is so complex. However, legislative change has been promised many times before and has never been enacted, leaving adopted people feeling that the issue is being shelved again.

A 1984 adoption review committee recommended that the law on information for all new adoptions should be changed. But the proposal was quietly dropped.

A draft Adoption Bill dealing with information and tracing was torpedoed in 2003, amid acrimony when the government initially suggested criminalising adopted people for tracing a natural mother without consent. 

The new Adoption Bill currently passing through the Oireachtas, and due to become law later this year, has been designed to steer clear of giving adopted people a legal right to information. This leaves the 1952 Adoption Act, which was framed in an era when bearing a child out of wedlock brought huge stigma and shame, as the dominant legal framework.

"This old law is completely out of touch with society today and is now being shoehorned into this new Bill," says Susan Lohan, a member of the Irish pressure group, Adoption Rights Alliance. "The new Bill supports closed adoptions and doesn't recognise that adopted children grow up as adults and, like the rest of the population, need to establish their heritage."

Lohan believes that the Government does not want to open up the adoption files for fear of focusing attention on Church-State collusion in the setting up of mother-and-baby homes, which placed tens of thousands of children up for adoption in the 20th century. "It is cynical. The Government is kicking this issue to touch knowing that many adopted people's parents will die," she says.  

This is what happened to Kathy Finn, a mother of three girls, living in Lucan, who was adopted. "When I turned 18 I immediately tried to trace my biological mother. In 1988 I went to Cunamh - the agency that handled my adoption - and asked them to find my mother. I was given wrong information and told they would get back to me. They never did," says Finn, who appealed to the Adoption Board for help in 2003. "It took three and a half years to get an appointment with a social worker. When they finally got back to me I was told my mother had died in 1993."

Finn subsequently met her biological father and half-brother, and several of her mother's sisters. "From them I learnt that there is a history of breast cancer in my family. This is the type of really important medical information that many adopted people don't get . . . There is just so much ridiculous secrecy, and the whole process of search and reunion is not controlled by you," she says.

Geoffrey Shannon, chairman of the Adoption Board, says providing identifying information is legally difficult because the 1952 Act introduced "clean break" adoption. Secrecy is an inevitable hallmark of "clean break" adoption. The Supreme Court has also ruled - in I.O'T v B and the Rotunda Girls' Aid Society - 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.

Shannon says this is one of the reasons the Adoption Board set up a national adoption contact preference register, a voluntary list where adopted people, natural parents and any natural relative of an adopted person can sign up to facilitate contact and meetings. "This has proved very useful in providing a medium by which these rights can be balanced," he says.

Some 5,916 adopted people and 2,628 relatives have signed up to the contact register since its launch in 2005. There have been 429 matches so far.

For the Adoptive Parents Association of Ireland (APAI), the register and mediated meetings facilitated by adoption agencies and HSE social workers are the right way to go for tracing and reunion. 

"A natural mother has the right to turn down a reunion. She might not be ready or might not have told her family. It is not a black-and-white issue," says the APAI's Helen Gilmartin, who opposes giving adopted people an automatic right to birth certificates and identifying information. "Ireland is very small, and getting a birth certificate means it is often very easy to just pick up the telephone and contact someone. People don't need access to their birth certificates. What they need is the ability to contact their families and that is currently provided by the register and through mediation. The horror for a lot of these women is that someone just turns up on their doorstep."

The British experience of giving access, however, suggests such fears may be exaggerated. "Research shows opening the adoption files has been a very good thing, and the world didn't fall apart overnight. Most people were responsible and used the mediation services provided," says Julia Feast, of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. 

A 2005 report, The Adoption Triangle Revisited , found that nine out of 10 birth mothers had a positive contact and reunion experience. "A piece of the jigsaw is missing if you don't know who you are or where you came from. I think Ireland has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and the stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock is not as great as it was," says Feast.

Gráinne Mason isn't prepared to wait for a change in the law. Despite being told by a social worker that her natural mother does not want any contact, she is determined to trace her. "I'd like correspondence and answers. I want to find out who my birth father is and I can't do this without my birth mother's permission. I'm not angry at her for not wanting contact. I don't know what she went through," she says.

She finally managed to locate her own birth certificate in the General Register Office in recent months, which provided her with her birth mother's name. By trawling through the office's records, she believes there are 10 possible matches for the name. "I've been able to eliminate five of these women already," she says, showing me a letter from one woman she contacted. "But I'm not giving up now. I won't stop until I find her."

© 2010 The Irish Times

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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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