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Understanding prejudice against adopted people
Though it is not widely recognised or reported, adopted people experience a significant level of prejudice, both on a systemic basis in their daily interactions with State institutions and in a wider context as a community of people.  This prejudice takes many forms and is rarely acknowledged.  

Adopted People as Disruptive Forces
The most common form of prejudice is the tendency to of social workers and unqualified agency staff to predict negative outcomes in the area of reunions e.g. that the natural mother will not want contact in the first place, that any attempt to make contact will be regarded as highly disruptive in her life.  Similarly, discussions surrounding information legislation are peppered with assumptions that most natural mothers don’t want contact and adopted people are somehow intruding on their lives. This attitude was exemplified in former Minister for Children, Mary Hanafin’s 2001 draft bill on “Adoption Information and Tracing”, which proposed a new crime – applicable only to adopted people – that of contacting their natural parents without their express prior permission.  

When agency staff speculate about natural mothers’ circumstances, adopted people are often told “she may have moved on and had a family” rather than “you may have siblings to look forward to meeting”.  A negative slant is frequently placed on outcomes that would otherwise be viewed as positive in any other area of society.

Expectation to be grateful
Conversely, adopted people are often criticised when they express criticisms towards the effects of closed, forced, secret adoption, with support groups sometimes viewed as “bitter” or “negative”.  In an effort to smooth over the cracks of closed, forced, secret adoption, an undue emphasis is put on how successful an adoption is perceived to be, how lucky the adopted person is to have such lovely adoptive parents, etc.  Irrespective of how wonderful any set of adoptive parents is, adopted people experience a profound loss when separated from their natural mothers and that loss is further compounded by denying them permission to express this loss and to question the reasons for it (i.e. the temporary circumstances that had life-long effects).

The myth of “turning up on the doorstep”
Adopted people are often left with the impression that social workers and unqualified agency staff are preoccupied with the notion of adopted people “turning up on their natural mother’s doorstep”, despite there being no evidence to support this. In some cases, this bias reaches almost hysterical proportions, e.g. in a recent case, an adopted person  seeking the release of her file, reported to Adoption Rights Alliance that her Dublin based social worker predicted  that if she
got her file “you'd run straight to where your mother lives”.  At this point in her trace, the adopted person hadn’t actually considered reunion, she was merely seeking information.  

Infantilisation of adopted people
Adopted people are forever infantilised because, no matter what age they are, they are registered on the “Adopted Children’s Register”.  And, with the greatest of respect to Minister Fitzgerald, adult adopted people are currently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Children.  This infantilising is also promoted and practised by the Adoption Authority, the so-called national centre of excellence on adoption.  In a draft publication sent to our predecessor organisation, the then Adoption Board referred to adopted people’s searches as being an opportunity to “take or regain control over their lives”. More worryingly, in exchange for the release of birth certificates,  the Adoption Board operated a practice of forcing adopted people to sign affidavits, promising not to contact their natural parents when they had no legal authority to do so, ironically repeating the bullying and coercive tactics of agencies involved in forced adoptions.  The practice was discontinued after a successful campaign by our previous organisation.   

Though it is rarely expressed in so many words, there is an underlying preconception that natural mothers need to be protected from adopted people (and sometimes, vice versa) and an unfounded notion that there is a lack of control amongst adopted people and that they need to be somehow “regulated", a view expressed by Barry Andrews while he was Minister for Children.  

Anger versus righteous anger
Another common misperception is that adopted people are angry and over emotional.  There is a difference between anger and righteous anger at an injustice that is being experienced.  The vast majority of adopted people we have assisted over the years are happy and successful in their ordinary everyday lives.  It is the fact that they are treated as “less than” by the lack of legislation that causes them to speak up in righteous anger.  Being vocal about an injustice should be applauded and not discouraged, yet Irish adopted people are often made to feel that this is unhealthy and ultimately, unhelpful.  

Feeling under scrutiny
Adopted people commonly say that they feel as if they are under scrutiny in meetings with social workers and that proceedings can take on an “inquisitorial air".  Instead of feeling that the social worker is an objective professional advocating for them, adopted people frequently report that they are afraid to show any kind of emotional weakness, for fear of jeopardising their position.  One adopted person recently reported to us that her Health Service Executive (HSE) social worker asked her if she was prone to depression.  The adopted person said she was not, at which point the social worker said:  “Oh.  Well, I’ve found your natural mother”.  We wonder what the social worker would have said if the adopted person was prone to depression.  In the eyes of the HSE is an adopted person prone to depression considered any less worthy of reunion?  

Social workers as advocates for both sides
Some Irish social workers have also realised that unlike other confidential professional relationships an adopted person might have e.g. with a doctor, solicitor or accountant, with regard to social workers or unqualified agency staff (most of whom have a vested interest in keeping agency files secret), they are asked to accept the illogical line that the one person will advocate fairly and equally for both sides.  Despite concerns being raised over these potential clashes, little or no changes have been made in the way that requests for information or reunions are handled in practice. Complaints regarding malpractice are next to impossible to make given the near complete failure of the AAI or the HSE to conduct any monitoring of agencies’ performances coupled with the absence of published service standards and the real fear on the part of adopted people that their cases will be jeopardised if they complain.  

The prejudices we have outlined feed into the legislative process (or lack thereof) and having been active in the area of adoption reform during the entire period of Fianna Fáil’s recent tenure in government, we can wholeheartedly identify with the “mental reservation” phenomenon cited in the Murphy Report.

It goes without saying that prejudice should have no place in legislation.  However, since 1952 adopted people have been expected to bow to the perceived needs of others, inevitably to their own detriment.  Those who choose to search are forced to carry the secrets of others and bear the full weight of the stigma associated with their adoption.   

In drafting adoption information legislation there is an opportunity to truly balance the scale of rights; however preconceptions must be set aside in order to produce an Adoption Act that adopted people deserve.  

Understanding discrimination against adopted people  

Two-tiered approach to family history, heritage and Irishness
In recent years family research has become not only a popular hobby, but Irish people have discovered their burning desire to learn about their family’s history and heritage.  This is a worldwide trend, recognised by the Irish State, which has ensured that its diaspora have unfettered access to their history and heritage through free online access to the 1901 and 1911 Censuses.  Meanwhile RTÉ’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” programme takes Irish celebrities on a journey of discovery of their family’s past.  The current government has even established a scheme to provide Ireland’s diaspora with “Certificates of Irishness”   

In stark contrast, adopted people are denied the right to know their families of origin, their own original name, their natural mother’s name, their place of birth, the circumstances which led to their adoption, their early care and medical treatment.  Genealogy enthusiasts are not questioned for contacting long lost relatives, while adopted people are warned that they may be disturbing people by intruding.  

This two-tier system is a slap in the face to Irish adopted people, making them feel hugely discriminated against.  This sense of discrimination was further reinforced in May 2011, when US President Barack Obama was welcomed home to Ireland.  Our service users reported a deep sense of feeling let down by the Irish state.  While most of the country was celebrating its Irishness, welcoming home one of its most famous sons, adopted people felt left out in the cold, as if their need to know who they are didn’t matter.

Grounds for discrimination
The nine grounds on which discrimination is declared unlawful in Ireland are: gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, religious belief and membership of the traveller community.   

There are an estimated 50,000 adopted people in Ireland; each adopted person has two natural parents, bringing the minimum number of people directly affected to 150,000.  As we have demonstrated above, adoption has consequences not only for the people directly involved, but each subsequent generation is affected.  With this in mind, the population of people affected by adoption in Ireland is a sizeable one (conservatively estimated at 300,000 people and easily comparable with the population of the minority groups listed in the nine grounds for discrimination.  

The stigma of illegitimacy is supposedly a thing of the past, however every time an adopted person is treated differently to any other citizen of Ireland, that stigma is unearthed and reinforced.  We assert that Irish State should no longer stand over this discrimination and we therefore call for the amendment of existing equality legislation to include “circumstances of birth” in the grounds on which discrimination is considered unlawful.  

We urge the Irish State to amend existing equality legislation to include “circumstances of birth” in the grounds on which discrimination is considered unlawful.

Adopted people as Ireland’s “internal diaspora”
In most populations of diaspora, there is a sense of togetherness, an opportunity to ensure that the cultural identity of the community is maintained.  A feeling of stability and continuity can be created, a collective sense of self which seems to go some way towards making up for the loss of country and culture.  Adoption Rights Alliance contends that adopted people are Ireland’s internal diaspora, yet their sense of belonging and culture – be that family, community or county culture – is lost.  There is no way to maintain what has been lost, because that which has been lost is not known to those who have been adopted – there isn’t anybody to pass down traditions, stories and identity because the adopted person is exiled alone.  

Irish adopted people as a community have been coming together over the past 20 or more years, with increasing volume since the internet came into existence.  The act of coming together as a group has created a huge sense of belonging amongst adopted people.  A strong bond exists because the experience of being adopted is so unique.  Ironically, the experience of being exiled with no links to natural family members has created a sense of unity and identity amongst adopted people – the internal diaspora have, through their shared experiences, become a distinct community.  

Being part of an understanding community is undoubtedly beneficial for adopted people however the fact remains that this population of people has been denied their sense of identity.  The damage caused by closed, secret, forced adoption can never be fully repaired; however, automatic access to birth certificates and adoption files would go a long way towards that end. 

“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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