the secrecy on adoptions?
Times, Sat, Apr 17, 2010
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
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.
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
she speaks, Mason is clutching a thick folder of documents, the product
of several years of research into her past.
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
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.
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.
1984 adoption review committee recommended that the law on information
for all new adoptions should be changed. But the proposal was quietly
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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